Recently in Safety & Health Category

August 27, 2014

 

A stake through the heart.

That's what it felt like yesterday when Allstate published its 10th annual America's Best Drivers Report and awarded Worcester and Boston, two Massachusetts cities 38 miles apart, with the gold and silver medals, respectively, for most car crashes per capita in the nation.

Upon learning of this dubious distinction, local television stations instantly knew that such a story cried out for "man in the street interviews," and we got plenty of those. Maybe there were people interviewed who were horrified, but most interviewees who made the cut for broadcast seemed to treat it as if it were a badge of honor.

Frankly, I felt a bit like Claude Rains in the film Casablanca who, just prior to collecting his winnings, exclaimed "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here."

Boston drivers are legendary in their demolition derby attitudes. The driving Zeitgeist has forever treated traffic rules as purely advisory. A green light means "go," and a yellow light means "go like hell." Pedestrian crosswalks might as well not be there. If you're riding a bike, you'd better have good radar. So, one learns early on that driving in Boston is not for the faint of heart.

And right now it's at its worst as 152,000 college students return to 35 colleges for the next school year. Thirty-seven thousand live on campus in the heart of the city. Another 50,000 live in apartments around the city. The rest are commuters. The majority of the commuters ride the oldest-in-the-nation transit system. Boston University, alone, has more than 31,000 students.

So, I can absolutely understand Boston, a city I love, winning the trophy for 2nd place. But, geez, Worcester? Really? The most dangerous city in the America for car crashes? Worcester's like a home town to me (so is Boston, by the way, so I'm doubly hurt).

Worcester has 181,000 people spread out over about 38 square miles. There are ten colleges in the city, not 35. Students total less than 35,000. Worcester never seems to have the driving hyperactivity one finds in Boston. Although the two cities are connected by the Massachusetts Turnpike umbilical cord, they are like yin and yang. They don't even have the same water supply. It's true that Worcester has a lot of traffic lights, so the yellow light "go like hell" possibility exists, but the traffic density is so much less than Boston's that one rarely sees the Boston mania. Friends from Boston visit Worcester and think they've gone to the land of Zen.

Right now, you may be asking, "So, where's the safest place to drive in America?" That, according to the driving gods at Allstate, would be Fort Collins, Colorado, a city of more than 56 square miles with a population nearly 30,000 less than Worcester's. A city of two, count 'em, two colleges, one a community college, the other Colorado State University. A city with 30,000 college students, and I'm assuming that most of them always wear a smile and speak kindly of everyone.

Actually, Fort Collins looks like a beautiful place where everyone rides bikes without a worry and where the average blood pressure is so low that nobody has to worry about getting life insurance. Congratulations, Fort Collins.

The question I'm left with is this: How did Worcester, the city of the seven hills, home to the Hanover Insurance Group (and everyone knows that insurance employees are good drivers) earn Allstate's first place, bottom of the bird cage award? Beats me. I'm stumped and, yes, shocked. My Great Mandala has been poleaxed.

I'm going out for a drive.

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July 11, 2014

 

We've recently found interesting developments or updates on three stories that we've covered in the past: A settlement in criminal charges in the Sheri Sangji Lab death case; an in-depth feature on how the Chilean miners survived; and a four-year retrospective on the Tesoro Plant explosion that killed 7.

Patrick Harran And L.A. District Attorney Reach Deal In Sheri Sangji Case
We've talked about the gruesome lab death of 23 year-old research assistant Sheri Sangji in a UCLA science laboratory in numerous prior posts.

UCLA's chemistry professor Patrick Harran faced felony charges related to her death revolving around his alleged failure to provide protective equipment and clothing, failure to provide training, and failure to correct unsafe working conditions. In late June, the the LA DA and Harran's attorneys reached an agreement.

"The deal mandates that Harran complete multiple forms of community service and pay a $10,000 fine. The charges were not dismissed. Instead, the case against Harran is effectively on hold while he completes the terms of the five-year agreement."

The best overview of coverage and reactions to this settlement can be found at Chemjobber, a blog we've cited several times on this case. The comments in the article are well worth reading.

We've been interested in following this case from a safety culture viewpoint. Based on early reactions and comments that we saw on articles and blogs, many in the academic scientific community expressed views that an academic lab couldn't be held to the same pedestrian standards of health, safety and accountability; that it was too exotic an environment; that it would stifle learning and creativity, etc. We also saw many reactions that the responsibility/fault lay more with the deceased - certainly not a new sentiment in any accident. Watching this case has been one of observing an industry grapple with difficult accountability issues. This commentary by Paul Bracher of ChemBark is certainly worth a read.

The criminal proceedings and widespread coverage have dramatically pierced the aura of inviolability in academic labs, environments that the US Chemical Safety Board has called "fiefdoms." The real tribute to Sheri would be to see meaningful safety reforms. Certainly, UCLA is touting its new-found religion of lab safety and we can hope that time shows they are a leader; if the comments on articles and blogs are to be credited, the University has a long way to go in erasing skepticism about the depth of this commitment.

Sixty-Nine Days: the ordeal of the Chilean miners
In the New Yorker, Héctor Tobar revisits the 2010 Chilean mine collapse and offers an intimate look at how 33 miners survived the ordeal of being buried alive for 69 days. While the story gripped the world and we all know details, this is a fascinating account of events.

Four Years After Deadly Blast, Tesoro Mostly Unscathed
Seattle station KUOW has an excellent report on the 2010 Tesoro Refinery explosion that claimed the lives of 7 workers, noting that four years later, no one has been held publicly accountable for these deaths. The article chronicles many of the legal efforts still underway to hold the company accountable - as well as some efforts that have met with limited results.

"After a six-month investigation, the Washington Department of Labor and Industries accused Tesoro of willfully breaking the law 39 times. In October 2010, the agency hit Tesoro with the biggest workplace-safety fine in state history: $2.39 million.
That penalty made headlines, and it might sound like a strong deterrent to any company running a dangerous operation. But to a Fortune 100 company like Tesoro, a couple million is petty cash. The San Antonio, Texas, firm brings in that much revenue in about half an hour."

As is the case all too often, since the imposition of fines, they have been whittled down to $685,000 and could go lower. The article points out how minimal and how ineffective federal and state regulatory sanctions are in such cases.

For more, see the U.S. Chemical Safety Board's material on the Tesoro Refinery Fatal Explosion and Fire


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June 13, 2014

 

Forklift-related fatalities are not uncommon. On average, one to two people are killed per week - we read of a fatality in NY just this week. Plus, there are thousands of forklift-related injuries. AisleCop has put together a handy infographic (below) and we've compiled a few safety resources.

Preventing Injuries and Deaths of Workers Who Operate or Work Near Forklifts

OSHA - Powered Industrial Trucks - Forklifts

AisleCop's library of Forklift & Pedestrian Safety articles

How Much Do You Know About Forklift Safety?
What should you do if you're driving a forklift and it starts to tip over? Is it safer to stay in the vehicle, or to jump out quickly?

When Forklifts Attack (with Forklift Disaster Videos)
10 Things You Need to Know About Your Forklift

Prevent forklift accidents with these safety tips


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May 22, 2014

 

Public Citizen, a national non-profit representing consumer interests on a broad range of issues, has just published a report entitled, Aim Higher: New York Should Reform Its Workers' Compensation Laws To Reduce Injuries. The report focuses on New York's Service Industry Sector, which, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), represents 91% of New York's non-farm working jobs and 83% of all occupational injuries and illnesses.

Public Citizen suggests that OSHA is woefully under-serving New York's Service Industry, given that sector's over-representation in both population and occupational injuries and illnesses.

Public Citizen looked at New York for a number of reasons, one of which was its 2012 position in the Oregon Department of Business Insurance's bi-annual rankings of the states - New York came in as the fifth most costly, even after all of the Spitzer reforms had settled in. We've written often about New York's myriad problems and the efforts of the Workers' Compensation Board to address them. And we'd be remiss if we didn't mention that the recent revamping of New York's Trust Fund Assessments, by far the largest in the country, will lower costs. However, it will take some time to make a significant dent there.

But the Public Citizen Report's primary recommendation is that New York modify Labor Code Part 59: Workplace Safety Loss Prevention Program.

Part 59 requires that an employer with payroll greater than $800,000 and an Experience Modification Factor greater than 1.2 institute a formal safety program, the requirements of which are listed in Part 59. Public Citizen's recommendation is that:

"New York state's legislature should remove the threshold(s) for requiring a workplace safety plan to capture all employers in New York state."

In otherwords, New York should mandate that all of its employers comply with the requirements of Part 59, which, in case it has slipped under your professional radar, is a safety inspection and remediation program. Its 19 pages of bureaucrat mumbo jumbo require that state-approved consultants inspect employers who exceed the threshold. Part 59 lists the requirements for employers, the duties of the consultants, their required qualifications and the costs the state imposes on them for certification ($1,000 per consultant if you're a one or two person shop).

There. Now you don't have to read it. You can thank me later.

Public Citizen's Report is well-intentioned, but it misses the mark and is rather impractical. For example, in 2012 there were 592,148 workplaces in New York. Using OSHA inspection rates as a model, inspecting all of them in one year would require more than 12,000 consultant inspectors. Moreover, Public Citizen's recommendation lacks any loss cost or injury reduction performance requirements.

Nonetheless, right about now you may be asking about New York employer compliance with Part 59 as it currently exists. Me, too. However, a call to the New York Department of Labor was not returned.

In November, 2012, we wrote about Part 59's sister regulation, Part 60:, the New York Workplace Safety and Loss Prevention Incentive Program. If Part 59 is mumbo-jumbo, Part 60 is mumbo-jumbo written in Pig Latin. Like Part 59, it is totally process-driven. No performance requirements; no performance measurement. Just build a certified program, and good things will happen. As we wrote then, "The New York DOL doesn't seem to care if the program reduces loss costs. All the DOL wants to know is: Have employers built their programs the way we told them to build them?"

Well, we said it then, and we'll say it now: the most successful workers comp incentive program in history is the Massachusetts Qualified Loss Management Program (QLMP), instituted at the height of the worst workers compensation crisis ever - 1990 to 1993.

To describe how it works, here's what we wrote in 2012:

Premium credits accrue to Loss Management Consulting Firms whose Massachusetts customers the WCRIB certifies have reduced their loss costs in the year following engaging a firm. The greater the loss cost reduction, the greater the credit, up to 15%, which is then passed on to the Loss Management Consulting Firm's customers in the succeeding year. Lower loss costs mean lower premiums for employers. The Loss Management Consulting Firms have to requalify every year. So, if a Firm's results slip, it will see its credit, and probably customer portfolio, reduced. In the QLMP, all of the incentives are lined up so that everyone is motivated towards reducing costs, while providing safe workplaces and high quality care for injured workers.

In the first year following QLMP approval, loss costs dropped more than 20% throughout the entire Massachusetts Residual Market. Our Lynch Ryan clients saw reductions of 49.6%.

After Massachusetts, we tested the QLMP in Missouri's $145 million Assigned Risk Pool. Fifteen percent of the pool entered what we called the Missouri Injury Management Program (MIMP), while the remaining 85% of the Pool received normal Pool service.

After one year, the MIMP accounts had incurred loss ratios of 48% and paid loss ratios of 15%, while the non-Mimp group had incurred loss ratios of 90% and paid loss ratios of 25%.

Employer premiums go down, insurer residual market loads decline and consultants flourish - but only if the loss cost results of their employer clients remain stellar.

One would think that Chambers of Commerce and Business Councils everywhere would be clamoring for this type of program for their members, but such has not been the case. Perhaps we happy few who were present at the creation never publicized results well enough. You live and learn.

Regardless, if New York, or any other state, wants to really incentivize employers to reduce injuries and loss costs, it should consider adopting a version of the Massachusetts QLMP. The good people at the Massachusetts Workers Compensation Rating & Inspection Bureau would be happy to help, and so would I.

Note: Thanks to friend and colleague Peter Rousmaniere for sharing the Public Citizen report with us.

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May 21, 2014

 

The excellent site Letters of Note publishes a fascinating collection of historical letters, postcards, telegrams and memos -- a great site for browsing. On a recent visit, we came upon a heartfelt letter from miner Jacob Vowell, his last communication before suffocating in the Fraterville Coal Mine in Tennessee. The letter was to Sarah Ellen, his beloved wife and mother to their 6 children, one of whom, 14-year-old Elbert, was by his side in the mine. The 1902 disaster killed most of the 216 miners who were working when an explosion occurred. (Source of the photo and more about the Fraterville disaster).

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This letter seems particularly poignant in light of the recent terrible mining tragedy in Soma, Turkey that has claimed more than 300 lives.

Ken Ward Jr. of Coal Tattoo points us to a four-year old report that warned of the life-threatening risks in the Soma mines. Accounts from survivors also give testimony to a lax safety record and climate of fear. And as if the tragedy weren't terrible enough, Prime Minister Erdogan's handling of the event and the governmental response to grieving families seems like something out of a Dickensian novel. More recently, several arrests have been made.

In the "people who live in glass houses" department, Ken Ward asks why we can't do better right here in the U.S. in his post, Why is it OK for mine operators to break the law? Last week, Eric Legg and Gary Hensley were killed at Patriot Coal's Brody Mine No. 1. NPR investigations revealed that this mine consistently violated federal mine safety laws, but federal regulators say they were powerless to shut it down.

Despite the threat to miners, federal regulators say they do not have the authority to simply close the mine.
"MSHA failed to use an even tougher tool at the Brody mine. The agency has the authority to seek a federal court injunction that would place a mine under the supervision of a federal judge. The judge could then order the closure of the mine if its owner failed to fix chronic safety problems.
But in the 40 years it has had this authority, MSHA has used it only once -- in 2010 against Massey Energy's Freedom Mine No. 1 in Kentucky. Massey then closed the mine."

On this topic, it's also worth reading Alan Neuhauser's article In US News & World Report, Experts: Coal Mining Deaths Preventable. Here's a key excerpt:

"We have not come up with any new ways to kill coal miners," says Celeste Monforton, a mine safety researcher and advocate who worked at the Mine Safety and Health Administration. "These are things that we've known for a long time and we know how to prevent them."

Instead, for the fifth straight year, the coal mining industry is once again well on its way to recording more than 20 workers' deaths this year.

"Very few accidents are act of God," says Mary Poulton, head of the Department of Mining and Geological Engineering at the University of Arizona. "Almost all of them are something we should have been monitoring or controlling or dealing with. When these things happen, it's a tragedy because our systems failed."

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April 30, 2014

 

In October, 2013, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allowed the opiate Zohydro ER to come on the market despite its own Advisory Panel voting 11-2 against it because it was not tamper resistant. Twenty-nine state Attorneys General petitioned the FDA to reverse its decision, but the FDA declined to do so, saying that the drug is safe and effective if used as directed.

We chronicled Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick's Quixote to the Windmill charge as he attempted to ban the sale of the drug in the state. The windmill won when US District Judge Rya W. Zobel overturned the state's ban. Shortly thereafter, just days before his ban was due to expire, Governor Patrick remounted Rocinante and made a less Quixotic charge: he followed the lead of governors in other states by imposing sweeping restrictions on how Massachusetts doctors prescribe the powerful pain killer, the first pure opiate.

The restrictions, which Zohydro ER's maker, Zogenix, calls "draconian" and "unjstified," require that doctors:

  • Evaluate a patient's substance abuse history and other current medications;
  • Provide a "letter of medical necessity" to the pharmacy;
  • Enter a "pain management treatment agreement" with the patient; and,
  • Use the state's online Prescription Monitoring Program, which tracks prescriptions of controlled substances, before prescribing drugs like Zohydro that are extended-release medications containing only hydrocodone and do not come in an "abuse-deterrent form."

Zogenix is fighting back. On Monday, the San Diego-based company filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the Massachusetts new restrictions impose "draconian" mandates on doctors and "amount to an effective ban of the drug" that is unconstitutional.

The Suit asks that the Court vacate any restrictions imposed on the sale of Zohydro ER.

Governor Patrick says that his problem with Zohydro ER is that it does not come with "abuse deterrent" packaging. Zogenix responds with three assertions:

  • The active ingredient in Zohydro ER, hydrocodone bitartrate, is no more potent than most other opioids;
  • There are more than 30 extended-release opioids on the market, and only one has an FDA-approved label indicating it has abuse deterrent properties; and,
  • No product on the market today addresses the most prevalent form of abuse, taking an excessive number of tablets or capsules.

Yesterday, things got even hotter in the Bay State when drug abuse prevention groups, state lawmakers and organized labor leaders rallied outside the statehouse on Beacon Hill demanding even more restrictions.

The rally drew more than 150 demonstrators who, in addition to the call for greater restrictions, urged Congress and federal officials to reverse the FDA's approval of Zohydro ER.

Those who attended the WCRI's annual conference in Boston in April will recall the stemwinding luncheon speech of Steve Tolman, former Massachusetts state Senator and now President of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. Tolman, who ardently and passionately does all he can to combat drug abuse in the Commonwealth, was in rare form at yesterday's rally.

"We don't need any more opiates! We don't need any more addiction," he shouted to the crowd. "Yes, we know that people need pain medication, but they need the right type of medication. And it needs to be monitored."

Massachusetts Senate President Therese Murray promised the demonstrators that the legislature will take action and is now working on a comprehensive bill dealing with all aspects of addiction, from education to prevention to treatment.

But, with the exception of theft, the only way people get opioids is by doctors prescribing them, and, right now, doctors are cautious and, in some ways, befuddled. They know there's a big opioid problem, which has prompted Governor Patrick to declare a state of emergency, but they don't want government invading their patient examination rooms. Nonetheless, shortly after the Governor announced his restrictions, the Massachusetts Board of Registration passed emergency regulations adopting them.

Moreover, in this week's New England Journal of Medicine, Doctors Yngvild Olsen and Joshua M. Sharfstein present a thoughtful op-ed focused on Zohydro ER and the greater issue of the intersection of chronic pain and pain management medication. They write:

Chronic pain, which affects tens of millions of people in the United States, is associated with functional loss and disability, reduced quality of life, high health care costs, and premature death. U.S. physicians are now more likely to recognize and treat chronic pain than they have been historically, with the number of prescriptions written for opioids having increased 10-fold since 1990.
Over the same period, however, the rate of overdose deaths in the United States has more than tripled. This is not a coincidence. Many doctors have prescribed opioids for chronic pain without following best practices, understanding the risk for the development of substance-use disorders, or recognizing the red flags that can emerge in clinical practice. There is now evidence from states including our own, Maryland, that some individuals whose path to addiction may have started with a prescription for pain are progressing to heroin.

It is becoming crystal clear that re-educating doctors regarding opioid usage is central to any attempt to fix this problem.

It is also clear that this crisis is not about Zohydro ER, although the drug may prove a catalyst for change. Rather, we are witnessing a growing countrywide realization that we are slipping into a public health crisis unlike anything we have ever seen.

In the workers comp field, there is a glimmer of hope. Progressive Medical and PMSI yesterday reported a slight drop in the number of opioid prescriptions written, as well as the costs of those prescriptions in 2013. Other PBMs are reporting similar moderate declines. But that is workers comp, the tiny caboose on the great big health-care train.

This issue demands more than the piecemeal approach it now is getting. Lives, careers and families are being destroyed, while too many constituencies operate alone, unable to achieve any kind of a cohesive and comprehensive solution. It is time for the FDA, the AMA, the US Congress and Big Phama to come together in serious purpose to address this public health emergency, which is rapidly spiraling out of control.

If not, more of America's humanity will just continue to wither and die. We are better than that.

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April 28, 2014

 

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April 28 is Workers Memorial Day, a day dedicated to remembering those who have suffered and died on the job and renewing the fight for safe workplaces.

Find an event near you
Profile of Worker Safety & Health in the US (PDF)

Fact sheet in English (PDF) and Spanish (PDF)

Other commemorations / resources

Workers Memorial Day - Because Going to Work Shouldn't Be a Grave Mistake!!

International Day of Mourning

Presidential Proclamation -- Workers Memorial Day, 2014

National Council for Occupational Safety and Health?

Lucky to Be Alive on Workers' Memorial Day

Workers' Memorial Day 2014: Chemicals, New Hazards, Falls

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April 9, 2014

 

The use of health monitors and fitness trackers have exploded in recent years -- but expect the next frontier in wearable technologies to be in the workplace. The implications for worker safety and productivity are promising. While Google first introduced its revolutionary Glass to consumers, the current marketing direction is aimed at custom work applications.

One example of this is Patrick Jackson, a firefighter in North Carolina's Rocky Mountain fire department: This Firefighter Built His Own Google Glass App And It's Saving Lives.

Jackson is also a member of the Google Glass Explorer program and has developed an app that displays incoming emergency dispatches, shows maps of where incidents are, nearest fire hydrants, and even building plans. You can see a brief demo of Glass at work in the short clip, below. In addition, "Jackson is also working on a CPR assist app for Glass, measuring the speed of compressions, and whether you need to speed up or slow down based on sensors that detect head movement. He's teaming with a Michigan startup called team (evermed) during his days off from the department, where he spends 10 days per month working grueling 24-hour shifts."

The article also suggest another work safety application in DriveSafe, a Google Glass app that uses infrared sensors to detect when you doze off and to issue alarms to wake you and direct you to the next rest area.

PC World takes a look at other potential workplace applications for smartglasses , noting that, "The future of smartglasses will be realized by a factory worker operating a 3000-pound stamp press, not a gamer stomping on virtual-reality bad guys. Face computers will be all about scanning bar codes on cardboard boxes, not scanning tourist attractions for augmented reality overlays." They present a variety of work scenarios, from hands free scanning and troubleshooting to safety applications.

FierceCIO explores the topic further in Making wearables a good fit for workplace safety. They discuss potential safety applications and suggest that gaining optimal value from wearable devices will require IT departments to innovate with software applications, data management and administrative protocols and policies.

We're really just at the threshold of wearables in the workplace. To see more of the opportunities, this excellent Deloitte University Press primer by Shehryar Khan and Evangeline Marzec on Wearables is helpful in exploring the potential of everything from productivity, training and worker safety:

"Wearables' value comes from introducing technology into previously prohibitive environments--where safety, logistics, or even etiquette have constrained traditional technology solutions. Wearables can be the first seamless way to enable workers with digital information--especially where hands-free utility offers a clear advantage. For example, using wearables, workers in harsh environmental conditions can access data without removing gloves or create records without having to commit data to memory and then moving to a sheltered workstation."

Wearables are not without their HR and IT challenges. Susan Kuchinskas explores some of these issues in Forbes: How To Prepare Your Business For Wearable Technology. Also see:The Wearable Technology Revolution: Is your workplace prepared?

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March 27, 2014

 

We lost two firefighters in Boston, yesterday.

A 9-alarm fire on Beacon Street in Boston's Back Bay, aided by 45 to 50 mile per hour winds off the Charles River, took the lives of Lt. Edward J. Walsh and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy. Walsh, 43, was married with three children; Kennedy, 33, was a Marine Corps veteran. They were trapped in the basement of the four story apartment building when a window blew out, the winds rushed in and part of the building exploded.

Deputy Chief Joseph Finn said, "In 30 years, I've never seen a fire travel that fast."

Once again, we are reminded that firefighting is a lot like combat, a lot of waiting for something to happen, and then the world falls in.

This, from today's Boston Globe, should give one a sense of the emotional trauma of the event:

After the seventh alarm sounded, all firefighters were ordered from the building through a haze of screams and sirens. But when word came that some firefighters were missing, some vowed to go back in.

"No companies should be going in anywhere; stay away from the building," firefighters were instructed in the mayday call.

"We are aware of the potential we see in front of us; we're going back inside the building," came the reply.

But the firefighters were told, "Stay out of the building."

It took five hours to recover Walsh's body. As he was carried out on a stretcher, all the firefighters formed an Honor Guard line. "Everyone saluted him, and Eddie was taken for his last ride," said Steve MacDonald, a Fire Department spokesperson. If that doesn't stir emotions inside you, then you have something other than blood coursing through your veins.

Reminiscent of the 1972 Hotel Vendome fire just a couple of blocks away that killed nine firefighters, and the 1999 Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse fire that took the lives of six, yesterday's inferno sledgehammers us with the understanding that firefighting is a deadly business.

Seeing the soot-covered, teary faces of the men and women who watched Lt. Walsh take his "last ride" made me think of the other end of the pole, the sometimes messy business of workers comp.

In most states, injured workers are given two-thirds of their average weekly salary (60% in Massachusetts), tax free, while they're recovering and unable to return to work. Police and firefighters, on the other hand, public sector employees, receive 100% of their average weekly salaries, also tax free. In essence, it's a promotion.

This different treatment can sometimes anger taxpayers, usually when abuse occurs. And abuse does occur, not often, but when it does it can make headlines. In Massachusetts, we vividly remember the case of Albert Arroyo, a 20-year veteran of the Fire Department, who, after being deemed "totally and permanently disabled," which allowed him to receive 100% of his salary, tax free, made the Boston Globe front page when he finished eighth in the 2008 Pro Natural American Bodybuilding Championship, with a picture to prove it.

Although Arroyo was acquitted of fraud charges in 2011 by a federal jury, the whole thing left a bit of a stink. US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, Boston Mayor Tom Menino and just about everyone else in authority complained loudly and in print that justice had not been done.

We all want our tax dollars spent well, but every once in a while, like yesterday, we come up against two truths that won't go away: First, protecting the citizenry can be a tragic and deadly business; and second, with the exception of soldiers, I don't know of any other occupations where people give their lives in the line of duty to protect others. Do you?

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March 11, 2014

 

If film making news isn't on your radar, you might have missed the story about a gruesome death on a film set near near Jessup, Georgia in late February. Like many workplace deaths, it didn't attract a lot of immediate notice beyond the local sphere and within the film industry. But the sadness and the anger at the preventable death of 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones has been gaining momentum and prompting calls for increased safety in the film industry.

On February 20, a film crew for Midnight Rider, a biopic about Gregg Allman, was set up on a narrow railroad trestle bridge in Georgia. A train arrived unexpectedly and crew scrabbled frantically to save themselves: 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones was killed by the train and seven other crew members were injured. You can read about the events, including reports from other crew members, in the Hollywood Reporter's story, A Train, a Narrow Trestle and 60 Seconds to Escape: How 'Midnight Rider' Victim Sarah Jones Lost Her Life.

The incident is under investigation by several parties, including OSHA and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. But within the industry, many are not waiting for reports to speak out:

"The exact details of what precautions were -- or were not -- taken on the set that day and whether the production even had permission to film on the tracks are being sorted out. But in the days following the disaster, recriminations of shockingly lax safety protocols began to emerge.
"This was no accident," says Ray Brown, president of the Motion Picture Studio Mechanics union local 479 in Atlanta and a Jones colleague, suggesting the incident was avoidable. "When I have done train work or around trains for smaller productions up to major blockbusters, there are always several railroad personnel there with their hard hats, glasses and radios, and I can't imagine a more structured safety protocol even beyond airlines than the rail system."

While the facts will come out, initial reports indicate that the owner of the track said it never granted permission to film, there were no railway safety personnel monitoring the set, there were no medics on scene and the crew had such trepidation about the work environment that they began the shoot with a group prayer for safety.

The film industry is rife with risks and crew safety ail too frequently given short shrift, particularly in low budget films with high-pressure deadlines. You can read some poignant thoughts about Sarah's death and what it's like to be on a film crew in the blog post You Think It's About Magic But It's Really About Money

"We have rules and we have safety meetings and we have unions to look out for us, yes. We have reps, and we have shop stewards, and we have grips who are supposed to be keeping an eye on safety on set -- along with rigging and setting stands and laying track and pushing the dolly and the 30 other things that make up a grip's job. But these folks can't be everywhere at once, and, just like the rest of us, they can't always stand up to the machine, especially when everyone is always in a hurry and making calls on the fly. When crews band together, we can say "no" and pull the plug at 18 hours. But nobody wants to be the first one to suggest that, because we all need to work for a living and get hired on the next job.

Since the tragic events, the film making community has been working to call attention to Sarah's preventable death as well as to advocate for increased focus on film crew safety. Members of the film industry lobbied to have Sarah recognized during the Osacars (her name was added at the end of the In Memoriam segment) and the industry has launched a moving "Slates for Sarah" social media tribute and call to action.

If the film crews can't effect changes, the lawyers may. BusinessWeek notes that the Accidental Death on Midnight Rider Set Enters Lawyer Phase.

This terrible incident brings to mind a prior film tragedy: the 1983 deaths of Vic Morrow, and child actors Renee Chen and Myca Dinh Le when a helicopter crashed on the set of The Twilight Zone. See Slate's A New Dimension of Filmmaking: How tragedy on the set of the 1983 feature-length adaptation of The Twilight Zone changed the way movies are made and the Crime Library's The Twilight Zone Tragedy.

Sounds like it's time to shake up the industry again. It's no more acceptable for the film industry to play fast and loose with worker lives than it is for coal mining, manufacturing, or any other industry.

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February 25, 2014

 

In May 2012, we posted about the excellent Frontline - Pro Publica documentary report on on cell tower worker deaths: The high price for fast phones: Cell tower deaths. Since that time, the issue has gotten worse, not better. In 2013, there were 13 cell tower-related fatalities. In the first two months of 2014, there have already been 4 fatalities related to cell towers.

In response to these deaths, The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration is collaborating with the National Association of Tower Erectors and other industry stakeholders to ensure that every communication tower employer understands their responsibility to protect workers performing this high-hazard work. Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels has issued a warning letter to Communication Tower Industry Employers reiterating these responsibilities.

In addition, OSHA has launched resources to focus on protecting cell tower employees in its No More Falling Workers initiative. It has created a new Web page - Communication Towers - targeting the issues surrounding communication tower work.

Education is great in as far as it goes, which isn't all that far. The problems that plague the industry and the related deaths revolve around the unrelenting deadlines to complete towers to meet demand and the complex network of contractors and subcontractors that allow the tower owner to shrug off responsibility for any deaths.

Travis Crum of the Charleson Gazette echoes the problems found in the Frontline-Pro Publica report in his reporting about three West Virgina tower-related fatalities earlier this month: Company that owns collapsed Clarksburg cell towers had fatalities before

"These incidents seem likely to continue as cell companies push contractors and their employees to meet rising demand for 4G and 4GLTE data networks, said Randy Gray, a former OSHA inspector from Kentucky."
"Gray said cellphone companies are racing to replace older 3G networks with 4G, or fourth-generation, networks. This rapid expansion places cell tower climbers at risk, Gray said, who now does private consulting on accidents and fatalities at cell tower sites."

He also explains why it's so difficult to hold the cell tower owners/networks responsible:

To make matters worse, Gray said, it's difficult for OSHA to hold companies such as SBA responsible, because there's a web of contractors and sub-contractors who often shield them from scrutiny.
OSHA investigators must prove several elements before citing a company, Gray said, one of them being knowledge of potential hazards.
"With the owner of the cell tower not being present at the time of the fatality, it's hard to prove they had knowledge about what the employees were signing off on," he said. "So these companies start layering themselves between the people who work on the ground, and this layering, in my opinion, protects them from possibly being cited by OSHA or being involved in OSHA inspections."

So while it's great that OSHA is warning employers and putting an emphasis on tower worker safety, it will serious accountability to drive the change.

Related:
Wireless Estimator tracks U.S. tower-related fatalities

13 Cell Tower Maintenance Workers Died on the Job in 2013

Cell tower worker fatalities continue: More than a dozen deaths since 2012

OSHA Urges Tower Employers to Protect Workers After Recent Spate of Fatalities

Cell Tower Deaths Get OSHA's Attention

West Virginia Firefighter Killed in Secondary Collapse at Cell Phone Tower Rescue, Two Workers Also Dead

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January 24, 2014

 

When we first heard about the terrible explosion at the International Nutrition animal feed plant in Omaha, Nebraska that claimed two lives and injured many others this week, we had one thought: Combustible dust.

In non-technical terms, combustible dust is any dust from industrial processes that will catch fire and have the potential for explosions in confined spaces. Wikipedia offers this simple explanation of conditions:

There are four necessary conditions for a dust explosion or deflagration:

1. A combustible dust
2. The dust is suspended in the air at a high concentration
3. There is an oxidant (typically atmospheric oxygen)
4. There is an ignition source

There are many sources of ignition - fire, friction, arc flash, hot surfaces and electrostatic discharge. It's an exposure in many industries: food production, metal processing, wood products chemical, manufacturing, rubber & plastics, coal-fired power plants, to name a few.


OSHA Investigates
Yesterday, Celeste Monforton of The Pump Handle reported that "OSHA and other investigators suspect that an explosion of combustible dust played some role in the disaster." Her post recounts the OSHA and the Obama administration's failure to take action on passing a combustible dust standard.

"But month after month, year after year, the Labor Department has failed to act. Last fall, OSHA indicated it plans to take comments in April 2014 from a select group of small business on a draft version of a regulation. That's a step the agency previously suggested would take place in April 2011, then December 2011, then October 2013, and November 2013."

Monforton also points to an excellent Center for Public Integrity (CPI) investigation that analyzed data compiled by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, finding that more than 450 accidents involving dust have killed nearly 130 workers and injured another 800-plus, Since 1980, noting that "Both agencies, citing spotty reporting requirements, say these numbers are likely significant understatements." Here's the full report: Unchecked dust explosions kill, injure hundreds of workers

In the wake of the Imperial Sugar disaster which killed 14 workers and injured 36, the Chemical Safety Board has produced many reports on combustible dust explosions, including the excellent safety video below.

We also found this short video by FM Global to be compelling.

The text explantion for the video says:

"Did you know that dust can explode?

That is to say any organic material--wood, paper, rubber, fiber, food, tobacco, etc.--can create dust given the right conditions.

In this controlled demonstration at FM Global's one--of-a-kind Research Campus in West Glocester, RI, the five ingredients needed to cause dust to explode--air, fuel, heat, suspension and confinement--are provided to cause the explosion, or more appropriately, a partial volume deflagration.

Here, one hard hat full (11 lbs. or 5 kg.) of coal dust is placed in a trough approximately 2/3 of the height of the enclosure, which measures 10 ft. wide x 12 ft. deep x 15 ft. high. A small charge was then introduced to disturb and suspend the dust followed by an ignition source (bottle rocket).

Although you may not be able to totally eliminate combustible dust from your process or your facility, there are prevention measures you can take to reduce the frequency of dust fires and explosions. Likewise, control measures can reduce the severity of a fire or explosion. Together, these can help you reduce the likelihood of property damage and business interruption.

Takeaway: If it didn't start out as a rock, it can explode."

Find out more about this test in an article Dust to Ashes (PDF) in FM Global's Reason, page 38.


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January 15, 2014

 

Temp employment is one of the nation's fastest growing job sectors - but as a new report from ProPublica shows, it comes with a very steep price: Temporary Work, Lasting Harm.

"A ProPublica analysis of millions of workers' compensation claims shows that in five states, representing more than a fifth of the U.S. population, temps face a significantly greater risk of getting injured on the job than permanent employees.
In California and Florida, two of the largest states, temps had about 50 percent greater risk of being injured on the job than non-temps. That risk was 36 percent higher in Massachusetts, 66 percent in Oregon and 72 percent in Minnesota.
These statistics understate the dangers faced by blue-collar temps like Davis. Nationwide, temps are far more likely to find jobs in dangerous occupations like manufacturing and warehousing. And their likelihood of injury grows dramatically.
In Florida, for example, temps in blue-collar workplaces were about six times as likely to be injured than permanent employees doing similar jobs."

Temp workers are performing some of the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs in the nation, often under the pressure of unforgiving schedules. They face new, unfamiliar work environments with little or no training; they often lack proper personal protective equipment, and frequently have little or no supervision. They are less likely to have the team support that regular workers might enjoy or the protections that a union might afford. The nature of the system is such that temp workers are penalized for making complaints lest they not be retained. They are often discouraged from reporting injuries - and many don't know their rights in this regard.

"The temp agency is in this position of rehiring them over and over again or not hiring them," said Linda Forst, an environmental and occupational health sciences professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "So that's a huge disincentive to report" workplace injuries, she said. "I think the number of temp workers who report is really low. I think it's the tip of the iceberg."

As another ProPublic Report puts it: they are "the expendables" - and they are being crushed, literally and figuratively.

The new normal
If you were investing in stocks, gold watches would be a poor bet. Lifetime jobs are now the stuff of legend. The new normal is a contingent work force, which includes temp workers, contract workers, independent contractors, offshore workers and a grab-bag of alternative work arrangements.

"A job is a dying concept." Stability is no longer the hallmark of a relationship between workers and employers, nor is a direct connection between the entity that writes a paycheck and the people who control the worksite. Policy researchers have noted that employers are shifting "from a 'reactive' use of temporary workers to fill the jobs of absent employees or to supplement permanent employees during a busy period to a 'systematic' use, 'in which entire job clusters and industries are staffed with agency workers indefinitely.'"

This quote is an excerpt from a January 2013 whitepaper from The Center for Progressive Reform, At the Company's Mercy: Protecting Contingent Workers from Unsafe Working Conditions (PDF). The paper focused on "the public policy challenges that industry's increasing reliance on contingent workers presents, and proposes a series of policy solutions aimed at protecting this growing segment of the workforce from unsafe working conditions. "

The report highlights four industries that are heavily reliant on a temporary work force: farming, construction, warehousing and hotel workers. But these are hardly the only industries. Last spring, we posted The high price for fast phones: Cell tower deaths, noting how tower work is carried out by a complex web of subcontractors - an arrangement that makes good sense on many levels, but that allows large carriers to deflect responsibility for on-the-job work practices - and for any workplace deaths. These networks are like like the Russian nesting dolls: layer after layer of progressively smaller employers.

Workers compensation has often been called "the grand bargain." a pact in which employers promised to replace lost wages and cover medical costs due to injury and workers agreed not to sue employers when the workers were injured on the job. Under this "exclusive remedy" system, it is in an employer's best interests to provide a safe environment, to minimize injuries and to otherwise act in good faith with the work force in areas of health and safety. That "grand bargain" starts to fray around the edges with a continual stream of new, short-term workers who are hired and paid by someone other than the employer. The first ProPublica report notes:

"The growing reliance on temps subverts one of the strongest incentives for companies to protect workers. The workers' comp system was designed to encourage safety through economic pressure; companies with higher injury rates pay higher insurance premiums. Hiring temp workers shields companies from those costs. If a temp worker gets hurt, the temp agency pays the workers' comp, even though it has little or no control over job sites."

In the past, temp workers were the exception, not the rule. But with the growth in the contingent workforce, the mutual benefit and loyalty on both sides of this equation are put to the test - and the power dynamic is in the hands of the employer, not the workers. This new normal will require new solutions and new approaches to worker safety.

Related:
Aaron Adair (34) died when he fell 50 feet from a building during his first day at work on a construction site - this week

Temporary worker dies at Amazon facility - in early December, a NJ employee was caught in and crushed by equipment

A worker's first day at work shouldn't be his last day on earth

Death of a Temp Worker

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January 8, 2014

 

Don't let the polar vortex make you crazy. Apparently, it is causing a suspension of common sense in many - see A Whole Bunch Of People Threw Boiling Water In The Air To Watch It Freeze And Burned Themselves.

As the poster notes - "Yeah, don't do this."

And don't do this either. Really, just don't.

We can't offer too many suggestions for the hot-water throwers or tongue stickers beyond Bob Newhart's classic STOP IT formula, but for some serious cold weather tips, see our prior post: 12 Winter storm-related hazards & a tool kit for preventing problems.

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December 9, 2013

 

In a recent blog post about healthcare workers, Tom Lynch talked about the scourge of patient handling and the resulting epidemic of related injuries. We note that Risk Management magazine and its affiliated blog Risk Management Monitor have recently featured articles on other risks associated with healthcare workers, which we think are noteworthy.

In December's Risk Management magazine, Alan H. Rosenstein talks about Managing the Risks of Disruptive Behaviors in Health Care Settings. Often, in discussions about threats to healthcare staff, the focus is on threats from patients, family members or outsiders - but Rosenstein tackles peer-to-peer behaviors that cause problems - an issue serious enough in scope that the Joint Commission requires hospitals to have a written policy addressing disruptive behaviors as one of its leadership standards for hospital accreditation. He defines disruptive behaviors as "any inappropriate behavior, confrontation or conflict, ranging from verbal abuse to physical or sexual harassment, that can negatively impact patient care" and notes:

"Research has shown that 3% to 5% of physician and nursing staffs at hospitals exhibit disruptive behaviors. While the actual number of physicians and nurses responsible for these episodes is small, the impact is not. Studies have shown that more than 95% of those involved in a disruptive event feel stressed, intimidated or unable to concentrate, inhibiting their ability to effectively collaborate and communicate patient medical concerns. More than half of those surveyed felt these events led to medical errors and compromises in patient safety and quality of care."

He identifies training as "an area ripe for improvement" noting that while, for example, physician education emphasizes knowledge and technical competency it does not necessarily address "emotional intelligence."

In Risk Management Monitor, Hilary Tuttle looks at the issue of violence in her post, Minimizing the Dangers for Hospital Nurses. She includes an infographic, which we pass along below. If healthcare workers are on your radar, be sure to check out both articles

The Dark Side of Nursing
Source: TopRNtoBSN.com

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October 23, 2013

 

Six months ago, the world was shocked by the collapse of a Bangladesh garment factory that resulted in the gruesome deaths of more than 1100 workers. This should have been a seminal moment in worker health and safety, sparking massive global reform in a troubled industry in much the same way that our own Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire launched U.S. worker protections. Did it? The October issue of EHS Today features an important overview of what has and hasn't changed since the disaster: Bangladesh: The Tragedy of Valuing Production Over Safety in the Global Supply Chain. This excellent multi-part series focuses on safety progress -- or lack of it -- that has occurred in the Bangladesh garment industry since last April's Rana Plaza factory collapse. From our point of view, it's a series that deserves wide circulation.

The catastrophic event demonstrated a fundamental failure to protect workers and a serious failure in the global supply chain of highly popular retail brands: the Gap (including Banana Republic, Old Navy, Piperlime and Athleta brands), Walmart, VF Corp. (Nautica, Wrangler, Timblerlan, Jansport and other brands), JC Penney and numerous others. The series paints a picture of willful disregard of unsafe conditions; managers pressured by contracts which included ruinous penalties for failure to meet unrelenting schedules; and impoverished workers facing the harsh reality of surviving paycheck to paycheck.

In the introductory article, Bangladesh: Is Worker Safety Failing in the Global Supply Chain?, editor Sandy Smith looks at the global involvement in Bangladesh's ready-made garment industry, which exported goods worth more than $20 billion in the past year, nearly a 12% growth over the prior year. There's no secret why Bangladesh has experienced such growth: cost for labor is a paltry $37 per month, half the average wages in Cambodia and one-fifth the wages in China. Smith's introductory piece summarizes the post-tragedy response by global retail behemoths. While most retailers have launched initiatives to increase worker safety, many of these efforts are fragmented and nonbinding and do not offer the overarching response or accountability that many experts believe necessary to successful change.

In Bangladesh: A New Contract for the Global Apparel Industry, Dara O'Rourke, an associate professor at the University of California-Berkeley and the co-founder of GoodGuide, offers a look at conditions that led to the disaster. He discusses the contrast between two responses to the tragedy. European brands and retailers responded to the Rana Plaza tragedy by signing onto the Bangladesh Building and Fire Safety Accord. The accord is the first binding agreement of its kind in Bangladesh; essentially a new type of contract requiring independent inspections and reports, mandatory repairs, and a real role for workers, among other things. The Accord offers a commitment to terminate factories that don't improve.

In contrast, "U.S. brands and retailers refused to sign the accord, asserting that the legal commitments embedded in the accord - exactly what is needed - would cost too much and expose them to too great of legal liabilities. Instead, U.S. firms launched a voluntary initiative of their own, dubbed the Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative, which loosely commits U.S. brands and retailers to: work with the Bangladeshi government to develop factory-assessment protocols; inspect all of the factories they use; pay for training of managers and workers; create a loan fund for factories to borrow money to make improvements; and make their inspections transparent."

He notes that the most obvious limitation of the U.S.-led initiative is that it is non-binding.

In The Catastrophic Failure of the Apparel Industry's Factory-Inspection Regimes and the Birth of a New Model, Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, examines systemic factors that led to recent catastrophes. He says the failures occurred not because apparel corporations were unaware of the dangers or didn't understand the steps necessary to make factories safe; nor does he think the failures can be blamed on subcontractors, a popular excuse that allows the big-brand buyers to deflect responsibility. Rather, he points to a system more geared to protecting "brands" than people and perpetuating absolute minimum production costs at the expense of safety. He notes that "As long as the safety crisis in Bangladesh did not generate highly extended and highly damaging media coverage - and it did not, until recently - most brands and retailers were content to utilize inspection regimes that, while ineffective at their official task, offered [the following] attractive features."

In CSR Audits Fail to Protect Workers and Threaten OSH Profession's Integrity, Garret Brown, MPH, CIH, a compliance officer with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, looks at the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives and offers a detailed look into the failure of the existing audit systems. He notes that CSR auditing has become an $80 billion dollar business in its own right, raising questions about whether the purpose is audits or revenue generation. Certainly, something isn't working: "The workplaces at both recent Bangladeshi disaster incidents - Rana Plaza, where 1,129 workers died in the building collapse in April and Tazreen Fashion, where 112 workers burned to death last November -repeatedly had "passed" audits by the brands and third-party monitors."
For further background on CSR, see his 2007 article on Corporate Social Responsibility and workplace safety in global supply chains for further background.

In Bangladesh: Rebeka: Survival from Death Trap , Repon Chowdhury and Taherul Islam of the Bangladesh Occupational Safety, Health and Environment Foundation examine the personal toll and human side of this tragedy through the story of Rebeka, a 20 year old survivor of the Rana Plaza building collapse.

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September 16, 2013

 

Chickens have been a hot potato on the legislative circuit lately -- well, the processing of chickens, that is. Even if you thought you had absolutely no interest in poultry processing, if consuming tasty chicken is something you enjoy, you may want to know about these laws. We're wondering what's up with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) - could there be something in the water?

Elizabeth Grossman of The Pump Handle offers the lowdown on one of those laws in her post Hazards behind a chicken dinner: US poultry workers ask USDA and OSHA to protect their safety. Last year, about a half million poultry workers processed about 8 billion chickens, many handling about 100 birds a minute. Now a rate like that is pretty amusing when you see Lucille Ball on a chocolate packing assembly line in the old sitcoms, but it's a little less comical for workers wielding sharp knives while "standing in chilled processing plant facilities, cutting, gutting, scalding, defeathering and hanging birds as they speed by on automated machinery."

But as Grossman notes, this apparently isn't fast enough:

"If a rule proposed by USDA and supported by the poultry industry is finalized and goes into effect, the speed at which chickens and other poultry are typically processed could increase to as much as 175 birds per minute - a rate at which some plants are already operating."

And one more thing:

"The proposed USDA rule would change the way poultry processing plant inspections work. It would shift the inspection process to one in which individual companies set inspection guidelines for their own plants."

Now that's not good for the workers, who are already plagued with notoriously poor working conditions and an injury rate that is about twice the national average (see also Unsafe at These Speeds) -- it doesn't sound too propitious for consumer quality, either. We'll forgo the fox guarding the hen-house analogies and simply pose the radical idea that guidelines set by profit-driven companies may not always be in the interests of the greater good in an era that is flirting with drug-resistant Salmonella and other super pathogens.

It hasn't worked so well in pilot programs in pork plants: See Kimberly Kindy's Washington Post article: USDA Pilot Program fails to stop contaminated meat. Her article notes:

"Auditors from the inspector general's office found that three of the five plants in the pilot program had racked up scores of health and safety violations, many of them for problems that were never fixed. The report did not identify the five plants and said that, since no study had been done, it was difficult to determine if contamination and other deficiencies could be attributed directly to the inspection system.
But the auditors pointed out that the safety records at the three most-troubled pilot plants were worse than those at hundreds of other U.S. swine plants that continued to operate under the traditional system, which features slower processing speeds and about double the number of government inspectors."

But wait, there's more. If you care about poultry workers and or food safety -- pick one or both (although we see them as issues that are inextricably linked) -- the news gets even worse.

Wired reports: USDA: Chicken Processed in China Can be Sold in the US Without Labels to Say So. So in addition to increasing US worker output, USDA now allows for off-shoring some of the chicken processing jobs to the wonderful folks that produced glow-in-the-dark pork. Do you trust your kids chicken nuggets to be processed by the country that produced these rather alarming food products? Of ocurse, you'll have no way of knowing because these processed meats won't be subject to Country Of Origin Labeling (COOL) the way that fresh meats are.

For now, the chickens will be bred, raised and slaughtered in the US and China will only be doing the processing. Note the key phrase "for now" - many industry insiders expect that this is a prelude to allowing China to export domestically raised chickens to the US.

Additional info
NIOSH study finds widespread carpal tunnel among poultry workers, underscores why Poultry Rule is a bad idea

OSHA: Poultry Processing

Will you know when your chicken was processed in China?

Your chicken nuggets may soon come from China


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August 6, 2013

 

This powerful "digital story" about falls through skylights from the California Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) would be an excellent training video for construction workers, builders, and anyone who works on roofs.

According to FACE: "More construction workers die from falls than from any other on-the-job injury. Fatal falls and serious injuries may result from inadequate guarding and fall protection for work around skylights. This video explains the events that led to a roofing supervisor's death after he fell 30 feet through a warehouse roof skylight onto a floor. Photographs from the fatality investigation are supplemented with scenes recreated by co-workers who were there that day. Fall prevention recommendations are highlighted. Roofing and construction companies are encouraged to include this video as part of a comprehensive safety training program."

The video was produced by the California Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) program in the Occupational Health Branch of the California Department of Public Health.

Related:
OSHA: Preventing Worker Deaths and Injuries from Falls Through Skylights and Roof Openings

Fall Protection: Traps that Workers Can't Avoid

OSHA Safety Videos for Construction

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July 26, 2013

 

Acrohphobes, take note: this post is about working at extreme heights!

We spotted a jaw dropping video in our Twitter feed the other day -- an engineer climbing the spire at the top of the One World Trade Center, a dizzying 1,776 feet. It's a promotional video for a fall protection firm called Rigid Lifelines. It led us to more dramatic video footage of the tower completion and an interesting case history behind the safety engineering challenge that the tower construction posed, which is depicted in a dedicated website, Safe at 1776.

"A symbolic reference to the year America signed the Declaration of Independence. With its spire attached, the new World Trade Center became the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, and the third tallest building in the world. The 104-story super-scraper stands on the northwest corner of the 16-acre World Trade Center site, occupying the location of what used to be the original 6 World Trade Center."
"To ensure the safety of workers who will perform routine maintenance atop the massive tower, builders, engineers, and the Port Authority partnered with Rigid Lifelines to design and supply 1,975 linear feet of total fall protection track, and the highest self-retracting lanyards in an occupied building. Rigid Lifelines designed two systems for the One World Trade Center building--a horizontal system for the rings and a vertical system for the spire. Each system was specifically designed to ensure that workers have 100 percent fall protection from the moment they leave the top floor to the moment they touch the flashing beacon light."




We're heartened to see this commitment to worker safety - see our prior entry You Think Your Job is Tough, which includes footage of a worker "free climbing" a 1,768 foot Antenna Tower. And on a related note, The high price for fast phones: Cell tower deaths, a Frontline and Pro Publica investigative video about cell tower worker deaths in a small industry with a death rate that is about 10 times the rate of construction. Accountability is hindered by the complex web of subcontractors on these jobs, allowing large network sponsors to deflect responsibility for fatalities.

These prior posts may also may be of interest:


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July 2, 2013

 

grain-bin-npr-photo.JPG

Image: John Poole, NPR

It's called "walking down the grain," it's illegal and it results in suffocation deaths on farms with frightening regularity. It refers to the practice of workers going into grain silos and bins with shovels and picks to break up clogs in the grain so that it can flow smoothly. It's a highly dangerous practice that can result in sudden entrapment similar to being sucked in by quicksand. It can happen in less than a minute.

This summer is starting as many others, with a lone worker trapped and suffocated in a grain silo - his would be rescuers talk about futile attempts to save him. News reports say that he fell in - until OSHA investigations, we may not know the particulars around why he entered the bin alone and had no protection, such as harnesses. Sometimes farmers do this on their own. Sometimes, they send workers in to walk down the grain - often teens, immigrants or some other temporary workers who may not be aware of the dangers. That was the case in 2010 when a 20 year old and two teens were entrapped in an Indiana silo. One teen survived.

2010 was a year for the record books. Heavy rains the prior year made for very moist, clumpy grain in storage. Twenty-six people died in that year, the worst year in decades.

According to the Center for Public Integrity:

"At least 498 people have suffocated in grain bins since 1964, according to data analyzed for the Center and NPR by William Field, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue University.
At least 165 more people drowned in wagons, trucks, rail cars or other grain storage structures. Almost 300 were engulfed but survived. Twenty percent of the 946 people caught in grain were under 18."

It should be noted that these are reported incidents.

Walking down the fines
This spring, the Center for Public Integrity and NPR produced a special investigative series called Buried in Grain. In a recorded segment, the sole survivor of the Indiana grain bin entrapment recounts the experience, a gripping and powerful account. The first segment also talks about another dangerous practice: how almost all the fines levied by OSHA in such fatalities wind up being slashed in what might be termed "walking down the fines." In subsequent reports, the series talks about why storage bin rescues are so risky and complex, and a third offers prevention strategies.

Liz Borowski of The Pump Handle links to various other news reports and resources on grain bins and temporary workers. The Pump Handle, an excellent blog that reports on public health and policy issues, has been great in keeping attention on this subject. We also point you to the powerful video on Grain Bin Safety issued by The National Corn Growers Association and the National Grain and Feed Foundation, previously posted here.

Farming is a dangerous livelihood. Storage facilities present many other dangers. A year after the deaths discussed in the above report, we posted about two teens who both lost legs in a grain bin augur accident. Other grain storage hazards beyond engulfment and suffocation or being caught in machinery include lung disease and poisoning from fumigants, mold, and grain dust. Plus, the risk of explosions from combustible dust: this year has seen at least two deaths related to a grain bin explosion in Indiana.

OSHA has put bin operators on notice and provides a variety of tools and resources about grain handling safety. Many are cynical, however, that with weak enforcement and continued "walking down the fines" the practice of "walking down the grain" won't go away any time soon.

grainhandling3.jpg

image credit: OSHA

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June 19, 2013

 

Later this month, UCLA's chemistry professor Patrick Harran will face four felony charges in the laboratory death of his 23-year old research assistant Sheri Sangji. Harran is pleading not guilty to charges that revolve around his alleged failure to provide protective equipment and clothing, failure to provide training, and failure to correct unsafe working conditions. By way of background: In December 2008, Sheri Sangji was working with t-butyl lithium, a substance that ignites on contact with air. A drop spilled on her clothing causing an instant conflagration. She suffered second and third degree burns over 40% of her body, and died 18 days after the fire.

Our usual go-to source on this case is the blogger Chemjobber, who reported on some of the court proceedings leading up to these charges. He includes this statement from the trial judge

In court today, Judge Lisa B. Lench heard brief oral arguments from both sides, first on the issue to dismiss and then on the motion to reduce charges. She commented that the issues presented in the case were interesting and novel. She also said that Harran was unique compared with the usual defendants moving through the criminal justice system.

The judge is right in using the word "unique." Employers rarely face criminal charges for worker deaths. Generally, in all but the most egregious circumstances (and even then...), workers comp is the exclusive remedy for employee grievances and OSHA is the usual path for safety violations. In this case, a fine was imposed on UCLA.

One of the other unique things about this case is the culture in which this accident occurred. There's a strong "blame the victim" thread that runs through comments on stories, as well as protestations that the academic and/or the scientific arena is "different." When we first read about and discussed the case,some criticism was directed at us for naivete, stating that health and safety personnel were unqualified to oversee "exotic" scientific protocols. (See our prior posts, More on the UCLA lab death of Sheri Sangji and Follow-up on the death of Sheri Sangji: a painful path to academic lab safety.)

Sheri Sangji's death and the subsequent criminal proceedings against Harran have sparked a great deal of controversy in the academic scientific community - and on the more positive side, appear to have been a catalyst for a more serious look at university lab safety. Beryl Lieff Benderly of Science reports on a yearlong study of lab safety in nonindustrial institutions that was launched in May by the National Academies:

"An overriding theme at the meeting was the nature and size of the disparity between safety cultures and practices in industrial and academic settings. I have long heard from safety experts--and stated in my writing--that industry's safety record far surpasses that of academe. Typical of this view is a letter by officials of three major industrial corporations, Dow, Corning, and DuPont, that was recently published in Chemical & Engineering News and was quoted at the May meeting. "The facts are unequivocal," the letter asserts. "Occupational Safety & Health Administration statistics demonstrate that researchers are 11 times more likely to get hurt in an academic lab than in an industrial lab."

Benderly goes on to explore many reasons why a safety gap exists in the academic environment - among them, a wide variation in or lack of standards, a high value on independence, the lack of a hierarchical structure to enforce accountability, and various cultural barriers and resistance:

"As a result, the report continues, "At academic research institutions, PIs may view laboratory inspections by an outside entity as infringing upon their academic freedom. ... To combat cultural issues (such as fiefdoms) and bring a focus to safety within any given organization, it is important to ensure that the reporting structure allows for communication of safety information to those within the organizational hierarchy that have the authority and resources to implement safety change."
.

The Harran trial will be watched closely by many in academia - it's a painful situation all around. The best possible outcome of this tragic situation would be a heightened focus on lab worker safety - and it appears to be having some effect in prompting greater industry/education partnerships to heighten safety. Case in point: the recently launched Dow Lab Safety Academy.

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May 28, 2013

 

Preliminary reports for 2012 show that there were 82 firefighter fatalities, the fourth consecutive year in which fatalities were 91 or under, in contrast with the decade prior when fatalities were all in triple digits. And in one of those years, 2007, 9 firefighter deaths occurred on June 18 in a warehouse in Charleston, South Carolina.

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation has recently released a documentary on that fire, which looks at the dramatic changes made in the operations of Charleston's Fire Department following those deaths.

It's good to hear the courage of this department at looking at and embracing the changes that needed to be made to heighten firefighter safety. Related to the idea of challenging traditional ways of doing things to improve safety, read how flashover research could change the future of firefighting tactics. A recent series of tests were conducted Spartanburg, SC to study various suppression methods for ventilating and isolating fires to prevent -- or at least delay -- flashover. The research shows that by "listening to the fires," certain traditional firefighting tactics have come under scrutiny. In addition to homes being constructed closer together, they include more plastic and chemical elements, allowing fires to spread more rapidly. On the other hand, advances in windows and doors help to create ventilation-limited fires. This may mean more water on the fire sooner and waiting to open doors or windows to enter the building until a strategy is deployed. Even the old shibboleth about not using water on smoke is coming under scrutiny.

Article author Shane Ray says:

"Experienced company officers and instructors should examine the latest research, textbooks, and NIOSH firefighter-fatality and near-miss reports. Does the fire service operate and function the way it does -- especially on single-family, detached dwellings -- because it produces the best outcomes or because of anecdotal procedures and processes from the past? Fire officers can make a difference by improving tactical decision-making and training new firefighters and upcoming fire officers to think about their actions based on the knowledge they have, not just the skills and abilities. Ask the tough questions and embrace the answers."

More resources on firefighter safety:

Everyone Goes Home

Fire Chief - Health & Safety

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April 26, 2013

 

WMD+poster.jpg


Each year, April 28 is designated as Workers Memorial Day. OSHA says that, "It is a day to honor those workers who have died on the job, to acknowledge the grievous suffering experienced by families and communities, and to recommit ourselves to the fight for safe and healthful workplaces for all workers."

Here are some planning resources for marking the event.

The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health provides links to Workers Memorial Day Events, as well as a Workers Memorial Day Fact Sheet (PDF) and other resources.

AFL-CIO Workers Memorial Day has resources at their site, including a toolkit (PDF) to prepare for the event and a Collection of Worker Memorials.

USMWF Worker Memorial Day also has a list of planned events and a touching slide show tribute to workers who were killed on the job.

See 2012 Reports:
Death on the Job - AFL-CIO

Dying for Work in Massachusetts: The Loss of Life and Limb in Massachusetts Workplaces

California Dying at Work Report

North Carolina Workers Dying for a Job

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April 23, 2013

 

In 1980, OSHA produced a film about its origins, talking about the rights of workers to a safe workplace. A few year's later, Thorne Auchter, head of OSHA under Ronald Reagan, recalled and destroyed copies of the film. He also banned it, but a few union officials kept hidden copies. The penalty for being discovered in possession of one of these films was losing all OSHA funding for their safety and health programs. Other documents and films depicting workers who suffered the effects of lax safety were also banned as being "too inflammatory."

Jordan Barab talked about Auchter's safety censorship and OSHA funding cuts, as well as the later turn of events - both tragic and ironic - when Auchter's own 22-year-old son, Kevin Campbell Auchter, was killed on the job during the demolition of two silos at the Monterey Coal Co. in Missouri.

Watch the film that OSHA banned.

This film was preserved through the years through the efforts of Mark Catlin, who made this and other censored OSHA films available for digitizing. See more videos at Mark Catlin's excellent Historic Workplace & Environmental Health and Safety Films channel on YouTube.

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March 12, 2013

 

In the ongoing saga of the federal investigation into the April 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster that resulted in the deaths of 29 miners, things recently took a dramatic turn. The legal-criminal proceedings have resulted in four convictions to date. Now, in the most recent proceedings, a top Massey official has implicated former CEO Don Blakenship.

According to a news report by Ken Ward Jr in the Charleston Gazette:

Former Massey official David C. Hughart pleaded guilty to two federal criminal charges that he plotted with other company officials to routinely violate safety standards and then cover up the resulting workplace hazards.
But a fairly routine plea hearing here took a surprising twist when U.S. District Judge Irene Berger pressed Hughart to name his co-conspirators and Hughart responded, "the chief executive officer."
Hughart did not use Blankenship's name, but Blankenship was CEO of Massey from 2000 until 2010, during the period when the crimes Hughart admitted to committing occurred.
On his Coal Tattoo blog, Ward looks at media coverage this news generated and how it was reported. He talks about what's next in the Upper Big Branch criminal probe. The prosecution has stated that "This is not the end of the investigation."

You can follow Don Blankenship's doings on his fairly new website, where he is self billed as "Native of Appalachia, Job Creator, CEO, and American competitionist." He posts his thoughts about mine safety, among other things, in an essay page. In his page of media coverage, Ken Ward's clips and the UBB mining investigations are unsurprisingly absent.

You can also follow his opinions and comments on Twitter at @DonBlankenship. Ironically, his most recent post accuses President Obama of lying, with a link to an essay which claims that Obama lied about climate change in his State of the Union address.

We're coming up on the third anniversary of this terrible Massey mine tragedy. The investigation and criminal probe of company officials continues, but it's important to look beyond that to ensure future safety. Ken Ward takes the MHSA to task for waiting 32 years to enforce the landmark mine safety act of 1977.

We point you to the Miners Memorial Page at the tribute site, Faces of the Mine. Scrolling through a page of 29 portraits brings home the enormity of this tragedy in a visceral way.

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February 12, 2013

 

Temporary worker Lawrence Daquan Davis was 21 years old - just a few months over the legal drinking age in Florida when he began working at the Bacardi Rum bottling plant in Jacksonville. Sadly, he had a very short career. It began on August 16, 2012 and ended shortly before 5 pm on the same day after he was crushed and killed by a palletizer machine. Davis was an employee of Remedy Intelligent Staffing, a temporary staffing agency that was contracted by Bacardi Bottling.

According to OSHA, which issued $192,000 in penalties to Bacardi this week for a dozen willful and serious violations, the company had failed to train temporary employees on lockout-tagout procedures and failed to ensure its own employees used such procedures. Lockout-tagout is an industry standard designed to ensure that dangerous machines are properly shut off during maintenance so they can't be started up until completion. There's a locking device that renders the machine inoperable, and a tag to alert others that the machine is shut shut down.

In speaking of this death, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels issued the phrase that is the title of our post. He also said:

"We are seeing untrained workers - many of them temporary workers - killed very soon after starting a new job. This must stop," said Michaels. "Employers must train all employees, including temporary workers, on the hazards specific to that workplace - before they start working. Had Bacardi done so, this tragic loss of life could have been prevented."

The Texas Mutual Insurance Company Blog has a post about The ABCs of New Employee Safety. The post offers some good tips on tips on safety education for new employees, along with these statistics about the high rate of injuries to new workers:

"Approximately 27 percent of job-related fatalities involve employees who have been on a new job for less than 90 days, according to a recent Texas Mutual claim analysis. Similarly, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Office of Statistics says 40 percent of employees injured at work have been on the job less than one year. New employees need to be made aware of how serious safety training is from their first day at a new job."

New workers - particularly young workers - are often inexperienced and unaware of the hazards in a new workplace. They are also often eager to please, to keep the job. We've written about the importance of training and safeguarding young workers many times.

The on-the-job death of a young worker is a terrible way for a company to "get religion" about safety.

Related:
OSHA's Lockout-Tagout Interactive Training

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January 30, 2013

 

When Cassandra warned the Trojans about a peculiar looking horse, she was ignored. In a somewhat similar vein, the Insider has predicted potentially dire consequences of an aging workforce: unable to retire, some older workers labor to the breaking point and then might hope to parlay workers comp into the retirement plan of last resort. So far it has not turned out that way. But a new study by Sage Journals confirms some of our concerns about risks among older workers and possibly even explains why fatally injured older workers might not show up on comp radar.

The Sage researchers set out to examine the relationship between fatal falls and age. They focused on the construction industry, which comprises only 8 percent of the American workforce, but generates 50 percent of all fatal falls. The frequency of falls among younger workers (here defined as under 55) was higher, but older workers who fell were more likely to die. (Kudos to Sage for defining older workers as 55+ - as opposed to the fairly meaningless federal standard of 40+.) The greatest risks for fatal falls occurred, not surprisingly, among roofers, iron workers and power line installers. Among roofers, older workers had a fall rate of 60.5 fatalities per 100,000 workers, compared to 23.2 fatalities among younger workers. Older workers were more likely to fall from ladders. In addition, their fatal falls could occur at substantially lower heights than the fatal falls of younger workers.

Where's Comp?
As we continue to zero in on the problem, the workers comp dimension comes into focus. Fatal falls among older workers were more likely to occur in residential settings - worksites less likely to be overseen by OSHA or state authorities. And fatal falls were more likely to occur among small contractors, many of whom were sole proprietors. The study points out that nearly 40 percent of construction workers 55+ are self employed.

Therein may lie one of the clues to the mystery as to why workers comp costs among older workers have not risen at the rate we once anticipated. Among fatalities, a substantial portion of the workers were independent contractors and thus did not carry workers comp coverage; many states preclude coverage for sole proprietors. Even in states where independent contractors are allowed to enroll in comp, most did not bother, as the cost, often based upon the state's average industrial wage, is well beyond the means of a part-time, self-employed craftsman.

Case in point: In Massachusetts, a relatively low cost state for comp, the rate for roofers is $26.10 per $100 of payroll; the state average industrial wage is $42,700. A sole proprietor roofer would have to pay over $11,000 to secure the protection of a comp policy, even if his annual billings were less than the average industrial wage.

The Sage study points to a number of factors in the severity of falls among older workers. Over time, we all succumb to the biomechanics of aging: slower reaction times, decreased joint mobility, reduced elasticity of tissues and loss of strength. Based upon my own experience, mix in a little forgetfulness, an occasional lack of coordination, and you have a potentially toxic mix, especially in the context of heights and ladders.

Unbroken Falls
The aging workforce is not about to go away. The Sage researchers point out that older workers - again, 55+ - totalled 17 million in 1998, reached 27.9 million in 2008 and are projected to reach 40 million by 2018. The median age in construction has gone from 34 in 1985 to 41+ in 2009; in the same period, workers 45 to 64 went from 25 percent to 34 percent of the workforce.

Given the absence of strong safety oversight in residential construction, the inevitable aging of the workers who perform residential work and the common use of ladders, we can expect the trend of fatalities among older construction workers to continue. The impact on workers comp is another matter altogether. It appears that many of the aging craftsmen working on our homes are independent contractors. When they fall, there is little or no safety net between them and the cold, hard ground.


Thanks to Julie Ferguson for the heads up on this research.

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January 16, 2013

 

New York has just signed into law a new gun control measure [S. 2230] that comes as a direct response to the incomprehensible tragedy in Sandy Hook, CT. While the bill touts its "first in the nation" status, with respect to its approach to mental illness, it is by no means a model for other states to follow.

The bill addresses three distinct issues relating to mental illness: first, limiting access to gun licenses for those diagnosed as mentally ill and dangerous. Second, the bill requires gun owners who reside with a mentally ill and "dangerous" individual to keep guns under lock and key. Finally, and most disturbingly, the bill requires mental health professionals to report any patient who is "likely to engage in conduct that will cause serious harm to
him- or herself or others." In other words, the bill assumes that any individual with suicidal tendencies is a potential mass murderer. Such stereotyping is not what is needed in the mental health community.

Double Bind
S.2230 places a formidable burden on mental health professions - who not only must treat their patients, they are held accountable for predicting future behavior:

A new Section 9.46 of the Mental Hygiene Law will require
mental health professionals, in the exercise of reasonable
professional judgment, to report if an individual they are treating
is likely to engage in conduct that will cause serious harm to
him- or herself or others. A good faith decision about whether to report
will not be a basis for any criminal or civil liability.

If we have learned anything in the all-too-frequent incidences of random slaughter, the "likelihood" of homicidal acts is usually only revealed retroactively, long after the fact.

The bill goes on to read:

When a Section 9.46 report is made, the Division of Criminal Justice
Services will determine whether the person possesses a firearms
license and, if so, will notify the appropriate local licensing
official, who must suspend the license. The person's firearms will
then be removed.

After a therapist reports a potentially violent patient to the state - once again, this rather large population includes people who only threaten to hurt themselves - New York will run the names through the data base of licensed gun owners. All hits must result in license suspension. Of course, bureaucracies being what they are, it might take months for the suspension to take place. Hence, the individual who at one time exhibited psychotic symptoms or discussed violent feelings with a therapist might find him or herself months later confronted by cops on the doorstep. Such encounters will hardly be helpful for people trying to establish mental equilibrium.

Finally, the image of forcefully removing guns from the home surely presents enormous risk to gun owners and public safety officials alike. Who will do this and under what circumstances? My guess is that, given the profound implications of reporting patients to the state, most therapists will err on the side of non-reporting and rationalize their inaction, when necessary, under the heading of acting in "good faith."

The Wrong Cohort
It is important to note that only individuals receiving treatment for mental illness will be subject to this onerous standard. Given the fractured and fragmented nature of mental health treatment in this country, the vast majority of mentally ill individuals have never received and are not about to receive any treatment. And among the violent individuals who might well contemplate an attack of homicidal proportions, few would bother to discuss it with a therapist or go through the formality of securing a gun license before buying an assault weapon.

The relatively small subset of people impacted by the New York bill - people diagnosed with mental illness who are licensed gun owners - is likely to prove statistically insignificant, as is the probability that a single mass murder can be prevented by this radical undermining of the doctor-patient relationship. Surely, there is a better way to manage what has become a remote but appalling risk of life in the 21st century.

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November 27, 2012

 

While many of us were planning for Black Friday shopping sprees over Thanksgiving weekend, more than 100 Bangladesh garment workers died in a Tazreen Fashions factory fire because there were insufficient exits for workers to escape. Tragic as the story is, it is not unique. Since 2006, more than 500 Bangladeshi workers have died in factory fires. The Bangladesh factory fires are what working life looked like in the U.S. pre-fire codes, pre-fair labor standards, pre-OSHA. Workers went to work unsure if they would return home safely each day. The Bangladesh fire calls to mind the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York, a tragic story that resulted in a huge public outcry for change. The fire gave impetus and momentum to workers compensation legislation, child labor laws, fair labor standards, building code and fire regulations, and more.

Even with our worker protections, it takes vigilance to prevent tragedy from repeating itself in the workplace next door. In 1991, a fire in an Imperial Foods poultry processing plant in North Carolina claimed the lives of 25 workers who had been locked in to prevent theft. In 2003, a New York Times investigation revealed that retail giant Wal-mart was locking night shift workers in. In addition to the "locked in worker" issue, OSHA citations for other exit-related safety violations include many familiar household brand names: Home Goods, CVS, Rite Aid, Kohl's, Toys R Us, to name but a few.

Will the Bangladesh fire be a tipping point?
Unsurprisingly, there is public outrage in Bangladesh following this terrible event, just as there was here in 1911. Will it be enough to galvanize reforms in the nation's largest exporting industry? The temptation might be to see this as Bangladesh's problem to solve, but things aren't always quite that simple. According to news reports:

Tazreen Fashions is a subsidiary of the Tuba Group, a major Bangladeshi garment exporter whose clients include Wal-Mart, Carrefour and IKEA, according to its website. Its factories supply garments to the U.S., Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands, among other countries. The Tazreen factory opened in 2009 and employed about 1,700 people.

Photos at the scene of the fire show that clothing was being produced for Wal-Mart. The retail giant has issued statements distancing itself from the factory, saying Tazreen was unauthorized to do work for Wal-Mart, and blaming a supplier for subcontracting work.

Complex webs of subcontractors - both domestically and internationally - are an increasingly convenient way for large multinational companies to defect responsibility, but should we accept that Wal-Mart and other mega-buyers can't better control their supply chain? Surely, American companies could join forces in leveraging their buying power to demand that safety and basic human rights are enforced if they had the will to do so. U.S. consumers and policy makers need to demand more accountability from the organizations that we buy our clothes, our phones, and our electronics from.

The following video is distressing and gruesome, but we think it deserves airing. It's the human toll that's paid for getting shirts for a few cents less.


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November 13, 2012

 

The last time we encountered Clayton Osbon, he was strapped to a gurney after being forcibly removed from an airplane. Osbon was a Jet Blue pilot who had a psychotic break during a flight from New York to Las Vegas back in March. He randomly flipped switches in the cockpit, turned off the radio and told his co-pilot that "things just don't matter." When he left the cockpit to go to the bathroom, the co-pilot locked him out of the cabin, after which he ran up the aisles, shouting incoherently about religion and terrorists. The flight was diverted to Amarillo Texas, where Osbon was arrested and charged with interfering with a flight crew - his own, as he was crew leader.

The psychotic episode lasted about a week. After a July trial, Osbon was sent to a prison medical facility in North Carolina for evaluation. He apparently suffered another psychotic episode in prison - a significant event, as it demonstrated that his illness was not a one-time incident caused by the combination of sleep deprivation and substance abuse.

At a recent hearing in Amarillo, a forensic neuropsychiatirst testified that Osbon had experienced a "brief psychotic episode" brought on by lack of sleep. Osbon was found not guilty by reason of insanity. The medical records are sealed - as they should be - but the requirement that Osbon attend a treatment program for substance abuse makes it clear that drugs or alcohol were a factor in the incident. U.S. District Judge Mary Lou Robinson has prohibited Osbon from boarding an airplane without the court's permission; he and a Jet Blue colleague had to drive the 1,300 miles from Georgia to Amarillo for the hearing. The court has also ordered him to seek alternative employment, as his prospects for flying an aircraft are likely gone forever.

Living with Mental Illness
Given his age (49) and the court directive to find alternative employment, Osbon finds himself in the same position as injured workers in the comp system whose disabilities prevent them from returning to their original jobs. As a pilot, Osbon has a formidable set of transferable skills, which theoretically should make finding a new career relatively easy. It is likely, however, that his earnings capacity will be severely reduced. In addition, given the fragility of his current mental state, he may be months away from being able to function in a work environment.

In the course of a few days in March, Osbon went from being a skilled and productive member of society to a confused, fragile individual incapable of functioning in the world as we know it. He is fortunate to be supported by his family - often the sine qua non of survival for people with mental illness. In rebuilding his life, Osbon faces the burden of demonstrating to others - and to himself - that he can once again be sane, reliable and stable.

Osbon's story embodies mystery - and agony - of mental illness. In his case, psychosis appears to have been triggered by a combination of sleep deprivation and substance abuse. But taking it one step further, perhaps the sleep deprivation and substance abuse were part of a desperate effort to mask and subdue a more primal turmoil in his mind. We only know the end result of that fierce inner struggle: a battle was lost, at least for the moment, and Osbon now faces a future where every gesture is scrutinized with fear and every day looms with uncertainty.

Formidable challenges now confront Osbon and those who support him: the search for a return to the simple joys of everyday life, where he can be comfortable in knowing who he is and what he needs to do. We can only wish him well.


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October 31, 2012

 

At the recent National Safety Council Congress and Expo in Florida, Eric Guigere shared the gripping account of how 10 minutes in the bottom of a trench changed his life. In 2002, he was 27 years old and newly married - and perhaps in a bit of a hurry because he was scheduled to fly to a Caribbean honeymoon after work. But all that changed in an instant when he found himself buried in a trench collapse. He describes the harrowing experience before he blacked out - one of mankind's most deep-seated and primal fears becoming a reality. His coworkers pulled his lifeless body from the trench about 10 minutes later. At the time, his survival was in doubt, but he not only lived, he walked out of the hospital within about a week.

But that was not the end of things, by any means. Guigere talks about the lingering effects that the trauma had on his life - night terrors, lack of sleep, stress, and general PTSD experiences that eventually led to the break-up of his marriage. He also talks about the terrible effects that the experience had on his coworkers.

Guigere takes full responsibility for his own actions. His message is to the workers: "Don't take shortcuts. Respect safety requirements. Don't make a choice that could put yourself, your coworkers and your family in life-altering situations."

We aren't as inclined to let the employer off the hook as lightly as he does. The employer had six prior OSHA citations for safety violations and deceitfully tried to cover up their lack of compliance after the accident. The employer incurred a $54,000 wilful violation from this offense. While we're big believers in behavior-based safety, we think that all parties have responsibilities in creating an injury-free workplace. James Loud raises this point in his essay Too much emphasis on behavior-based safety? We agree with his assertion that "safety is a line management responsibility" and his prescription of management walkarounds, which he describes as "routine manager/employee safety interactions." He offers a roster of best practice "rules" for safety walkarounds gleaned from his 20 years of studying such programs at large organizations.

Eric Guigere now makes his living as a safety motivational speaker - you can see a brief clip below. If you're looking for a motivational speaker to talk to your employees, his story appears compelling.

Related prior posts:


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October 14, 2012

 

It would be pretty hard to avoid the news about sugar: it's bad for us. Diets high in sugar contribute mightily to the nation's burgeoning problems of obesity and diabetes and may even be a factor in dementia. But sugar in its crop form is also proving to be deadly. The cause and effect, however, is as murky as a cloudy day in the rainforest.

Will Shorr has written a remarkable, hands-on article in the Guardian, examining the high rates of chronic kidney disease (CKD) among the workers who grow and harvest sugar cane in Central America. CKD is the second leading killer of men in El Salvador.

Why are sugar cane workers succumbing to kidney disease? Is it the working conditions? Is it the pesticides? Is it the diet of the workers? Fingers are pointing in a number of directions, and by the time the truth is sorted out, we may well find a toxic trail that includes of all three factors.

Dehydration
Nicaragua Sugar Estates, one of Central America's largest plantations, has conducted its own internal studies, one of which identified one potential factor in the disease: "strenuous labour with exposure to high environmental temperatures without an adequate hydration program." .Nonetheless, a company spokesman denies the connection: "We're convinced that we have nothing to do with kidney disease. Our productive practices do not generate and are not causal factors for CKD."

But researchers in the US have connected CKD to heat stress and dehydration. A standard day for an El Salvadorian sugar worker lasts between four and five hours, with double shifts during the summer planting season, when temperatures top out at 104 degrees.

Shorr quotes Héctor García, a 33 year old with stage-two kidney failure: "It's very hot; we suffer. People sometimes collapse. More often they vomit, especially when the heat is worse. They do two shifts to earn more money." Another worker, 40 years old and close to death with stage five CKD, reported the same symptoms, compounded by the limited resources in his home: "When I come home, I feel surrendered. Sick. Headache. I can't shower because the water [from the roof-mounted tank] is too hot." The image of the hand-rigged shower, full of very hot water, epitomizes the wretched living conditions of the workers.

Compounding the problem, most CKD sufferers do not even know they are ill: the disease is asymptomatic until its last, most deadly stages. Even when they feel unwell, many workers go into denial - they feel helpless, as they cannot afford the medication or the recommended diet of fresh vegetables and chicken breast. Dialysis - the last hope of the ill - is often avoided, because most of the workers who go on it end up dead anyway, so it appears to their co-workers that dialysis causes the death.

Chemicals
Researchers have found rates of CKD in cane cutters and seed cutters - the most strenuous jobs - to be higher than in pesticide applicators, who have greater exposure to agrochemicals. This seems to indicate that the pesticides are not a significant factor. But this conclusion may be premature.

Five chemicals are used in the cultivation of sugar cane: amine, terbutryn, pendimethalin, 2,4-D and atrazine. Shorr sent the chemical recipe for the yellow potion he observed being sprayed on the crops to Professor Andrew Watterson of the University of Stirling - an authority on agrochemicals and health. They were all herbicides, he noted. Watterson came up with a litany of potential problems:

Atrazine can cause kidney damage at high levels; acute exposure to 2.4-D can cause chronic kidney damage; pendimethalin is "harmful through skin contact and inhalation"; in lab tests, long-term feeding of terbutryn to rats caused kidney damage. None of them are acutely toxic, but this combination, plus the tropical climate, could worsen their effects.

On the prevention side, sprayers are supposed to avoid contact with skin; to wear face shields, respiratory protection, rubber boots and specialist coveralls. We can only surmise that such protective equipment, while technically useful, would be difficult to use in 100 degree weather. On the other hand, assuming the sprayers are protected, other workers do not wear protection and may thus experience greater exposures to the chemicals.

Sugar in the Diet?
Shorr concludes his article with a shocking new study that points in yet another direction. Richard Johnson, of the University of Colorado's Division of Renal Diseases and Hypertension, thinks the problem might have its genesis in a mechanism that his team discovered in rats. Johnson speculates that if dehydrated workers with already sugary kidneys are rehydrating with soft drinks or fruit juice, they may experience a potentially explosive fructose load. He adds that "it's not proven, so we don't want to get ahead of the gun here [rather unfortunate metaphor]." The research has not as-yet been published. But Johnson goes on to say that the experimental data is quite compelling, and it "could explain what's going on."

It would truly be ironic if the cane field workers were dying from kidney failure in part because they use sugary soft drinks to rehydrate. "Buy the world a Coke" indeed!

Collateral Damage?
While it is too early to draw definitive conclusions, the Guardian article identifies at least three converging factors in the high CKD rates among field workers: extremely high heat compounded by hydration problems; a mix of potentially harmful pesticides; and an unhealthy diet too full of sweetened beverages. Add the impoverished living conditions of the workers - and marginal medical care - and you have all the makings of an abbreviated lifespan.

The US gets 23% of the its raw sugar from Central America; the European Union spends more than €4.7m on this import. Sugar is El Salvador's second-biggest export. This is big business. With so much money at stake, the dying workers are little more than collateral damage. It appears that what they really need is an ample supply of clear, cool water, but such a simple remedy, alas, is nowhere in sight.

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September 18, 2012

 

Five years ago we blogged Missouri's tough-on-workers reforms that made it more difficult to collect benefits in the "show me" state. Among the provisions in the new law was a 20 to 50 percent reduction in indemnity for workers who are injured while wilfully ignoring the employer's safety program.

Which brings us to Dennis Carver, a roofer who worked for Delta Innovative Services in Kansas City. Carver was carrying a 100-pound roll of composite weather barrier up a ladder - no easy task! - when he injured his back, resulting in a permanent total disability. The problem was that Delta had a safety policy that required three point contact with a ladder at all times: it would be physically impossible to carry a 100 pound roll and maintain three point contact. Because he violated the policy, Carver's indemnity was cut in half, from $743 per week to $371.

Carver admitted that he went to work with the intent of violating the policy. He knew that instead of having the usual crew of 11 men on the job, the crew that day would total two people: himself as foreman and one other crew member working in a separate area. He knew full well that he was on his own. He also knew that company policy required that he use a hand pulley or power equipment - or request the assistance of a coworker - to lift materials to the top of a ladder.

Delta argued that Carver caused his own injury by failing to follow its "three-point" safety rule. Slam dunk for the employer? Here is the statute:

[w]here the injury is caused by the failure of the employee to use safety devices where provided by the employer, or from the employee's failure to obey any reasonable rule adopted by the employer for the safety of employees, the compensation and death benefit provided for herein shall be reduced at least twenty-five but not more than fifty percent; provided, that it is shown that the employee had actual knowledge of the rule so adopted by the employer; and provided, further, that the employer had, prior to the injury, made a reasonable effort to cause his or her employees to use the safety device or devices and to obey or follow the rule so adopted for the safety of the employees.§ 287.120.5

"The burden of establishing any affirmative defense is on the employer․ In asserting any claim or defense based on a factual proposition, the party asserting such claim or defense must establish that such proposition is more likely to be true than not true." § 287.808.

The Checklist
Thus the statute presents a checklist for reducing indemnity payments:

1. that the employer adopted a reasonable rule for the safety of employees; CHECK

2. that the injury was caused by the failure of the employee to obey the safety rule; CHECK

3. that the employee had actual knowledge of the rule; CHECK and

4. that prior to the injury the employer had made a reasonable effort to cause his or her employees to obey the safety rule. NOT SO FAST!

Theory and Practice
While Delta's owner, Danny Boyle, testified that "[n]ormally our guys are trained ․ [that] the only thing that should be carried on a ladder is the person himself," he then testified that employees routinely violated that rule:

Q. Does that mean nobody ever carries anything?

A. Not at all. Guys tend to do things wrong all the time.[emphasis added]

Q. And that's what--

A. I'm just being truthful.

Q. Sure. It happens. It's faster to carry it up sometimes?

A. Yes.

Q. Because you're trying to finish a job and get something done, you may carry something up a ladder as opposed to using the beam?

A. Yes.

Q. Or the pulley?

A. Yes.

Even though Boyle was aware of multiple instances in which employees had failed to follow the three-point rule, he was unable to provide any testimony concerning discipline imposed on noncompliant employees. In other words, the policy was not enforced. And because it was not enforced, Delta must own the consequences of employees failing to follow it.

The Court of Appeals remanded this case back the workers comp commission, for a closer examination of whether there were grounds for reducing the indemnity payments. In all likelihood, Carver will collect the full indemnity.

Roofers at Risk
Boyle's testimony that "guys tend to do things wrong all the time" reminds me of a telling moment in a training session some years ago. I was explaining the implications of implementing a drug testing program and the owner of a small roofing company responded: "I could never do that. Half my guys would fail." [Need I add that, following the seminar, I alerted the underwriter to flag that account for non-renewal?]

Would it surprise you to learn that roofing is one of the most expensive job classes in workers comp? The rates can run as high as $50.00 per $100 of payroll and even higher. It is difficult, demanding work. In some respects, there is no such thing as a good day for a roofer: it's either too hot, too cold, or too windy. The exposures are relentless and the work itself, especially on the commercial side with hot tar involved, can be noxious.

Owners of roofing companies like Danny Boyle are faced with a daily conundrum: do I enforce the rules and slow down the work? Do I discipline employees for violations or let the work flow, hazards be damned? In the course of normal employment, it's tempting to ignore the finer points of safety. But that puts workers at risk for serious injuries - and owners at risk for footing substantial bills.

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September 4, 2012

 

As a belated tribute to Labor Day, we offer a smorgasbord of items about work, worker safety, and some of our favorite tributes to workers.

Celebrating the American Worker
America at Work - Alan Taylor compiles superlative photo essays for The Atlantic's In Focus series. This collection of images from the recent Recession and its years of uncertainty -- of men and women both at work and out of work in the United States.

Earl Dotter, Photojournalist - A remarkable portfolio of work documenting American workers. In the author's words:
"For more than thirty five years the camera had enabled me to do meaningful work. Starting with Appalachian coal miners, and continuing through the years over a broad array of occupations in all regions of the country, I have observed and documented the working lives of Americans. Standing behind the lens, I have celebrated their accomplishments. I seek out those who are taking steps to improve their lives and their effectiveness at work, and use the camera to engage them by giving testimony to their achievements. The images that result tell of the satisfactions their work brings as well as its everyday challenges."

Lost Labor - For more than 20 years, visual artist Raymon Elozua has been assembling a vast collection of company histories, pamphlets, and technical brochures that document America's industrial history. This site features 155 photos from that collection - images of factories, machinery, and laborers hard at work. Many of the jobs depicted have faded into history. The artist grew up in the South Side of Chicago in the shadow of the giant steel mills and factories. His dad worked at U.S. Steel and his first job was at U.S. Steel, triggering a life long interest in everything about these industrial behemoths, from the architecture to the people who worked the jobs within. His interest in documenting this bygone era of American working life was sparked by the demise of the South Works industries.

Worker Safety
Hard Labor - The Center for Public Integrity says: "Each year, some 4,500 American workers die on the job and 50,000 perish from occupational diseases. Millions more are hurt and sickened at workplaces, and many others are cheated of wages and abused. In the coming months the Center for Public Integrity will publish, under the banner Hard Labor, stories exploring threats to workers -- and the corporate and regulatory factors that endanger them."

In particular, we point you to two recent stories:
Fishing deaths mount, but government slow to cast safety net for deadliest industry

Kentucky death case: Another black eye for state workplace safety enforcement

The Best Reporting on Worker Safety - ProPublica compiled "12 pieces of great reporting on workplace safety: from slaughterhouse diseases to lax regulatory oversight and deadly vats of chocolate."

Workers in Popular Culture

From our archives

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August 15, 2012

 

When it comes to on-the-job assaults, healthcare workers are on the front lines. Earlier this year, NCCI issued a report on Violence in the Workplace, which showed that homicides and assaults are trending down. Good news, overall, but let's take a closer look at assaults:

"The decline in the rate of workplace assaults has lagged the steady decline in the rate for all lost work-time injuries and illnesses. This reflects a notable change in the composition of the US workforce and, in particular, the ongoing increase in the share of healthcare workers, who experience remarkably high rates of injuries due to assaults by patients. This is especially common in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. In fact, 61% of all workplace assaults are committed by healthcare patients. For assaults, coworkers make up just 7%, and someone other than a healthcare patient or coworker comprises 23%. The remainder is unspecified."

Now, a new research report from Maine offers a close-up snapshot of the issue of workplace violence as it relates to caregivers. The Research and Statistics Unit of the Maine Department of Labor compiled data from First Reports of Injury for 2011 and issued a report on 2011 Violence Against Caregivers in Maine.

The report encompassed about 100,000 workers in healthcare and affiliated professions. Of the nearly 10,000 thousand injuries reported by those workers, 13.4% were related to violent and aggressive acts by patients and care recipients.

Key report findings include:

  • Where incidents occurred - Mental health care settings and other residential care facilities accounted for 52% of all violent/aggressive incidents in 2011. These were followed by nursing care facilities for the elderly and people with disabilities, 18.9%, and general medical and surgical hospitals and services, 16.8%.

  • What types of jobs were involved - Nurses at all levels (including nursing assistants) were involved in 21.27% of the cases; education technicians were involved in 18.6% cases; direct support professionals (personal care, hygiene, life skills, etc) were involved in 9.4% cases; Other occupations with significant numbers of cases included psychiatric technicians, behavioral health technicians and analysts, mental health and social workers and child care and senior child care workers.

  • What types of assaults occurred - The most prevalent type of assault - being hit - accounted for 21.3% of all incidents. Bites were the second highest reports, at 16.6%, of the incidents. Other identifiable assault categories included kicks, 9.45%, and being grabbed, 9.4%.

Due to the high number of bite incidents, a specific section of the report focuses on bite injuries and references information from the Federal Bureau of Prisons' 2009 Clinical Guidelines regarding viral and bacterial exposures and the potential for infections if the skin is broken. The report also cites NIOSH publications and reports, including common risk factors for violence and a list of potential prevention strategies.

The full report is available in PDF: Maine's Caregivers, Social Assistance and Disability Rehabilitation Workers Injured by Violence and Aggression in the Workplace in 2011.

(Hat tip to WorkersCompensation.com for pointing us to this news item.)

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August 13, 2012

 

Last month, there was a story about a South Carolina sheriff who was denied workers comp benefits for mental distress that he suffered after fatally shooting a suspect. In Brandon Bentley v. Spartanburg County, and S.C. Association of Counties SIF, the South Carolina Supreme Court upheld a lower court denial saying that "...the use of deadly force is an expected and standard part of being a sheriff and is "not an unusual or extraordinary employment condition" that might qualify for workers' compensation under the state's restricted coverage for purely mental injuries. In citing statistics, the Sheriff had unsuccessfully tried to demonstrate that such a shooting was indeed an extraordinary event in Spartanburg County. "

The Court noted that it made its decision according to the law as it is written but "... the court did say the state law related to mental injuries should be updated. If South Carolina lawmakers revised state law, it would join a handful of others, wrote the court. Hawaii, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Oregon already do not require that the conditions of employment be unusual and extraordinary in order for someone to collect compensation." (Source: Court brings new focus on mental health of law enforcement.)

Hopefully, his community or his police force sees the wisdom of extending some counseling to this officer, despite the denial of full benefits. Re-examining this issue makes good sense. While risks may well be part of the job, people are not automatons that can shut out the emotional residue of terrible events, regardless of training. PTSD is very real, and we must get better at dealing with it. This story was brought to mind again after watching the hard-working police Chief of Aurora Colorado reporting on the gruesome task that his staff faced in responding to the tragedy. In one of his daily updates, his voice broke when he spoke of the stress and toll this took on first responders.

Left untreated, the effects of PTSD on law enforcement can be terrible. In 2012 so far, more police have died by their own hand than by gunfire. According to Badge of Life, a police suicide prevention program, there have been 73 police suicides this year vs. 19 officers killed by gunfire. Badge of Life is conducting A Study of Police Suicides. The first full study of police suicides in all 50 states was published in 2009 in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health. At that time, the suicide rate for police officers was 17/100,000, compared to the rate for the general public of 11/100,000 and 20/100,000 for the Army.

Badge of Life points us to a documentary that is in progress on the topic, Code 9 Officer Needs Assistance. It's being co-produced by the wife of a retired state trooper suffering with PTSD, exploring the darker side of law enforcement as it tells the stories of police officers and their families who are now suffering the mental anguish of the careers they chose, which has led some to suicide. Click the above link or the image below to see a powerful excerpt from the documentary. You can get more information on the Code 9 Facebook page.

officer-down.JPG

Related Resources
Law Enforcement Use of Deadly Force Incidents: Helping Reduce the "Second Injury"

Remember to save yourself: The importance of managing critical incident stress (PDF)

Law Enforcement Traumatic Stress: Clinical Syndromes and Intervention Strategies

Suicide Prevention Resource Center

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August 7, 2012

 

Will the extreme heat that has plagued the nation in June and July continue on through August? If so, there's a tool that might provide some relief -- and safety -- for outdoor workers.

OSHA has a Heat Safety App that allows workers and supervisors to calculate the heat index for their worksite and, based on the heat index, displays a risk level to outdoor workers. It combines heat index data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with the user's location to determine necessary protective measures.

Once a worker has determined the risk level, they can then access information about protective measures that should be taken for that risk level to prevent heat-related illness. These include reminders about drinking enough fluids, scheduling rest breaks, planning for and knowing what to do in an emergency, adjusting work operations, gradually building up the workload for new workers, training on heat illness signs and symptoms, and monitoring each other for signs and symptoms of heat-related illness.

osha-heat-app.JPG

The free app is available for iPhones, Androids, and Blackberrys in English and Spanish. Access other tools and information in OSHA's Campaign to Prevent Heat Illness in Outdoor Workers.

USA Today has a story on how businesses are adapting to extreme heat and drought. It includes mention of some new "personal cooling system" technologies such as CoolWare and Polar Products, which offers some "Body Cooling Systems." We can't personally vouch for any of these because we haven't tried them - but there are still several weeks to summer yet!

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August 3, 2012

 

This 1950s-era video clip on office safety can be filed under the "funny pratfalls" genre of safety. While the fashions and retro office technology are amusing, some of the lessons are real - often, the little things that are overlooked can cause injuries.

More vintage safety clips
When it Comes to Safety, This is Just Ducky...
Vintage safety clips - women in the workplace

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August 1, 2012

 

We've previously posted about the death of chemical research assistant Sheri Sangji, who was killed as a result of a 2008 UCLA laboratory fire. She was working with a dangerous chemical that ignited when exposed to air. Her terrible burns proved fatal some 18 days after the accident.

After numerous investigations, UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran (her supervisor) and the UC Board of Regents faced felony charges for three counts each of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards. These charges sent shock waves through university labs throughout the country since this was the first time that a U.S. professor ever faced a felony charge in relation to the death of a lab worker.

Last week, felony charges were dropped against UC regents after a plea deal in which the University agreed to implement a comprehensive safety program and to establish a $500,000 scholarship in Sangji's name. The University will provide enhanced safety training and protective equipment across all its campuses.

Professor Patrick Harran's case was continued until September to allow his defense to prepare a challenge to the credibility of the chief California OSH investigator. As the LA Times puts it, "Proceedings against a UCLA chemistry professor in the death of a lab worker take a strange turn when the defense alleges state investigator committed murder as a teen." It's a pretty bizarre development, one that is under much discussion in the scientific community. See Facing felony charges in lab death of Sheri Sangji, UCLA settles, Harran stretches credulity.

For ongoing developments in this case, we point you to the ongoing blog postings -- 42 as of today -- of Chemjobber on the Sheri Sangji case. Not only does Chemjobber provide excellent informed commentary and links to a variety of sources, his postings also include interesting comments from others in the scientific community, from both private industry and university labs.

In the wake of this tragic accident which has had widespread coverage, safety in university labs had really been under scrutiny. Despite the vast scope of academic research, it has largely been unregulated. This case may be the turning point in ushering in a new era of a "culture of safety."

Below, a good video that the Chemical Safety Board issued in response to this and other two other tragic accidents that occurred in university labs.

CSB Key lab safety lessons and recommendations

  • Ensure that research specific hazards are evaluated and then controlled by developing specific written protocols and training
  • Expand existing laboratory safety plans to address physical hazards of chemicals
  • Ensure that safety personnel report to a university official who has the authority to oversee research laboratories and implement safety improvements
  • Document and communicate all laboratory near-misses and incidents

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July 9, 2012

 

Every summer, we beat the drum about the moral mandate of keeping young workers safe. But as with many things, the morale mandate all too often speaks to employers in a soft voice while money shouts in a big voice. So if "doing the right thing" isn't enough of a reason to keep kids safe, there's also a big economic incentive in the form of penalty avoidance for employers to toe the line when it comes to safety and strict adherence to youth labor laws: if a young worker is injured, the employer may be subject to steep additional penalties if labor law violations are present. These penalties are "uninsurable" - that is, they will be out-of-pocket for the employer since the insurer is not on the hook for penalties related to an employer's labor law violations.

In Denmark v. Industrial Manufacturing Specialists, Inc., the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals recently upheld double compensation for an injured 16 year old worker due to the employer's child labor laws violations. The youth was a part-time worker who was working with a coworker to load a 1,300-pound metal bar stock onto a table so that it could be cut by a band saw when the load fell on the youth, crushing him and causing internal injuries and a fractured ankle. Even though the youth was not actually engaged in the prohibited activity (use of the band saw), "The court found a nexus between the task the worker was performing at the time of the accident and the manufacturer's violation of the child labor laws. Therefore, the worker was entitled to double compensation for his injury."

Before employing minors, it is essential to know and obey child labor laws, particularly in regards to prohibited work. Employers who fail in this charge may wind up paying double compensation and/or fines if an injury occurs. There are federal laws governing the employment of minors in both non-farm work and in agricultural work, but employers need to know the governing state law because the Department of Labor states that, "Where state law differs from federal law on child labor, the law with the more rigorous standard applies."

Laws cover such matters as minimum age, prohibited work by age cohort, whether work permits are needed, and restrictions on the hours of work allowed. Here are some compliance resources for employers. As with most laws, ignorance of the law is not a defense.

Federal Laws - Hiring Youth & Compliance Assistance
The U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division (WHD) administers and enforces the federal child labor laws. Generally speaking, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets the minimum age for employment (14 years for non-agricultural jobs), restricts the hours youth under the age of 16 may work, and prohibits youth under the age of 18 from being employed in hazardous occupations. In addition, the FLSA establishes subminimum wage standards for certain employees who are less than 20 years of age, full-time students, student learners, apprentices, and workers with disabilities. Employers generally must have authorization from WHD in order to pay sub-minimum wage rates.

Among the FLSA penalties, DOL says that:

Employers are subject to a civil money penalty of up to $11,000 per worker for each violation of the child labor provisions. In addition, employers are subject to a civil money penalty of $50,000 for each violation occurring after May 21, 2008 that causes the death or serious injury of any minor employee - such penalty may be doubled, up to $100,000, when the violations are determined to be willful or repeated.

See more at the Deparment of Labor's Youth & Labor topic page

State Laws

Many states offer double compensation or other penalties related to an injured youth when there are labor violations. In some instances, penalties can be imposed even when the labor violations aren't directly related to the injury.

Selected State Child Labor Standards Affecting Minors Under 18 in Non-farm Employment as of January 1, 2012

State Child Labor Laws Applicable to Agricultural Employment

Links to state labor offices

Compliance with labor laws is only one part of the employer's responsibility: the other is ensuring a safe environment. Young workers are green workers who don't have the experience, judgement, and work hardening that older workers have. That heightens their risk of injury. It's important to provide task-specific training with an emphasis on safety. We also encourage the idea of pairing a young worker up with a more experienced mentor. The article Preventing Young Worker Fatalities offers a good list of tips. Also, see our prior posts about young workers for more tips.

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June 26, 2012

 

Here in New England, Lightning Strike Awareness Week kicked off with some drama. A Connecticut woman suffered second- and third-degree burns after being struck by lightning at a campground outside Norwich, the lift bridge between Maine and New Hampshire was closed for a few hours after direct lightning hit, and lightning was the likely suspect in a few house fires in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

On average, 54 people die from lightning strikes each year - that number of fatalities has been trending down in recent years (29 each in the past two years), the improvement credited partly to the massive public awareness and information campaigns. More than half of all fatalities involve recreational activities such as golfing and boating, but electrical storms are a very real hazard for workers, too. Some of the high risk workers include loggers, construction and building maintenance workers, lifeguards, farming and agricultural workers, lawn care workers, road crews, roofers, telecommunications and utility workers, plumbers and pipefitters, and heavy machinery/equipment operators. See NOAA's Outdoor Safety tips and the eLCOSH Lightning Safety page.

It should be noted that in addition to lightning fatalities, hundreds more people suffer lightning strike-related injuries each year - about 80-90% of the people who are hit by lightning survive the ordeal. These survivors pose interesting case studies - many suffer from unusual and little understood medical effects that can clear up relatively quickly or linger for a lifetime. See Medical Aspects of Lightning and NASA's fascinating Human Voltage page. This video also includes some interesting first-person accounts:

Lightning Safety Resources

National Lightning Safety Institute, which includes information on
Structural Lightning Safety
and Personal Lightning Safety

Lightning Safety Resources and Tool Kits from NOAA

The one in a million club you don't want to join

Lightning Safety Guidelines

Lightning Strike and Electrical Shock Survivors

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June 20, 2012

 

The deceased: a police officer. A nurse in training.
The perpetrators: A prison guard. A surgeon.

These recent deaths were two of the approximately 5,000 on-the-job fatalities that occur each year, and both both were related to domestic violence. We mention the professions of the parties involved simply because domestic violence is often assumed to be an issue that doesn't happen to "people like me" or that it primarily occurs in certain economic strata. These myths and stereotypes are part of the reason that it can be such a hidden problem.

In the case of Officer Kevin Ambrose, a 36-year veteran of the Springfield MA police department, he was shot and killed in the line of duty while protecting Charlene Miller and her baby from a former boyfriend. Miller was also shot but survived; Miller's baby was unharmed, largely thanks to Officer Ambrose's courage. The assailant, Shawn Bryan, a Rikers Island corrections officer, took his own life after the shooting.

Last week, Jacqueline Wisniewski was stalked and gunned down in Buffalo Hospital. Her murderer was a surgeon at the hospital, her coworker and a former boyfriend. The hospital and nearby schools were locked down for a few hours after the incident because it was unclear if this was a targeted incident or a shooting spree. Timothy Jorden, a trauma surgeon at the hospital and a former army Special Forces weapons expert, was identified as the assailant by witnesses and an all points bulletin was issued. He was found dead at his home two days later.

These tragic events are part of a phenomena called "domestic abuse" or "domestic violence" - misleading terms at best. The word "domestic" softens the edges of a brutal reality, and implies that it is something that happens behind closed doors, not our business. Yet it is indeed something we should be making our business and it is clearly not something that is confined to the home. Increasingly, the violence plays out or culminates in the workplace as assailants are stalked; it also takes the lives of working police officers and first responders.

According to a recent report in the Annals of Epidemiology, homicide is a leading cause of occupational death in U.S. women. There were 142 homicides among women at work resulting from intimate partner violence from 2003 to 2008. While the rate of homicides in the workplace has been trending down, the percentage of homicides against women at work increased in 2010 to 13 percent. Those at highest risk were in the health care, production, and office/administration professions. More than half the homicides occurred in parking lots and public buildings.

Types of workplace violence
Work violence generally falls in one of four buckets. It is helpful to segment them by type because the risk management and prevention measures can vary. The types of violence include:

  • Criminal outsiders, which includes robberies, rapes, and random violence by strangers. This type of violence is common in organizations that handle money, financial transactions, and drugs. Risk mitigation can include staff training and addressing environmental issues such as better lighting, customer/worker barriers, lockboxes, alarms, and closed circuit videos.
  • Organizational clients - this is violence committed by customers, patients, or other recipients of the business services. Healthcare workers in particular suffer many incidents at the hands of patients and family members. These might include rage-related incidents and incidents related to mental health issues or persons under the influence. Risk mitigation measureless include staff training and environmental controls.
  • Lateral or worker on worker violence, which includes the so called "going postal" incidents and retribution for firings or other work-related issues. Although these incidents are the ones that make the headlines, they are the least common. Mitigation measures include better hiring practices, such as background and reference checks, zero tolerance policies that are enforced (including anti-bullying measures), manager and supervisor training, anger and stress management training for workers, availability of an EAP. Particular measures may need to be taken at points of high stress, such as layoffs or job loss.
  • Domestic violence - this involves an employee involved with a spouse or significant other; it also includes coworkers who might be coincidentally caught up in events or first responders who are injured when trying to help the victims. This is the most difficult one to address since it stays "underground" until a serious point of escalation. The best way to deal with this potential is proactively as part of an organization's health and wellness effort by publicizing the issue and publicizing the availability of resources to help. More and more progressive companies are addressing the issue. The Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to partnering with businesses to help reduce the costs and consequences of partner violence at work. From policies and programs to legal issues and legislation, CAEPV is a credible source for information, materials and advice. It's an excellent source of best practices for corporate programs to prevent partner violence and offers concrete help for employers in starting a workplace program.

Why should employers care?
Employers are involved in domestic abuse whether they want to be or not. Futures Without Violence delineates Seven Reasons Employers Should Address Domestic Violence not the least of which are that it is a pervasive issue, it poses security and liability issues, and it results in significant lost time and lost productivity. A 2003 CDC study revealed that domestic violence accounts for nearly 8 million lost work days, the equivalent of more than 32,000 full-time jobs.

Plus, it is a morale issue. Studies show that 84% of surveyed employees believe that employers should get involved in the solution to the problem of domestic abuse. Yet there is a discrepancy, because at the time of this survey, just 13% of executives surveyed thought it was the company's job to help solve the problem.

Workers' comp is simply not an issue that can easily be siloed off from other aspects of a workers' life. We certainly see that with health issues and so-called lifestyle issues that complicate worker's comp claims. So, too, with domestic violence. While the employer may or may not be shielded from compensability in incidents of work violence, that sometimes simply opens the door to liability in the courts for other reasons: negligent hiring, lack of security, etc. While it's important to address the safety issues directly related to the job, it makes economic sense to have health and safety be part of an overarching wellness program that addresses health-related issues that occur both on and off the job.

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June 5, 2012

 

Derek Boogaard was a hockey player. Well, sort of. He didn't score goals (only 3 in 6 years) and he spent a lot of time in the penalty box (589 minutes). He was an enforcer: at 6'8" he was a ferocious and much-feared brawler.

As we learn in a New York Times article, he was also addicted to pain medications. While still playing hockey in 2008-2009, he received at least 25 prescriptions for opioids from ten doctors, a total of 600+ pills: eight team doctors of the Wild (his team at the time), an oral surgeon in Minneapolis and a doctor from another NHL team.

In 2010, he was signed by the New York Rangers for $6.5 million, despite his by then well-documented drug problems - he was an active participant in the NHL's substance abuse program. While playing for the Rangers, a team dentist wrote five prescriptions for hydrocodone; another team doctor wrote 10 prescriptions for Ambien.

Occupation-related Pain
There is not much question that Boogaard suffered from pain. Here is just a small segment of his pain-filled saga, from the final few months of his career: In October 2010, a punch from a Toronto player broke a three-tooth bridge in his mouth. A couple of days later, he hurt his hand while punching a Boston player. In November he had his nose broken by an Edmonton player. In December he suffered a concussion in a fight with an Ottowa player. He never played hockey again.

In the months following his retirement, he exhibited erratic behavior and wild mood swings. He acquired numerous prescriptions from current and former doctors. In May of 2011 he signed himself out of a rehab facility, spent a night drinking with friends, and died of an overdose in his Minneapolis apartment. He was 28 years old.

Privilege Has Its Pain
The article quotes Dr. Jane Ballantyne, a pain expert from the University of Washington: "A single course of opiates might be O.K. for normal people who only get injured once in a blue moon, but when injuries are frequent, it can easily turn into chronic treatment instead of just acute treatement. And athletes are at high risk of developing addiction because of their risk-taking personalities." She adds: "the tendency is to overtreat" because team doctors want to help athletes return to competition." [At LynchRyan, we are strong proponents of prompt return to work, but only where there is no risk of re-injury. There is no such thing as modified duty on ice.]

Boogaard was a fan favorite wherever he played. In hockey, fighting is "part of the game." But his sad saga is primarily a story of brain injury and addiction. As a professional athlete, Boogaard had virtually unlimited access to drugs, through doctors who, for the most part, did not bother to document their treatment plans or monitor their patient.

It should come as no surprise that an autopsy revealed that Boogaard had chronic traumatic encephalopathy C.T.E., a brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head.Thus he is linked in death to the growing number of football players who suffered the same fate, the result of frequent concussions.

Official Response Speak
As a lifelong student of language and rhetoric, I cannot miss an opportunity to quote some of the official responses to Boogaard's death:

The NHL: "Based on what we know, Derek Boogaard at all times received medical treatment, care and counseling that was deemed appropriate for the specifics of his situation."

The Minnesota Wild: "The Wild treated Derek's medical status in accordance with the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program as we do with all our players."

The NY Rangers: "We are confident that the medical professionals who treated Derek acted in a professional and responsible manner and in accordance with their best medical judgment. They took extraordinary steps to coordinate the medication prescribed for him with the professionals in charge of the NHL-NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program."

Not exactly heartfelt or compassionate, just the voices of powerful corporations, protecting their interests, their brands and their proverbial asses. As for Derek Boogaard and his misguided career on ice, RIP for the man who knew no peace.

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May 29, 2012

 

The boom in cell phones has spawned a huge demand for the building and maintenance of radio towers and that demand accelerated with the introduction of iPhones. The good news was that work proliferated - but under brutal, highly aggressive schedules. Now, with carriers gearing up for 4G networks, the anticipated building boom raises alarm in many seasoned workers - who see a proliferation of less trained, less experienced workers, working under more pressure for less pay - a recipe that points to the potential for more fatalities.

Frontline and Pro Publica focus on cell tower worker deaths, a small industry with a death rate that is about 10 times the rate of construction. Free climbing - climbing completely untethered without any safety gear - was involved in about half the deaths. (See our prior post with a gut-wrenching free climbing video clip: You think your job is tough? It remains one of this blog's most visited posts.)


Watch Cell Tower Deaths on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Tower work is carried out by a complex web of subcontractors - an arrangement that makes good sense on many levels, but that allows large carriers to deflect responsibility for on-the-job work practices - and for any workplace deaths. These networks are like like the Russian nesting dolls: layer after layer of progressively smaller employers. Tower owners are carriers like AT&T that hire firms such as Bechtel and General Dynamics to manage and complete tower projects. The industry jargon for these firms is "turf vendors." The turf vendors then hire contracting firms, who in turn hire subcontractors. The end result: less money, less experienced workers, less training, less focus on safety and more deaths. This layering makes OSHA enforcement almost impossible. The lowest rung on the ladder is the one responsible for safety - and enforcement becomes what some industry observers call a game of "whack a mole." Safety experts say that the responsibility for safety has to lie up the line, probably with the turf vendors.

Contract work and subcontracting is the new normal. The old contract between the employer and the employee is fraying, the concept of lifetime employment is increasingly a quaint tale of yesteryear. How this new normal will play out in terms of employee safety and employee protections should be of great interest to workers as this pattern proliferates in other industries. Even aside from politics, one has to wonder if the very concepts of workers compensation and OSHA -- and other worker protections -- would come into existence in a fragmented work environment like the current one.

Additional articles from the series
Transcript of a live chat with reporters and project manager for the Tower Climber Protection project. We note that the project manager is Wally Reardon, who commented on our prior post, linked above.)

Jordan Barab discusses OSHA limitations

How Subcontracting Affects Worker Safety

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May 21, 2012

 

ryan-bradford-dogs-want-to-kill-me.jpg

"All the dogs want to kill me" is the plaintive plea of former mail carrier Ryan Bradford, who logged snapshots of dogs lurking on his postal route a few years ago. The public was much amused by the photos and he made the circuit of morning news shows. But despite the humor, occupational dog bites aren't a particularly amusing prospect to the postal workers, delivery people, police and firefighters, outdoor workers, and home service providers who have to contend with the reality every day.

This week is National Dog Bite Awareness Week, and the Postal Service is at the forefront of trying to raise awareness about this issue. Every year, about 800,000 dog bites are treated in emergency rooms - and the vast majority of the bite victims are children, followed by seniors. Work-related dog bites are also a significant injury problem - letter carriers and postal workers are third on the victim list. Last year, 5,577 postal employees were attacked in more than 1,400 cities - resulting in a nearly $1.2 million price tag.

A worker who is bitten by a dog in the course and scope of employment would likely be eligible for workers comp, but the insurer may subrogate (file against a third party) to recoup losses, which can be substantial. The Postal Service will hold pet owners liable for medical expenses and other costs. With some exceptions, most homeowners and rental policies will cover dog bites up to the limits of liability coverage (generally $100,000 to $300,000). An analysis of homeowners insurance data by the Insurance Information Institute found that the average cost paid out for dog bite claims was $29,396 in 2011, up 12.3 percent from $26,166 in 2010. In fact, dog bites accounted for more than one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claims paid out in 2011, costing nearly $479 million.

Bite Prevention Tips from the Pros
We searched everything from animal trainer and vet sites to letter carrier message boards to amass some bite prevention best practices for workers whose jobs expose them to dogs:

  • Be aware of your surroundings and anticipate so you aren't caught by surprise. Be aware that dogs are protecting their master's territory. Don't approach strange dogs and try to avoid startling sleeping or eating dogs.
  • Carry something to keep between you and the animal. Some suggest a dog stick, others suggest an umbrella which can be opened, and some letter carriers use their bag to hold between them or to throw down as a distraction. Consider protective clothing such as padding, footwear or gloves.
  • Many postal workers are required to carry dog spray. If you carry a spray, attach it to a belt or bag with short bungee cord to offer quick access and to ensure you don't lose or drop it.
  • Pepper spray or mace should be a last resort. Sprays may not stop all dogs and can also pose a blow-back risk when used in windy conditions. Also, sprays require care if other people are around.
  • Be careful with door slots. Postal worker message boards hold many stories of close calls to fingers and tugs of war with dogs on the opposite side doors. Some frustrated workers say they feed these aggressive dogs the most important looking mail first!
  • While many pet lovers suggest that delivery persons carry dog treats to tame savage beasts, this is neither practical nor wise. It is also against the work policies of many organizations.
  • Do not run from an aggressive dog. Easier said than done, but you do not want to be perceived as prey because most dogs will give chase. Stay still and avoid eye contact.
  • If attacked, stay as still and calm as possible and do not fight back, which may increase the dog's agitation. If pushed to the ground, cover your ears and lie still. If bitten, push into the dog's mouth instead of pulling away.

Additional resources


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May 14, 2012

 

We begin the week on a somewhat bizarre note, as Donald Duck does safety in this vintage 1959 cartoon clip entitled "How to Have an Accident at Work." When it comes to safety, Donald is everyone's nightmare worker. For those of us in the workers comp field, this may seem more horror film than cartoon, but Donald, unlike ordinary workers, is literally indestructible.

This clip was a sequel to "How to Have an Accident in the Home"

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May 1, 2012

 

The courts have been giving Florida Governor Rick Scott a few lessons in the Bill of Rights. He does not appear to be listening, but perhaps the voters of Florida are. Scott wants the state to require drug testing of all welfare recipients and all state employees. A temporary injunction put a stop to the welfare testing and now federal judge Ursula Ungara has ended Scott's bizarre vision of every state employee peeing into a cup.

The state argued, in part, that the program was voluntary: people don't have to do it, they'll just lose their jobs if they don't. Some definition of "voluntary"!

There are times and circumstances where drug testing is useful and necessary. For jobs involving public safety and genuine risk, drug testing should be mandated. But courts remain sensitive to the constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy. Under the "probable cause" standard, courts look for specific risks and exposures, not for blanket policies that cover everyone. There should be evidence of a problem, possible harm if drug abuse takes place and an over-riding safety interest. This may well describe the situation of a police officer or firefighter, but not a clerk in the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Insubstantial and Speculative Risk

Judge Ungaro pointed out the fundamental flaw of Scott's executive order: it infringes privacy interests in pursuit of a public interest which is both insubstantial and speculative. She writes that "the proffered special need for drug testing must be substantial- important enough to override the individual's acknowledged privacy interest, sufficiently vital to suppress the Fourth Amendment's normal requirement of individualized suspicion."

By trying to lump all state employees into one big drug testing net, Governor Scott displays his contempt for government and the people who carry out its work. Beyond that, his drug testing obsession runs contrary to a fundamental premise in the Bill of Rights. Someone needs to remind the governor that his job is to protect the rights of every Florida citizen, not compromise these rights in the interests of punitive and ill-conceived policies.


A Random Note on the Original "Great Scott"
The origin of the phrase "Great Scott" is unclear, but Wikipedia surmises that the reference is to U.S. Army, General Winfield Scott, known to his troops as Old Fuss and Feathers. He weighed 300 pounds in his later years and was too fat to ride a horse.

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April 30, 2012

 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nursing and residential care facilities experienced some of the highest rates of lost workdays due to injuries and illnesses. In response to this, OSHA has announced a new National Emphasis Program for Nursing and Residential Care Facilities to protect workers from serious safety and health hazards that are common in medical industries. These hazards include exposure to blood and other potentially infectious material; exposure to other communicable diseases such as tuberculosis; ergonomic stressors related to lifting patients; workplace violence; slips, trips and falls, and exposure to hazardous chemicals and drugs. See OSHA's complete directive PDF).

Safe Lifting
Injuries resulting from patient transfer and patient lifting are a particular area of concern. According to OSHA:


"The incidence rate for cases involving days away from work in the nursing and residential care sector was 2.3 times higher than that of all private industry as a whole, despite the availability of feasible controls to address hazards. The data further indicate that an overwhelming proportion of the injuries within this sector were attributed to overexertion as well as to slips, trips and falls. Taken together, these two categories accounted for 62.5 percent of cases involving days away from work within this industry in 2010. For this NEP, OSHA will target facilities with a days-away-from-work rate of 10 or higher per 100 full-time workers."

According to the American Nurses Association, 12% of nurses leave the profession due to back pain. Nursing is one of the top 10 most hazardous jobs for injuries to muscles and joints. Many heavy labor industrial jobs have weight lifting limits of 50 pounds, yet nurses routinely bear many times that weight when transferring, repositioning or lifting patients. Nursing home workers in particular are at higher risk of injury than underground coal miners, construction workers, and tire manufacturers. Of the 16 million US workers employed in health care and social assistance, more than 3 million are employed in US nursing and residential care facilities.

NCCI study on safe lifting programs for long-term care facilities
A few years ago, an important NIOSH study on nursing home lifting equipment demonstrated that the benefits outweigh the costs. In addition to recapping the equipment investment in less than three years, NIOSH found a 61% reduction in resident-handling workers' compensation injury rates; a 66% drop in lost workday rates; and a 38% decline in restricted workdays. Plus, the rate of post-intervention assaults during resident transfers dropped by 72%. Study authors found that the initial investment in equipment was recovered in less than three years based on post-intervention savings in workers' compensation costs

More recently, further evidence was released via a study by NCCI: Safe Lifting Programs at Long-Term Care Facilities and Their Impact on Workers Compensation Costs (PDF). The study was a collaborative effort with the University of Maryland School of Medicine. It was limited to facilities that have had safe lift programs in place for more than three years. Originally, researches intended to compare the experience of facilities with and without such programs, but during the course of the research, the rate of adoption of safe lifting devices was so great that close to 95% of facilities had them and about 80% of those used them regularly.

NCCI summarizes the study results:

"After controlling for ownership structure and differences in workers compensation systems across states, the statistical analysis performed as part of this study shows that an increased emphasis on safe lift programs at long-term care facilities is associated with fewer workplace injuries and lower workers compensation costs. More precisely, higher values of the safe lift index are associated with lower values for both frequency and total costs. The safe lift index captures information on the policies, training, preferences, and barriers surrounding the use of powered mechanical lifts. The institution's commitment to effectively implementing a safe lift program appears to be the key to success."

According to the earlier NIOSH study, training alone is ineffective as a prevention strategy because "lifting the weight of adult patients is intrinsically unsafe." It's also important to note that the equipment alone won't do it - workers also need to be trained how to use the equipment and management must implement and enforce a "zero lifting" policy.

Many states have safe patient handling laws
In recent years, a number of states have enacted legislation mandating safe patient lifting - and that no doubt has contributed to the rapid adoption rate noted by NCCI researchers. According to the American Nursing Association, a strong advocate for such legislation, 10 states have implemented safe patient handling laws. These include California, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington, with a resolution from Hawaii. In addition, they are tracking 6 states with pending legislation currently: California, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri and Vermont.

Tools & Resources

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April 20, 2012

 

In an era when one death per million dollars spent on bridge construction was axiomatic, chief engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge Joseph Strauss decided his project would be different. He refused to accept the conventional wisdom that worker deaths were just a normal cost of doing business and introduced a series of safety innovations - you can see an overview in this brief video clip:

More on his commitment to safety during construction is presented in the PBS American Experience documentary "Golden Gate Bridge." Perhaps the innovation that was most touted was the introduction of a safety net, "... similar to a circus net -- suspended under the bridge. The safety net extended ten feet wider than the bridge's width and fifteen feet further than the roadway's length." While there was one deadly accident when a scaffold platform fell and broke through the net resulting in 10 fatalities, there is no doubt the net saved many other lives. Nineteen survivors whose falls were stopped by the net became de facto members of "The Halfway to Hell Club."

Strauss employed many other fascinating safety innovations, ranging from sauerkraut juice "cures" for men suffering from hangovers to special hand and face cream to protect against winds. But next to safety nets, the other noteworthy safety practice that emerged during the bridge's construction was the reliance on hard hats. The hard hats of the era were called "hard-boiled hats," and were made of leather and canvas. You can read more about the history of the hard hat at the Bullard site. Edward W. Bullard first introduced the hats in 1919, based on a doughboy hat he had worn in WWI. His hats were originally created to protect miners. The Bullard history says:

America's first designated "Hard Hat Area" was set up at the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge construction site. "The project's chief engineer, Joseph B. Strauss, shared a vision with my grandfather that the workplace could be a safer environment for the worker. One problem the bridge project faced was falling rivets, which could cause serious injury," said Bullard. "My grandfather transformed the mining helmet into a durable industrial hard hat."

We would be remiss if we did not note that the status of being "the first official hard-hat area" is under some dispute - some contest that the Hoover Dam construction was the first work site to mandate hard hats:

The Bullard Company asserts that the first official "Hard Hat Area" was the Golden Gate Bridge project in San Francisco. The project's chief engineer, Joseph B. Strauss, beginning on January 5, 1933, directed all the workers to wear hard hats to protect themselves from falling rivets and other materials. However, the Six Companies constructing Hoover Dam first required all its workers to wear hard hats by November 1931.

Here's a picture of the vintage "Bollard hard boiled hats" of the era, courtesy of Hal's Lamp Post, a site with an excellent and very interesting collection of mining artifacts.


Original image source

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April 19, 2012

 

We've long held that safety starts in the corner office. Many safety and health programs are little more than window dressing - lots of banners and lip service, but scant in managerial support. A recent study demonstrates that employers who prioritize workplace health and safety in a meaningful way by creating a safety culture can yield positive results and reduce losses. The study showed that "workers who believe they work in a safe environment experience 32% fewer injuries."

David Shadovitz of Human Resource Executive reports on the study conducted by researchers at the University of Georgia's College of Public Health in his article The Value of Safety Climates. As opposed to focusing on one industry or occupation, this study used data from the 2002 General Social survey and the NIOSH Quality of Work Life module, encompassing "a broad spectrum of employment situations."

One of the survey authors says that the findings "...put hard numbers behind a long-held perception: that there's a correlation between safety climate and workplace injuries."

One other interesting factor that the study revealed is that work/life issues matter: "In situations in which work interfered with family life or family demands affected job performance, the researchers find that the risk for injury increased 37 percent."

Study authors say that the findings point to the need for efforts to be more closely coordinated between Human Resources and health & safety, and to break down the barriers that so often exist in organizations. Study authors call for a "a more comprehensive and integrated approach to safety."

What is a "Safety Culture"?
At its very essence, a safety culture is a pervasive core, shared organizational value. Here are two definitions that we like:

Safety Culture is the way safety is perceived, valued and prioritised in an organisation. It reflects the real commitment to safety at all levels in the organisation. It has also been described as "how an organisation behaves when no one is watching". (Source: Skybrary).
The enduring value and priority placed on worker and public safety by everyone in every group at every level of an organization. It refers to the extent to which individuals and groups will commit to personal responsibility for safety; act to preserve, enhance and communicate safety concerns; strive to actively learn, adapt and modify (both individual and organizational) behavior based on lessons learned from mistakes; and be rewarded in a manner consistent with these values. (Source: Safety Culture: A Concept in Chaos).

For a more in-depth analysis, we point you to the Conference Board's research report, Driving to "0": Best Practices in Corporate Safety & Health (PDF), which conducted a study on how leading companies develop safety cultures.

Key Components of a Safety Culture
In the original article cited in this post, one of the study authors said, ""If you talk to people who do safety inspections, they will often tell you that the first impression they get when they walk into a factory or construction site -- how neat it is and whether employees seem to be actively engaged -- tells them whether or not a worksite is safe or not." We've had the same experience - the truly excellent companies stand out: safety is a pervasive value that you notice from the minute you walk in the door until you leave. Based on our experiences with thousands of employers, we've compiled some of the best practices that we've observed among organizations that do things right:

  • Does health & safety commitment start at the top? Here's one quick check: Is health & safety included in your organization's mission statement? Does the President/CEO articulate the health & safety vision? Everyone knows that what the head honcho wants done is what gets done. If it isn't on his or her radar as a top-tier priority, it won't be on the radar for managers either. "Captain Sully" Sullenbeger speaks about how values start at the top and require "authentic action."
  • Are sufficient resources allocated? Management must back the corporate commitment with dedicated budgets, staff, and resources commensurate with the goals. This includes maintaining equipment and facilities and allocating training resources.
  • Are there written policies and procedures? Are essential functions and physical demands of each job documented? Management should also capture the company's commitment to safety in a written policy that is distributed to all employees and regularly reinforced.
  • Are health & safety goals on the "managerial dashboard"? The old adage about "what gets measured gets done" has more than just a grain of truth to it. Is health & safety included in annual business plans and goals? Are health & safety goals addressed and progress measured in concrete metrics? Does health & safety get reported on in business reviews the way any other critical business process would be addressed?
  • Is there accountability? You won't be able to take a bite out of losses without teeth in your program. Health & safety goals should be a part of every job description and every performance review at every level of the organization.
  • Are comprehensive inspections for hazards and behaviors conducted regularly? Do senior managers participate in walk-throughs and inspections? Does the CEO?
  • Do managers and supervisors "walk the walk"? In all-too-many many organizations, safety is just something expected of the line staff. Do managers and supervisors keep the rules themselves? Are visitors and vendors indoctrinated to safety rules at the onset of any visits?
  • Is health & safety addressed in a meaningful way in employee orientation? Studies show that new hires are at greater risk of injury than experienced workers. Is job safety training the first thing addressed in any new hire training? Does the worker have hands-on training in not just how to do the job, but how to do it safely? Is particular care taken with workers who pose risk challenges, such as young workers and workers who don't have strong command of the English language? Peer-to-peer buddy systems that monitor new employees for safety can be particularly effective.
  • Is safety training and communication ongoing process? In good organizations, training is not a "once and done" affair and safety value communication isn't relegated to an annual speech. Employees are retrained, processes are re-evaluated, and expertise is shared on a continual basis via team meetings, newsletters, company intranets, formal training sessions, and more. Remember to offer training when employees change jobs or get assigned new responsibilities. And don't forget to "train up": Many middle and senior managers don't know the real day-to-day hazards inherent in their own business or appreciate the role they play in fostering - or perhaps sabotaging - a safe work environment.

  • Is there strong employee involvement? At minimum, employees should be involved in in safety committees, inspections, and shaping corrective measures for eliminating hazards. Good organizations help to imbue a sense of ownership in employees at all organizational levels and encourage workers to share ideas that eliminate unsafe acts and working conditions for themselves and others. Employers need to create a climate that allows frank and open feedback from employees and must work to overcome the perception that giving safety-related feedback creates interpersonal conflict.
  • Is there a process for analyzing all accidents and near misses? We favor the term "analysis" over "investigation" to emphasize that the exercise is not about assigning blame but getting to the root cause of the breakdown, to understand where things broke down to learn from errors, incidents, and accidents. Immediate remedial actions should be taken.
  • Is progress recognized and acknowledged? - Mark safety milestones and progress to goals. Recognition can be simple - congratulating a work team in a meeting, free donuts in the morning or a pizza lunch to show employees that their efforts are valued. Employees sincerely appreciate recognition, which in turn increases motivation and commitment to work safely.

Additional Resources
OSHA: Safety & Health Management Systems eTool

OSHA: Creating a Safety Culture

For an abstract and a link to purchase the full study cited, see Occupational Injury in America: An analysis of risk factors using data from the General Social Survey)

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April 9, 2012

 

Clayton Osbon, 49, served as a pilot for Jet Blue Airlines for 12 years. On March 27 during Flight 191 from New York to Las Vegas, he suddenly began raving about terrorists and started pushing buttons and flipping switches in the cockpit, all the while telling air traffic controllers to shut up. His co-pilot had the presence of mind to suggest Osbon, the flight captain, go to the bathroom. When Osbon did, the co-pilot and another JetBlue pilot on board locked him out of the cockpit. Osbon started banging on the door and had to be subdued by passengers on the flight.

Osbon is now charged with interfering with a flight crew - an intriguing conundrum, as he was head of the flight crew with which he interfered. Osbon had passed a physical a few months prior to the incident, although it is unlikely that a detailed mental health evaluation was part of that physical.

Osbon's friends have stated that he has no history of mental illness and had exhibited no symptoms that would have foretold the bizarre behavior on flight 191. It appears that with no warning signs, Osbon simply snapped, putting the passengers and crew at immediate risk.

(Mental) Fitness for Duty
This incident raises important issues about mental health and fitness for duty, especially in jobs which involve not just the well-being of a single worker, but the general public as well. A couple of years ago we blogged the saga of Bryan Griffin, a pilot for Quantas Airlines who had "uncontrollable urges" to crash airplanes. While he never actually followed through on his death wish, he continued to fly for about three years, while suffering from this obvious mental health problem. Quantas chose to risk disaster rather than remove Griffin from his pilot duties. Ironically, thirty years later he was awarded over $200K in disability pay for the stress of flying while he was mentally vulnerable, a ruling which left Quantas - and the rest of us - shaking our heads in disbelief.

In the months ahead we will learn more about Osbon's sudden breakdown, including whether there were subtle indications that something was wrong. But at the heart of this story is the mystery of mental illness itself. While significant advances have been made in both the diagnosis and treatment of mental disabilities, much remains unknown. The Federal Aviation Authority has issued guidance on the use of anti-depressants for pilots, even while admitting that the science is tentative and subject to change. Pilots who are placed on anti-depressants are not allowed to fly for one year; it is reasonable to assume that Osbon will not return to the cockpit for at least a year, perhaps more.

The Paradox of Mental Illness
Even as unprecedented advances have been made in the treatment of mental illness, pervasive prejudice still remains. Individuals seeking care are often stigmatized; there is considerable public pressure for individuals to suppress symptoms and avoid treatment. Insurance coverage for treatment may be spotty, and for those without insurance, the emergency room is usually the only treatment option. In the above referenced guidance, the FAA estimates that about ten percent of the population suffers from depression, with the majority of these people working, raising families, driving motor vehicles and even flying airplanes.

Osbon's case illustrates the difficulty in trying to establish viable policies on mental fitness for duty. As my southern friends would say, it's like trying to nail Jello to a tree. We are reminded that just getting out of bed and heading off to work - let alone boarding an airplane - is an act of faith. We trust other drivers on the road to stay in their lanes, just as we assume that the pilot of our aircraft is rational, detail-oriented and totally focused on the job at hand. We as individuals may be a bit distracted, but everyone else is locked into what they are supposed to be doing. That's not just a leap of faith, that's an Evel Knievel rocket across the Snake River Canyon.

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March 13, 2012

 

Female nurses who have occupational exposure to sterilizing agents and chemotherapy drugs are at least twice as likely to have miscarriages as those who do not have such exposure. Elizabeth Grossman of The Pump Handle offers a summary of a recent study on chemical exposures and nurses' reproductive health, which was conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Harvard School of Public Health, and Brigham and Women's Hospital. The study encompassed more than 7,000 female nurses.

Grossman notes:

Similar effects have been reported before, but this is one of the largest studies ever to look at these exposures, explained Christina Lawson, a reproductive epidemiologist with NIOSH and study author. Because these results reflect adjustment for a number of variables -- including age, hours worked, and shift-work -- and because the study was designed to avoid overestimation, its findings may be conservative, said Lawson.

While further studies are needed to determine the exact chemical exposures, high on the suspect list are a variety of chemicals used to disinfect medical equipment and surgical instruments, such as formaldehyde and ethylene oxide. In her post, Grossman also talks about the dangers of formaldehyde exposure to beauty salon workers, an issue that was a recent NIOSH Science blog focus: Hair, Formaldehyde, and Industrial Hygiene. Both the Food & Drug Administration and OSHA have issued particular warnings about the Brazilian Blowout, a highly popular hair straightening treatment.

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March 5, 2012

 

According to a recent NCCI Report on Violence (summary) (Full Report, PDF), "the majority of workplace assaults are committed by healthcare patients." While there is good news in the fact that workplace homicides and assaults are on the decline, the NCCI report says this:

"The decline in the rate of workplace assaults has lagged the steady decline in the rate for all lost work-time injuries and illnesses. This reflects a notable change in the composition of the US workforce and, in particular, the ongoing increase in the share of healthcare workers, who experience remarkably high rates of injuries due to assaults by patients. This is especially common in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. In fact, 61% of all workplace assaults are committed by healthcare patients. For assaults, coworkers make up just 7%, and someone other than a healthcare patient or coworker comprises 23%. The remainder is unspecified."

In a post last year on healthcare workers and on-the-job violence, we talked about some of the perpetrators:

"While many assaults are by patients, friend and family members of patients also can commit the assaults. There are also rapists or muggers who are targeting healthcare settings or solitary workers; drug addicts and robbers, who are looking for medications; and domestic violence brought into the workplace. And it's unclear why violence is on the rise. Many point to staff shortages. Others see the preponderance of alcohol, drugs, and ready access to weapons as contributing factors; others think that hospital administrators do too little in the area of prevention."

In the list above, we overlooked a huge and growing segment: elderly patients, patients with Alzheimer's, and people suffering from mental illness.

Prevention Tools
OSHA: Guidelines for Preventing Workplace Violence for Health Care & Social Service Workers. See also the slide show overview version

The Emergency Nurses' Association has issued a good Workplace Violence Toolkit.

We also found that WorkSafeBC has put together a series of excellent short video clips for various health care settings.

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February 28, 2012

 

In March, UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran and the UC Board of Regents will be facing an ordeal they likely never anticipated: a court arraignment on felony charges related to a 2008 laboratory fire that killed Sheri Sangji. They face three counts each of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards. According to the Los Angeles Times, the charges are thought to be the first stemming from an academic lab accident in the United States.

By way of background: In December 2008, Sheri Sangji was working with t-butyl lithium, a substance that ignites on contact with air. A drop spilled on her clothing causing an instant conflagration. She suffered second and third degree burns over 40% of her body, and died 18 days after the fire. In the wake of this accident, Cal/OSHA imposed a $31,875 penalty, citing safety lapses and lack of training. (Chemjobber has followed this case diligently . See all his posts on the Sheri Sangji case, with the most recent at the top.)

UCLA officials call the recent criminal charges outrageous, saying this was a tragic accident and Sangji had been trained to do the dangerous work she was doing. But a 95-page Cal-OSHA investigative report contradicts that defense, saying Sangji was neither experienced nor well trained, terming the risk "foreseeable," and stating that the death was preventable had Sangji worn appropriate clothing. Further, "The report states that UCLA, by repeatedly failing to address previous safety lapses, had "wholly neglected its legal obligations" to provide a safe environment in campus labs and that Harran was personally responsible."

In the wake of Sangji's death, we posted about this tragic incident a few times. First, we raised the issue of why university labs aren't safer, suggesting, among other things, that lab safety be added as a criteria of evaluation for federal funding sources. We got some push back from commenters who thought that such a suggestion was naive and that health and safety personnel were unqualified to oversee "exotic" scientific protocols. We followed with a response to these criticisms, as well as provided links to other articles and places where the death was being discussed by students, scientists, private lab workers and safety professionals. (See More on the
UCLA lab death of Sheri Sangji
.)

While Harran and UCLA are facing charges, this is apparently not a random or isolated incident. In December, Beryl Lieff Benderly of Science Careers posted Taken for Granted: A Blueprint for Safety Action Now. Here's an excerpt:

Issued in October, a CSB report entitled Texas Tech University: Laboratory Explosion lays out in 23 pages of straightforward, nontechnical language what went wrong in a near-fatal 2010 incident on the Lubbock campus and what needs to be done to prevent anything like it from happening again.
The report goes far beyond the usual accident investigation's list of technical mishaps. It views the maiming of Texas Tech University (TTU) graduate student Preston Brown not as an isolated series of individual errors but as the predictable outcome of a culture, set of values, and system of organization prevalent not only at TTU but also at many other campuses. Having collected at least "preliminary information" on 120 other such incidents, CSB declares itself "greatly concerned about the frequency of academic laboratory incidents in the United States."

Academia has evaded some of the scrutiny that private employers face in safety standards. The issue of lab safety still sparks controversy. Many still think that the environment is too exotic and too specialized to incorporate safety standards and that regulations would stifle creative research work. That's little more than obfuscation and foot dragging. Lieff Benderly posted another article Taken for Granted: How to Live With Danger outlining the contrast between chemical laboratory safety and that of another industry, airlines.

In The Sharp Knife of a Short Life, the blog Chembank frames the issues well:

"Changing the culture of an institution--especially one as intractable as chemical academia--is extraordinarily difficult. But so long as we forgo meaningful changes in favor of cosmetic ones that we don't even bother to sustain anyway, we will continue to experience frustration and tragedy. One wonders what magnitude of disruption is necessary for our community to commit itself to improvement. Apparently, it is much greater than the death of a twenty-something student."


We repeat a comment that we made in 2009:

Some workplaces come by safety voluntarily with a commitment from the top. Other employers - even generally well meaning employers - don't truly embrace safety until they have had paid some very steep price. Sometimes that price is a gut-wrenching human one, as when a worker dies; other times, the toll is purely economic, in high workers comp costs, ruinous lawsuits, and bad publicity. Unfortunately, money is often the best change agent. That, and the push provided by standards and enforcement under OSHA.

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February 27, 2012

 

Earlier this month, Julie Ferguson blogged the hazards of unsafe trenches. Today we examine the consequences of unsafe trenching for Oscar Avalos, a laborer for a Texas-based company involved in the installation of sewer pipes. The good news for Oscar is that a jury awarded him $4.5 million for the general contractor's negligence in supervising his jobsite; a court of appeals has upheld the award. The bad news, of course, is that Avalos will never work again.

Nowak Construction, a Kansas-based company, was hired by the city of El Paso, Texas, to install new sewer lines. James Heiman, Nowak's onsite superintendent, was neither an engineer nor safety expert. In their plans submitted to the city, Nowak proposed using trench boxes for safety, a proven means of preventing trench collapse. Unfortunately, when they hired Rocking Q as a subcontractor, they did not require that Rocking Q adhere to the trench box procedure. Instead, they deferred to Rocking Q's decision to use "sheet piling" - a form of bracing in which steel plates are driven into the ground with a backhoe and then secured with chains. This alternative plan was never submitted to the city for approval.

Thus we have a jobsite where digging and maintaining trenches are a constant activity, where the original safety plan has been scrapped, and where an alternative plan is in effect. Rocking Q did not use any cross-bracing to support the street plates. Rocking Q's owner testified that no one from Nowak told him that this was unsafe or asked him to use cross-bracing. Further, an engineer representing the City visited the work site daily and never criticized the trench safety system (in itself fodder for another blog posting).

Water-soaked Trenches
On the evening of September 13, 2006, 1.15 inches of rain fell within a two-hour period. At about 7:30 the next morning, site super Heiman went to the area where the Rocking Q crew was working. He then went to work about 150-feet away, within sight of the Rocking Q crew.

Here comes the astonishing part: Heiman testified that he returned to the area at around 12:30 or 1 p.m. and saw that the street plates were not anchored in any way - they had neither chains nor cross-bracing. Heiman did not mention to anyone that he thought the site was unsafe. Just two hours later, the dirt behind a street plate collapsed, causing the plate to fall on Avalos while he was working in a trench. The unanchored plates, intended as safety barriers, were transformed by unstable earth into moving objects with catastrophic impact. Avalos was totally disabled in the accident.

Initially, Avalos's injuries were covered by workers comp. But he also sued the GC Nowak for negligence. In the course of the testimony, Novak's lack of safety oversight was exposed:

Heiman testified that the street plates were tied back with a chain. Heiman had never before worked on a job in which street plates were used for trench safety. He had some initial concerns about [the subcontractor's] system because no structural supports were used for the street plates. According to Heiman, [the sub] told him "that's the way they do it in Texas." Heiman called Mr. Nowak to report his concerns, but he also told Mr. Nowak that [the sub]'s system seemed to be working. Mr. Nowak spoke with [the sub], who assured him that the plates were being hammered into the ground properly and that a chain was being used to anchor the plates. Mr. Nowak then approved the use of street plates for trench safety.

By giving a verbal OK to the revised trench safety plan, and by not seeking El Paso's approval for the change, Nowak assumed liability for the consequences. When the trench failed, Nowak became the responsible third party for Avalos to sue.

The Eyes of a Stranger
One of the intriguing aspects of this case is the way everyone overlooked an obvious hazard, including the city's own site inspector. Trenches were routinely secured by plates driven into the ground. There were no cross braces - indeed, no requisite trench boxes - in view. Based upon the testimony, it appears that chains to secure the plates were not used consistently.

Because we are consultants, LynchRyan always has the benefit of seeing job sites for the first time. We view the work being performed with the eyes of a stranger, because we are, literally, strangers. As part of our approach to safety, we encourage companies to look at the work being done as if they had never seen it before. Routine fosters indifference. I once toured a large warehouse with the company safety director. We came across an employee awkwardly pulling a bulky box from a shelf above his head; a rolling ladder stood a few feet away. What I saw was a very unsafe practice which could easily have been mitigated by using the ladder; what the safety director saw was his buddy, Ralph. He waved to Ralph and we moved on.

Everyone knows that trenches are dangerous. As OSHA frequently notes, "an unprotected trench is an open grave." Yet even in companies whose only work involves trenches, the hazards persist. Despite OSHA's videos, PowerPoints, brochures, and posters highlighting trench hazards - along with well-publicized fines for failure to comply - bad safety practices in trenching persist. In losing this liability case, Nowak has probably learned a painful lesson. But I shudder to think that big time lawsuits are the only effective way to motivate management to take trench risks seriously.

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February 22, 2012

 

There's breaking news in the ongoing criminal investigation into the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster that killed 29 miners in 2010. The Charleston Gazette's Ken Ward Jr. reports that a mining manager has been charged with conspiracy. supervisor Gary May is charged with plotting "with others known and unknown" to provide advance warning of inspections, concealing violations, falsifying records, and taking steps to conceal actual work conditions. He is also charged with disabling a methane monitoring system a few months before the explosions.

May is the third person to be charged in the ongoing criminal investigation and is said to be cooperating with investigators. Ward reports that, "Next week, former Massey Energy security director Hughie Elbert Stover faces up to 25 years in prison when he is sentenced by U.S. District Judge Irene Berger after being convicted of lying to investigators and trying to destroy evidence about Massey's practice of warning underground workers of impending government inspections."

At his Coal Tattoo blog, Ward offers more context about May and the charges against him. Ward, other industry observers, and other media indicate that the way the charges are structured would seem to indicate that the investigators are looking to upper levels of the organization. It would seem that there are more shoes to drop in this sad saga.

For ongoing coverage of Massey's UBB mine disaster, see Coal Tattoo / Upper Big Branch Disaster and the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster archives at The Charleston Gazette.

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February 9, 2012

 

A little more than a week ago, family members and coworkers watched helplessly as 39-year old Raul Zapata was buried alive when a wall of dirt fell on him at a residential construction worksite in Milpitas, California. Zapata was working in a 12-foot deep ditch, the foundation of a 5,800 square foot home in a gated community. The cave in was extensive enough that it took two days to rescue his body. Zapata and his coworkers should not have been working at all that day because three days prior, the city had issued a stop work order to the construction company, U.S. Sino Investments Inc. The order was issued after a city building inspector determined that the ditch was a safety hazard due to a lack of adequate shoring to prevent a cave-in.

To add insult to injury, the employer did not have workers' comp insurance. They also lacked a permit, a state requirement for any projects deeper than five feet. In a case of closing the barn door, the Contractors State License Board has since suspended U.S.-Sino Investment's general building contractor license for this failure. The flouting of the stop work order, the failure to get a trenching permit and the failure to carry workers comp coverage - these are not unsurprising accompaniments to trenching fatalities. Fatalities are often preceded by multiple citations or warnings and violators are often serial violators. It's not uncommon for OSHA to issue mulitple "willful" citations related to trenching failures. OSHA defines a willful violation as one "committed with an intentional disregard of, or plain indifference to" OSHA requirements, the highest level of citation, carrying fines of $5,000 to $70,000 per incident.

Two workers a month are buried alive in trench collapses. Most of these tragedies are avoidable simply by following OSHA standards, which mandate that all excavations 5 feet or deeper be protected against collapse. It's a stroke of luck that no other workers were killed at the Milpitas site - it's not uncommon for rescuers to rush to the aid of a victim and become entrapped themselves when an a secondary collapse occurs. Trench rescues require speed, precision, and expertise.

To help curtail fatalities that OSHA describes as "entirely preventable," in October they released new trenching safety guidance, including the following safety materials:

Fact sheet: Trenching and Excavation (PDF)
Quick Card: Working Safely in Trenches (PDF)
Poster: An unprotected trench is an early grave (PDF)

Other resources:
Trench safety - an eleven-lesson tutorial based on the latest OSHA requirements for construction excavation safety.
OSHA - Confined Space
Constructing a better trench rescue (PDF)

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January 30, 2012

 

The Rand Corporation has published a study of California OSHA's prevention programs, which are mandated by state law. Despite enough caveats to sink a battleship, the study does illuminate, if only for brief glimpses, a path for establishing truly effective safety and prevention programs.

History and Ideology
First, a little background on California OSHA. In the 1970s, the state as big as a country implemented its own OSHA inspection program. In 1987 a Republican governor trimmed the budget by eliminating CAL/OSHA, leaving the feds to take over the program. Gee, guess how that worked out...Two years later, CA took back the program. Over the next few years, the legislation evolved, resulting eventually in a requirement that all CA employers implement an Injury and Illness Prevention Program (IIPP) with the following key elements:
- Identification of hazards and risks
- Training programs for employees in managing those risks
- Periodic hazard surveys to determine effectiveness of hazard mitigation
- Documentation of training and hazard surveys

IIPP being a state-sponsored program, state government had to train and disperse field inspectors to determine whether employers were in compliance. That raises two very big problems: first, the scale of the effort: with 700,000 employers in the state, inspectors can only perform about 8,000 inspections per year. Equally important, with limited time on site, inspectors lack the tools, training and time to measure the actual effectiveness of an employer's IIPP.

Elements in Good Safety Programs
IIPPs mandate that employers implement the key elements of good safety programs:
- Workers know the employer's point person for safety
- Workers know how to report hazards
- Workers with good safety records are rewarded
- workers with poor safety records are disciplined
- hazards and risks are analyzed on an ongoing basis
- identified hazards are mitigated in a timely manner
- training is ongoing

As any astute reader can surmise, there is a huge gap between developing a written program with the above elements and actually implementing it. A nice cottage industry arose in California, where employers could buy an IIPP program off the shelf - and promptly store the binder, unopened, on a shelf. A written program does not a safety program make.

Does the CAL/OSHA Program Work?
So what did the Rand researchers find? Does the CAL/OSHA program prevent injuries? Is it effective?

Well, sort of, kind of, not really, we're not sure...

By the time you sort through the caveats - the impact of an unstable economy, the under-reporting of injuries by small employers, the lack of specificity in inspection visits, etc - you have very little conclusive evidence one way or the other. When visiting employers for the first time, inspectors consistently found that they were out of compliance, lacking written plans and evidence of an effective safety program. When making a second visit, especially after an injury, the results improved; there is nothing better than a serious injury to revitalize a safety program. Alas, two years after an inspection, there is no measurable lasting benefit to the program. [It is important to note, however, that unionized workforces had a more sustained and effective focus on safety than non-union environments - fodder for the ideologues, for sure.]

The Role of Government in Safety
The Rand study raises a number of compelling issues and is well worth the reading. In the final analysis, the study points out the limits of any state intervention. To be sure, inspectors could spend more time on site; they could do more qualitative analysis of the written documentation and interview a good sample of the workers. But these steps would still likely result only in incremental and relatively minor improvements.

We would all probably agree that a commitment by a company's senior management is essential: safety must be a priority in all operations. We would also agree that the above key elements belong in any effective safety program. Finally, we all recognize that safety consciousness must be embedded into a company's standard operating procedures.But that's the ideal: what happens in the real world?

Where inspections reveal ineffective safety programs, where employers exploit workers and put them at risk, systematic fines and penalties are certainly in order. Such penalties are an effective means of getting an employer's attention. Once you have that attention, it is at least feasible that employers will see the benefits of making safety a priority and eliminating workplace hazards. Government cannot make it happen, but without government, far too many employers would lack the motivation to maintain a safe workplace.

In the long run, effective safety programs are cheaper and more efficient - more profitable! - than a workplace fraught with unnecessary and unacceptable risks. At least, that's the theory and a core belief of this blog. In practice these days, with predatory employment practices on the rise, one begins to wonder...


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January 18, 2012

 

Falls in Construction - Reroofing

In Spanish: Caidas en la Construccion/Reparacion del Techo

Sprains and Strains in Construction/Pulling Cables

In Spanish: Torceduras y Desgarres en la Construccion/Tendido de Cables

Struck-by Accidents in Construction/Swinging Cranes

In Spanish: Golpes Causados por Accidentes en Construccion/Gruas en Movimiento


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December 7, 2011

 

"Every time Massey sent miners into the UBB Mine, Massey put those miners' lives at risk"
Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for mine safety and health and chief of MSHA

A scathing report issued by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration yesterday put the blame for the coal mining disaster that claimed 29 lives on "a workplace culture that valued production over safety." The report characterized the coal mining disaster as "entirely preventable", one that could have been avoided if long-standing and well-known safety standards had been followed. The report documents flagrant safety violations, routine coverups of violations, and intimidation of workers to keep them from reporting safety hazards and violations.

Ken Ward, who has covered the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster with painstaking detail in The Charleston Gazette, reports:

"Outlining flagrant safety violations and a practice of trying to cover up major hazards, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials cited mine operator Performance Coal Co. with 369 violations -- including 12 that directly contributed to the disaster -- and levied more than $10.8 million in fines.
Both the fines and the settlement are by far the largest ever in a case over worker safety in the mining industry."

In addition, federal prosecutors announced a $200 million settlement with Alpha Natural Resources, the firm that bought Massey Energy. The settlement calls for $80 million to be directed to enhanced safety at all the company's underground mines, as well as a dedicated training center and a $48 million trust to fund mine safety research at academic institutions. The settlement also includes $46.5 million in restitution for the families of the disaster victims.

Ward states:

Key to the deal, though, is that -- unlike a previous deal with Massey following the Aracoma Mine fire -- the Justice Department is not agreeing to never bring charges against any individual executives, officers or employees of Massey or Performance. Goodwin said resolution of issues with Alpha allows prosecutors to focus their resources on potential cases against such individuals.

In addition to his newspaper reports, Ward covers related events at his Coal Tattoo blog. Of particular note is a post in which he talks more about the settlement and how U.S. Attorney's criminal probe will continue. He quotes one US attorney as saying, "If anything, certain aspects of our investigation are going into high gear."

All eyes will be on Alpha going forward. Their buyout occurred last June despite intense opposition, questions about events, and allegations of secret deals revolving around the $8.5 billion sale. Shortly after this deal, Alpha joined industry opposition to tougher safety rules.

The report was issued on the 104th anniversary of the worst mining disaster in U.S. history - the coal mining explosions at Monongah W.V. that claimed 362 lives. While mining safety has improved in the decades since, yesterday's report demonstrates there are many more improvements that could and must occur to protect workers.

Related prior posts
Massey Energy Mine Disaster: The Soul of a Bean Counter
Mining safety: not just for China
Cold comfort: Crandall Canyon survivors and workers comp
A bad way to make a living
The sad, quiet death of Bud Morris - father, husband, motorcycle aficionado
The feds and Phantom Miners
Sago mining disaster and workers comp: newly formed insurer to pay benefits
Sago mining deaths: a sorry way to begin the new year

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November 29, 2011

 

In the office, on the road or at home, proper ergonomics when using laptops will help to prevent back, shoulder, and wrist problems.

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November 8, 2011

 

In the pre-holiday shopping season, crowd control is no small issue for retailers. And Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is the behemoth day that dwarfs all other days. Last year, 212 million people spent $45 billion shopping in retail stores and websites over the Black Friday weekend. And it's not always happy holiday cheer - people can get pretty cranky in their pursuit of a bargain.

A few years ago, we reported on the the death of a worker trampled by crowds in a Long Island, NY during a Walmart "Black Friday" sale. Crowd control experts would say that the term "trampling is imprecise:

"Crowd forces can reach levels that almost impossible to resist or control. Virtually all crowd deaths are due to compressive asphyxia and not the "trampling" reported by the news media. Evidence of bent steel railings after several fatal crowd incidents show that forces of more than 4500N (1,000lbs) occurred. Forces are due to pushing, and the domino effect of people leaning against each other."

Since that unfortunate event, WalMart has spent nearly $2 million fighting the $7,000 fine imposed by OSHA. History was not in the retailer's favor: in the three prior years, thronging crowds had popped the hinges off the doors of the same store. And as it got closer to the 5 a.m. opening, the crowd was rowdy enough that a regional WalMart executive suggested that they not open the doors because police were not present, a suggestion that the store manager did not take.

It may seem counterproductive to spend so much money to contest a modest fine (the maximum penalty amount for a serious violation allowed under the law), but WalMart was actually trying to prevent a precedent from being established. Retail industry groups do not want the "government micromanaging how sales are conducted." Two years after the WalMart stampede, OSHA issued Crowd Management Safety Guidelines for Retailers (PDF), which offered guidance for various crowd control measures, including suggestions for major changes to the first-come, first-serve way that many sales events are held.

In October, the National Retail Federation issued its own guidance in the form of Effective Crowd Management: Guidelines on how to maintain the safety and security of your customers, employees and store. Retailers can download a copy of the 22-page document, which discusses crowd control for planned events such as sales, promotions, and celebrity appearances, as well as for unplanned events such as the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests, comedic flash mobs, and organized criminal gangs.

Criminal shoplifting gangs are nothing new - retailers have long been plagued by groups of "grab and run" gangs that descend in numbers on a store and distract employees. What's different today is the efficiency with which they can organize using mobile phones and social media. Although the National Retail Foundation has noted that media distorts the threat of the so-called criminal flash mobs. These are not to be confused with the much more benign and often entertaining flash mobs that occasionally stage improvisational musical or dance events in retail establishments. But despite whether they are amusing to the public or not, "spontaneous" unplanned events still pose a crowd control and security challenge to the workers.

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November 1, 2011

 

Pop quiz:
Match the Injury Incident Rate per 100 Full Time Equivalents (#1 through #4) with the industry (A, B, C, D)

1. 8.6
2. 5.6
3. 4.8
4. 3.5

A. building construction
B. coal mines, underground workers
C. nursing home workers
D. tire manufacturing workers


Answers: 1-C, 2-B, 3-D, 4-A

Yes, you read that right. Nursing home workers are at higher risk of injury than underground coal miners, construction workers, and tire manufacturers. And the picture is pretty much the same when you talk about serious injuries that result in lost time. "The lost-time/ restricted duty injury case rate for nursing home workers is 5.6 per 100 FTEs, compared to 3.7, 3.3 and 1.7 for these same sub-industries, respectively."

At The Pump Handle, Celeste Monforton posts about new data that reveals that nursing home workers face an extraordinarily high rate of on-the-job injuries.

Of the 16 million US workers employed in health care and social assistance, more than 3 million are employed in US nursing and residential care facilities. In comparison, Monforton notes that about 17.1 million people were employed in manufacturing and construction. OSHA focused approximately 78% of its inspections on these two industries, and less than 2% on healthcare workers. She notes that there are different standards or triggers to prompt inspections in these industries. "Manufacturing plants on the targeting list, for example, aren't selected for a possible inspection unless their DART rate* is 7.0 per 100 FTEs or greater. Nursing homes in contrast, have to have a DART rate of 16 per 100 FTEs or greater to "make the cut" for a possible inspection."

*DART: days away from work, restricted-duty or transfer to a different job

Related
NCCI study on safe lifting programs for long-term care facilities

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October 26, 2011

 

How bad is the obesity epidemic? Bad enough that car makers are increasing the size of cars to accommodate our collective expansion - typical family cars have gained about a foot of width over than half a century ago. And in a Plump My Ride research initiative, at least one luxury automaker is researching how obesity affects mobility while driving.

A recent study by Gallup says that obesity and related conditions total $153 billion in annual productivity losses. U.S. workers who are overweight or obese and have other chronic health conditions miss an estimated 450 million additional days of work each year compared with healthy workers. The study also notes:

"The $153 billion in annual lost productivity costs linked to unhealthy workers in the United States is more than four times the cost found in the United Kingdom. The striking difference is the result of fewer unhealthy workers in the U.K. About 14% of full-time U.S. workers are of a normal weight and have no chronic illness, compared with 20% in the U.K."
Julie Liedman discusses obesity and its effects on the workplace in a recent article in Risk & Insurance. She cites a new report by Lockton Inc. that documents other costs related to obesity:
  • Some 74 percent of the adult U.S. population, aged 20 years and older, is either overweight or obese
  • Medical costs associated with obesity are estimated at $168.4 billion per year
  • The increase in obesity prevalence accounts for 12 percent of the growth in health care spending

Liedman notes that this report suggests traditional wellness programs aren't enough to tackle the issue of morbid obesity and employers should consider offering benefits that cover more dramatic interventions, such as bariatric surgery.

"A person with a BMI of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight; a person with BMI of 30 to 39.9 is considered obese and a person with BMI of 40 or more, or a BMI of 35 or more with an obesity-related disease such as diabetes, heart disease or sleep apnea is considered morbidly obese. People with BMI of 40 or more, or 35 or more with an obesity-related disease, are considered candidates for surgery."

We've previously discussed obesity costs as they relate to workers comp based on an NCCI study. While some might think that the suggestion for employers to consider benefits to cover bariatric surgery to be a radical response, it may be a Hobson's choice of "pay for it now" or "pay for it (more) later." We've pointed to several cases that determined employers must pay for weight reduction surgery as part of recovery from a work-related injury. See Compensable weight loss surgery? A new wrinkle in obesity and New York Weighs in on Obesity.

By the way...
Do you know your own BMI? Use this BMI calculator to check your own weight or to use in your wellness communications.

Related past posts
Tip Toeing Around Obesity
The Cost of Getting Better
Injuries at the gym: compensability, incentives, and wellness
Morbid Obesity and the Essential Job Functions of a Cop
Weighty matters: the high cost of obesity in the workplace
Obesity in Workers Comp: Duke Sounds the Alarm

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September 15, 2011

 

The National Corn Growers Association and the National Grain and Feed Foundation - the research and education arm of the National Grain and Feed Association - recently unveiled a joint video project to promote awareness about grain bin safety on the farm. The two organizations teamed up in November 2010 to develop the video in response to an increase in U.S. fatalities and injuries associated with entry into grain bins.

It's pretty powerful. The video, shot on location in several states, provides a wide range of information on prevention tips and background data on grain bin accidents. The project also involved interviews with professionals in the fields of grain bin safety research and rescue.

The producers are hoping to get this in the hands of as many farmers as possible and are making DVD copies of the grain bin safety video available for ordering.

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September 12, 2011

 

First responders and oral histories
We are mindful that the 9-11 story was one that largely affected ordinary people who were going about their workdays. When the planes hit, thousands of first responders jumped into action and their courage and quick actions helped to save untold thousands. Among the many remembrances and stories in the10-year commemorative events, we found the 60 Minutes story on the experiences of first responders to be particularly powerful. It focused on 911 Responders Remember, an oral history project initiated by Dr. Benjamin Luft, director of the Long Island World Trade Center Program (the SUNY-Stony Brook arm of the WTC Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program consortium). This Center of Excellence provides service and monitoring to approximately 5,000 WTC responders across Long Island. These men and women are law enforcement officers, construction workers, electricians, emergency medical personnel, firefighters, iron workers, plumbers, dog handlers, doctors, and many others.

In addition to cancer, respiratory and pulmonary disorders and other physical problems, many workers still suffer from varying levels of emotional or psychological distress, including PTSD. This project is a national historical record, a public health document, and for many participants, a therapeutic exercise which allows them to open up to tell about events or things that they witnessed that they may not previously been able to talked about.

See more testimonies.

Related: A decade later, the list of Sept. 11 victims continues to grow
Related: Fight Over Compensation for 9/11 Responders Shifts to Cancer Victims.

Hitting close to home
September 11 took an extremely heavy toll on the insurance industry. The terrible events claimed the lives of 295 employees of Marsh & McLennan and 176 employees at Aon Corporation. Dave Lenckus of Business Insurance offers recollections from insurance executives who were connected with or escaped from the WTC in his article Terror of September 11 lives in memory. Also see the company tribute pages: Remember: September 11, 2001 - a site to remember and celebrate the lives of those Aon employees lost on September 11, 2001, and Marsh & McLennan 9/11 Memorial - both a website and a physical memorial.

Tribute song & Firefighter Foundation
After 9/11, our own Tom Lynch recorded a 9/11 Tribute Song with Peter Clemente at Mechanics Hall in Worcester, MA. Actor and comedian Denis Leary used the song to raise money for the New York fallen firefighters. Leary is very devoted to firefighters and runs the Leary Firefighters Foundation. The Foundation was established in 2000 in response to a tragic fire in Worcester, Massachusetts that claimed the lives of Leary's cousin, a childhood friend, and four other firefighters. The Leary Firefighters Foundation's mission is to provide funding and resources for Fire Departments to obtain the best available equipment, technology and training. Inadequate equipment - particularly faulty tracking and radio equipment - contributed to deaths in both events.

Insurance media coverage
PropertyCasualty360: 9/11: 10 Years Later, Execs & Risk Managers Weigh In on How Industry Has Changed

Insurance Journal: 9/11 and Terrorism Risk 10 Years Later and Why 9-11 Changed Everything

Risk & Insurance: Selling Carriers on Rebuilding Ground Zero

Risk Management Monitor: Ten Years After

Occupational Health & Safety: NFPA Cites Safety Improvements Rising from 9/11

CNNTech: How 9/11 inspired a new era of robotics

workerscompensation.com: 9/11 Tribute

Other resources
Understanding 9-11: A Television News Archive - a library of news coverage of the events of 9/11/2001 and their aftermath as presented by U.S. and international broadcasters. A resource for scholars, journalists, and the public, it presents one week of news broadcasts for study, research and analysis.

The Encyclopedia of 9/11 - from New York Magazine

The September 11 Digital Archive

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August 31, 2011

 

We stumbled on a photo feature of 11 Cringe-Worthy OSHA violations - and as advertised, the photos are mind-boggling horrific safety violations. Darwin awards waiting to happen. (In a similar vein, the Naval Safety Center Photo of the Week has been logging such violations for a long time now - 445 weeks, to be precise. )

We have mixed reactions to these photos. This genre of "people doing stupid things" photos and videos are immensely popular on the web - whether the stupid acts occur in the workplace or elsewhere. It's the age-old slipping on a banana peel gag. Sometimes, their popularity can be attributed to simple schadenfreude. Sometimes, watching people do stupid things makes the viewer feel superior in a "ha, at least I am not that stupid" way. And sometimes, laughter is rooted in a whistling-by-the-graveyard coping mechanism. We see this frequently in police, firefighters, and other emergency workers, whose job-related black humor might be shocking to people outside the industry. We see this same type of black humor in a lot of safety professionals, too.

But while we're as fascinated as the next person by these type of photos, we admit to being a bit humor challenged. Perhaps we've just seen the flesh and blood results of workplace injuries a little too often to find photos of this nature particularly funny. Astonishing? Yes. Cringe-worthy? Yes. Instructive? Often. Fascinating? Frequently. But rarely do we find them ha ha funny. Where some see idiots, we see untrained or inexperienced workers and horrible calamities waiting to happen.

The poster says she assumes that most of these violations are taking place in countries where OSHA doesn't have jurisdiction. We don't have any way of knowing where these photos actually did take place, but while that seems a fair assumption, we would caution about too much national superiority. For all we know, these workers could be offshore employees of U.S. firms. We are pretty sure that if U.S. workers were left to fend for themselves when it comes to workplace safety, we'd see some comparably "humorous " pics. Plus, never underestimate some of the safety horrors that go on right here in OSHA-land. Here's a few examples:

Exhibit A spotted in Indiana by DemolitionX at BuildCentral.

Houston Safety offers a photo of scaffolding violations in Galveston.

Blogger Patcick McDonough points out a safety violation in Chicago.


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August 19, 2011

 

Sometimes, system redress seems painfully inadequate.

Such is the case with the $7,000 OSHA penalty recently imposed for inadequate safeguards related to the case of murdered mental-health worker Stephanie Moulton. $7,000 is the maximum fine available for "a serious violation of the agency's "general duty clause" for failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause serious injury or death." It's not just that the dollar amount seems paltry in light of the loss of life - it simply doesn't seem substantial enough to have any deterrent value.

And in truth, while the OSHA citation points to the employer, one could make the case that the employer is also a victim of an economic squeeze play, which has resulted in inadequate staffing and safety controls. State budget cutbacks worry mental health workers - a scenario that is no doubt playing out throughout the country - in mental health budgets, in public safety budgets, and in regulatory enforcement, just to name a few areas that affect the health and safety of workers -- and of the public.

Stephanie Moulton was working alone at one of the North Suffolk Mental Health Association's group homes in Revere when she was brutally murdered by a patient with a violent record. A week later and just miles away at the Lowell Transitional Living Center, a shelter for the homeless, a worker named Jose Roldan was also killed by person who had slipped through the cracks in the mental health system. Both these murders were discussed in-depth in stories that appeared in The New York Times: A Schizophrenic, a Slain Worker, Troubling Questions recounted Moulton's death, and Teenager's Path and a Killing Put Spotlight on Mental Care discussed the case related to Roldan's death.

An investigation into Moulton's death resulted in the issuance of a report in June: Report of the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health Task Force on Staff and Client Safety. The report found that:

  • Years of budget cuts have negatively impacted service delivery and safety issues in the following areas:
    --Inadequate numbers of, and inadequate pay for, direct-care staff
    --Inadequate numbers of clinical staff with relevant training and experience
    --Deficiencies in the overall number of acute and intermediate hospital beds and community-based services and beds
    --Decrease in the role of psychiatrists and other highly-trained professionals in the care and treatment of individuals with the most serious mental illnesses
    --Requiring some staff to work under conditions that do not provide for adequate safety
  • There is an absence of system-wide use of a well-designed risk assessment process
  • There is lack of clarity in policies and procedures for incorporating risk variables into Individualized Action Plans
  • There is lack of sufficient access to and sharing of critical safety information
  • There is lack of adequate coordination of care across different components of the service system

OSHA's citation includes recommendations the employer could take to address the workplace violence issue:

  • Creating a stand-alone written workplace violence prevention program that includes implementation of workplace controls and prevention strategies; hazard/threat/security assessments; a workplace violence policy statement outlining and emphasizing a zero tolerance policy for workplace violence; incident reporting and investigation; and periodic review of the prevention program.
  • Establishing a system to identify clients with assaultive behavior problems and train all staff to understand the system used.
  • Putting in place procedures to communicate any incident to staff so that employees without access to client charts are aware of previous violent or aggressive acts by a client.
  • Identifying the behavioral history of new or transferred clients, including conducting criminal and sexual offender records checks.
  • Conducting more extensive training so that all employees are aware of the facility's workplace violence policy and where information about it can be found, including training employees to clearly state to clients that violence is not permitted or tolerated; how to respond during a workplace violence incident; recognize when individuals are exhibiting aggressive behavior and how to de-escalate the behavior; and identify risk factors that can cause or contribute to assault.
  • Installing and positioning panic buttons, walkie-talkies, recording security camera systems and smart phone GPS applications to better monitor employee safety and increase staff communication and support; implement and maintain a buddy system on at least the second and third shifts, based on a complete hazard assessment.

Mouton's family is rallying for enactment of Stephanie's law, which would mandate panic buttons in mental health facilities. A good start and one among recommendations issued by OSHA in their Guidelines for Preventing Workplace Violence for Health Care & Social Service Workers. But such measures may be woefully inadequate in the face of reduced staffing. In an ongoing climate of budget cuts and a strong public appetite for decreased regulatory controls, mental health workers are likely to continue being at greater risk -- along with public safety workers such as police, firefighters, and healthcare workers, who also face dire staffing shortages.

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August 16, 2011

 

Two Oklahoma teen athletes had their lives changed forever after becoming entangled in a grain bin auger while working on a farm. News reports state that 17 year old Bryce Gannon was working at a grain bin elevator when his leg was caught in the auger. In an all-too-familiar attempted rescue scenario, his co-worker 17 year-old Tyler Zander went to his aid and also became entangled. Emergency rescue personnel had to cut apart the 12-inch metal auger in order to free the young men.

Grain bin auger accidents are brutal and severe events in which body parts become entwined in spinning equipment. They are somewhat similar in nature to power take off (PTO) shaft accidents which claimed the life of baseball great Mark Fidrych. We posted about his death and the story of PTO injury survivor Kristi Ruth who was injured when her arm was pulled into a posthole digger's PTO while working on her family's farm.

A case report of a farm worker fatality from a grain bin auger entanglement offers more (gruesome) detail about how such injuries occur, along with these safety recommendations.

  • Ensure that workers do not enter grain bins while the unloading mechanism is operating
  • Establish lockout/tagout procedures and ensure workers follow them any time a worker enters a grain bin or other confined space
  • Provide employees with proper training in lockout/tagout procedures and procedures for safe entry into confined spaces, such as grain bins
  • Consider utilizing grain bin and auger designs that can help ensure safety for workers such as self-unloading or bottom-unloading bins

Last year at this time, we were reporting the suffocation deaths of two teen farmworkers in a Michigan grain bin accident. 2010 was a record year for grain bin fatalities. prompting OSHA to issue fines and to put grain bin operators on notice and to ramp up inspections on dairy farms.


Teen farm safety: new rules in limbo
Celeste Monforton of The Pump Handle discusses this accident and calls the Obama administration on the carpet for stalling on regulations that would strengthen protections for young farm workers, while at the same time giving lip service to child labor protections and transparency. She notes:

The fatality rate for young workers performing hazardous tasks----like working with a grain auger-----is two times the fatality rate for all U.S. workers. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA), administered by the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division (W&H) stipulates dozens of work activities that are too dangerous for workers of certain ages. Individuals under age 18, for example, are prohibited from working most jobs in coal mines, from forest-fire fighting, and from operating meat slicers and cardboard balers in grocery stores. However, the safety rules governing young workers employed in agricultural jobs have not been updated for 40 years.

Elizabeth Grossman also recently posted about teen workers and farm accidents at The Pump Handle: Hazards of the harvest: Children in the fields. This post includes a recounting of a recent farm accident which resulted in the deaths of two 14-year old girls on an Illinois farm. The girls were electrocuted while detasselling corn.

Grossman notes that, "The hazards of farm work are underscored by the fatality rate for young people working on farms: 21.6 deaths per 100,000 young workers, compared to 3.6 fatalities for the same number of those working in all other industries, this according to data published in 2010."

Grain bin auger safety resources
Grain Auger Safety sheet with quiz from the Texas Department of Insurance.

Accident Extrication Procedures for Farm Families and Employees from the University of Georgia

Safety With Grain Augers from the North Dakota State University

Grain auger safety - from the University of Ilinois Extension

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July 20, 2011

 

Pop quiz: 1) In highway construction zones, do most fatalities occur A) to the vulnerable workers who are standing in the work zone while thousands of cars and trucks speed by, or B) to the motorists in the cars and trucks that are speeding by?

2) Are most highway construction workers killed by A) being struck by passing motorists or B) being struck by construction vehicles?

If you guessed "A" for both answers, you are correct.

Motorist safety in highway work zones
Highway construction projects pose hazards for drivers and workers alike, but about 85% of the vehicle-related fatalities that occur in work zones each year involve motorists. Lane changes,uneven surfaces, stop and go traffic, driver impatience at delays, unpredictable occurrences, and poor night visibility are all factors that make these zones hazardous. For those who need further incentive for caution than self preservation, bear in mind that 32 states and the District of Columbia double the fine for speeding (or committing other traffic violations) in a work zone. The Governors' Highway Safety Administration offers a handy state by state chart of work zone traffic laws.

One of the best safety strategies a driver can take is avoidance: seek an alternate route. The Department of Transportation offers national traffic and road closure information to help drivers plan in advance - or drivers can check with state transportation authorities - most offer alerts about major construction projects. For those who can't avoid a construction route, the Wisconsin DOT offers tips for safe driving in a work zone. The tip sheet notes that work zones requiring special caution encompass more than just highway construction projects. They include emergency vehicles at the side of the road, snowplows, garbage pickups, landscapers and any situation where workers are at risk.

Worker safety in highway work zones
This spring, the NIOSH Science Blog featured an excellent post by David E. Fosbroke about construction equipment visibility. In the post, Fosbroke cites a multi-year study of 844 fatalities at road construction sites. While 73% of these fatalities occurred when workers were struck by vehicles, victims were killed by construction equipment at least as often as by passing motorists. And of the incidents when workers were killed by construction equipment, at least 50% of those fatalities involved vehicles backing up.

To help prevent such fatalities, NIOSH offers downloadable blind area diagrams of of 38 pieces of construction equipment and 5 pieces of mining equipment. These diagrams map out the area around a vehicle or piece of equipment that cannot be seen from the operator's position. The post explains this and other issues related to highway construction safety - including some good observations in the comments section.

For additional information, The National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse provides comprehensive information to improve motorist, worker and pedestrian safety in roadway work zones. Resource include links to related sites and training resources.

More safety resources:
NIOSH: Highway Work Zone
OSHA: Highway Work Zones and Signs, Signals, and Barricades

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July 11, 2011

 

OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program was implemented some 30 years ago and includes about 2,500 workplaces. Employers must qualify for participation by meeting certain criteria, including a demonstrated safety record that is better the than industry average and practices such as training and employee involvement that would indicate a serious safety culture. Companies that are accepted into the program become exempt from programmed OSHA inspections while they retain their VPP status -- a not insubstantial benefit that makes the program popular with employers and small government advocates alike. So popular that some legislators are trying to make the VPP permanent.

But many question the effectiveness of the program beyond its popularity. And now, some investigators are asking what a company would have to do to lose the VPP status. If a company experienced a preventable workplace fatality, would they be ejected from the program? Would they be subject to a higher level of scrutiny?

Apparently not. A recent investigative report by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) revealed that at least 80 workers have died at VPP employers since 2001 yet have retained their "model workplace" status in VPP. Yet in 47 of these cases, inspectors found serious safety violations and, sometimes, tragedies that could have been averted.

Last week CPI and PBS's Need to Know ran the first report of their investigative series on OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program (VPP), Model Workplaces, Imperiled Lives. In addition to the number of deaths at VPP participants, the investigation found that:

  • Even when workers die and inspectors find safety violations, "model workplaces" often face minimal consequences and retain the special designation. At least 65 percent of workplaces where a fatal accident occurred remain in the special "Voluntary Protection Program" today.
  • As the program tripled in size over the last decade, OSHA cut the number of staffers overseeing it and weakened requirements for membership, raising questions about how well the program supplements the efforts of inspectors in safeguarding American workers.
  • Little widespread evidence exists that the 29-year-old program works. Despite calls by the Government Accountability Office and others for OSHA to complete a comprehensive evaluation of the program's effectiveness, none has occurred.

PBS featured this report on The Watch list: Safety matters: Injuries and fatalities at 'model' workplaces, which included this video.

This is not the first we've heard of the flaws in the VPP. In The Pump Handle's post entitled Investigators probe integrity of OSHA's safety recognition program, they link to a May 2009 GAO Report on OSHA's VPPs, which was extremely critical of OSHA's VPP program, noting that:

  • OSHA's internal controls are not sufficient to ensure that only qualified worksites participate in the VPP. First, OSHA's oversight is limited by the minimal documentation requirements of the program. Second, OSHA does not ensure that its regional offices consistently comply with its policies for the VPP.
  • OSHA's lack of a policy requiring documentation in the VPP files of actions taken by the regions in response to incidents, such as fatalities and serious injuries, at VPP sites limits the national office's ability to ensure that regions have taken the required actions. OSHA's VPP Manual requires regions to review sites' safety and health systems after such incidents to determine whether systemic changes are needed to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future and whether the site should remain in the program.
  • OSHA's oversight of the VPP is limited because it does not have internal controls, such as management reviews by the national office, to ensure that its regions consistently comply with VPP policies for verifying sites' injury and illness rates and conducting on-site reviews.
  • OSHA's efforts to assess the performance of the VPP and evaluate its effectiveness are not adequate. First, OSHA has not developed performance goals or measures to assess the performance of the program. Second, OSHA contracted for a study of the VPP to evaluate its effectiveness, but the study was flawed.

Shortly after this GAO report, OSHA pledged to reform the VPP.

There's certainly a place for a "Centers of Excellence" program for workplace safety. Companies that have made extraordinary efforts to ensure safety should be recognized. But it looks like a program that began with good intent has morphed into something that is poorly managed at best and a mockery of the original intent at worst. How much of a distinction is it for the truly high performing organizations if weak or inappropriate entities are kept in the program? Before any expansion of this program occurs, Congress would do well to ensure that the program that exists gets fixed.

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June 28, 2011

 

In December of 2010, OSHA introduced stronger worker safeguards to prevent falls in residential construction. Under the prior directive, some employers were able to bypass fall protection requirements. The new standards for residential construction were scheduled to go into effect on June 15, but earlier this month, OSHA announced a three-month phase in to allow employers time to gear up to meet compliance requirements. During the phase in, however, employers must be fully compliant with the old directive.

OSHA estimates that 1.6 million Americans are employed in the construction industry, half of which work in residential construction. Each year, roughly 38,000 construction injuries are reported. Fatalities from falls are the number one cause of death in construction, with an average of 40 workers killed each year as a result of falls from residential roofs. These are preventable deaths.

In April, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit rejected a challenge to OSHA's directive by the National Roofing Contractors Association. The trade association was seeking to maintain a provision in an earlier directive that allowed certain residential construction employers to bypass some fall protection requirements. "With the issuance of the new directive, all residential construction employers must comply with 29 Code of Federal Regulations 1926.501(b)(13). Where residential builders can demonstrate that traditional fall protection is not feasible, 29 CFR 1926.501(b)(13) still allows for alternative means of providing protection."

OSHA says that the new directive interprets "residential construction" as construction work that satisfies both of the following elements:


  • The end-use of the structure being built must be as a home, i.e., a dwelling.

  • The structure being built must be constructed using traditional wood frame construction materials and methods. The limited use of structural steel in a predominantly wood-framed home, such as a steel I-beam to help support wood framing, does not disqualify a structure from being considered residential construction.

OSHA has provided a site that offers resources and training materials about the new directive: Residential Fall Protection.

Additional materials can be found at OSHA's OSHA's Fall Protection - Construction page.

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June 21, 2011

 

A restaurant manager taking out the trash in Virginia, a tree trimmer in Ohio and an Alabama school coach sitting inside at a desk are all workers who inadvertently joined a unique club this year: lightning strike survivors. In any given year, the odds of being struck by lightning are about one in a million, but the lifetime odds (over 80 years) are 1 in 10,000. About 90% of all lightning strike victims survive. About 25% of the survivors suffer major medical after effects.

This week is Lightning Strike Awareness Week - and the National Weather Service wants to remind you to be safe. Public awareness campaigns appear to be working because lightning-related fatalities have been trending down in recent years. While there are 55 fatal lightning strikes in an average year, in 2010 there were 29 fatalities, which occurred in 19 states in 2010; in 2009, there were 34 fatalities; in 2008, there were 28 fatalities.

There have been 5 lightning-related fatalities in 2011, one each in LA, MO, MT, NC, PA. Three deaths occurred during agricultural work, one was related to tornado search-and-rescue, and one occurred during golf. While lightning strikes can occur in any month, they spike in the summer months.

When it comes to geographical risks, not all locations are equal - some states are riskier than others. Florida has often been called the "lightning capital of the world," and although NASA scientists have clarified that Rwanda actually holds this dubious title, Florida still holds the North American title. Rounding out to the top five states for lightning-related fatalities, we have Colorado, Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina.

Are lightning strikes compensable under workers comp?
The answer to that question is a clear and resounding "maybe." As with so many issues in workers comp, the devil is in the details: state law, where and when the injury occurred, and the nature of the work involved all are factors that come into play. Injuries related to lightning and other weather-related events fall under the murky area of "acts of God" or "neutral risks," which are generally not considered to be the responsibility or liability of the employer. However, if a worker is exposed to heightened risk due to the nature of their work responsibilities, an injury related to a lightning strike could be compensable.

Often, the burden is on the employee to establish a causal link between their injury and their work or to prove that their job exposed them to increased or heightened risk. Recently, however, the North Carolina Court of Appeals upheld benefits for a framer who suffered injuries related to a lightning strike that occurred while he was at work. The court established that he did not have to provide expert testimony to establish increased risk. "The court concluded that the description of the physical characteristics of the jobsite supported a finding that the framer was at an increased risk of a lightning strike."

Employers certainly can't insulate their workers from "acts of God" but there are steps that employers can take to mitigate risk. It's a good idea to review weather-related hazards with your employees seasonally to raise their awareness about safety best practices both on the job and off. And it is important to take particular care with workers who have outdoor responsibilities or work that might put them at heightened risk. Here are some tools & resources:

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June 8, 2011

 

As we noted in a blog earlier this year, the number of fatalities in grain bins reached record levels in 2010. There were 51 grain bin accidents last year, up from 38 in 2009 and the most since tracking began in 1978. Twenty-five people died, and five of them were children under age 16. The previous record for grain bin accidents was 42 in 1993. In response, OSHA has developed an explicit program to improve safety in grain bins. In doing so, they have increased the pressure on bin operators to operate safely. The stakes have been raised beyond even the robust fines that OSHA routinely hands out for violations.

As an example of the new program in action, OSHA has cited Lakeland Feed and Supply in Hamilton, Montana, for exposing workers to grain bin machine guarding and fall hazards, along with other safety and health hazards. At this point the fines total $122,500, but this might change after corrective actions and negotiations.

In detailing the serious violations, OSHA paints the picture of a hazard-filled environment that may well reflect the day-to-day operations of many grain bins across the country:

...Platforms missing guarding; no landing platform on a ladder; unguarded shafts, pulleys, chains and sprockets; the lack of an emergency evacuation plan and no fire alarm system; employees walking on grain in the bins; high levels of potentially explosive dust; the lack of a housekeeping program; not locking out augers when employees enter the bins; exposed live electrical lines; improper electrical wiring for high dust areas; and employees not trained on the hazards and chemicals associated with their work.

Not Exactly Junk Mail
As part of the grain bin initiative, OSHA has written to operators across the country, detailing specific steps to be taken to prevent accidents when workers enter storage bins. These steps include:

Turn off and lock out all powered equipment associated with the bin, including augers used to help move the grain, so that the grain is not being emptied or moving out or into the bin. Standing on moving grain is deadly; the grain can act like 'quicksand' and bury a worker in seconds. Moving grain out of a bin while a worker is in the bin creates a suction that can pull the workers into the grain in seconds.
Prohibit walking down grain and similar practices where an employee walks on grain to make it flow.
Provide all employees a body harness with a lifeline, or a boatswains chair, and ensure that it is secured prior to the employee entering the bin.

Provide an observer stationed outside the bin or silo being entered by an employee. Ensure the observer is equipped to provide assistance and that their only task is to continuously track the employee in the bin. Prohibit workers from entry into bins or silos underneath a bridging condition, or where a build-up of grain products on the sides could fall and bury them.

Test the air within a bin or silo prior to entry for the presence of combustible and toxic gases, and to determine if there is sufficient oxygen.

Ensure a permit is issued for each instance a worker enters a bin or silo, certifying that the precautions listed above have been implemented.

On Notice
Bin operators are on notice that the above safety procedures must be in place. By providing this unambiguous and highly detailed list, OSHA is saying, in effect, "these are the standards. Nothing less is acceptable."

Why does this matter? Attorneys for workers injured in storage bins will review the details of any and all accidents. Where the above standards have not been met - and they are not easy to meet! - these attorneys may aggressively pursue increased sanctions against employers. In many states, injuries due to the "wilful intent" of the employer result in higher indemnity payments. In the event of serious injuries or fatalities, attorneys may attempt to pierce the "exclusive remedy" shield of workers comp and secure substantially higher benefits due to employer "negligence".

In other words, OSHA may have raised the stakes for grain bin operators above the traditional "no fault" level. While there is nothing radically new in the required safety procedures, the fact that OSHA has presented a definitive list means that employers are accountable for each and every one of these procedures. As is customary, violations will result in heavy fines. But in addition to the fines, bin operators may be at risk for exposures well beyond the "usual and customary" comp benefits.

The working conditions in grain bins are extremely challenging. There are critical time pressures, complex mechanical issues, weather concerns and at times, a shortage of trained labor. Teenagers -all too frequently the victims in bin accidents - may or may not take safety precautions seriously. If life on the farm is difficult, life in the bins may be even harder. When it comes to safety and the protection of the people doing the work, OSHA's sympathies are with the workers. In this environment, when serious accidents occur, employers will be judged by a single criteria: did they follow the OSHA book on grain bin safety? If not, bin operators are likely to pay, pay and pay again.

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June 7, 2011

 

Every year as summer approaches and kids join the work force, many for the first time, the National Consumer League (NCL) offers its updated list of the 5 most dangerous jobs for teens, along with excellent advice for parents and teens on keeping the work experience safe. In 2011, their picks for the most dangerous teen jobs are:

  • Agriculture: Harvesting Crops and Using Machinery
  • Construction and Height Work
  • Traveling Youth Sales Crews
  • Outside Helper: Landscaping, Groundskeeping, and Lawn Service
  • Driver/Operator: Forklifts, Tractors, and ATV's

The NCL notes that the five worst jobs for teens are not ranked in order. They earn their place on the list because they all share higher than normal injury or fatality rates. If you are an employer who hires teens, a parent with working age teens, or a teen workers, please take the time to look at the excellent report that the NCL has compiled.

We've compiled some additional resources for teen safety. While many are appropriate for all groups, we've sorted them by primary relevance for employers, teens, and parents.

Resources for employers
Employers need to take particular care with young workers. It's in the teens best interest and it is in every employer's best interests as well: According to HR Daily Advisor, "A recent DOL decision assessed penalties of over $277 thousand against movie theaters for employing youths in dangerous jobs and for working them illegally long hours. Have summer hiring plans? Better review youth hiring rules." The site offers two tip sheets for employers:
Summer Hiring? Watch for Tricky Child Labor Laws and Summer Jobs for Kids--Many Restrictions on Duties and Hours

Interstate Labor Standards Association - an organization of state labor department officials. Find your state contacts and get information on Child Labor Laws.

5 Leadership Lessons: What You Need to Know about Developing Teen Leadership

OSHA: Young Workers: Employers

NIOSH: Young Worker Safety & Health

Washington's Department of Labor & Industries: Youth Job Safety Resources

National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety

Iowa: Iowa Safe Youth @ Work

DOL: Yout Rules: for Employers


For teen workers
American Society of Safety Engineers: Target Teen Safety Tool Kit, including the The ASSE Interactive Zombie Game

OSHA: Young Workers - site includes a variety of safety videos for teen workers, as well as resources

OSHA Young Worker Summer Job Safety
-- Construction
--Farmwork
--Landscaping
--Lifeguarding
--Parks & Recreation
--Restaurants
--Safe Driving

DOL: Youth Rules: for Teens

Farm Safety 4 Just Kids

California: Young Workers

Canada: Passport to Safety

CCOHS: Young Workers Zone!

CDC: Are You a Working Teen? What you should know about safety and health on the job

CDC: ¿Eres un Joven que Trabaja? Cosas que Debes Saber sobre la Seguridad y la Salud en el Trabajo


Parents
KidsHealth: Making Sure Your Teen's Job is Safe

DOL: Youth Rules: for Parents

OSHA: Young Workers - Parents

DOL: Youth & Labor

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May 24, 2011

 

Our highways are increasingly being populated with an array of new vehicles, from hybrids to electric cars and variety of lesser known technologies. And every time the cost of gas spikes, more and more consumers consider the options. A newly released J.D. Power and Associates study indicates major growth in consumer interest in green cars. The firm expects as much as 10 percent of sales to come from fuel-efficient vehicles by 2016, which would be a four-fold increase in green car sales over 2010. The Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (EV), has been on sale in the U.S. market since mid-December 2010. By next year, GM believes it can sell as many as 60,000 Volts and Amperas. And other EVs have also made a recent debut: the Nissan Leaf and the Ford Focus, to name but a few.

New technologies pose new challenges. When firefighters, police and other emergency personnel respond to a vehicle collision, they need to be up to speed about these new technologies and any hazards they may pose during extrication and resue. These include risks related to electric shock, unintended vehicle movement due to multiple energy sources, new types of vehicle batteries, fire extinguishment/overhaul, and vehicle charging stations and infrastructure associated with electric vehicles.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has geared up for the challenge. Funded by $4.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and working in partnership with several vehicle manufactureres, the NFPA has launched an Electric Vehicle Safety Training program to help firefighters, police, and emergency medical technicians to prepare for the growing number of electric vehicles on the road in the United States. Training will encompass videos, classroom-training courses, self-paced online programs, and simulations to help first responders navigate the science and components of EVs, plug-in EVs, and hybrids. Training programs will help first responders ascertain whether the car is disabled or not, provide information about how to power down vehicles, demonstrate how to safely disconnect the high-voltage system, and show safe cut points for extrication.

An NFPA Journal article entitled Taking Charge offers more details about the program. According to a spokesperson, there are about 185 different makes and models of electric vehicles on the road today. The evsafetytraining.org site "...will also serve as a central repository for all EV-related training materials, and General Motors, Ford, Nissan, Tesla, and others will provide content to the program's e-learning component. Another website highlight will be the Emergency Field Guide Database, which will list details of every EV produced since 2008. First responders will be able to identify badging, no-cut zones, airbag locations, and power-down procedures specific to each vehicle."

Bonus: Firehouse.com offers a behind the scene look at the filming of the program's video staring N.H. and Nev. firefighters.

Other resources

The National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium (NAFTC) is an alternative fuel vehicle and advanced technology vehicle training organization. It is headquartered at West Virginia University and consists of National Training Centers (NTCs) located nationwide from Maine to California. NAFTC develops curricula and disseminates training about alternative fuel vehicles and advanced technology vehicles. Over 1,000 organizations such as Walt Disney World, U.S. Air Force, and NASA have participated in the NAFTC's training, education, and outreach activities. NAFTC educates consumers about AFVs and advanced technology vehicles. In addition, the NAFTA curricula offers First Responder Safety Training in Hybrid Electric Vehicles and Hydrogen Vehicles.

Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Center (AFDC) is an offshoot of the US Department of Energy providing a wide range of information and resources to enable the use of alternative fuels (as defined by the Energy Policy Act of 1992), in addition to other petroleum reduction options such as advanced vehicles, fuel blends, idle reduction, and fuel economy. It offers resources on alternative and advanced vehicles

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May 19, 2011

 

Last year 29 coal miners died in an explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. Don Blankenship, Massey CEO, blamed the explosion on federal interference and a gigantic methane bubble that percolated up from below the mine shafts. The bubble has burst, but not in the way Blankenship would have you believe.

An independent team appointed by the former West Virginia governor, Joe Manchin, and led by the former federal mine safety chief Davitt McAteer, has issued its findings, which are both unambiguous and scathing. There was no methane bubble. There was, instead, a pattern of negligence by management that led directly to the deaths of the miners.

As summarized in the New York Times, the report is a searing indictment of Massey's management style:

"The story of Upper Big Branch is a cautionary tale of hubris," the report concluded. "A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coalfields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk-taking."
The report goes on to say that a "perfect storm" was brewing inside the mine, combining poor ventilation, equipment whose safety mechanisms were not functioning and coal dust, which, contrary to industry rules, had been allowed to accumulate, "behaving like a line of gunpowder carrying the blast forward in multiple directions."

Given the uncompromising language of the report, Massey management may not enjoy the "exclusive remedy" protections of the workers comp statute. They are now vulnerable to charges of criminal negligence. I suspect that attorneys for the widows and children of the miners will look rather closely at the assets of Massey's (now former) CEO.

Farewell, My Ugly
Don Blankenship resigned from his CEO post in December of last year. Don't bother putting up a collection to buy this ethically-challenged titan of business a gold watch. In 2009 he earned $17.8 million, which does not include deferred compensation of an additional $27.2 million. There is no question that Blankenship's leadership created profits for the company. Unfortunately, these profits came at the expense of the environment and of the men who extracted the coal from the West Virginia mountains.

The anecdote that tells you a lot about Blankenship involves his personal water supply. When Massey Energy activity poisoned the water reaching his own home, Blankenship ran a private pipeline to the next town, where clean water was readily available. His neighbors, lacking Blankenship's resources, have to make do with the local, polluted water.

It will be interesting to see what happens next. In a just world, Blankenship would be held accountable for his actions as Massey's CEO. But we do not live in a world where justice prevails very often. Blankenship will likely continue to enjoy his retirement years, drinking clean mountain waters, railing about government interference, buying a few politicians and generally living the good life. We can only hope that each and every night his dreams are haunted by visions of the 29 miners and their struggling families. That would be one form of justice indeed.

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May 12, 2011

 

A couple of days ago my colleague Julie Ferguson blogged OSHA's new focus on farm safety. We all share the concern for the safety of farm workers. But OSHA is upping the ante in a way that requires the immediate attention of both insurance companies and their clients. As part of their investigation into the deaths of two teenage workers in a silo operated by Haasbach LLC, OSHA issued subpoenas for documents from Haasbach's insurer, Grinnell Mutual Reinsurance Co. OSHA wanted to review safety inspection reports and any follow up documentation from Haasbach. The insurer refused, arguing that the subpoena would discourage businesses from allowing insurers to conduct safety inspections if the material contained in the inspection reports can be used against a business during later litigation or OSHA enforcement proceedings.

The U.S. district court has ordered that the records be given to OSHA.OSHA Assistant Secretary Dr. David Michaels praised the decision. "The court affirmed OSHA's authority to obtain relevant information from an employer's workers' compensation insurance company. This is not surprising legally, but it does illustrate that workers' compensation and OSHA are not separate worlds divorced from each other," he said. "Workers' compensation loss control activities overlap with OSHA's efforts to bring about safe and healthful workplaces, and in order to achieve a safe and healthful working environment for all Americans, all efforts of business, insurance, labor and government must move forward together."

The court ruled that OSHA has jurisdiction to investigate the workplace fatalities, and further has the authority to require the production of relevant evidence and the ability to issue a subpoena to obtain that evidence. The requested documents, which included copies of site safety inspections, applications for insurance coverage for the site, and correspondence between Grinnell and Haasbach concerning the site, were found to "reasonably relate to the investigation of the incident and the question of OSHA jurisdiction," according to the decision.

A Tighter Safety Net
The court's ruling has important implications for both insurers and their clients.

Insurers are required to provide safety services, including site inspections with the findings documented in written reports. Usually, the safety inspector asks for a written response within a set time period. With OSHA potentially accessing these reports, there is liability for insurers: did they identify safety problems? Did they follow up to ensure that the problems were fixed within a reasonable period of time? It's another version of the great liability question: what did you know and when did you know it?

Similarly, the documents put insureds at risk. Safety issues have been identified. How did the business respond? Did they fix the problem? Did they perform the necessary training? Did they document their activities to show good faith in correcting identified concerns?

In all of this activity, candor is essential. The last thing anyone wants - and that anyone certainly includes OSHA - is for this court's ruling to have a chilling effect on the routine inspections performed by insurance companies. The concern is that inspectors, sensing OSHA reading over their shoulders, might hedge the findings just a bit - enough, perhaps, to create an ambiguity in the finding that results in an ineffective and unfocused response by the insured, which, in turn, perpetuates the hazard and leads, perhaps, to a serious injury or even death. That would be an unintended consequence of tragic dimension.

Focus on Safety
As always when OSHA becomes involved, there is a lot of money on the table. Following the fatalities, Haasbach was issued 25 citations with a penalty of $555,000. This was in response to the situation where three (untrained) workers became entrapped in corn more than 30 feet deep. At the time of the incident, the workers were "walking down the corn" to make it flow while machinery used for evacuating the grain was running: all in a day's work on the farm, and extremely hazardous.

It is certainly not in the best interests of insurance companies and their clients to build defenses against potential OSHA involvement. If we all share a commitment to safety - and we must - then an open and candid dialogue is essential. To be sure, both insurers and their clients are "on the hook" once problems have been identified. But surely it is in their combined interests to fix those problems as quickly as possible. Insurers and their clients must keep the focus where it belongs: not on OSHA, but on the moment-to-moment, day-to-day safety of workers on farms, in factories and in every American workplace.

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May 10, 2011

 

Suffocation in a manure slurry pit. Being attacked and crushed by a bull. Being crushed by an 1800 pound bale of hay. Being run over by heavy farm equipment. These aren't the things you think of when you drive by a pastoral, picture-postcard scene of a herd of grazing dairy cows. Yet dairy farms are among the most hazardous and deadly work environments in the nation.

In this month's Risk & Insurance, Cyril Tuohy discusses how OSHA is ramping up inspections at Wisconsin dairy farms - partly in response to the death of a migrant worker last spring in a manure pit - and in response to an overall high industry fatality rate.

Of the industry's lethality, Tuohy reports:

The labor statistical category for dairy farming, which includes all agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, reported 26 fatal work-related injuries per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers in 2009, the latest year for which numbers are available. That gives this occupational category the highest ratio among all categories.
Its fatality rate is more than double the No. 2 deadliest category, the mining sector with its 12.7 fatal work-related injuries per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers, the BLS statistics reveal. Transportation and warehousing (12.1 fatal injuries), construction (9.7 fatal injuries) and wholesale trade (4.9 fatal injuries) round out the top five deadliest occupations.
There were a total of 551 deaths reported in 2009 in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, up from 286 fatalities reported in 2008. A total of 4,340 workers died in 2009 in all sectors, down 17 percent from 5,214 in 2008.

In his paper Dairy Farm Safety and OSHA - Approaches for effective management and worker training David Douphrate discusses the most common safety hazards in dairy farms:

One of the most common causes of death and serious injury on farms is related to the heavy equipment required to run a dairy farm. A high number of farming fatalities are due to tractor turnovers. Other causes of fatalities include silage bunker collapse, manure pits, tractor power take offs (PTO) and large animals such as dairy bulls.
Recent research studies show that the two main causes of workers' injuries (fatal and non-fatal) are incidents with machinery and animals [Mitloehner and Calvo 2008]. Machine-related accidents include tractor rollovers, being run over by tractors and being entangled in rotating shafts. Animal-related injuries include kicks, bites, and workers being pinned between animals and fixed objects. Other causes of injuries include chemical hazards, confined spaces, manure lagoons, use of power tools, and improper use or lack of personal protective equipment [Mitloehner and Calvo 2008].

Douphrate's paper also documents the most common citations that resulted from 736 diary inspections between 2000 to 2010:

* Lack of proper injury and illness prevention program.
* Lack of work injury recording and reporting.
* Lack of mounting or proper tagging of portable fire extinguishers.
* Inadequate communication program about hazardous chemicals.
* Inadequate process safety management of highly hazardous chemicals.
* Inadequate hazardous waste operation management and emergency response.
* Inadequate respiratory protection.
* Lack of roll-over protective structures (ROPS).
* Inadequate guarding floor and wall openings and holes.
* Inadequate eye and face protection.
* Inadequate medical services and first aid.
* Inadequate guarding of field and farmstead equipment.

An industry fueled by immigrant workers
As damning as some of the injury and death statistics are, the reality might be even worse. Many farm workers may be reluctant to report injuries due to their illegal, undocumented status - a fact that makes these workers an easy population to exploit. A 2009 article in High Country News documented this Dark Side of Dairies, portraying a broken system that leaves immigrant workers invisible - and in danger. According to the article:

The majority of the West's nearly 50,000 dairy workers are immigrants, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture sociologist William Kandel. Many of them are undocumented, monolingual Spanish speakers like Gustavo. Such workers are unlikely to report injuries or file claims with the state for money to recover medical bills and missed pay for fear of getting fired or deported.

To make matters worse, agricultural workers are not afforded most of the federal labor law protections that are extended to workers in other industries.

Other dangerous industries, such as meatpacking, logging and construction, have specific safety standards mandated by state or federal labor agencies. While dairies fall under the general agricultural safety regulations for tractors and heavy machinery, there are no specific standards for how workers should be protected while milking or moving cows. Dairy workers in Washington, Nevada, Oregon and California are entitled to lunch and rest breaks, but legal aid organizations in these states say the laws are rarely enforced.

What dairy operations can expect from OSHA
An article in Hoard's Dairyman discusses OSHA's dairy initiative and talks about what dairy farms might expect:

As OSHA begins to take a closer look at dairy farms, there are a number of areas they will be evaluating. "If you have grain bins, and many dairies do, they will look at procedures for the confined space entry," says Carter. "Perhaps a bigger concern will be manure pit guarding. The State of Wisconsin requires guarding per your manure pit application. Many states may have similar rules," he notes.

The article also offers advice to farmers for what to do if OSHA makes a visit, and what the range of fines are for violations.

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May 4, 2011

 

Last month we blogged the suicide of Dave Duerson, a former NFL star who killed himself at the age of 50. In order to preserve his brain for study, he took the unusual step of shooting himself in the chest. He suspected - and the subsequent autopsy confirmed - that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative and incurable disease that is linked to memory loss, depression and dementia. A definitive diagnosis is available only through an autopsy.

Among the many ironies surrounding this sad tale is the fact that Duerson sat on the six person NFL committee that reviewed claims for medical benefits submitted by retired players. Duerson was known for his harsh line on these claims, apparently voting to deny benefits in many cases (the votes of individual committee members were not recorded). He even testified before a Senate subcommittee in 2007, supporting the NFL's position that there was no definitive relationship between repeated concussions and subsequent dementia.

The days of denial appear to be over. Dr. Ira Casson, who represented the "prove it" mentality of the NFL, is no longer actively involved. The medical evidence is accumulating; while some refuse to connect the dots, it's increasingly clear that repeated brain trauma (concussion) is often directly related to a precipitous decline in brain function in the post-gridiron years.

Old Game, New Order
The NFL is trying to improve the safety of its players. The new rules limiting return to the playing field after a concussion are taking root. Helmet to helmet hits are being penalized with increasing financial severity. But even as the league tries to limit future exposures, the fate of retired players looms large. There will be increasing numbers of claims for disability, including workers comp where applicable, by players who face a substantially diminished burden of proof to connect dementia to playing field ("workplace") exposures.

It is painful to contemplate the agony of Dave Duerson's final days. Confronted with the incontrovertible evidence of his own demise, he must have realized how wrong he had been in taking the company line on dementia. He knew what his own autopsy would reveal: a brain damaged by chronic traumatic encephalopathy, caused by repeated trauma. His choosing to shoot himself in the chest was a farewell gesture, not only to his own life, but to the beliefs that had led him to take a hard line with his former colleagues. A loyal member of the "old guard," he ended his life with the unmistakable and moving embrace of the new order.

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May 3, 2011

 

In honor of NAOSH week, we thought it might be nice to feature a sampling of safety tips from the next crop of safety engineers. It's nice to see these kids are learning such important lessons early. Good job, kids!

Camille-D-Soto.jpg

Camille D. Soto, 6, FL: Make sure you wear safety glasses...

Tamaya-Olivia-Bush.jpg

Tamaya Olivia Bush, 8, SC; Come Join the Crew

Damoreon-Travis.jpg

Da'moreon Travis, 10, KY, Make Safety First or You Won't Last

Sai-Pravallika-Velicheti.jpg

Sai Pravallika Velicheti, 12, Kuwait; Confined Spaces Can Kill

Robin-Newman.jpg

Robin Newman, 14, AL; Don't be the sender to cause a fender bender

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April 28, 2011

 

Today is the annual day devoted to memorializing all those who died at work and honoring their memory by committing to work for safer conditions for the living. April 28 was chosen because it is the anniversary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the day of a similar remembrance in Canada.

Each year, to coincide with this day, the AFL-CIO issues
Death on the Job - The Toll of Neglect (PDF) - A National and State-By-State Profile of Worker Safety And Health In the United States. This is the 20th Edition. It offers a detailed breakdown - here is a brief into:

In 2009 (the latest figures available), 4,340 workers were killed on the job--an average of 12 workers a day--and an estimated 50,000 died of occupational diseases. More than 4.1 million workplace injuries and illnesses were reported in private and state and local workplaces. But the report says the 4.1 million "understates the problem," and the actual number is more likely 8 million to 12 million.

The safety report estimates that since the OSH Act become law 40 years ago tomorrow, it has saved an estimated 431,000 lives. The nation's two mining laws, the 42-year-old Coal Mine Health and Safety Act and the 34-year-old Mine Safety and Health Act, have saved thousands more.

Last year's string of major workplace tragedies, however, shows the desperate need for stronger safety and health rules coupled with tougher enforcement. Those disasters included the Upper Big Branch (W.Va.) coal mine explosion that killed 29 miners, an explosion at the Kleen Energy plant in Middletown, Conn., that killed six workers, another at the Tesoro Refinery in Washington State that killed seven workers and the BP/Deepwater Horizon Gulf Coast oil rig explosion that killed 11 and caused a massive environmental and economic disaster. Says the report:

The nation must renew the commitment to protect workers from injury, disease and death and make this a high priority. Employers must meet their responsibilities to protect workers and be held accountable if they put workers in danger. Only then can the promise of safe jobs for all of America's workers be fulfilled.

The number of workers killed on the job fell in 2009 and the rate of on-the-job deaths dropped, 3.3 per 100,000 workers, down from 3.7 per 100,000 workers in 2008. But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says the economy was a major factor as the recession resulted in declines in hours worked, particularly in construction and other industries that historically have experienced large numbers of fatalities.

A state-by-state breakdown of job deaths and injuries in "Death on the Job" finds that Montana led the country with the highest rate of worker fatalities in 2009, with Louisiana, North Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska following close behind. The report also finds that Latino workers continue to be at increased risk of dying on the job, with a fatality rate of 3.7 per 100,000 workers in fiscal year (FY) 2009.
(More at AFL-CIO)

For more on Worker Memorial day events:
AFL-CIO - about and 2011 events & resources
Weekly Toll
Statement By John Howard, M.D., Director, National Institute For Occupational Safety And Health (NIOSH)
Workers' Memorial Day * 28 April on Facebook

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April 26, 2011

 

Kudos to the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), whose 32,000 members will be celebrating the organization's 100 year mark during the annual North American Occupational Health & safety Week (or NAOSH week, for short), which runs from May 1 to May 7. Annually, ASSE teams up with the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering (CSSE) in the first week of May to raise public awareness about safety.

Here's a few of the resources that are available

NAOSH Week Toolkit
Safety Through the Decades chart
May 4 - Occupational Health and Safety Professional Day

ASSE's 100th Anniversary

ASSE's 100th Anniversary from jon schwerman on Vimeo.


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April 12, 2011

 

Events at the damaged Fukushima plant continue to deteriorate. Today we learn that Japan's nuclear regulatory agency has raised the Fukushima accident rating level to a 7, the most serious level. Chernobyl is the only other nuclear accident to have been rated a Level 7 event.

U.S. authorities and the news media have been quick to try to stem any public panic about the levels of radiation exposure here in the U.S. This is more than just spin - while many aren't aware of it, there is a national network of radiation monitors called Radnet. It is operated by the Environmental Protection Agency and includes at least 200 monitoring stations spread across the country. It measures radioactive substances in air, precipitation, drinking water, and milk. Reports are that only trace amounts of radiation have surfaced here in the U.S.

People may still have questions and heightened anxiety as the news plays out in alarming daily headlines. Many employees may also have questions about potential exposures related to their specific jobs. Employers would do well to stay informed and be prepared to address concerns.

For example, employees who travel for their jobs may have questions about exposure, particularity if work takes them to Japan or Southeast Asia. Employees in manufacturing firms that get parts or cargo from Japan may have concerns. Airline personnel, mail carriers, and package handlers may have concerns. People who work in or live near domestic nuclear facilities may have concerns.

OSHA and NIOSH have paired up to produce resources for both employers and workers. These include an OSHA resource on Radiation Dispersal from Japan and the Effect on U.S. Workers and a NIOSH page on worker information, which specifically addresses some of the concerns posed above.

Here are some additional resources:


Everyone reacts to news of national and international crises differently. With proper information and facts, most people should be able to put concerns in perspective. But for whatever reason, some people "get stuck" in worry and anxiety mode. Sometimes that can be the result of prior post-traumatic stress, or related to a particular health concern. Be sensitive to the potential for high anxiety - if information and facts don't relieve the stress, it may be a good time for a referral to your organization's EAP.

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April 5, 2011

 

Remember playing those "what's wrong with this picture" games in activity books when you were a kid? Well WorkSafe BC has adapted the concept as a safety tool. Every issue of WorkSafe Magazine includes a photo that has been staged to show at least six hazards or dangerous work habits - you can interact with the photo to position pushpins on identified hazards, describe the hazards, and then submit your response to WorkSafeBC for a possible prize (although it's likely that only B.C. residents are eligible). In each issue, they include the winning entry from the last issue, along with responses from other readers. Neat.

One of the really cool and useful things is that they keep an archive of all past photos online - you can either take the challenge online and then check the answer key, or you can print the photos and the answer keys and use them in safety meetings or toolbox talks.

Here's one example: Can you spot the safety hazards in this commercial kitchen? Note: the image below is only a sample pic - the online interactive version is accessible at Kitchen Safety and here's the commercial kitchen answer key to check your responses.

WorkSafeBC.jpg

Archived "What's wrong with this photo" tools
There's a pretty good array of work scenarios representing a variety of industries. Here are direct links to each:

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March 30, 2011

 

A few years ago, an important NIOSH study on nursing home lifting equipment demonstrated that the benefits outweigh the costs. In addition to recapping the equipment investment in less than three years, NIOSH found a 61% reduction in resident-handling workers' compensation injury rates; a 66% drop in lost workday rates; and a 38% decline in restricted workdays. Plus, the rate of post-intervention assaults during resident transfers dropped by 72%. That's pretty impressive.

Now we have further evidence based on the recently-released study by NCCI: Safe Lifting Programs at Long-Term Care Facilities and Their Impact on Workers Compensation Costs (PDF). The study was a collaborative effort with the University of Maryland School of Medicine. It was limited to facilities that have had safe lift programs in place for more than three years. Originally, researches intended to compare the experience of facilities with and without such programs, but during the course of the research, the rate of adoption of safe lifting devices was so great that close to 95% of facilities had them and about 80% of those used them regularly.

NCCI summarizes the study results:

"After controlling for ownership structure and differences in workers compensation systems across states, the statistical analysis performed as part of this study shows that an increased emphasis on safe lift programs at long-term care facilities is associated with fewer workplace injuries and lower workers compensation costs. More precisely, higher values of the safe lift index are associated with lower values for both frequency and total costs. The safe lift index captures information on the policies, training, preferences, and barriers surrounding the use of powered mechanical lifts. The institution's commitment to effectively implementing a safe lift program appears to be the key to success."

One of the interesting aspects of the study is the safe lift index, referenced above, which was developed by researchers to aggregate answers from the survey questions into a single number. Researchers looked at several variables pertaining to policies and procedures. These included the training of certified nursing assistants in proper use of mechanized lifts, preferences of the Director of Nursing for powered mechanical lift use, potential barriers to the use of powered mechanical lifts, and enforcement of the lift policies. The report discusses these factors in greater detail, and demonstrate that there are many variables beyond just the equipment that affect overall program efficacy.

Many states have safe patient handling laws

In recent years, a number of states have enacted legislation mandating safe patient lifting - and that no doubt has contributed to the rapid adoption rate noted by NCCI researchers. According to the American Nursing Association, a strong advocate for such legislation, 9 states have implemented safe patient handling laws. These include Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington, with a resolution from Hawaii. In addition, they are tracking states with pending legislation in 2001, currently 6 states: California, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri and Vermont. You can also track this legislation via a map and you can access additional resources and information at ANA's excellent Safe Patient Handling website.

Prior posts on safe lifting
Texas enacts safe lifting guidelines for a hazardous industry
Washington passes "Safe Patient Handling" legislation
NIOSH study on nursing home lifting equipment: benefits outweigh costs
Safe Lifting and Movement of Nursing Home Residents

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March 14, 2011

 

If you asked the average person to list professions with the highest rates of violent assault, few would put health care professionals high up on that list. But the reality is that when it comes to workplace violence, nurses, nursing aids, and paramedics have the dubious distinction of being very high up on the list; only police and correctional officers suffer a higher rate of on-the-job assaults. And many nurses say that the violence is only getting worse.

In a fact sheet on violence, The International Council of Nurses, a federation of more than 130 national nurses associations representing the millions of nurses worldwide, says that:

  • Health care workers are more likely to be attacked at work than prison guards or police officers.
  • Nurses are the health care workers most at risk, with female nurses considered the most vulnerable.
  • General patient rooms have replaced psychiatric units at the second most frequent area for assaults.
  • Physical assault is almost exclusively perpetrated by patients.
  • 97% of nurse respondents to a UK survey knew a nurse who had been physically assaulted during the past year.
  • 72% of nurses don't feel safe from assault in their workplace.
  • Up to 95% of nurses reported having been bullied at work.
  • Up to 75% of nurses reported having been subjected to sexual harassment at work.
Last fall, the issue of safety for nurses and allied health professional was brought to the forefront after the deaths of two California healthcare workers in separate incidents. In October, psychiatric technician Donna Gross was strangled to death and robbed at Napa State Hospital. Days later, nurse Cynthia Barraca Palomata died after being assaulted by an inmate at Contra Costa County's correctional facility in Martinez. The deaths have sparked a new push for better security and stronger worker safeguards, particularly in settings treating prisoners and psychiatric patients.

While the occupational danger in environments like prisons and psychiatric hospitals is recognized and real, these are hardly the only high-hazard settings in which nurses work. Hospital emergency rooms are widely recognized as a hazardous environment, but violence occurs in other wards, too. Last year, the Well, a NY Times healthcare blog, featured an article by RN Theresa Brown entitled Violence on the Oncology Ward. And the CDC recently spotlighted research focusing on an increase in assaults on nursing assistants in nursing homes. In that study, 35% of nursing assistants reported physical injuries resulting from aggression by residents, and 12% reported experiencing a human bite during the year before the interview. There are no healthcare settings that are immune. Assaults routinely occur in general hospitals, in health clinics, and in patients' homes.

The perpetrators of violence are varied: While many assaults are by patients, friend and family members of patients also can commit the assaults. There are also rapists or muggers who are targeting healthcare settings or solitary workers; drug addicts and robbers, who are looking for medications; and domestic violence brought into the workplace. And it's unclear why violence is on the rise. Many point to staff shortages. Others see the preponderance of alcohol, drugs, and ready access to weapons as contributing factors; others think that hospital administrators do too little in the area of prevention.

Some are seeking legislative relief that would require hospitals and healthcare facilities to have safety and security plans and training in place. In a posting on KevinMD.com, respected physician Kevin Pho suggests that the rising tide of violence against healthcare workers might be emblematic of a dysfunctional health system, where healthcare is viewed as a commodity, and the caregiver-patient relationship is deteriorating. He says:

"Sometimes the simplest approaches are the most effective. Rather than adding security or installing metal detectors to prevent hospital violence, doctors and nurses could do a better job of empathizing with patients who are under stress when they are hospitalized or are angry because they've waited hours for medical care. At the same time, patients must realize that health care professionals are doing the best they can with an overtaxed health care system and should never resort to violence or abuse."

In HealthLeaders Media, John Commins discusses an innovative approach undertaken by the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics - a program to codify risk of hospital violence.

Recently, the Emergency Nurses Association issued a Workplace Violence Toolkit, targeted specifically at emergency department managers or designated team leaders.

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March 1, 2011

 

Dave Duerson was a star safety in the NFL. He used his head in the way that aggressive defensive backs often do - as a battering ram to bring an opponent down, maybe even jar the ball loose. He was articulate, generous and in his post-football life, successful. So it saddened many of his friends and colleagues to learn that he had committed suicide last month. But even in this last, desperate act there was a method to the madness: he shot himself in the chest, so that his brain would be left intact. He was convinced that the downward spiral of his life over the past few years was due to football-related brain damage - chronic traumatic encephalopathy. He texted his ex-wife just before he shot himself, requesting that his brain be given to the NFL brain bank. Just in case she did not get the message, he left a written note with the same instructions.

We have blogged the issue of concussions in the NFL and their potential for long-term brain damage. As this prior blog pointed out, a changing of the NFL's medical guard indicates that the league finally appears willing to confront the issue head on (so to speak). They no longer systematically deny a connection between concussions on the field and severe cognitive problems after football careers come to an end.

Over the past few years, Duerson was in a downward spiral. He lost his business to bankruptcy. He (uncharacteristically) assaulted his wife, who soon felt compelled to end their marriage. While his friends did not see major changes in his behavior, he talked openly of his fears of dementia. He suffered short-term memory loss, blurred vision and pain on the left side of his brain. He looked into the future and despaired at what he saw coming. At the time of his death, Duerson was only 50.

Suicide as Political Act
Duerson's last gesture was an explicitly political act. He was convinced that his life problems - and the rapidly diminishing quality of that life - were directly connected to his years as a football player. So he not only decided to end his life, he made sure that suicide would leave his brain intact for research. The NFL has been (belatedly) collecting the brains of deceased players willing to donate them, to try and determine the impact of repeated violent collisions on aging. At this point, there is not much doubt of the causal connection - not in every individual who played the game, but surely in a significant percentage who suffered from multiple concussions.

With this connection medically proven, the burden falls on the NFL to improve player safety. That will not be easy. This past season, a number of players - most notably the Steelers linebacker James Harrison- complained about the newly implemented fines for helmut to helmut hits, defined as:

"using any part of a players helmet (including the top/crown and forehead/hairline parts) or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily; although such violent or unnecessary use of the helmet is impermissible against any opponent, game officials will give special attention in administering this rule to protect those players who are in virtually defenseless postures..."

Duerson the player would have agreed with Harrison about the rule. Duerson the retiree would have supported it. Experience is an exacting and often cruel teacher. As Duerson's sad demise demonstrates, what we choose to ignore in the prime of life may give birth to demons that haunt us as we age.


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February 16, 2011

 

A Purdue University report revealed that 2010 was the deadliest year in decades for grain bin fatalities. According to a Bloomberg story by Michael J. Crumb, the report indicated there were "51 grain bin accidents last year, up from 38 in 2009 and the most since tracking began in 1978. Twenty-five people died, and five of them were children under age 16. The previous record for grain bin accidents was 42 in 1993."

The bulk of these fatalities occurred in major corn and soybean growing states: "Illinois led the country with 10 accidents last year, followed by Minnesota with eight. Wisconsin had seven, and five were reported in Iowa." The reasons for the spike were attributed to an increase in corn production due to ethanol demands and an unusually wet season. Moisture in storage facilities can cause spoilage and rot, resulting in caked grain which gets clogged and the grain does not flow freely out of the bin so workers enter the bins to dislodge clogs. Of course, the primary reason for the spike in fatalities was the failure to adhere to safe handling practices. As with many industries, unsafe practices are often defended as being "the way it's always been done."

The US Department of Labor and OSHA recently cited 2 Illinois grain elevator operators and imposed nearly $1.4 million in fines for 3 fatalities in incidents where workers suffocated after being engulfed in grain. The citations were issued to Haasbach LLC in Mount Carroll and Hillsdale Elevator Co. in Geneseo and Annawan, Ill., for willful safety violations and to Haasbach for child labor violations. The OSHA link enumerates the nature of the violations in some detail.

Last summer we posted about two of these fatal accidents:
After 2 teen deaths, OSHA puts grain handling facilities on notice
Two farmworking teens killed in silo; media is mystified

OSHA issues letters, guidance to grain bin operators
In response to these incidents, OSHA issued letters to 3,000 grain bin operators. More recently, they issued a second batch of letters, this time to 10,000 grain bin operators across the U.S.

OSHA's grain handling facilities standard includes a requirement that employers provide workers entering bins or tanks with appropriate personal protective equipment such as full body harnesses for easier removal in the event of an emergency. Providing proper protection and not allowing workers to walk or stand in products piled higher than the waist reduces the risk of workers sinking and suffocating.

OSHA also outlined the following guidance:

When workers enter storage bins, employers must (among other things):
1. Turn off and lock out all powered equipment associated with the bin, including augers used to help move the grain, so that the grain is not being emptied or moving out or into the bin. Standing on moving grain is deadly; the grain acts like 'quicksand' and can bury a worker in seconds. Moving grain out of a bin while a worker is in the bin creates a suction that can pull the workers into the grain in seconds.
2. Prohibit walking down grain and similar practices where an employee walks on grain to make it flow.
3. Provide all employees a body harness with a lifeline, or a boatswains chair, and ensure that it is secured prior to the employee entering the bin.
4. Provide an observer stationed outside the bin or silo being entered by an employee. Ensure the observer is equipped to provide assistance and that their only task is to continuously track the employee in the bin
5. Prohibit workers from entry into bins or silos underneath a bridging condition, or where a build-up of grain products on the sides could fall and bury them.
6. Test the air within a bin or silo prior to entry for the presence of combustible and toxic gases, and to determine if there is sufficient oxygen.
7. Ensure a permit is issued for each instance a worker enters a bin or silo, certifying that the precautions listed above have been implemented.

Additional Resources
Grain Handling
OSHA's Grain Handling Facilities Standard
Worker Entry into Grain Storage Bins
OSHA Agricultural Operations
Grain Handling / Harvesting Storage
Hazards Associated with Grain Storage and Handling
Confined Space hazards a threat to farmers
Dangerous Gases and Fires Can Make Silos Death Traps


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February 8, 2011

 

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Image from Wikipedia

Master Cleaners Ltd a central London cleaning company, has posted a fascinating photo feature on their blog called The World's Most Fearless Cleaners. We issue a vertigo warning in advance. Also, the caveat that we are not endorsing the safety procedures or lack thereof that are depicted in the photos.

Here are a few more detailed stories associated with the above photos:


We also recommend this dramatic photo gallery from the New York Public Library's digital archive of Empire State Building construction workers. There are few belts, lifelines, or tethers in sight so it is rather surprising that only five workers were killed during construction. We also found a rare video clip of 1940s-era window washers working on the Empire State Building. (With a bonus of some acrobats doing a stomach-churning stunt on the ledge) And here is a vintage 1934 feature on skyscraper window washers from Modern Mechanix.

Two years ago this month, we wrote about miracle survivor Alcides Moreno, a window washer who survived a 47 story plunge. In that post, we cited the ever-fascinating Free Fall Research Page, which documents reports, stories, and personal accounts of people who survived falls from extreme heights.

If tall structures are your thing, you might enjoy this skyscraper site which tracks the world's tallest buildings. This thread in Skyscraper City features a few articles about cleaning skyscraper windows.

Related resources
OSHA Fall Protection
OSHA: Scaffolding
No such thing as a free fall


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February 1, 2011

 

This storm is a whopper of potentially historic proportion, with warnings and advisories covering a 2,000+ mile swathe from New Mexico and the Southern Plains to the upper Mid-Atlantic and New England. Four states - Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Illinois - have already declared a state of emergency. More than one million square miles of the country are expected to be affected. And even if you live in a balmy state that is not directly affected, expect travel and business disruptions to spill over. (Or maybe the correct term is "snowball?")

If you get confused about the difference, here's a handy guide to how the National Weather Service defines Storm Warnings, Watches and Advisories and here is further clarification for winter weather terminology.

According to National Weather Service, about 70% of the injuries during winter storms result from vehicle accidents, and about 25% of injuries result from being caught out in the storm. Emergency workers who are out and about during the storm and in storm cleanup face additional risks.

Here are some of the most common winter workplace injuries and a toolkit of resources for prevention.

1. Driving accidents on slippery roadways or due to obstructed vision; Being struck by vehicles while working in roadways or while pulled over in roadways
CCOHS: Winter Driving Tips
OSHA: Safe Winter Driving
Mass. DOT: Safe Winter Driving Tips

2. Slips and falls on snowy or ice-covered outdoor walkways and wet indoor floors from snow or ice being carried in.
Winterize your workplace
7 Tips for Winter Slip and Fall Prevention

3. Hypothermia and frostbite due to cold weather exposure
CDC winter weather exposure
NIOSH: Cold Stress
Extreme cold prevention
In case you are stranded while driving in winter

4. Being struck by falling objects such as icicles, tree limbs, and utility poles
Natural disaster response: safety for cleanup workers

5. Falls from heights (roofs, ladders, lifts) while removing snow
OSHA Fall Protection
Safe snow removal
Safe work practices on snow covered roofs

6. Electrocution and burns from downed power lines, downed objects in contact with power lines, or ungrounded electrical equipment.
OSHA: Working Safely Among Downed Power Lines
OSHA Overhead Power Lines
Powerline Safety
NIOSH: Electrical safety
Electrical burns: first aid

7. Lacerations and amputations from unguarded or improperly operated snow blowers, chain saws and power tools
Practice snowblower safety
Mind the machinery while you work

8. Injuries from roof collapse under weight of snow
Preventing roof collapse in winter
Some roofs more prone to collapse

9. Exhaustion from working extended shifts
Fatigue
OSHA: Extended/unusual work shifts

10. Dehydration
Preventing dehydration in winter
Dehydration

11. Back injuries or heart attack while shoveling or removing snow
Snow shoveling is risky
Snow shoveling and snow removal safety

12. Carbon monoxide poisoning from generators used in improperly ventilated areas or from idling vehicles
Occupational Safety and Health Guideline for Carbon Monoxide

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January 19, 2011

 

A website called 11foot8 videos chronicles "the good, the bad and the ugly" of low clearance truck accidents at a single Durham NC trestle bridge. While one might think this is the purview of inexperienced drivers and rental trucks, the videos don't lie: professionals have had their share of accidents, too.

When professionals make a mistake, the results can turn deadly. In September, four people were killed when a bus crashed into a railroad bridge in Syracuse after deviating from the normal route. And even non-fatal incidents wreak havoc in terms of injuries, property losses, hazards to pedestrians and other drivers, and costly traffic tie ups. Here are photos of four serious nonfatal truck and bridge collisions

Prevention tips
Prevention might seem obvious to some, but approximately 5,000 bridge-truck collisions per year say otherwise. Here are some pointers we gleaned from the pros:

  • Plan route in advance and stay on route
  • Check atlas and or gps systems in advance
  • Keep atlases and gps systems up to date
  • Check with any state or major city DOTs (examples: NYC; TX); they often provide good information about the local area
  • Be religious about watching for and heeding signage
  • If on an unfamiliar route, check with other drivers about hazards
  • Talk to shippers and receivers on your route about nearby low clearance
  • When in doubt, don't risk it

Additional Resources
America's Independent Truckers Association (AITA) offers an online database of low clearance bridges with heights broken down by state.

For situations that might require escorts, AITA maintains a truck escort referral listing

This trucker forum discusses low clearance solutions.

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December 22, 2010

 

This is a very busy time for delivery companies.Whether it's the post office, UPS or FedEx, there are more packages moving around than people to handle them. The UPS solution is the hiring of 37,500 (!) temporary workers. These folks have been working for a few weeks and will continue working right up until Christmas Eve, when they will all be laid off. Due to the struggling economy, UPS had no trouble filling temporary jobs. This year, many laid off white-collar workers donned the drab brown uniforms and hopped on board delivery trucks, occupying the "jumper" seat next to the regular driver.

The Wall Street Journal has a nice article about this war-scaled ramp up (subscription required). As you can imagine, there is not a whole lot of time for training the new employees: a few tips on lifting "in the power zone," a caution about getting into the truck ("three point contact") and then off you go. The job is a frenzy of lifting, bending, carrying and climbing. These are physically demanding jobs, with relentless exertion required.

Risk Management Nightmare
Which leads to a loaded question for the risk managers at UPS: what percentage of this temporary workforce will be injured on the job? Even if it's only one half of one percent, that would be nearly 200 people. In all likelihood, they will have been laid off before the claim has been filed. And once laid off, these temps will have no loyalty and no commitment to UPS. They will have already handed in their brown uniforms.

More troubling from a risk perspective, the types of injuries may be the most open-ended and expensive claims in the comp system: back, shoulder and knee injuries, slips and falls on ice (for most of the country it is, after all, a rather tough winter). Statistically, you can expect an occasional robbery or animal bite.

All business entails some risk. Hiring strangers is always risky, no matter how thorough the vetting process - and in this case, that process is foreshortened, to say the least. Placing thousands of temporary employees into physically demanding jobs increases risk exponentially.

So when you go home tonight and look for the packages you are expecting, think for a moment on the harried temporary employees who brought them to your door. And say a little prayer, that the New Year brings these former white-collar workers health, happiness...and a job once again suited to their hard-earned skills.

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December 20, 2010

 

We're just a few short months away from the 100-year anniversary of one of the most horrific industrial tragedies in our nation, one that catapulted the issue of worker safety to the forefront and helped to usher in a new era reform, including the protection afforded by workers compensation programs. On March 21, 1911, The Triangle Factory Fire killed 146 women and girls, most of whom were trapped on an upper floor of the factory. They were unable to get out because the doors had been locked to prevent theft. You can read many first-person accounts of the tragedy at the link above. My colleague wrote about it in his post The Original "No Exit" : The Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire.

In the wake of this tragedy, many safety laws were enacted and many lessons were learned.

Or were they? Last week, the tragedy was mirrored in a Bangladesh garment shop fire that killed 29 women workers and injured another 100. It's feared that more bodies will turn up. Reports say that to prevent theft, emergency exits were locked.

Now some might think that, however tragic, a fire in Bangladesh doesn't have much to do with us here in the U.S. Except that in our global economy, it does. Many of the most successful U.S. retailers and clothing manufactures have outsourced former domestic garment jobs to some 4,000 Bangladesh factories. In an article Workers Burned Alive Making Clothes for the GAP, human rights and labor groups make the link. The article paints a grim picture of serial fatalities in Dickensian-era sweat shops where workers are paid less than a dollar a day. In response to publicized abuses, some US companies have established "Codes of Vendor Conduct," but with a continuing stream of fatalities and worker abuses, labor groups question the effectiveness of these codes and demand a higher level of scrutiny. "How many times in one year do workers have to die before GAP Inc determines that the Hameem group "lacks the intent or ability" to make improvements? This is an American company accountable to American consumers."

It's not just The Gap. Other companies that are supplied by Bangladesh garment factories include Wal-Mart, Tesco, H&M, Zara, Carrefour, Gap, Metro, JCPenney, Marks & Spencer, Kohl's, Levi Strauss and Tommy Hilfiger. Surely, American companies could join forces in leveraging their buying power to demand that safety and basic human rights are enforced.

Unfortunately, here in the U.S., we aren't immune to such abuses, either. In 1991, 25 poultry workers were killed in a Hamlet chicken processing plant in North Carolina, another instance of workers being locked in. An investigation resulted in the owners receiving a 20-year prison sentence and the company was fined the highest penalty in the history of North Carolina. One would think that U.S. employers would have learned from the Triangle and the hamlet fires, but one would be wrong. In 2004, The new York Times reported that Walmart was locking night shift employees in. Later in the same year, OSHA cited a Winn Dixie supermarket in Mobile, Alabama for similar practices.

The road to good safety practices here in the US was paved with the blood of workers. It took incidents like the Triangle fire and large scale mining disasters before the US public clamored for reform. It remains to be seen whether the same types of offshore tragedies will galvanize consumer opinion enough to call for better worker protections.

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December 7, 2010

 
"I had a huge, constant knot in my forearm. Chris Ojeda developed tennis elbow. Matty Eggleston popped a tendon in his hand. We were all sidelined with all these injuries."
"It's the same motion, back and forth, back and forth, rotating up high. You have a heavy weight at the end of the arm, out in the air. It's not just the shoulder. It's the wrist as well."
"Any time you're on your feet for 8, 10, 12 hours at a stretch with that amount of bending, lifted, constant movement, torquing your body around, it takes a toll on you."

You would be forgiven if you think the above quotes are in reference to an athlete's injuries but, no, we are talking bartenders here - - a type of urban athlete, one might say. Robert Simon of The New York Times looks at the stresses and strains - and the resulting injuries - of the modern day bartender. As demand for fancy cocktails and shaken drinks increases, bartenders are paying a price for their tips in the form of repetitive motion and muskuloskeletal injuries.

It doesn't help that bartending, already a profession given to showmanship and flair, has become a bona fide performance art in many establishments. Take the "crazy monkey shake" referenced in the article. When we went looking for more information, we found a reference in this all-star shake-off feature that assesses various shaking styles and the qualitative effects on the resulting cocktail. The author says, "The crazy monkey involves shaking so hard and so long that your body feels like it is flying apart. The idea is to see if a ridiculous and unfeasible shake appreciably alters the drink."

This is by no means the only in-vogue vigorous shaking style. There's also the celebrated "hard shake" method. Watch a clip of Japan's most famous bartender, Kazuo Uyeda, employing the hard shake technique. And this is but one of the hazardous trends that Japanese bartenders, highly regarded as masters of the craft, are popularizing: See ice ball carving and picture doing that 8 hours a day under rush conditions.

Is bartending the new frontier for injury prevention specialists? Judge for yourself next time you are socializing at a busy cocktail lounge over the holiday season. Simon's NYT article talks about the need for bartenders to focus more attention on ergonomics and the need to adopt a mixology form that will minimize stress.

Postscript:
New York master mixologist Eben Freeman offers a hard shake tutorial if you'd like to try your hand. Presumably, this shaking style is a tad less perilous to the occasional cocktail maker than to the professional.

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November 18, 2010

 

As we head into winter, alas, let's cast a fond look back at the balmy days of summer, when a dish of ice cream is never far from our thoughts. We read in the Vancouver Sun of a workers comp claim related to scooping. An unnamed convenience store employee served ice cream in the spring of 2009. She had a pre-existing shoulder problem, for which she had received cortisone shots. During one two-day period, she scooped $1,500 worth of ice cream cones. The pain in her shoulder flared up, to the point where she had to quit her job.

She had surgery on her shoulder and filed a workers comp claim, which the provincial board initially denied. She prevailed on appeal. Despite the pre-existing condition, her work certainly aggravated her shoulder through repeated scooping, bending and reaching, presumably with her wrist at an awkward angle. Scooping ice cream is not a risk-free endeavor.

Ergonomics at Ben & Jerry's
I called Ben & Jerry's (make mine Cherries Garcia), to learn about their approach to safety. They are well aware of the potential problems. Their employees are taught the mechanics of scooping: aligning themselves in front of the containers; using arm muscles (as opposed to the wrist); taking frequent breaks with stretching. Several of the folks I talked to in corporate began as scoopers in a local store, so their awareness came from personal experience. This is no surprise, given the proactive corporate culture.

The next time you indulge in a frozen treat, check out the mechanics of the scooper: do they move right in front of the bucket or do they reach across? Are the buckets placed so that reaching can be minimized? How well is the arm aligned? Is the wrist bent? Is the ice cream really hard and resistant?

Ok, I know, I sound like a killjoy, but once you look at the world through an ergonomist's eyes, there is no turning back. By all means indulge (moderately) in your pleasures, but try to do no harm.

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November 8, 2010

 

On February 19, 2008, Rachel Moltner, a 76 year old New Yorker, went into the Starbucks at 80th Street and York Avenue and ordered a "venti'-sized" tea. Her tea was served to her double-cupped and lidded. She took it back to a table and tried to remove the lid to add sugar. She had difficulty with the lid, and in the course of her attempts to pry it off, the tea spilled onto her left leg and foot. Moltner suffered severe enough burns to require a skin graft. To compound her woes, during her hospital stay she suffered from bed sores and a fractured sacrum and herniated discs caused by a fall out of bed.

Moltner sued Starbucks. In a follow up to the suit, Starbucks asked how much Moltner was seeking, to which she responded, "not more than $3 million." (Even at Starbuck's prices, that's a lot of tea...)

The suit accused Starbucks of serving tea that was too hot and that the serving in a doubled cup was inherently dangerous. She also said Starbucks should have warned her the tea could spill.

The appeals court rejected her case, saying "double-cupping is a method well known in the industry as a way of preventing a cup of hot tea from burning one's hand." Hm. Mitigate one risk, expose another...

Moltner also lost a subsequent appeal, based upon Starbuck's slow response to her initial suit.

Tea Time
David Jaroslawicz, a lawyer for Moltner, said Tuesday's ruling probably ends his client's case.

"The other side presented an old lady knocking over her tea," he said. "The case was really about that Starbucks has a directive to employees that you should not double-cup because it changes the center of gravity and can cause the cup to tip over."

Note to engineers: Does double cupping really change the center of gravity?

Note to risk managers: Double cup to spare the hand or single cup for steadiness?

Better yet, how about taking your afternoon cuppa in a big white reusable porcelain mug? Still risky, to be sure, but slowing down is the best way to prevent bad things from happening, and slowing down is what tea used to be about.

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October 26, 2010

 

From mancomm.com, supplier of compliance and safety training products, we received the following quiz on OSHA's employee protection regulations, which is excerpted from their Introduction to OSHA booklet. See how well you do.

1. On OSHA's Form 300, Log of Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses, what else might be written in the space marked 'Employee's name' instead of the actual name?
A.) 'Privacy Case' - in the event of a privacy concern case, where confidentiality is necessary.
B.) The employee's job title.
C.) You must always put the employee's first and last name, with no exceptions.
D.) None of the above.

2. Which of these is an item of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for which an employer must pay?
A.) Rubber boots with steel toes.
B.) Prescription eyewear inserts/lenses for full face respirators.
C.) A and B.
D.) Employers must pay for all PPE.

3. Stress is psychological, not physical, so it is not considered a common workplace health hazard. True or false?

4. Why is a confined space, such as a manhole, sewer or silo, considered a potential safety hazard?
A.) It may contain too little oxygen.
B.) It may contain too much oxygen, with potential for an explosion.
C.) It may contain a build-up of carbon monoxide.
D.) All of the above.

5. Work-related fatalities and catastrophes which have resulted in the hospitalization of three or more workers must be reported by employers to OSHA:
A.) Within one hour.
B.) Within eight hours.
C.) Within 48 hours.
D.) Within five working days.

6. A sedentary worker dies of a heart attack at his desk, but because it occurred in the workplace, the death must still be investigated by OSHA. True or false?

7. If an employer retaliates against an employee for engaging in whistleblower activity, the employee:
A.) Has no legal recourse.
B.) Can file a complaint with OSHA.
C.) Has one year to file a complaint.
D.) None of the above.

8. An employee has the right to refuse to do a task, if he or she has reasonable grounds to believe hazardous conditions or imminent danger exists. The employee can:
A.) Walk off the job immediately, with full OSHA protection.
B.) Use vacation time instead of doing the task.
C.) Ask the employer for other work.
D.) Remain on the worksite, even if ordered to leave by the employer.

9. If an employee files an OSHA complaint form, their write-up of the 'Hazard Description/Location' should:
A.) Describe the hazard clearly.
B.) Identify chemicals involved and include copies of labels or Material Safety Data Sheets, if possible.
C.) Include the approximate number of employees exposed to or threatened by each hazard.
D.) All of the above.

10. Components of a Material Safety Data Sheet usually include:
A.) Physical and chemical properties of the substance.
B.) The flavor of the chemical, for accurate identification.
C.) Sales phone number, so more of the substance can be purchased.
D.) All of the above.

11. The OSHA website includes such features as:
A.) The latest OSHA news.
B.) A graphic slideshow of OSHA highlights.
C.) Recent information on worker fatalities.
D.) All of the above.

12. When reading OSHA standards, you will note that they:
A.) Break down into parts, subparts and sections.
B.) Are presented in chapters and paragraphs, like a novel.
C.) Are copiously illustrated with photographs.
D.) Are written in a friendly, conversational style.

==============Click link below for answers

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October 13, 2010

 

Obesity as a health problem is not going away, nor is the issue of whether obese people are considered disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The latest iteration of this saga involves the late Lisa Harrison, a morbidly obese employee of Resources for Human Development (RHD) in New Orleans. Harrison, an intervention prevention/specialist, worked with the children of mothers undergoing treatment for addiction. By all accounts, she performed her job well, but RHD viewed her as limited in a number of major life activities, including walking, so they fired her. Harrison died before the EEOC filed suit, but the lawsuit lives on.

Keith Hill, the field director of the EEOC's New Orleans office, stated, "This is a classic case of disability bias, based on myths and stereotypes. The evidence shows that Ms. Harrison was a good and dedicated employee who did not deserve to be fired. All covered employers, whether for-profit or non-profit, must abide by the ADA's provisions."

It's important to note that the EEOC is not basing the lawsuit on obesity itself, but rather on the idea that RHD perceived Harrison to be disabled. That's why they fired her. The larger issue - so to speak - is whether morbid obesity in itself is a disability. This particular case will not attempt to resolve that condundrum. Thus far, the courts have resisted the idea that any and all obesity is a disability. They look for physiological causes for the obesity, including thyroid disorders and genetics. If there is no specific medical cause for the weight problem, obese people are generally not considered to be disabled.

It all comes down - as it usually does - to the ability to perform the essential functions of the job. Harrison did not seek any accommodation based upon a disability. She simply did her job and apparently did it well. It will be interesting to see whether the RHD defense raises the issue of risk: whether Harrison's morbid obesity placed her or her young charges at immediate risk of harm - not hypothetical, but imminent - a difficult standard to prove.

Related posts:
If you search the Insider for "obesity" you will find three pages of postings. Here are a couple of highlights:
The story of Adam Childers, the obese pizza maker whose stomach stapling operation was covered by workers comp.
The federal case involving Stephen Grindle, whose job loss due to obesity was not covered by the ADA.

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October 7, 2010

 

On Mother's Day in 1999, Custom Bus Charters' bus driver Frank Bedell veered off a highway near New Orleans, killing 22 passengers and injuring 20 others. Just 10 hours before this trip, Bedell was treated at a local hospital for "nausea and weakness." He had been treated at least 20 times in the 21 months prior to the accident, and 10 of those times involved hospitalization for "life-threatening" heart and kidney disease. You can read more about this horrific crash, which remains one of the nation's deadliest bus crashes, at NOLA.com: Loopholes let sick man drive, safety board says. Also of interest: Breaking the law went with the job.

This accident brought the issue of the medical competence of commercial drivers to the public attention in a dramatic way. In its subsequent report of the accident after the investigation, The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that "...the probable cause of this accident was the driver's incapacitation due to his severe medical conditions and the failure of the medical certification process to detect and remove the driver from service. Other factors that may have had a role in the accident were the driver's fatigue and the driver's use of marijuana and a sedating antihistamine.

The incident and investigation prompted NTSB to issue Safety Recommendations revolving around medical certification of commercial drivers.

How are we doing today?
Nearly a decade later, how are these safety measures designed to protect the public from medically unsafe commercial drivers working out? Not too well, according to a recent investigative report by News21, which was published by MSNBC in the article Truckers fit to drive -- if a chiropractor says so: "From 2002, when the recommendations were made, through 2008, the last year for which data is available, there were at least 826 fatal crashes involving medically unqualified or fatigued drivers, according to a News21 analysis of the FMCSA Crash Statistics database."

The article paints a scary portrait of a driver medical certification program that is pretty broken. Truck drivers can pop into roadside clinics to pick up certifications issued after a cursory examination by almost any health professional. And that's a good scenario - drivers can also download online certificates and fill them out themselves or ignore the requirement entirely. Forgeries are a common occurrence. Being caught without a certificate might result in a slap-on-the-wrist fine. While there have been calls for a national registry for medical certification of commercial drivers, the idea has made little progress. It will probably take the next big incident to ignite public outrage to motivate any change.

For a resource on current regulations, see the US Department of Transportation Motor Carrier Safety Administration's Medical Programs, which includes medical regulations and notices, including drug and alcohol testing.

The News21 story on commercial drivers is the third part in a series of four articles that deal with transportation and public safety. Here are the others:

Part 1:
Driving While Tired: Safety officials are slow to react to operator fatigue:
"NTSB does not track fatigue-related highway accidents on a regular basis. But in 1993, the board commissioned a study expecting to learn about the effects of drugs and alcohol on trucking accidents. Investigators studied all heavy-trucking accidents that year and made an unexpected discovery: Fatigue turned out to be the bigger problem. NTSB Crash investigators said driver fatigue played a key role in a bus accident in Utah in 2008 that killed nine people returning from a ski trip.
The study found 3,311 heavy truck accidents killed 3,783 people that year, and between 30 percent and 40 percent of those accidents were fatigue-related."

Part 2: Video in the cockpit: Privacy vs. safety
In 200, the NTSB added a recommendation for video recorders to be installed in commercial and charter planes to its "most wanted" list. Pilot unions and other groups have lobbied this safety measure. See this story's sidebar article: Shhhh! Your pilot is napping

Part 4: Outsourcing safety: Airplane repairs move to unregulated foreign shops
"More maintenance has moved overseas. Airlines are not required to use regulated repair shops. Foreign repair stations can go five years between inspections, and even then are often tipped off that inspectors are coming. Manuals are in English, but not all the workers read English. Drug tests of workers are illegal in some countries.
A News21 analysis of Federal Aviation Administration data showed that about 15,000 accidents or safety incidents in all aviation travel can be attributed at least in part to inferior maintenance or repairs since 1973, when the FAA started keeping such records. In these accidents at least 2,500 people died and 4,200 were injured."

Most wanted list: transportation safety improvements
The NTSB keeps a most wanted list of transportation safety improvements, in which it makes recommendations for critical safety improvements for various transportation sectors. Recommendations are designed to improve public safety and save lives, but many have been on the list for years. In some cases, individual states may have requirements, but these recommendations are national in scope. While issues on the "most wanted list" are pending, individual employers might use the list as best practice guidance for safety programs to limit exposure both for workers compensation and other liability issues that might arise from commercial transportation accidents.

You can find more reports on transportation and public safety at News21, "a national initiative led by 12 of America's leading research universities with the support of two major foundations" with a purpose of furthering in-depth and investigative reporting. In 2010, one of the main areas of focus has been Breakdown: Traveling Dangerously in America.

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October 5, 2010

 

In yesterday's blog on this topic, we told the story of a pizza delivery driver whose undisclosed seizure problem put others (and herself) at risk. Today we examine the inordinate and ultimately terrifying risks that routinely confront the people who deliver pizzas to homes.

The risks of delivery jobs are embodied in one sad tale. Richel Nova, 58, was a hard working immigrant who worked two jobs, one being delivering pizzas for Domino's in Boston. He responded to a call from the Hyde Park neighborhood. The address was a vacant home. He was lured into the house, robbed, stabbed multiple times and left for dead. The three thieves took his money ($100) along with the pizza and drove off in his 1995 Subaru. (The age of the car tells us a lot about Mr. Nova.) The abandoned car was found a bit later, along with the blood-stained pizza box. All but three pieces had been eaten.

Nova's life revolved around his family: twin 20-year-old daughters and an older son. The twins are both juniors in college. All that stood between Nova and a seat at his daughters's graduation next year were a hundred bucks and a pizza to go.

Robberies of delivery people in the Boston area have been a long-standing problem - 52 were reported through mid-September.

Common Ground Among Competitors
The three main pizza chains - Domino's, Pizza Hut and Little Caesar's - have collaborated on developing safety programs for drivers. Among them, they have nearly 90,000 drivers on the road. (Here is the Domino's description of the job.) Statistically, it's not difficult to identify the riskiest neighborhoods for delivery, but the chains face pressure from neighborhood groups and the federal government to provide delivery services without discriminating against the poor.

Back in 2000, Domino's reached an agreement with the Justice Department to formalize a delivery policy for all its restaurants. Reflecting what Domino's said were well-established standard practices, the new guidelines require managers to evaluate crime statistics with local law enforcement agencies and community groups before limiting delivery. As part of that policy, drivers must report any incidences of violence, and delivery limits must be drawn narrowly. (Easier said than done.)

(Sort of) Managing Risk
There are a number of ideas floating around on how drivers should handle what appear to be risky delivery scenarios:
- Require the customer to come to the car to pay for the delivery and pick up the pizza. (This may not be feasible in all circumstances - for example, disabled customers may not be able to come to the street.)
- Require customers to have exact change for their purchase (and hope against hope that they have a bit extra for the tip!)
- Advise drivers not to enter darkened dwellings
- Limit deliveries after certain hours (in the Boston data mentioned above, many of the robberies took place after 9:00 pm.)
- When in doubt, when confronted with what appears to be immediate risk of harm, the driver is instructed to return to the store (and risk the wrath of legitimate, irate customers awaiting their dinners)

For those of us who have never had a gun or knife thrust into our faces, the dangers confronting delivery workers every day are both frightening and unimaginable. For Richal Nova's children, any mention of pizza will haunt their thoughts for the rest of their lives - reminding them of their father's lonely and senseless demise at the hands of cruel thugs with a half-baked plan for a free meal.

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September 28, 2010

 

Most people are aware that, since 1970, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has been responsible for issuing and enforcing standards for workplace health and safety. But if I were a betting person, I would wager that far fewer are aware of OSHA's responsibilities in relation to the Sarbanes Oxley Act. OSHA is charged with protecting workers " ...from retaliation for reporting alleged violations of mail, wire, bank, or securities fraud; violations of rules or regulations of the SEC; or federal laws relating to fraud against shareholders."

This responsibility is part of the Office of Whistleblower Protection Program (OWPP),for which OSHA has oversight. OWPP was originally intended to protect workers from being retaliated against for such things as reporting safety violations to OSHA, requesting or participating in an OSHA inspection, or testifying in any proceeding related to an OSHA inspection.

Over the years, this responsibility has expanded to encompass oversight of the whistle-blowing provisions for eighteen other statutes, including violations of various airline, commercial motor carrier, consumer product, environmental, financial reform, health care reform, nuclear energy, pipeline, public transportation agency, railroad and securities laws.

And according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), OSHA gets failing grades for discharging its whistleblower protection responsibilities. The GAO cited lack of training, chronic inattention from OSHA leaders, and long delays in resolving cases, among other problems.

Some say the problems are no surprise: too few staff spread too thin, resulting in long case delays and staff demoralization. You can see charts depicting the growth of responsibilities while staff remained flat on pages 16-17 of the GAO Whistleblower Report. (PDF)

Some relief is in the offing - 25 new investigators are scheduled for appointment to OWPP. In addition, the Department of Labor (DOL) is conducting a "top to bottom" review and there is some discussion about whether the program should be moved to another part of DOL.

Whistleblowers are fundamental to workplace safety, but even with protections built into the laws, the reality is that protection for whistle-blowing employees can be a long time in coming, when and if it does. Read about truck driver John Simon's whistle-blowing ordeal as a case in point. There are unfortunately many other similar stories. OSHA offers employees a a bill of rights to ensure safety, but fundamental to those rights are protections when and if they speak up in the cause of safety.

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September 15, 2010

 

Last week, we rocked and rolled you with a dramatic video of a cruise ship tossed in a storm, but for sheer fear factor, we think this video may top that one. Normally, we wouldn't post another video so soon after that one, but we think this one may not stay up for long!

Note: the video we had posted was removed but a copy has been posted here: Climbing Up The Tallest Antenna Tower 1,768 feet

Once we caught our breath after the gut-churning visceral reaction to the clip, we had two thoughts: Massive respect for the jobs that infrastructure workers do to keep our lights on, our computers running, and our phones working, and absolute horror at the "free climbing" concept. The narrator says that OSHA rules really allow for this, but that doesn't sound right. We'd be interested in comments from safety professionals.

Here's what we found from OSHA: "Tower climbing remains the most dangerous job in America. The majority of fatalities are the result of climbers not being tied off to a safe anchorage point at all times or relying upon faulty personal protection equipment. Many fatalities have occurred during the erection, retrofitting or dismantling of a tower. "Tie or Die!" has become synonymous with the requirement for 100 percent fall protection."

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August 31, 2010

 

Today we examine an interesting case where the ADA runs up against OSHA's general duty clause, where the individual's right to "reasonable accommodation" collides with the need to ensure the safety of the general public.

In 1999 Oscar Brownfield became a policemen in Yakima, Washington. By all accounts, he was a good cop. In 2000 he suffered a head injury in a non-work-related car accident. He returned to work about 6 months later. In 2005 the troubles began: he (wrongfully) accused a co-worker of malfeasance. He was short-tempered, storming out of a disciplinary hearing with a superior. He described moments of intense anxiety when he was not sure he could control himself. And he made alarming comments about how meaningless life had become.

Fearful of Brownfield's mental state, his employer sent him for a Fitness for Duty Exam (FFDE). He was diagnosed with a mood disorder and disabled from work due to his "emotional volatility, poor judgment and irritibility." The disability was considered permanent.

Then Brownfield had another auto accident. His treating physician, Dr. Gondo, released him for work: that is, he wrote that Brownfield could carry out the "physical requirements" of the job. When pressed on the issue of Brownfield's mental state, Dr. Gondo did not back down, but he did not respond either. He simply remained silent. As a result, the Yakima police department sent Brownfield for a second FFDE, with the same result as the first. Brownfield was terminated from his job.

Claiming an ADA disability (he does appear eligible), Brownfield sued for a violation of the ADA, violation of his first amendment rights of free speech (his apparently groundless accusations against a fellow cop) and violation of the FMLA (which limits the ability of employers to require multiple FFDEs). Brownfield's case was dismissed on summary judgment by the district court, a decision subsequently upheld by the 9th circuit court of appeals.

A Tool in the Toolbox
Employers often balk at requiring Fitness for Duty exams. They fear a violation of the employee's rights. This case clearly indicates that those rights can and should be tempered by a clear-headed vision of business necessity. If the employee's mental or physical condition undermines his ability to perform essential job functions safely, a fitness for duty exam is not only allowable, it is necessary. To be sure, the exam comes with a high standard: the need must be work related and it must derive from business necessity. But where these standards are met, employers must act. If the employer takes the path of least resistance and does nothing, they could easily be charged with negligent retention when and if something bad happens.

Management continuously walks a fine line between employee rights and the obligation to operate a safe workplace. Yakima took a chance in terminating Brownfield's employment, but it appears that they did what had to be done and they did it legally. Brownfield was unable to perform his job safely. His mental state comprised a risk to himself and to the public he was oath-bound to protect. It is never easy confronting an unruly, agitated and volatile employee, but it must be done - and done in a timely manner.

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August 30, 2010

 

If you haven't discovered the gem that is the Boston Globe's "Big Picture" yet, you are missing a wonderful feature. Billed as "news stories in photographs" it is a themed news essay curated by Alan Taylor. From the BP oil disaster to the floods in Pakistan, the photos add a visual narrative to breaking stories of the day.

This past week, as in many media outlets, the focus was on Katrina. With a human toll of more than 1,800 dead and an economic toll exceeding $80 billion, the 5-year anniversary merits our attention.

For many of us, the anniversary is a look back, but for many of those who experienced it first hand, Katrina is a continuing nightmare. News reports point to ongoing health problems, from mental health issues to general health problems, such as skin infections and respiratory illnesses: "A recent study published in a special issue of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry found elevated concentrations of lead, arsenic and other toxic chemicals were present throughout New Orleans, particularly in the poorer areas of the city. It suggested that widespread cleanup efforts and demolition had stirred up airborne toxins known to cause adverse health effects."

Many residents, particularly children, are still still experiencing severe emotional and psychological disturbances. The National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health has been conducting studies on Gulf coast residents, and recently issued a white paper in coordination with the Children's Health Fund:

"Together, these documents indicate that although considerable progress has been made in rebuilding the local economy and infrastructure, there is still an alarming level of psychological distress and housing instability. Investigators believe that housing and community instability and the uncertainty of recovery undermine family resilience and the emotional health of children. These factors characterize what researchers are calling a failed recovery for the Gulf region's most vulnerable population: economically disadvantaged children whose families remain displaced."
Looking back to look ahead
It's no mystery why FEMA would designate September as National Preparedness Month. Between the man-made disaster of 9-11 and nature's twin-wallop of Katrina and Rita, it's certainly been a month fraught with peril, at least in terms of the last decade. In particular, FEMA is calling on businesses to be ready with disaster plans, and offers resources for that purpose.


A crisis by its very nature is unpredictable and random. But from a risk management point of view, it's important for businesses to examine past events so that lessons learned can become part of planning for future crises with an eye to minimizing losses and disruption.

Perhaps one of the best articles we've seen on this theme is Crisis Management of Human Resources: Lessons From Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. This article discusses the three phases of crisis management: planning and preparation; immediate event response; and post crisis, or recovery. It cites specific companies and the way they problem-solved aspects of the Katrina crisis, and points to the importance of putting some plans in place: having and circulating an alternative emergency communication systems plan; keeping contact information and next-of-kin data current; maintaining communications with employees during an emergency; having updated policies and procedures for compensation and benefit continuation; making resources such as EAP services available to employees; and having flexible and alternative work arrangements.

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August 16, 2010

 

Farm work is hazardous business. Recently, we focused on the deaths of two Michigan teen farmworkers who were killed while working in a silo. Last week, we learned about the recent deaths of two more young workers who died in an Illinois grain bin which is owned by Haasbach, LLC. Wyatt Whitebread was 14 years old and Alex Pacas was 19 years old. Officials put the cause of death at "traumatic asphyxiation, due to being engulfed in corn."

According to reports, the boys were standing in corn as an unloading system operated. Wyatt began sinking in the corn and became trapped. As is so often the case in such incidents, coworkers rush to rescue their trapped coworker. Alex Pacas and Will Piper, 20, tried to help Whitebread but they also became trapped. Pacas' efforts resulted in his death; Piper was rescued and hospitalized. Reports indicate that one or two other teens were also in the bin but managed to escape and call for help.

Preliminary OSHA investigations indicate that these deaths were preventable. The three workers were not wearing safety harnesses and were not equipped with life lines. In addition, reports say there was not a spotter in place who could shut down the system if there was a problem. Also, it is illegal for teens under age 16 to work in grain storage bins.

Liz Borowski of The Pump Handle reports that OSHA is taking action in light of recent grain bin deaths. It has proposed or levied fines against two other grain facilities for recent entrapments and deaths. In addition, OSHA issued letters to all grain elevator operators reminding them of their safety obligations. The OSHA letter states that employers have legal obligation to protect and train workers, and warns that they will aggressively pursue cases "use our enforcement authority to the fullest extent possible" when employers fail to fulfill their legal obligations.

According to OSHA, employer safety precautions include:

When workers enter storage bins, employers must (among other things):
1. Turn off and lock out all powered equipment associated with the bin, including augers used to help move the grain, so that the grain is not being emptied or moving out or into the bin. Standing on moving grain is deadly; the grain acts like 'quicksand' and can bury a worker in seconds. Moving grain out of a bin while a worker is in the bin creates a suction that can pull the workers into the grain in seconds.
2. Prohibit walking down grain and similar practices where an employee walks on grain to make it flow.
3. Provide all employees a body harness with a lifeline, or a boatswains chair, and ensure that it is secured prior to the employee entering the bin.
4. Provide an observer stationed outside the bin or silo being entered by an employee. Ensure the observer is equipped to provide assistance and that their only task is to continuously track the employee in the bin
5. Prohibit workers from entry into bins or silos underneath a bridging condition, or where a build-up of grain products on the sides could fall and bury them.
6. Test the air within a bin or silo prior to entry for the presence of combustible and toxic gases, and to determine if there is sufficient oxygen.
7. Ensure a permit is issued for each instance a worker enters a bin or silo, certifying that the precautions listed above have been implemented.

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August 10, 2010

 

Yesterday was a day of remembrance for the victims of last week's horrifying shootings at Hartford Distributors in Connecticut - our hearts go out to the family, friends, and coworkers of the deceased. Their lives will be forever changed and imprinted by this terrible event.

In chilling testimony minutes before death by his own hand, we hear the shooter in the deadly rampage calmly relaying his motive to a police dispatcher: "This place right here is a racist place...They're treating me bad over here. And treat all other black employees bad over here, too. So I took it to my own hands and handled the problem. I wish I could have got more of the people."

Omar Thornton's murderous acts left eight coworkers dead and two grievously wounded. The horrifying massacre brought to mind another racially-motivated workplace-based mass murder, the 2003 shooting at a Lockheed Martin plant in Meridian, Miss., which left 6 dead and 8 wounded. Unlike last week's shooting for which there were few if any advance clues or hints, the killer in Meridian had left a trail of violent threats and behaviors. Many who knew or had worked with Doug Williams feared and even predicted that his threats would culminate in some terrible event.

Whether racism was a trigger in the Connecticut case or not seems a moot point. Even if it were true that racism occurred, as alleged by the family of the shooter, that would not justify such a heinous and wildly disproportionate reaction. Company and union officials deny the allegations of racism and say that no such grievances had been filed or were on record. Yet Thornton's call and the allegations will likely play a factor as lawyers for the victims seek damages. If victims seek any redress beyond workers compensation, they will face a high hurdle. When litigation is successful at piercing the exclusive remedy shield, it often involves employer misconduct that is highly egregious.

In 2005 and again in 2008, courts barred tort claims for Lockheed victims and upheld workers compensation as the exclusive remedy. Plaintiffs felt they had a strong case and sued Lockheed on the basis of having been deprived of civil rights. They cited a 2004 EEOC report, which stated: "(Lockheed) was aware of the severity and extent of the racially charged and hostile environment created by Mr. Williams, which included threats to kill African-American employees," the determination by the EEOC's Jackson office said. "(Lockheed's) reaction to those threats against African-American employees was inadequate and permitted the racially charged atmosphere to grow in intensity, culminating in the shooting of 14 individuals."

We noted then and note again now that, while often an imperfect and unsatisfying system, workers comp generally holds up as the exclusive remedy in such cases.

Can employers inoculate against such events?
While most workplace risk can be managed and risk mitigation strategies can be adopted to eliminate or minimize hazards, when it comes to the human heart and mind, preventive strategies can be less certain. There are certainly best practices that can be put in place, predictive profiles and warning indicators that can be consulted, and good hiring and supervisory practices that can be enacted.

Connecticut attorney Daniel Schwartz has been following this event and others on his blog. He recalled another terrible CT event on the 10 year anniversary of the 1998 Lottery headquarters shooting, which claimed the lives of four supervisors. Schwatz has revisited the topic of workplace violence on more than one occasion, offering best practice tips and resources for employer vigilance. In light of the recent tragedy, he asks if there are any lessons to be learned from evil. He concludes:

"Despite all the guidance and advice that can be given, the awful truth is that there really is no way to prevent tragedies like this from ever occurring. An employer can do everything "right" and yet still a rampage ensues by someone committed to carrying out a terrible crime.

That's not to say that employers should ignore the issue; they shouldn't. But we also should be careful not to draw conclusions from an incident like this too.

Indeed, as we look for answers from this tragedy, perhaps its best to acknowledge that we can never truly understand what brings people to commit evil and that despite whatever efforts we might make, something like this will sadly happen again."


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July 26, 2010

 

David Warren died last week in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. He was 85. You may never have heard of this aeronautical researcher, but his work has impacted anyone who travels by air. David Warren is credited with the invention of the black box. (A splendid obituary by Douglas Martin in the New York Times can be found here.)

In 1934, when Warren was just 8 years old, his father died in a plane crash. His last gift to his son was a ham radio set. After earning a PhD in chemistry from the Imperial College in London, Warren went to work for the Australian defense department, where he investigated a spate of civilian air crashes.

Thinking like a good risk manager, he recognized the need for better data at the time of the crash. He volunteered to work on developing a flight recorder system. His bosses were not impressed. One went so far as to say: "If I find you talking to anyone, including me, about this matter, I will have to sack you."

His peers went on to note that if his idea had any merit, the Americans would have already made it (!). Preserving pilot conversations would yield "more expletives than explanations." (The pilots, naturally, did not like the idea of a permanent record of their chatter.) It was only a visit by a high ranking British aviation official in 1958 that triggered a positive response. Warren was flown to England to show off his little black box (which, for the record, was and remains red or orange). The rest, as they say, is history - a history that has significantly enhanced our ability to understand exactly why a given plane went down.

Obscurity and Fame
We live in an age of instant (unmerited) celebrity: you can become rich and famous for doing absolutely nothing (did someone say Snooki???). The quiet Australian David Warren accomplished a great deal in his long life and managed to stay in the background. He was able to transform the painful loss of his father into safer skies for everyone. It will not surprise you that he never profited from his work. Even if his government had offered him all the profits from his invention, he says he would have refused. He quipped that if he were to profit from his good idea, he might also get billed for the ones that amounted to nothing.

The latest generation of black boxes are self-ejecting, encased in steel and insulated against fire. They provide more than 200 measurements and dump data 128 times a second. These technical wonders have their origins in the mind of young child tinkering with a radio set and dreaming of a father who never came home. We should all be grateful for the exemplary life of this humble man.


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July 13, 2010

 

From Michigan, we learn the tragic news of the silo-related deaths of two teens on a farm. Victor Perez, 18, was a recent high school graduate who had worked on the farm for about 4 years. His co-worker Francisco Mendez Martinez, 17, had been on the job for about a month.

News reports are thin and shrouded in mystery. One refers to the fatalities as a "mishap" (talk about understatement) and quotes a local farmworker as saying that the teens "weren't doing something particularly dangerous and they knew how to do it." (Apparently wrong on both counts). Other stories portray this as "just a tragic accident" with authorities quoted as saying they might never be sure what happened because there were no witnesses.

We should really expect better reporting from media whose beat includes farm country. And if the news reports are correct, there is at least one other local farm worker who needs to be alerted to silo dangers and the quoted sheriff needs to take an EMT refresher course.

A cursory Google search on silo deaths will show that there's nothing particularly mysterious about this "mishap" - unsupervised teen workers + confined space + silos + molasses storage - all should trigger red lights. The danger posed to teens of confined spaces in agriculture should be well known. Instead of breathless reporting about mysterious tragedies (see also "freak accidents"), media could do a huge service to local communities if they did a little research and used such horrific events as a springboard to educate people about a) safety for a high-risk group, teen workers and b) farm worker accident prevention.

The hazards associated with silos are well-recognized. One cited in this link might have been a description of the recent that killed the teens:

The typical scenario involves a worker entering an oxygen-deficient or toxic atmosphere and collapsing. Co-workers notice the collapsed worker and enter the same atmosphere and attempt a rescue; however, if they do not use proper precautions (respirators, ventilator fans, etc.), they also collapse.

Additional resources
Confined Space Hazards a Threat to Farmers
Dangerous Gases and Fires Can Make Silos Death Traps
Silo Gas Dangers
Silo Gas Dangers - from Farm Safety
Preventing Deaths of Farm Workers in Manure Pits
Confined Space Hazards
OSHA: Confined Space
Parental Alert: 2010's Five Worst Teen Jobs

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June 28, 2010

 

Lawyers, investigators, policymakers and safety professionals will be wrangling over the Deepwater Horizon tragedy for years to determine what happened, where fault lay, and who will pay.

By many accounts, Deepwater Horizon was had a relatively good safety record. Its 125-member crew had no serious injuries in the seven years prior to the explosion. In a cruel irony, BP mangers were reported as being on board to recognize the Deepwater crew for its outstanding record on the very day that the explosion occurred.

The sheer magnitude of the disaster and the economic and ecological impact have taken center stage, while the deaths of 11 workers are all too often the asterisk to the story. Their surviving family members and their 156 work colleagues, who narrowly averted death themselves, are in the early stages of an arduous healing process. Coworkers lived through the harrowing and terrible event, many sustaining physical and psychological scars. At hearings and in the media, their personal survival accounts are beginning to be told.

In the first part of a 60 Minutes segment on the disaster, crew member Mike Williams talks about events leading up to the explosion. Production was off schedule by more than a month and $25 million had been lost. This put crews under even pressure to perform. A critical piece of equipment was damaged 4 weeks prior to the explosion, yet this unsettling event did not slow the inexorable push forward. Williams describes a "chest-bumping" argument that occurred on the morning of the fateful day, between a BP manager and crew manager about who would have the final word about process decisions. In his account, the BP manager won the argument and made a process decision, which preceded the explosion.

In the second part of the report, Williams relates his own struggle for survival, as well as the dramatic close call for other coworkers. He talks about being injured in the initial two explosions, the helpless feeling when crawling outside to see the extent of the damage, and the terror of jumping 90 feet into oil-slicked, fiery water and swimming until being rescued.

The dividing line between survival and death was a matter chance and of seconds. Although there had been weekly lifeboat drills, some survivors said that they had not anticipated such chaos, nor had they actually sat in lifeboats or thought through the details of a quick escape. And details could make the difference. One life raft of survivors was tethered to the rig and narrowly avoided being pulled back into the inferno simply because the company's strict "no knives" policy meant that no one had a knife to cut the rope.

Other survivors and family members shared their experiences on CNN.

Family members relate the experience from their point of view - hearing the terrible news of the explosion and the long, terrible vigil waiting to get official word of whether their loved one survived or not.

Also see: Profiles of the profiles of the Deepwater Horizon Eleven, ranging in age from the youngest at 22 to the oldest at 56 years old.

Prior posts
News update on BP
Engulfed by risks

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June 21, 2010

 

A sewer may not be the preferred place to begin the work week, but the working world calls and we must follow. About a year ago, we blogged the sad story of Shlomo and Harel Dahan, respectively the owner and heir of S. Dahan Piping and Heating company in Queens, New York. They were hired to vacuum an 18-foot-deep dry well at a plant owned by Regal Recycling. Harel went in first. When he failed to emerge, his father went in after him. When the father failed to surface, an employee of Regal, Rene Rivas, went in after them. All three were overcome by deadly fumes at the bottom of the well. All three died.

Now we read in the New York Times that Sarah Dahan, Shlomo's widow and mother of Harel, brought the remains of her husband and son to Israel for burial. She left the company in the hands of Ygal Lalush, a trusted employee. In her absence, Lalush changed the locks, stole the company's four trucks, wrote $30,000 in company checks for his personal benefit and started running the company out of his own home under a different corporate name.

Ms. Dahan discovered the problem when she returned from Israel. She first tried to resolve the issue directly with Lalush. When that failed, she went to the authorities. Lalush has been charged with fraud, grand larceny, forgery, possession of stolen property and falsifying business records.

Lessons from the Underground
We could conjecture about the frailty of human nature and the dark shadows that accompany us all as we make our way through the world. We could wonder at the transformation of a loyal employee into a pathetic crook. (Perhaps his lawyer will chalk it up to post-traumatic stress syndrome!) That aspect of this tale will remain forever hidden, like the contents of the sewers cleaned by S. Dahan Piping and Heating.

The take-away from this tale lies within the Dahan family: the father who tried in vain to save his son. The mother who fulfilled a commitment by burying her husband and son in Israel and who tried unsuccessfully to convince her wayward employee to abandon his demented plan. There is genuine dignity in these people, who deserved both a better fate and a higher class of employee.

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June 8, 2010

 

We are following the consequences of the gulf oil disaster with increasing despair. Images of oil soaked birds, dead fish, and the serene Gulf waters transformed from the customary beautiful blue-green to an appalling brown. Our thoughts also turn to the men and women laboring under very challenging conditions to contain the impact of this man-made disaster.

NIOSH has issued the following summary of the exposures facing the recovery workers:

Chemical exposures may include benzene and other volatile organic compounds, oil mist, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and diesel fumes. Physical hazards may include ergonomic hazards, excessive noise levels, sun exposure and heat stress. Injuries may occur due to slips, trips, and falls on slippery or uneven walking and working surfaces. Other safety hazards are associated with the use of tools, equipment, machinery, and vehicles. Biological hazards include possible exposure to biting or venomous insects or other animals. Psychological hazards may include witnessing traumatic injuries or death, inability to help affected wildlife, and fatigue.

You can read the CDC's 96 page opus on managing the exposures to emergency workers here. (I can't help but wonder if this particular web-available document is symbolically collecting dust on the shelf, like so many other well-intentioned but rather long-winded safety manuals - the ones risk managers point to with pride during a tour of an industrial plant.

"We're Hiring!"
BP has hired about 22,000 workers to help with the clean up. I wonder how carefully they screened the new hires. Any rapid ramp up is full of risk; the hazards of hiring on this scale for jobs full of open-ended risk is simply beyond calculation. How many of the 22,000 workers will end up with work-related illnesses and injuries? How would you project the future impact on BP's workers comp costs? (Perhaps BP is calling the new hires "independent contractors." Some may well be; most are not.)

Under regulatory scrutiny, BP has provided some form of rudimentory training and the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) for the new workers. But how well is the work supervised? With temperatures routinely in the high 80s and the heat index over 100 degrees, how long can people function in the requisite protective suits, steel-toed boots, gloves, hard hats and safety glasses? What is the impact of raw crude on bare skin and laboring lungs?

Looming Epidemic?
There have already been reports of illnesses among these workers. Law firms have put out the word that at least one of the dispersants used in the clean up may harm workers:

OSHA representatives, Obama administration officials and others have expressed concerns that the oil dispersant chemical Corexit may be the source of the illnesses reported on May 26 by cleanup workers. In May, the EPA urged BP to stop using Corexit because of its toxicity. Corexit is manufactured by Nalco, whose board of directors has strong ties to the oil industry, including sharing at least one board member with BP.

We all feel a sense of urgency on an unprecedented scale as the pristine Gulf waters are sullied by millions of gallons of oil. A huge workforce has been mobilized to help with the clean up. Looming on the distant horizon is the cost of cleaning up the damage to those who are currently engaged in the clean up. It's something we give only passing thought to today. But the time will come when those costs are as conspicuous and nearly as disturbing as the image of an oil-soaked pelican trying to spread its soiled wings, trying and failing to launch itself into the brilliant blue skies of its Gulf home.

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May 26, 2010

 

On this blog, we are usually speaking to employers or workers. Sometimes we are addressing people in the insurance industry - claims adjusters, safety professionals, insurance geeks, and the like. But today we have a different target audience: parents of teens who are about to embark on their first summer job.

Parents: please do not assume that your kids health and well being will be looked after while on the job - make it your business to dig deeper.

Every year, in some of the most pedestrian-sounding jobs, kids are maimed and killed while working. Who would think that a job in a doughnut shop could lead to a 17-year old drowning in an uncovered cesspool? Or that a summer job on a lawn care crew could result in a 14-year old being killed when pulled into a wood chipper? Some of the most compelling advocates for teen worker safety are teen survivors themselves: Candace Carnahan who lost her leg to a conveyor belt; Kristi Ruth, who lost an arm that was entangled in equipment while working at her family farm; and four kids who tell of their life-changing injuries at summer jobs in a series of powerful videos.

Most dangerous jobs for teens
Millions of teens will be looking to join the work force over the next few months, and with a teen unemployment rate hovering around 30%, there will be strong competition for positions - and some young workers may be tempted to take jobs that could endanger their health. The National Consumers League (NCL), which coordinates the Child Labor Coalition, has issued a report detailing 2010's Five Worst Teen Jobs report to remind teens and parents to be alert and informed about the hidden dangers that many jobs hold.

2010's Five Worst Teen Jobs

  • Traveling Youth Sales Crews

  • Construction and Height Work

  • Outside Helper: Landscaping, Groundskeeping and Lawn Service

  • Agriculture: Harvesting Crops

  • Driver/Operator: Forklifts, Tractors, and ATV's

The article offers information and details about the potential risks and hazards for each of these job categories, as well as common risks that teens face at work. It also offers suggestions for parents on how to be involved in their teens job choices, and what to look for.

More tools for parents
Here are some additional resources to help you keep your teens safe at work:

  • Making sure your teen's job is safe - great advice from the award-winning KidsHealth by Nemours, one of the largest nonprofit organizations devoted to children's health. It includes a list of questions and discussion points to raise with your teen before he or she is hired, advice for checking out the job site, and how to sustain a discussion about work safety once your teen starts the job.

  • Tips for parents with working teens (PDF) - a brief fact sheet with advice from the California Resource Network for Young Workers' Health and Safety

  • Working the Smart Shift: Helping parents help their teens avoid dangerous jobs - Safety guidelines from the Child Labor Coalition, along with a list of telephone numbers for state labor department resources.

  • Do you have a working teen? - advice and resources for parents from the Occupational Health & Safety Administration

  • State Labor Laws - The U.S. Department of Labor offers links to state Labor Departments and state resources

Other teen safety resources

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May 20, 2010

 

We've recently been challenging ourselves with OSHA recordable quizzes posted by the smart folks at the Advanced Safety and Health News Blog. We found them interesting enough that over the next few weeks, we will pose the scenarios / questions and you can test your knowledge. Click the headlines to go to the respective blog post and learn the answers.

OSHA Recordkeeping Quiz #10: injured on smoke break
Scenario: An employee reports to work. A few hours later, the employee goes outside for a "smoke break." The employee slips on the ice and injures his back.
Question: Since the employee was not performing a task related to the employee's work, the company has deemed this incident non-work related and therefore not recordable - right or wrong?

OSHA Recordkeeping Quiz #11: injury during seizure
Scenario: You have a 48 year old male employee who reports to work on Wednesday morning and two hours into his work shift he experiences some sort of seizure and falls to the floor. During this event when the employee falls he strikes his head on a work table and receives a laceration on his head that requires six stitches. Further investigation determines the employee has epilepsy and a history of epileptic seizures. The doctor verifies that what this employee experienced was indeed an epileptic seizure. So you determined the event was due to a preexisting non-work related medical condition.
Question: Since the employee struck his head while at work performing work, does the geographical presumption make this event an OSHA recordable?


Recordkeeping Quiz 12: company sponsored meal

Scenario: To celebrate a safety milestone of achieving one million hours worked without an injury, your employer provides a lunch complete with fried chicken, barbequed ribs, hamburgers, and all the trimmings. A few hours later many employees start to exhibit signs of food poisoning. Seventy two of your employees get food poisoning so bad that they must miss the next day of work. Further investigation reveals they received the food poisoning from the potato salad provided by the caterer your company hired for the event.
Question: Do all seventy two of these cases go on your OSHA 300 log as recordable with at least one day away from work (DART case)?

OSHA Recordkeeping Quiz 13: counting time away from work
Scenario: An employee sustained a work-related ankle injury (sprain) and received medical treatment. The employee immediately returned to work with restrictions. The employee's doctor has requested that the employee return for periodic office visits so that he can observe the patient's improvement. The employee's doctor states that on the days the employee has an appointment, the employee is "unable to work that date."
Question: Are the days used by the employee to visit the doctor for follow-up to be considered days away from work?

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May 11, 2010

 

We've recently been challenging ourselves with OSHA recordable quizzes posted by the smart folks at the Advanced Safety and Health News Blog. We found them interesting enough that over the next few weeks, we will pose the scenarios / questions and you can test your knowledge. Click the headlines to go to the respective blog post and learn the answers.

Recordkeeping Quiz #6: counting days
Scenario: One of your employees injured his foot at work on a Thursday. Your physician said he could not work and scheduled a follow-up appointment on the following Tuesday. The physician would then determine if your employee could return to work or would need to be away longer. The employee was not scheduled to work on Saturday or Sunday, but was scheduled to be at work on Monday.
Question: Since your employee was not scheduled to work on the weekend, do you need to record this time as part of the days away from work?

Recordkeeping Quiz #7: are flu illnesses recordable?
Scenario: Your business is in the middle of flu season and many employees are calling in sick. Two of the employees are claiming that they have been diagnosed by their doctors with the H1N1 flu. They say they contracted the flu at work from a co-worker who was also diagnosed with the H1N1. The two employees want you to record their illnesses because they say they got the flu at work.
Question: Are you required to record these flu related illnesses?

OSHA Recordkeeping Quiz #8: maximum recordable days
Scenario: One of your employees suffered a very serious broken leg due to an accident at work. She had surgery and is in rehabilitation. Her physician cannot give a definite date or even an estimate of when she will be able to return to work. She may be out of work for many months, but is expected to fully recover and be able to work in her job again.
Question: Is there a maximum number of days that should be recorded on the OSHA 300 Log for cases such as this one?

OSHA Recordkeeping Quiz #9: posting the entire 300 Log
Scenario: You are the Safety Manager for your company and are responsible for completing the OSHA 300 Log. It is time for you to have your new Plant Manager sign the "Summary of Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses" Form 300-A so you can post it as required by the standard. You spent quite a bit of time explaining to him how the whole OSHA recordkeeping process works, and he demonstrated quite an interest in what you were doing and the types of injuries your plant was experiencing.
As you are leaving his office, he makes the following statement to you: "When it comes to safety, we have no secrets around here. I think it would be a great idea if you post the entire 300 Log along with the Summary so people see just exactly what type of injuries we are having."
Question: How should you respond to his statement?

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May 4, 2010

 

We've recently been challenging ourselves with OSHA recordable quizzes posted by the smart folks at the Advanced Safety and Health News Blog. We found them interesting enough that over the next week or so, we will pose the scenarios / questions and you can test your knowledge. Click the headlines to go to the respective blog post and learn the answers.

OSHA Recordkeeping Quiz #1: horseplay
Scenario: Two of your supervisors completed their work for the day and had entered the change trailer to change clothes and proceed home. There was some bantering back and forth concerning how to beat the traffic at shift's end. The discussion escalated into a physical confrontation where one supervisor allegedly pulled a knife and struck the other in the right bicep, causing a laceration that required sutures to close.
Question: Is the injury the one employee received an OSHA recordable or not?

OSHA Recordkeeping Quiz #2: go-cart racing
Scenario: An employee is injured while participating in go-cart racing, which occurred during an off-site company sponsored team-building event. Employees were required to attend the off-site meeting and lunch, but were then free to choose among the following options: (1) participating in the team-building event; (2) returning to the office to finish the work day; or (3) taking a ½-day vacation.
Questions: Is an injury incurred during the go-cart racing considered to be work-related? Is the answer any different if an employee elects to stay for the go-cart racing but is not required to participate and is injured while watching the racing?

OSHA Recordkeeping Quiz #3: personal tasks
Scenario: An employee knits a sweater for her daughter during the lunch break. She lacerates her hand and needed sutures. She is engaged in a personal task.
Question: Are lunch breaks or other breaks considered "assigned working hours?" Is the case recordable?

Recordkeeping Quiz #4: injuries in company parking lots
Scenario 1: Employee A drives to work, parks her car in the company parking lot and is walking across the lot when she is struck by a car driven by employee B, who is commuting to work. Both employees are seriously injured in the accident.
Scenario 2: Employee C commutes from home to work and parks his personally-owned vehicles in the company controlled parking lot. The employee opened the driver side door and started to exit his car when he caught his right foot on the raised door threshold. The employee subsequently fell onto the parking lot surface and sustained a right knee cap injury that required medical treatment.
Question: Is either case work-related?

OSHA Recordkeeping Quiz #5: damage to dentures
Scenario: One of your employees was hit in the mouth by an object while he was performing his normal work duties. However, his dental bridge was damaged. He has not wanted any medical or dental treatment.
Question 1: Would damage to a denture in the presence of no other discernible injury be considered a recordable injury requiring entry on the OSHA 300 log even when medical treatment is not administered?
Question 2: In the context of repair to a denture, what type of activity would be considered medical treatment?
Question 3: Would simple repair to a denture meet the threshold for the definition of medical treatment?

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April 28, 2010

 

Today is Workers' Memorial Day, both a global and a national day to remember those who lost their lives on the job. April 28 has been an annual day of remembrance since 1989. It is the anniversary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the day of a similar remembrance in Canada. Trade unionists around the world now mark April 28 as an International Day of Mourning.

Here in the US, in addition to remembering the more than 5,000 workers who die on the job each year, we face the fresh and painful large-scale tragedies of the 29 workers who lost their lives in the West Virginia Massey mine disaster, 7 workers killed at the Tesoro refinery explosion in Washington, 6 workers killed at the Kleen Energy Plant in Connecticut, and 11 workers missing and presumed dead from Transocean's oil rig explosion off the coast of Louisiana.

These large-scale disasters were played out on a very public stage, with much media attention on the accidents, on the loss of life, and on the grief of the survivors. Less public but no less tragic and painful are the stories of the other 5,000+ deaths: 56-year old father of four James Wetzel, crushed to death in a collapsed trench that was not properly secured; a double fatality at the Kansas MagnaGro International Plant, in which 25-year old Iraq veteran Brandon Pierce and 51-year-old grandfather of four Roy Hillebert lost their lives in a vat of unspecified liquid or 32-year old mother Lori Keen who was killed after being struck by a pallet of bottled water in a Kroger store in Illinois. News reports often paint work-related deaths as freak accidents, but safety experts know that workplace freak accidents are a media myth - most entail preventable safety violations.

The AFL-CIO has amassed resources and information on Worker Memorial Day, including the release of its 19th annual report on the state of health and safety for U.S. workers: Death on the Job Report 2010: The Toll of Neglect. It's worth reading and passing along. The best way that we can honor fallen workers is to pledge that we can and we will do better.

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April 27, 2010

 

Salverio Todaro, a 68 year old entrepreneur, ran a safety inspection company called SAF Environmental Corporation. You may never have heard of Todaro, but if you live in the New York City area, Todaro may have succeeded in damaging your brain or shortening your life by a number of years. Certified to inspect buildings for lead and asbestos, Todaro rarely actually tested for the deadly substances. Beginning in 1989, he routinely filed bogus inspection reports, including phony lab results, on buildings scheduled for renovation or demolition across the five boroughs. (William Rashbaum of the New York Times provides the appalling details here.)

Think about the consequences of Todaro's failure to do his job. He gave the green light for projects that put construction workers on hundreds of jobs at immediate risk for exposure to lead and asbestos. These workers ripped apart buildings contaminated with asbestos, raising clouds of toxins for all to breath - construction workers, neighbors, passers by. It will take years for the toxins to do their work, but rest assured, that dreadful work will be done.
NOTE: I hardly need add that construction workers on the job sites certified as safe by Todaro are unlikely to qualify for workers comp benefits: thanks to Todaro, there are no records of hazardous substances on these sites.

In one documented case, Todaro was asked to examine an apartment where a young child had suffered from exposure to lead. Todaro gave the building a clean bill of health. As a result, the family had no reason to move, no reason to suspect that every breath their child took put him at risk for further brain damage.

A Punishment to Fit the Crime
In an earlier time, we might have pondered Todaro's fate after his death. In Dante's Inferno, the Ninth Circle of Hell is reserved for traitors, who find themselves eternally locked into awkward positions, encased in ice. Todaro betrayed his city and his fellow man, and made a few bucks in the process. But his actual fate is pretty mild by Dante's standards: he is facing four to six years in jail. After that, I imagine, he'll head south to a quiet retirement in Florida. No eternity encased in ice for this despicable betrayer of the public trust.

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April 6, 2010

 

Whatever you may be doing as you read this, take a moment to focus on your breath - the simple act of breathing in fresh air and then exhaling. Then think for a moment of the all the people who work in conditions where clean air is nowhere to be found. Think especially of the miners working deep in the earth, extracting minerals which benefit us all.

I often wonder what compels people to choose work in such dire conditions. For many, it's the only work available. For others, it's just what they know. Here is a passage, quoted in a lovely essay by Colin Nicholson, from one of my very favorite writers, Alistair MacLeod of Cape Breton Island, Canada (whose books Island and No Great Mischief are simply wonderful). MacLeod's family emigrated from the Scottish highlands in the late 1700s and found work in the Canadian mines:

Once you start it takes a hold of you, once you drink underground water, you will always come back to drink some more. The water gets into your blood. It is in all of our blood. We have been working in the mines here since 1873.

Here he describes a young boy in his first working day underground:

And there was scarcely thirty-six inches of headroom where we sprawled, my father shovelling over his shoulder like the machine he had almost become while I tried to do what I was told and to be unafraid of the roof coming in or of the rats that brushed my face, or of the water that numbed my legs, my stomach, and my testicles or of the fact that at times I could not breathe because the powder-heavy air was so foul and had been breathed before.

I am haunted this morning by the thought of 25 miners in West Virginia, whose last breaths were taken 1000 feet below the earth's surface. For each, there was a first terrifying day in the mines, perhaps following their grandfathers, fathers or uncles into tunnels deep below the surface. Over time, the terror receded, followed by the grim routine of working in the dark and breathing powder-heavy air that had been breathed before.

In the coming weeks, there will be many questions about mine safety, company policies and procedures, and survival benefits for the families. But today, there is simply the hope that the bodies can be recovered and brought one last time to the earth's surface. In a concluding irony, the final resting place for these men will be far above the chambers where they worked and where they died.

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March 26, 2010

 

Bryan Griffin was a pilot for Australia's Qantas Air from 1966 to 1982. In 1979 he began to have "uncontrollable urges" to switch off the engines in mid-flight in order to bring down the airplane. He would leave the flight deck and smoke a few cigarettes until he calmed down. He made no attempt to hide his problem - he talked to his colleagues about it. Qantas had him examined and treated by several doctors, but the problems continued, including the urge to "scream and cry." He routinely ignored instructions and repeatedly missed radio and altitude calls. On a flight from Singapore to Sydney, he felt his hand "being abused by the uncontrollable pull of the start levers" - which, if pulled, would kill the engines.

OK. Not exactly "pilot of the month" stuff. There are a couple of intriguing aspects to this tale.

First, Qantas made the management decision to keep Griffin on the job. While the Insider normally recommends following a "return to work/stay at work" protocol, in this case, "staying at work" for three years with severe mental illness clearly put far too many people at risk. Griffin was incapable of performing his job safely; he should have been put on indefinite leave until his mental state stabilized beyond any reasonable doubt.

Griffin continued to fly until he retired in 1982 with a diagnosis of anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Indemnity for Working?
Here is the second unusual aspect to this case: Nearly 30 years after his retirement, Griffin has been awarded $208,000 by an industrial compensation commission, which ruled that his mental problems were exacerbated by his continuing to work. The Workers Compensation Commission found that the pilot's condition had been worsened by continuing to fly for Qantas until his 1982 retirement. The financial award covers "loss of earnings, medical expenses and legal costs."

While I am no expert in the intricacies of comp as it operates down under, I am confused by this award. How can you suffer a "loss of earnings" when you continue to work? How does workers comp indemnity come to play in a situation where there was no lost time? Perhaps the commission assumes that if Griffin had been grounded during his prolonged period of mental disability, he eventually would have been cured and then would have been to continue his career with Qantas beyond 1982. In other words, Griffin's premature retirement was caused by making him work while he was suicidal. If that is the reasoning, it's a bit of a stretch.

I have one additional question for the commission: why did it take nearly 30 years to reach this conclusion?

Qantas is considering an appeal on this ruling. I think they should shut up and cut the check. Any additional proceedings might further expose their amazingly reckless decision to keep Griffin in the cockpit. That is negligent entrustment at its very worst. Ironically, had Griffin succumbed to his demons and crashed the plane, we might never have known the real cause of the accident. As it is, Qantas is lucky that both Griffin and his hundreds of passengers survived. Air travel is stressful enough without having to worry about a pilot with a barely controllable urge to crash the plane.


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March 25, 2010

 

Cavalcade of Risk #101 - Andrew of Ozrisk hosts this week's edition of Cavalcade of Risk - check it out.

In other news this week, Roberto Ceniceros posts about making safety more fun than a workplace prank - a video contest sponsored by the Oregon Young Worker Health & Safety Coalition. The Coalition launched its second annual "Save a friend. Work safe" video contest, which invited Oregon high school students to submit a 45-second video about young worker safety on the job. Entries are competing for prizes ranging from $300 to $500, with matching amounts for each winner's school. There were 50 entries this year, from which 7 finalists were chosen. Help pick the winner - log in to YouTube and view and rate the 7 finalists.

We're all for creative ways to raise the issue of workplace safety with young workers. Also see Oregon's Young Employee Safety page - O[yes]. The mission of O[yes] is "...to prevent young worker injuries and fatalities. O[yes] educates its constituency of young workers, educators, employers, parents and labor and trade associations through outreach, advocacy and sharing of resources. We pool our expertise, leverage resources and recognize the diversity and knowledge of our partners and the voice of young workers. O[yes] asserts that all injuries are preventable, all workers have a right to safe work and that young workers shall be treated respectfully and fairly."

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February 16, 2010

 

We have been following with increasing amazement the saga of Amy Bishop, the Harvard-educated biology professor who certainly is in touch with her rage, if not much else. She was involved in a year-long conflict with the University of Alabama-Huntsville over tenure. Sometime after receiving the final denial, she calmly taught a class and then attended a faculty meeting with 13 colleagues. Forty-five minutes into the meeting, she took out an unregistered automatic pistol and methodically shot six colleagues in the head, three of whom died. Had her gun not jammed, she might have succeeded in executing the remaining 7 people. After being forced out of the room, she calmly called her husband and asked for a ride home.

The astonishing part of this story is that she had apparently already committed a cold-blooded murder. In 1986 she killed her younger brother with a blast from a shotgun. In what now wreaks as a coverup, the incident was classified as an accident: she claimed that she was attempting to remove the shells from the shotgun and accidentally drilled her brother. Sounds reasonable, except that she had already discharged the gun in her bedroom - no one in the family heard the blast (just Amy being Amy?). She was, coincidentally, in the middle of an argument with her brother. As we have now all learned, you definitely do not want to get on Amy's bad side.

Her mother, claiming to have witnessed the shooting, upheld Amy's version of the event. Mom, conveniently, was a politically connected official in the local town. Amy was released into the custody of her parents (enjoying, we presume, her new status as an only child). The investigative report ignored the utter implausibility of the entire story: the incoherent sequence of events, Amy's evident rage, her fleeing the house with the gun and subsequent threatening of people on the street.

Defending the Indefensible Self
Here's the risk management part: Amy's father bought the shotgun after someone allegedly broke into the house. (There is no mention of any police record of this earlier incident.) Dear old dad kept the shotgun in the bedroom, with the shells conveniently laid out on top of a dresser. Amy, a brilliant scientist, but, she would have us believe, mechanically inept, took down the gun and put in the ammunition. (Why? no one bothered to ask.) She "accidentally" discharged the gun into the ceiling. Oops, how did that happen? Then she carries the gun downstairs and asks for help in unloading it. Her brother walks into the kitchen. The rest, as they say, is history as written by the (cruel) victors.

Twenty four years later, Amy practices shooting at a firing range. Her husband does not ask where she got the gun or why she wants to learn how to shoot it. He apparently has no clue what she is planning to do. He claims that he is "no psychologist" - and who could possibly argue with that? When he finally gets to talk to his homicidal wife, secure in a jail cell, she asks if the kids have all done their homework. From executing colleagues to worrying about homework. Who could possibly know what is going on in the mind of this brilliant, demented woman? And how could you possibly hold her parents accountable for enabling this monster and letting her loose upon an unsuspecting world?

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February 11, 2010

 

It will be years before we know the full implications of Toyota's recall problem, but a few things are already evident. In its relentless push to become the world's number one car manufacturer, Toyota lost its corporate soul (to the extent, of course, that any corporation has a soul). As with any business, performance measurement is a month to month, year by year priority. At this point, it appears that Toyota's primary measurement involved gross sales. Since 2003 the company has ignored alarming signs that their quality control was slipping dramatically. Long known as the producer of reliable, if somewhat pedestrian, cars, Toyota tried to become all things to all drivers. They expanded production capacity across the world as their market share grew. They buried the competition, but in doing so, dug a rather big hole for themselves. They will surely survive, but what form will the survival take?

The old adage "be careful what you wish for" should be engraved over every Toyota plant. They wanted to dominate the market and now they dominate the market. Alas, their cars are prone to uncontrollable accelation and compromised braking. A rather unfortunate combination, to say the least.

Acceleration and Stopping
As evidence of the acceleration problem accumulated - going back to the mid-2000s - Toyota entrenched itself in a denial stance. Finally, they acknowledged a problem with the floor mats. They fixed that. Then they admitted to a defect in brake pedal design, which is the subject of the current recall: they are attaching a small plastic shim to the brake pedal to fix that. Now there are indications that a problem may exist in the computers that determine gas feed. To date, Toyota has not conceded on this last potential source of the acceleration problem. If they are wrong on this one, it's virtually three strikes and you're out.

The braking issues in the Prius involve a sophisticated mechanism which seeks to transform the natural friction in braking into energy to charge the car's battery. The good news is that the battery runs longer. The bad news, of course, is that you might not be able to stop the car.

From a risk management perspective, rapid growth is frought with dangers. On the employment side, you are bringing in (thousands of) strangers to make your product. On the management side, your lines of communication are stretched to the breaking point (no pun intended): a work culture that was successful for a relatively small company might prove inefficient and even disastrous for a world-wide organization. Toyota executives may think that today's company is simply an extension of the modest, diligent operation that entered the world market some decades ago, but size matters. Toyota the Giant is no longer "the little engine that could."

Blame the Media?
One dealer thinks the media has created the problem. Tammy Darvish, who operates 4 dealerships in the Washington, D.C. area, thinks Toyota's commitment to safety is equal to that of other manufacturers. "I don't want to minimize importance of any safety matter. But I think the media has made a sport out of sensationalizing something that is very common: a recall. I sell Chryslers, and they had 18 recalls last year. Did you read about any of those?"

So Toyota's commitment to safety is no different from any other manufacturer. That's a comforting thought! True, the whole problem has been sensationalized. The image of 3,000 pound vehicles hurtling out of control is, well, sensational. It would be nice to think that Toyota will do a little soul searching and re-commit to the values that made them successful: producing a safe, high quality vehicle that accelerates when you want it to and stops when you press the brake. Anything less from Toyota at this point would be, to put it bluntly, criminal.

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February 3, 2010

 

Toyota, the world's largest automaker, is in the midst of a public relations nightmare. Over two million vehicles have been recalled for a problem with acceleration: gas pedals are prone to sticking, which leads to unstoppable cars hurtling along at high speeds. For months, Toyota denied that there was a problem. Well, there is no denying it now. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood has advised owners of the vehicles not to drive them. [Update: he is backpedaling from his statement.]That's over two million people who are not supposed to drive for the foreseeable future. With all due respect, Mr. Secretary, in this culture where the automobile is less a luxury than an essential, what are these millions of drivers supposed to do?

For the sake of clarity, here are the specific vehicles with a pedal problem:

2007-10 Camry
2009-10 RAV4
2009-10 Corolla
2009-10 Matrix
2005-10 Avalon
2010 Highlander
2007-10 Tundra
2008-10 Sequoia
2004-09 Prius
2007-10 Tacoma
2009-10 Venza

We frequently blog the compelling issue of personal risk management: the myriad decisions we all make in mitigating risk and prolonging the chances of living to see another day. Well, we have here a crisis of huge proportions that confronts Toyota drivers with some very difficult decisions. In keeping with our usual mandate, we will try to focus primarily, but not exclusively, on the implications for workers comp.

At the head of the line are companies that operate Toyota fleets, or that have employees operating Toyotas leased by the employer. At this moment there are irrevocably immense liabilities in allowing employees to continue to drive the vehicles listed above. Of course, the usual "to and fro" issues prevail in determining whether employees injured in an accident are covered by workers comp. (Astute readers will recall that in California, anyone driving a company car is covered by comp 24/7.) But even where comp should be the "exclusive remedy," employers are vulnerable to suits alleging "wilful intent" should they insist that Toyota drivers stay behind the wheel. Prudent risk managers will rent alternative vehicles until the Toyotas have been repaired.

For employees driving their own Toyotas, the "to and fro" rule prevails. However, what happens when an employee is "in the course and scope" of employment and gas pedal lock leads to an accident? Will the employer be held liable for the injuries to third parties? Should employers prohibit employees from driving the compromised Toyotas while working? If yes, how are these employees supposed to do their jobs? Who pays for the replacement vehicles?

Secretary Lahood has accelerated the risks associated with the Toyota recall. He has put the nation on notice than any use of the above vehicles entails unreasonable risk.

This all brings to mind a Toyota ad campaign from an earlier decade. The slogan was: "Get your hands on a Toyota. You'll never let go." I remember thinking at the time that there was a gruesome ambiguity to the wording. The image of a dead driver behind the wheel of a crushed vehicle rose up in my (admittedly hyper-active) imagination. Well, that slogan has come back to haunt the automotive giant. This is no time to put your hands on the wheel of a Toyota. Until this immanent hazard is addressed, it's definitely time to let go.

Addendum:
We just noticed that Renaissance Alliance's Consumer Insurance Blog has a post on what to do if you experience sudden acceleration - it includes a video and some tips from Consumer Reports - whether you own a Toyota or not, it's a good safety skill to learn

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February 1, 2010

 

My colleague Julie Ferguson raised some fascinating issues relating to the growing movement to approve marijuana as a medication. As is so often the case, the implications for workers comp diverge substantially from general health issues. A toke may be just what the doctor ordered for pain management, but in the context of the workplace, any such prescriptions are likely to preclude actually reporting to work.

Here are just a few reasons why the use of medical marijuana is incompatible with the workplace:
- I cannot think of any job suitable for a person who is experiencing a marijuana high (actuaries? Just kidding)
- You cannot operate a motor vehicle or any piece of equipment safely while under the infuence of marijuana
- Imagine the impact on co-workers when a fellow employee lights up a joint. ("Note from a doctor. Yeah, right! By the way, who is your doctor?")
- Smoking is prohibited by law in virtually all indoor workplaces. "Accommodating" a marijuana smoker by allowing him/her to light up outside of the building raises issues for co-workers and the general public, not to mention the police.

It will be very interesting to see how strongly state legislatures step in to protect medical marijuana users. As Julie pointed out, no state is currently requiring that employers offer "reasonable accommodation" in this situation; it is unlikely that any will do so. The day may come when marijuana makes the list of approved medications in the workers comp system, but prescriptions for weed are unlikely to be accompanied by a return-to-work release from the doctor.

Medical marijuana, along with alcoholic beverages and prescribed opiates, may be legal substances, but employees under their influence do not belong in the workplace. Employers should place the burden of proof squarely on the shoulders of the treating doctor, who must be able to certify in writing that the prescribed use of pot does not put the employee, co-workers and the public at risk for injury. Quite frankly, unless someone works from home, I don't see how this burden of proof can be met. When it comes to performing a job safely, any toke is a toke over the line.

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January 25, 2010

 

Robert Sanchez operated Metrolink trains in the Los Angeles area. By all accounts, he was a personable fellow. You might say, nice to a fault. He occasionally invited young passengers to take control of the train. He stayed in touch with train enthusiasts and friends via texting. Cool!

On September 12, 2008, he was operating a train near the end of an 11 hour shift. He was also sending and receiving text messages - 57 in all while on duty that day. Sanchez missed a red light signal and plowed without braking into a freight train heading in the opposite direction on the same track. Twenty five people died (Sanchez included); 135 were injured, many critically. For dozens of the survivors, life will never be the same. (You can attach faces to the numbers here.)

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued its final report. While criticizing the long shifts and the lack of automatic crash controls, the board has placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the late Mr. Sanchez. Distracted by his texting activity, he failed to notice yellow and red signals, which should have alerted him to trouble ahead. As one board member put it, "his head was not in the game." That's an odd but apt metaphor for a tragedy on this scale, with losses totalling about $12 million, not to mention the random destruction of human life.

Distractions
We live in a world where distraction is deeply embedded in our way of life. As the poet T.S. Eliot put it in his poem "Burnt Norton," we are "distracted from distraction by distraction." From moment to moment, one thing or another tempts us. Don't like the music? Change the station. Wondering what a friend is up to? Fire off a text. No need to be bored when there are so many ways to engage our flighty minds. It's deceptively easy to multi-task your way out of the doldrums. It worked for Sanchez - up to a very specific point in time.

Eliot's poem ends with what might be an epitaph for the victims of this terrible incident, Sanchez included, who surely never intended any harm:

Ridiculous the sad waste time
stretching before and after.

Ridiculous and sad, indeed.

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January 19, 2010

 

NCCI has issued its latest report (PDF) on the status of older workers in the comp system, with a particular focus on workers 65 and up. If nothing else, the study reinforces the notion that older workers are safety conscious and a relative bargain. For employers worried about workers comp costs, older workers are not a significant problem.

In 1988 eleven percent of workers 65+ participated in the workforce; now 17 percent of these older workers are still working. That percentage will likely increase as the long-term effects of the financial collapse continue to resonate through the damaged economy. Some people continue working because they want to; many more continue because they have no choice.

Injury Prone?
The frequency rate for older workers varies by occupation: in construction, older workers appear to be safer than younger workers - they are injured at a 4 percent rate, compared to 12 percent for their younger colleagues. The results are flipped in retail/sales: older workers are injured at a 23 percent rate, compared to 15 percent for all others.

As you might expect, the leading cause of injuries for 65+ workers are slips, falls and trips - 47 percent of all injuries for this cohort. (Younger workers suffer these injuries at a 24 percent rate). For strains and sprains - the overall leading cost-driver for workers comp - the results are reversed: the frequency for older workers is 23 percent, compared to a whopping 38 percent for all others.

It does take longer for older workers to recover from injuries: they have a median days-away-from-work rate of 16, compared to 12 days for workers in the 55 to 64 group and 10 days for workers 45-54. Despite this higher rate, overall indemnity costs are lower. Why? Because older workers make substantially less on average than younger ones. Wages peak in the mid-50s and then fall off dramatically after age 65, down to the same level as the entry level 20 to 24 group. So much for the notion of paying for experience!

The only red flags in the study involve the retail trade and service/hospitality industries, where older workers are showing higher-than-average costs for comp. These jobs probably offer ample opportunity for slips, trips and falls, the number one cause of injuries for these workers, .

It will be fascinating to watch NCCI's study evolve over the next decade. The percentage of workforce participation for the 65+ group is going to increase steadily. With this growth, the risks will be enhanced. There is likely to be an upward trend in both frequency and severity, but perhaps not as much as feared. Certainly, the NCCI study reinforces the argument that older workers are safe, reliable and motivated. There is no reason to discriminate against them. If anything, you could make a good case for preferring an older worker to a younger one. Fodder for further thought, indeed.

NOTE: Special thanks to reader Soon Yong Choi for spotting an error in an earlier version of this post (see comments). Given my checkered track record with numbers, I can only hope that Choi and similarly adept readers continue to cast a critical eye on any of my postings where statistics are involved.

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January 15, 2010

 

In the interests of keeping Insider readers mentally alert for as long as possible, we present the results of a study that appeared in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease (and is summarized in the Wall Street Journal). The study found that long-term cell phone use appears to protect against and even reverse Alzheimer's-like symptoms in mice. Here is the Journal's description of the study:

Mice genetically engineered to develop brain impairments similar to Alzheimer's in humans were divided into two groups. One group was exposed twice daily to hour-long electromagnetic fields akin to those created during cellphone use. Mice in the other group were not exposed to the radiation. After seven months, young mice in the first group fared significantly better on cognitive tests than their unexposed littermates. Older mice, which had already developed symptoms of Alzheimer's, exposed to the radiation for eight months in a subsequent experiment also performed better than older nonexposed mice. Mice, younger and older, not engineered to develop Alzheimer's also appeared to benefit from the radiation. Biopsies suggested such exposure might fight Alzheimer's by inhibiting the buildup of certain protein plaques in the brain, the researchers said.

Given that exposure to radiation is considered a plus here, head set devices cannot be used. If your goal is Alzheimer's prevention, you have to keep that cell phone clamped against your ear.

Before you start dialing up everyone on your call list, you might want to take note of a few caveats: first, what is true for mice is not necessarily true for humans. Further studies involving larger numbers of mice would be needed, and even then there would be no definitive correlation with humans.

There are also a couple of potential safety issues connected with cell phones: use of cell phones while driving is a widely-recognized hazard. In some states, use of cell phones without a head set is illegal. After being pulled over, you could try the line: "but officer, I cannot use a headset because I'm trying to avoid Alzheimer's." You'll get a chuckle...and a ticket.

Beyond the safe driving issue, there are some inconclusive but alarming indications that heavy use of cell phones might result in brain tumors.

So there you have it: talking on your cell phone might help prevent Alzheimers, but it might also cause a motor vehicle accident or even a brain tumor. Personal risk management at its ambiguous best. It's all so confusing, I'm going to take a coffee break. Caffeine, they say, is really good for you. Except when it isn't.

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January 14, 2010

 

As the world watches in horror and hopelessness, the people of Haiti are trying to extricate themselves from one of the great natural disasters of our lifetime. As I write, thousands of people are still alive, trapped beneath the rubble of what was once Port-Au-Prince. Very soon, most of these people will die, along with scores of the relatively unscathed who have no food, no water and no shelter. Faced with formidable logistical obstacles, the rescuers will not be able to reach most of the trapped people in time and the trickle of essential supplies may be too late for many others.

Our thoughts are with everyone who is suffering in this unimaginable disaster.

As the roads are cleared and supplies finally make their way into what is left of Haiti's capital, rescuers will face enormous hazards. Unstable buildings may collapse at any moment. Further aftershocks are likely. Everyone in the devastated landscape is breathing air contaminated with toxins. There is even a danger of mob violence, as victims become increasingly frustrated by the lack of effective response.

Among the many issues that need confronting at this time, workers comp coverage for the rescuers is probably at the bottom of the list. Yet we know from the World Trade Center experience that many first responders will be exposed to life-threatening injury and illness in the coming days and weeks. Given the magnitude of human suffering in front of them, these responders are not about to raise the issue of their own disability coverage. But the day will come when the extent and nature of that protection is paramount, when the as-yet undiscussed benefits will be an absolute necessity for individual rescuers and their families.

We blogged recently about the personal risk management in which we all engage on a daily basis. We make our choices, moment to moment, in the expectation that nothing really bad will happen. If our luck holds, we live to face the micro challenges of another day.

For the poor people of Haiti and the brave souls trying desperately to help them, the time for micro management is over. The challenge of a lifetime confronts them with savage force. May all who suffer find peace and may all who are trying to alleviate the suffering return home safely.

Postscript
See a post at HR Web Cafe on Haiti earthquake resources, which includes links for:

  • Finding missing loved ones
  • Ways that you can help
  • Avoiding scams
  • News resources
  • Twitter feeds


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December 31, 2009

 

We conclude this bi-polar year with a risk-related story that is both a phenomenal high and a pathetic low. In what appears to be a record-breaking performance - at least for South Dakota - police found Marguerite Engel passed out behind the wheel of a stolen delivery truck. The article does not specify the contents of the vehicle, but if Engel had her Christmas wish, it was full of alcoholic beverages. Her breathalizer test revealed a blood-alcohol level of an astounding .708. That's some serious drinking: a level of .40 is fatal for about half the adult population.

You might think that Engel's dubious achievement qualifies for the Guinness Book of World Records. Not even close. According to Wickipedia, the record belongs to an unnamed Pole: in March 2009, a 45-year-old man was admitted to the hospital in Skierniewice, Poland after being struck by a car. The blood test shows blood alcohol content at 1.23%. The man survived. He did not remember either the accident or people he drank with. With that much alcohol in his system, it's a wonder that his brain can retain anything.

As we say farewell to the decade that gave us x-rays of shoes, Octomom and the I-Phone, we ring in the new year with a toast: "May the gifts of moderation be yours in abundance. Salud!"

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December 29, 2009

 

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was depressed and lonely, so he decided to blow up an airplane. He boarded a Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas day with explosives strapped to his underwear. (The Freudians will have a field day with that one.) As the plane prepared for landing, Umar, in seat 19A, began to detonate his deadly concoction.

One row back and several seats over, Jasper Schuringa sat in seat 20J. As soon as flames and smoke began to rise in front of him, Jasper lunged across the row and seized Umar around the neck. He disarmed the would-be terrorist and prevented the ignition of the explosives. He suffered some burns, but none as severe as Umar's.

We will probably never know the pathetic thought process that led the spoiled and privileged Umar to seek an end not only to his own life, but those of 280 innocent people. But we can certainly acknowledge the instinctual courage that motivated Schuringa. Like U.S. Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger, Schuringa demonstrated grace under pressure. In the weeks ahead, most of the attention will be on the Umars of the world: how to find them, how to prevent them from carrying out their wretched pseudo-political vendettas against life itself. It would be reassuring to think that our risk management tools might help us identify these folks before they can act, but I doubt it. Umar has succeeded in adding underwear to the long list of items to be scrutinized before boarding a plane. What's next: explosives hidden in dental crowns?

Seen from a perspective of time, our lives are vectors: as we move in the world, our paths intersect randomly with others. There are mostly gifts in these encounters - but there are also dangers. We all try to manage risk - personal and professional - but there are risks that fall well beyond our control. It takes a lot of luck just to survive. As we welcome the New Year, let's take a moment to appreciate all the good fortune that brought us to this moment. And let's give thanks to the latent heroes among us - the Schuringas and the Sullenbergers - who are ready in a flash to do what needs to be done.


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December 4, 2009

 

Most Massachusetts residents will recall how their heart sank 10 years ago upon hearing TV and radio reports of the on-the-job deaths of six firefighters in the Worcester Cold Storage fire. While firefighting is a dangerous job, this was the first time that six firefighters fatalities occurred in a building where neither a collapse nor explosion had occurred. The first two firefighters became lost in the labyrinth building and the next four were lost in trying to rescue them. Firehouse.com has a Worcester 10th Anniversary Tribute and the Telegram & Gazette have devoted a special section to the remembrance: Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Fire: 10 Years Later.

Worcester is a community that several of us at Lynch Ryan know well - we've lived there and worked there. Given the nature of our work, we are no strangers to on-the-job fatalities - we've heard many heartbreaking stories about work-related deaths that never should have happened. But rarely does an event hit so close to home and with such force as on that day. Many locals will remember the shock of hearing about two lost firefighters - shortly followed by the almost unbelievable word that the tally was now up to six. Many locals who knew firefighters as friends, family, or neighbors waited the long, tense vigil until names of the deceased were released, and then again waited mournfully until fellow firefighters were able to pull the bodies of their colleagues from the rubble a few days later. We all became familiar with the faces of bereaved spouses, children, parents, and siblings. We all saw and hurt for the heavy burden of grief that the fellow firefighters labored under.

There was an amazing tribute for the fallen firefighters: fifteen-thousand firefighters from around the globe came for the memorial service. President Clinton and Vice President Gore spoke at the service, along with local Senators Kennedy and Kerry. Senator Ted Kennedy, a man who was no stranger to tragedy, encapsulated things by saying that "Sometimes life breaks your heart." It was fitting that Kennedy was at the ceremony for the fallen firefighters, he fought for worker safety throughout his career.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Two major reports were issued: the U.S, Fire Administration's Abandoned Cold Storage Warehouse Multi-Firefighter Fatality Fire and a report from NIOSH.

Firefighter safety still has a long way to go. Tragically, two and a half years ago, nine firefighters lost their lives in Charleston SC. The fire was in a furniture showroom and warehouse - and again, a labyrinth building where firefighters became disoriented.

Firefighters continue to study and learn from the hard lessons of these warehouse fires. In 2001, Firefighters in Jersey City battled a warehouse fire with similar conditions to the Worcester blaze. Fire authorities credit a seminar that they took with members of the Worcester Fire Department for guiding their strategy in fighting this fire and preventing loss of life. In addition, many communities have been more vigilant about monitoring large vacant properties, and firefighter communication technologies have been improved.

The matter of firefighter disorientation is still an issue of concern and one that is under study. (See: U.S. Firefighter Disorientation Study). This has given impetus to other safety initiatives, such as advances in First Responder Locator Systems. These include a system developed at a local university, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where engineers are nearing completion of a First Responder Locator System.

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November 3, 2009

 

At the end of last week, OSHA issued $87 million in penalties against BP for failure to make make the changes which were specified in a settlement agreement related to the 2005 explosion at a Texas refinery which killed 15 and injured more than 170 others. The second-highest penalty that OSHA has imposed was in 2005 for $21 million - also issued to BP related to the same explosion.

BP had paid the $21 million fine and agreed to corrective actions to eliminate potential hazards similar to those that caused the 2005 tragedy as part of a settlement agreement with OSHA in September 2005. The penalties were imposed after a 6 month OSHA investigation. BP had recently sought but was denied more time for compliance.

OSHA issued 270 "notifications of failure to abate" previously identified hazards, as well as 439 new willful violations for failures to follow industry-accepted controls. A willful violation is defined by OSHA as an intentional violation of the Act or plain indifference to its requirements.

Unsurprisingly, BP is contesting the fines, stating that they have spent more than $1 billion on modernization and safety and have taken 550 corrective actions. (See BP's offical response and October 5, 2009 response to OSHA, a 17-page PDF). The company has also gotten support from Texas City's mayor, Matt Doyle, who has criticized OSHA for the fines, calling OSHA's actions "one of the biggest affronts to the working men and women of this country" and "an example of intrusion into private business by government."

Jordan Barab, acting assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, noted that BP had four years to comply with the agreement, and defended OSHA's actions as protecting the safety of working men and women. While Barab acknowledged that improvements had been made, he noted that some of the most important things had not been addressed, particularly pressure relief and automatic shutdown systems, problems directly related to the accident. "Our experts say BP is 10 years behind where a lot of the leading refineries are when it comes to process safety," Barab said. "This is a company that should have known better."

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October 20, 2009

 

We recently posted about the Imperial Sugar Company explosion report issued by the US Chemical Safety Board, but more recently we found a video version, which we think is well worth the nine and a half minutes it takes to view it. Using computer graphics, it clearly explains how the accident happened and the conditions that led to it. It should be mandatory viewing by the 100,000 at-risk organizations that have the potential for such explosions, but think "it can't happen here."

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September 29, 2009

 

A year and a half after the Imperial Sugar combustible dust explosion, the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) issued its final report on the explosion, which killed 14 workers and injured 36 others, leaving some with permanent, life-altering conditions. In short, the CSB found inadequate housekeeping and maintenance, largely preventable conditions. In addition, CSB found inadequate emergency evacuation plans. The linked article from WTOC-TV above has a summary with photos, as well as related stories. Or you can read the entire 89-page Investigation Report - Sugar Dust Explosion and Fire - Imperial Sugar Company (PDF).

The initial explosion occurred in a closed steel conveyor belt, triggering a series of secondary explosions and fireball eruptions throughout the buildings. The fatalities occurred in the secondary explosions.

Last year, OSHA proposed $8.7 million in fines on the company for more than 100 violations, fines that Imperial Sugar is currently battling in court.

As part of the report, the CSB recommended that OSHA establish mandatory standards for combustible dust. Critics say that this recommendation isn't strong enough, and that OSHA's current rule making process will take too long. They note that under a federal workplace safety law, OSHA can adopt an emergency temporary standard, which would circumvent the red tape to get something in place quickly.

A good source of information on combustible dust is the Combustable Dust Policy Institute blog. This blog states that although OSHA lists 30,000 facilities in its National Emphasis Program, there are actually more than 100,000 facilities at risk, which includes many national industries not listed in the Dust NEP. They track media accounts of combustible dust incidents, and found that last year, about 50% of the incidents occurred in national industries not referenced in the OSHA's dust NEP. Another source of information that we turn to on combustible dust and other public health issues is the excellent blog, The Pump Handle, which provides informed commentary from experts.

For another perspective on the Imperial Sugar explosion, the Joseph M. Stiller Burn Center included Battling Big Burns: The Imperial Sugar Company Fire (PDF) in its summer 2008 newsletter. The article offers an overview of the complexity of issues involved in managing large disasters, including issues directly related to caring for critically burned patients.

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September 28, 2009

 

In all of our discussions about controlling the cost of workers comp, we continually come up against two lifestyle issues that have a direct impact on costs: obesity and smoking. Let's leave obesity for another day and focus on smoking.

According to a compelling article by Stephen Smith in the Boston Globe, 70 percent of smokers want to stop, but fewer than 10 percent will succeed each year. For non-smokers, this might appear to be a matter of will. But that is both condescending and a gross over-simplification.

Nicotine, the primary addictive agent in tobacco, steals into the brain, setting on fire circuitry that regulates our sense of pleasure [emphasis added]. At the same time, cigarettes acquire a sort of social permanence in smokers' lives - a way to start the day, to end a meal, to celebrate good times, to muddle through bad times.

Smith uses a rather terrifying analogy to describe how nicotine enters the brain:

Smoking is a uniquely efficient manner of delivering an addictive substance to the brain. "That's why crack cocaine is so much more addictive than regular cocaine,'' said Dr. Nancy Rigotti, chief of Massachusetts General Hospital's tobacco treatment center. "Cigarettes are kind of like the crack cocaine of nicotine.''
Inhaled nicotine from a cigarette arrives in the brain in 10 seconds. There, it attaches to an especially pivotal region of neurons, those cobweb-like structures that govern our physical and mental actions.
Nicotine, said Dr. Jonathan Winickoff, a tobacco control researcher at Mass. General, "stimulates the same area that get stimulated when you have a wonderful gourmet meal or when you have sexual intercourse. It lights up that part of the brain, which is the rewards center. It drives human behavior. It's powerful stuff.''

Hmm. Similar to gourmet meals and love making. No wonder people have trouble walking away from the habit, despite the known and often dire consequences of continuing to smoke. It would take powerful medicine indeed to counteract nicotine's overwhelming appeal.

If there is good news in all of this, it is that a combination of drug therapy and counseling increase the chances of success.

"The data are very clear that you can double your chances if you use a medication if it's appropriate for you, and you can triple your chances if you use a medication and counseling,'' said Thomas Glynn, director of cancer science and trends at the American Cancer Society.
The medicine cabinet now includes seven first-line treatments, anchored by five forms of nicotine replacement. Regardless of the delivery system, the goal is to stave off the withdrawal symptoms and cravings that bedevil so many people who want to quit.

Finally, perseverence is key. You just have to keep at it.

"It takes smokers seven to 11 quit attempts to quit for good,'' said Lois Keithly, director of the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program. "We need to get the message out that if you make a quit attempt and you relapse, you don't give up.''

Smoking Out Smokers
It will be interesting to see if the nation's pending experiment with universal health care attempts to tackle the issue of smoking. Will smokers be charged higher premiums? (With a significant portion of smokers qualifying for premium subsidies, such penalties may prove difficult to enforce.) Will the new insurance rules mandate coverage for smoke cessation programs, including the full range of pharmacology options plus counseling? On the one hand, the success rates are low, so smokers are likely to keep smoking; on the other hand, any and all successes project to future cost savings.

Let there be no doubt about how hard it is to give up cigarettes. After all, we have the image of our president: a self-possessed, calm and extremely bright (American born!) man sneaking out of the White House for secretive puffs. Good luck to him and to all smokers who strive valiantly to give up this nasty habit once and for all.

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September 11, 2009

 

Charles Wilson of AP has written an article about the Indiana court ruling which determined that Boston's The Gourmet Pizza must pay for an employee's weight loss surgery under workers comp. For the article, Wilson spoke with attorneys representing both sides of the issue, as well as our own Tom Lynch for the workers comp perspective.

The so-called "lifestyle illnesses" of obesity and diabetes pose complicated issues and challenges for employers:

"Both Lynch and Maltby said the issue won't go away soon, in part because one-third of American adults are considered obese, with a body mass index of 30 or more. The index is based on height and weight. Last year, at least 220,000 obesity surgeries were done in the United States, says the American Society for Metabolic & Bariatric Surgery.

And Lynch said the ruling could have repercussions beyond obesity and weight-loss surgery.

"Who among us does not have some kind of situation that either now or in the future ... could contribute to an injury?" he said. "This could be a big deal."

See our original post: Compensible weight loss surgery? A new wrinkle in obesity.

Related posts:

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September 1, 2009

 

As a follow up to Julie Ferguson's gruesome imagery from Monday's blog, we find Clyde Haberman's entertaining piece in the New York Times about the state's new statute outlawing texting. As of November 1, it will be illegal for anyone to drive and text in the Empire State. Haberman goes on to write:

If any law may be described as a no-brainer, this one is it. You have to be certifiable to think that you can stare at a small screen and thumb-type on a tiny keyboard for five or six seconds while going 65 miles an hour, and not be a potential threat to everyone in your path. In the opinion of many safety experts, self-deluding multitaskers have had their way long enough. It's time for some multi-tsking to rein them in.

Bravo, Clyde! But Haberman goes on to say that the new law is pretty toothless. "It doesn't throw the book at texters so much as it tosses a few pages in their direction." (Shades of Keith Olbermann?)

The problem is in enforcement. The new statute will only receive "secondary" enforcement, which means that a fine may be imposed only if the police find some other violation, such as speeding or running a red light. Beyond that, the maximum penalty is only $150. That's chump change for the high rolling multi-taskers who clog New York's multitudinous arteries.

Live Free and Die?
Haberman interviews Judith Lee Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington lobbying group. She says "secondary enforcement is not OK, and there's no reason for it."

The good folks in New York like to creep up on enforcement. When they first initiated a seat belt law, they began with secondary enforcement and eventually moved to primary status. All states now require seatbelts, with the notable exception of New Hampshire, which exempts adults over 18 from the mandate.

"It must be that "Live Free or Die" spirit," Haberman quips.

To which Stone responds, "Live free and die, I'd say."

The low budget ($20,000) video was produced by the Chief Constable of the tiny town of Gwent in SE Wales UK. The video has become a You-Tube sensation. The Insider humbly suggests that New York legislators check it out and then revisit the enforcement section of the new law. No one wants to suffer injury or even death just because some twit can't wait to for the proper time to communicate something that, in the scheme of things, most certainly can wait.

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August 31, 2009

 

There's been quite a lot of media coverage on the high risk of texting while driving and several states are lining up to issue bans or restrictions on the practice. We recently featured a texting while driving game that let's you get a rough gauge of how you'd fare while texting at the wheel. But this simulator really soft pedals things in comparison to the approach that some countries are taking in getting the message out. Nothing that we've seen or read here in the U.S. has the raw, visceral power that a recent British public service announcement aimed at teens.

Before watching, please be warned that this video is very graphic.

There's no disputing the danger that texting while driving poses - the studies are adding up. One of the more recent is a study by the VirginiaTech Transportation Institute, which found that texting truck drivers were 23 times more at risk of a crash or near crash event than nondistracted drivers. But there has been some debate about the effectiveness of shock advertising as an awareness and prevention tactic - some see them as highly effective, while other think that viewers tend to tune them out. This is an issue that came up about two years ago when Ontario's Workplace Safety and Insurance Board released a series of graphic public service announcements designed to highlight worker safety.

As for the subject of this ad - currently, 18 states ban texting for all drivers. The Governors' Highway Safety Association maintains and updates a handy chart of state cell phone and texting laws - check back often, as this is an issue on several state legislative dockets.

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August 24, 2009

 

Wyoming might be a good place to work, but it's also a good place to die at work. The mortality rate for occupational injuries is three times the national average, with 15.6 fatalities per 100,000 workers. Many of these fatalities occur in the oil fields, where "roughnecks" make pretty good wages in exchange for working in relatively dangerous conditions. As DeeDee Correll writes in the Los Angeles Times, everyone shares the goal of improving safety on the far-flung job sites, but there is a continental divide in how to achieve that goal.

Most oil workers are employed by independent contractors, who provide the bodies for the intense work in the fields. The fields are owned by big corporations. On one side of the fence you find workers and their advocates, who want to be able to hold the big corporations liable for what happens on the job. They want to be able to sue the big corporations when they suffer catastrophic injuries or deaths on the job.

The counter argument says that workers comp - carried by the employers of these field workers - should be the exclusive remedy for work-related injuries.

At issue here is the question of accountability and control: under current Wyoming case law, injured workers have to prove that the operator maintained "pervasive" control over the site. This is a very high standard, because the daily operations at these sites are primarily under the control of the independent contractors. By lowering the standard of control, worker advocates would make it easier for workers to sue the oil companies for damages.

Denim Versus Suits
The battleground for this dispute is the Wyoming legislature. As is so often the case, there is considerable theatricality on display. Many of the roughnecks lobbying for a change in the law show the scars of their chosen occupation. They are dressed in denim and baseball caps. Their opposition, lawyers for the oil companies, wear the indispensable dark suits.

The "suits" counter the compelling visual evidence of the roughnecks with some dubious arguments, maintaining, for example, that any change in the law would expose home owners to liability for injuries to contractors working on their houses. That's a red herring, as homeowners rarely exercise significant control over the work environment of their contractors.

There should be enough middle ground in this dispute to fashion a meaningful compromise. Wide-open litigation is rarely the best way to go. The legislature should set specific standards for safe operating procedures in the oil fields. Oil companies should be held accountable for meeting these standards. Only if they are demonstrably negligent in maintaining and documenting these standards should the door be opened to law suits. At the same time, the state should bolster the benefits available to workers who are killed or severely injured on the job.

The "exclusive remedy" provision of workers comp is a standard well worth preserving. It's tempting to carve out exceptions, but each exception becomes a fault line in the fundamental compromise that is workers comp. We are nearing the 100th anniversary of comp in America (New York 1911). For the most part, it is a remarkably successful experiment in public policy. The law makers of Wyoming would do well to keep this success in mind: by all means tinker with the statute to make it more responsive to 21st century working conditions, but don't mess with the premise. This is not the time to find fault with "no fault."

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August 20, 2009

 

Earlier this week, my colleague Julie Ferguson blogged an intriguing case in Indiana, where Adam Childers, an obese pizza baker, suffered a back injury when he was hit by a swinging freezer door. He was unable to get better due to his obesity. As a result, the Indiana court ordered the employer to pay for weight reduction surgery, to be followed by back surgery, all the while providing temporary total disability benefits to Childers. A relatively large claim becomes a very large claim due to the prospect of sequential surgeries. This case raises some fascinating issues concerning the cost of getting better. Boy, does it ever!

There is no need to repeat the succinct summary of the case provided in Julie's blog. For those interested in the details, here is the actual opinion of the court.

This case raises two compelling issues: First, the degree to which employers become responsible for non-work related factors in recovery; and second, the looming specter of widespread discrimination against people whose pre-existing conditions make virtually any injury substantially more difficult to manage.

Taking People as They Are
Employers cannot set a high bar for "health and wellness" and then exclude everyone who falls below it. Any health standards must be grounded in business necessity. As we have seen in recent blogs, employers might be in a position to reject applicants who smoke (depending upon the state), but they generally cannot arbitrarily turn away people with co-morbidities that may impact recovery times: diabetes, heart conditions, asthma, etc.

In the Indiana case, at the time of the injury Childers weighed 340 pounds and smoked 30 cigarettes a day. In its opinion, the court did not consider him "disabled" as defined in the ADA: his weight did not "substantially impact" one or more major life activities. Thus, despite his weight, he did not fall into a protected class.

Once injured, however, Childers's weight became a major obstacle to his recovery. Indeed, any obese person suffering from back, hip, knee, leg or ankle injuries would find recovery extremely difficult, as their spine and limbs are routinely stressed by the sheer weight of the body. Under Indiana law, the pre-existing condition of obesity combines with the work-related injury to produce a single injury. With the pre-existing condition absorbed into the workers comp claim, the employer is responsible for any and all treatments required to bring the worker to maximum medical improvement.

There is a definite logic to the Indiana court's position. The problem is not in its protection of Childers, but in the implications for all Indiana employers as they are confronted with hiring decisions.

When in Doubt, Leave Them Out?
With the Childers's decision, employers in Indiana have been put on notice that at least one conspicuous part of the labor pool - obese people - bring the risk of substantially higher costs following injuries in the workplace. As employers make day to day hiring decisions, they may well have the image of higher costs of injuries associated with obesity in the back of their minds. Given two applicants, one obese, one within normal weight ranges, employers may be tempted to ignore other important hiring factors such as motivation and experience and reject the obese applicant.

Thus the unfortunate consequence of providing extensive benefits to Childers is that it may have the proverbial "chilling effect" on the job prospects for others with similar weight problems. The obese already suffer from the daily judgment of a thousand eyes: their weight problems are impossible to hide. Now they may have to overcome the additional burden of fearful Indiana employers, who exclude them from employment in the vague hope of keeping the costs of comp under control.

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August 17, 2009

 

Back in December of 2006 we blogged the story of Scott Rodrigues, a new hire of the Scotts lawn care company, who was fired after failing a drug test. No news here, perhaps, except that the drug in his system, nicotine is perfectly legal. Scott's is self-insured for health benefits, so they have a vested interest in making sure that employees follow basic wellness practices.

On his way to a pre-placement drug test, Mr. Rodrigues chewed on Nicorette gum. He was trying to kick the habit. Ironically, the Nicorette may have triggered the positive finding for nicotine. Rodrigues was hired provisionally and then abruptly terminated once the test results were released.

Rodrigues brought suit in federal court for violation of privacy and civil rights. Judge George O'Toole has ruled in favor of the company. The judge found no violation of privacy laws, as Rodrigues smoked while walking down the street and in a restaurant parking lot. His supervisor spotted a pack of cigarettes on the dashboard of his truck. Would the judge have ruled for Rodrigues if the employer had peeked through a window to see him smoking at home?

O'Toole also rejected the notion that the firing violated a 1974 federal law that protects employee rights to benefits. O'Toole ruled that Rodrigues was not yet a bona fide employee and was working on the condition that he pass the urinalysis.

Jim King, a spokesman for Scotts, said the smoking ban has never been used to fire an "existing" employee. It is used solely to screen out applicants. Since the ban went into effect in 2005, the percentage of smokers among the company's 7,000 employees has fallen to 7 percent from 28 percent.

[The Insider notes in passing that even as a "provisional" employee, Rodrigues was covered by workers comp from the moment he began working - indeed, while he was on his way to the drug testing lab.]

Whether employees can smoke or not depends upon the state they work in. A few states (e.g., Kentucky, Louisiana) explicitly protect smoker rights. Other states do not. It's interesting that Rodrigues pursued his case in federal court, probably because Massachusetts laws offered no protection to smokers.

Is Obesity Next?
We all know that smoking increases the risk of illness and the cost of medical coverage. The same goes for obesity. So the next front in the battle to control the business side of medical costs may well be the bathroom scale. The New York Times magazine profiles the Cleveland Clinic, which has been upheld as a model for medical cost control. Two years ago, they stopped hiring smokers. Delos M. Cosgrove, the heart surgeon who is the clinic's chief executive, would like to expand the hiring ban to include applicants who are obese.

"Why is it unfair? Has anyone ever shown the law of conservation of matter doesn't apply?" Cosgrove states that people's weight is a reflection of how much they eat and how active they are. The country has grown fat because it's consuming more calories and burning fewer. Our national weight problem brings huge costs, both medical and economic. Yet our anti-obesity efforts have none of the urgency of our antismoking efforts. "We should declare obesity a disease and say we're going to help you get over it."

Should the Cleveland Clinic - or any other employer- decline to hire obese people, it will be interesting to track the results. Where obesity can be traced back to genetic or chemical issues - where it qualifies as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act- employers would be guilty of discrimination. If no such causes can be specified, employers may be on solid ground. (The unaddressed issue in these hiring practices, of course, is the loss of a vast pool of talented and often essential workers.)

A recent article in Health Affairs estimated the annual cost of obesity to be $147 billion and growing. That translates into $1,250 per household, mostly in taxes and insurance premiums.

The Fat Tax
Cosgrove is interested in an idea that some economists favor: charging higher health-insurance premiums to anyone with a certain body-mass index. Call it the Fat Tax. Another alternative might be taxing the calorie-rich foods that lead to obesity: just imagine paying a little surcharge for your large order of fries, your jumbo soda and your two-for-one pizza. That would be interesting, indeed! Just as smokers pay a tax-driven premium for their cigarettes, eaters would be taxed for their food addictions.

This is simply not going to happen. To be sure, fundamental wellness is the cornerstone of any plan to contain health care costs. But when the public good collides with the rights of freedom and privacy, individual rights will win out. Policy wonks may not like it, but citizens can eat whatever they damn well please. Lighting up after that supersized meal? Well, that's one area where the public good pretty much trumps the private right.

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August 11, 2009

 

Last week, 61-year old rock musician Steven Tyler fell off the stage and suffered a broken shoulder, along with stitches in his head and back. He has had to cancel upcoming shows, though it's likely he'll be on a self-imposed return-to-work plan in the near future. Many musicians are like athletes in their devotion to their profession and their determination to return to work as soon as feasible. (Not to mention the economic impact of canceling shows, which although there is event cancellation insurance for that type of thing, still must take a bite from a musician's earnings.)

Falling off stages isn't all that unusual a work-related occurrence for musicians and other performers. Celebrity spills are a favorite fare on the Internet, with video clips drawing millions of viewers and little sympathy. Fashion model falls seem to be a particular favorite for the YouTubers, and frequently available given that a job-related hazard for models is teetering around on ridiculous footwear. But despite the vicarious pleasure that many viewers take in seeing pop culture icons coming down to earth, slips and falls are nothing to take lightly - they are one of the most common injuries in many professions, resulting in disabling injuries. They are also a leading source of fatalities in the construction industry.

Injuries beyond the falls
We went looking for more information about musician injuries and came upon Looking at Musicians' Health Through the Ages, an examination of performance-related musculoskeletal disorders (PRMDs) from the scholarly Medical Problems of Performing Artists. This is a publication that bills itself as "...the first clinical medical journal devoted to the etiology, diagnosis, and treatment of medical and psychological disorders related to the performing arts. Original peer-reviewed research papers cover topics including neurologic disorders, musculoskeletal conditions, voice and hearing disorders, anxieties, stress, substance abuse, disorders of aging, and other health issues related to actors, dancers, singers, musicians, and other performers. Alas, the interesting articles entitled "Bagpiper's Hernia" and "The Psychological Profile of a Rock Band: Using Intellectual and Personality Measures with Musicians" are available only to subscribers.

For some other sites related to musician injuries, see Musician's Health, an educational website devoted to common musician's injuries and information on preventing those injuries. Instrumental injuries often include similar repetitive motion injuries to those that are commonly associated with computer use. Musicians' Injuries describes various types of performance-related injuries and offers advice on how to avoid them.

Hearing-related injuries are common for musicians
Hearing loss is another risk for musicians and conductors - and not just for rock musicians, as might be commonly assumed. Doug Owens, a USM music education professor and trumpet player who has experienced hearing loss himself, has been studying the issue of hearing loss and musicians. For his doctoral dissertation, he had ten high school band directors wear noise monitors for two days on the job.

"Owens found they were exposed to mean average noise levels of 85 to 93 decibels, similar to a vacuum cleaner or a leaf blower. Noise exposures peaked at 101 to 115 decibels, similar to a jackhammer or a crowd at a basketball game.

Comparing eight-hour exposure rates, Owen found noise levels for all of the band directors were more than three times higher than recommended by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health."


In learning more about this topic, we also discovered H.E.A.R., a site with an acronym that stands for Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers. The site describes itself as "a non-profit grassroots hearing health organization of hearing professionals, audiologists, ear doctors, educators, music industry professionals, and musicians dedicated to the prevention of hearing loss and tinnitus for musicians, music students, recording engineers, music industry professionals and music fans, especially young people." The site offers the latest in hearing-related research, news and advice, along with a quick and easy test to assess whether concerts are harming your hearing.

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August 4, 2009

 

The other Nicholas Sparks is in a bit of trouble: not the well-known writer, but an obscure 25 year old tow truck driver from upstate New York. The lesser known Sparks has earned himself a place in the Business Hall of Shame when he raised multi-tasking to new heights (or better, depths). He was talking on one cell phone, texting on another(!), when, surprise of surprises, he lost control of his vehicle, smashed into another car, careened across a front lawn and plunged his flatbed tow truck into a swimming pool. The 68 year-old woman driving the other car suffered head injuries but is in good condition; her 8 year old niece suffered minor injuries.

Sparks has been charged with reckless driving, talking on a cell phone and following too closely. He was driving a truck for Adams Towing Company. While I was unable to find an area company listed under this name, I do hope they carry robust liability coverage. The company is clearly guilty of negligence and will pay dearly for their multi-multi-tasking employee.

Driven to Distraction
The New York Times has singled out the use of cell phones while driving as a major danger. They have a begun a series focusing on this new road hazard entitled "Driving to Distraction." In their most recent article, they describe the ubiquitous talking on cells performed by taxi drivers. (My family caught a cab during a downpour in Brooklyn last week; I sat in the front seat and listened to one side of a conversation in an Arabic tongue that was underway when we entered the cab and continued after we had paid and exited.)

While New York City has one of the most stringent laws in the country prohibiting taxi drivers from using cell phones while driving, it is rarely enforced. Fewer than 800 summonses were issued to cab drivers in 2007. If the law were enforced, the annual summonses would run in the hundreds of thousands.

It all comes down to this: anyone who drives can no longer plead ignorance to the dangers of talking/texting and driving. A new and potentially huge liability has emerged for the employers of people who drive in the course of employment. The employers are going to be held accountable for the mistakes of their employees. Property will be damaged and people will be hurt, even killed. In order to avoid liability, management will have to demonstrate that effective cell phone policies have been both promulgated and enforced.

Which leads to one final question: with liability ultimately falling to the insurance companies, what steps have they taken to ensure that policy holders have mitigated this ever-increasing risk? How will their underwriters identify the companies most likely to produce the next Nicholas Sparks - the driver, that is, not the writer.


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July 29, 2009

 

Back in May, we blogged the appalling story of Albania Deleon, a legal immigrant who founded Environmental Compliance Training (ECT), the largest asbestos removal training school in New England. Despite the fact that the training only requires 32 hours, she frequently sold certificates of completion to "students" who never attended classes. In other words, she sent these marginal workers - many of them undocumented - into asbestos-ridden jobsites with no preparation whatsoever.

Well, Albania, meet Chong-mun Chae, an illegal immigrant who ran a Queens-based asbestos removal company apparently modeled on ECT standards. Chae claimed to have only one employee, a receptionist. In other words, his company removed asbestos from job sites all over New York, but he accomplished this without any workers. By calling his workforce "independent contractors," he avoided workers comp premiums to the tune of $1.6 million. As we read in the New York Times, Chae has been sentenced to 4 years in prison, to be followed by deportation to South Korea.

Chae avoided detection for over a decade by frequently changing the name of the company. He was not without a sense of humor - let's call it diabolical - as one of his company's incarnations was "Charlie Brown Services." His premium avoidance scheme was exposed when an investigator read a report filed by Chae stating that he had no workers. You might think that a connection would easily be made between a company with hundreds of thousands in billings and no payroll, but that was not the case. In our collective haste to get rid of asbestos, we try not to think very much about the people actually performing the work.

Killer Jobs
Chae, like Albania Deleon, is getting off lightly. After all, he has only been convicted of insurance fraud. At some point in the not-too-distant future, when Chae is enjoying his retirement in South Korea, he will be guilty of murder, as his phantom workforce and their families succomb to debilitating lung disease. We don't know who they are or where they live. Collectively, perhaps we don't really care.

Entrepreneurs like Chae and Deleon exploit the margins of the working world, removing a deadly menace in a deadly manner. They offer jobs that pay relatively well, to a workforce that labors in the shadows. Chae and Deleon are nothing less than murderers. It's too bad that our system of justice is incapable of holding them accountable for their deeds.

If hell operated a dating service, surely the decrepid Chae and the fugitive Deleon would be a match: at 71, he is a lot older, where Deleon is a single mother with a now-abandoned 3 year old child. Despite the difference in ages, however, they have a lot in common. They have ruined hundreds of lives, wreaked havoc on thousands of families and reaped the profits of a corrupt business scheme. With values like those, age is surely no barrier.

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July 28, 2009

 

Summer brings extremes in weather that pose dangers to workers and challenges to employers who must plan for worker safety. This week, four construction workers were hit by lightning in Michigan. A quick Google search demonstrates this is not an anomaly - refinery workers, airport workers, firefighters, farmers and other working people all have too-close encounters with lightning, and a surprising number live to tell the tales of their harrowing lightning encounters.

In a recent MSNBC story, survivors share their experiences and stress the importance of safety. The article highlights 9 myths of lightning safety - including the common misconception that it's unsafe to touch a lightning victim, a myth that often delays critical assistance, and the faulty idea that you are safe from lightning if you are indoors. As for your odds:

"Nearly 25 million cloud-to-ground strikes occur in the United States each year, according to the National Lightning Detection Network, with Florida topping the list with more than 1.4 million flashes a year and about 25.3 flashes per square mile. By contrast, Washington state is at the bottom of the list, with less than 20,000 flashes per year and about .3 flashes per square mile."
While experts put your odds of being struck by lightning in any given year at 1 in 700,000, your lifetime odds narrow to 1 in 5,000, and your odds of knowing or being affected by someone who is struck by lightning are 1 in 500. And while it is not totally understood why, some people are struck more than once, such as this unfortunate Oklahoma plant worker who has been hit by lightning 4 times.

The National Weather Service (NWS) keeps track of annual lightning fatalities by state. This year, there have been 25 fatalities, with 4 of those occurring in Florida.

NWS also offers this breakdown of casualties by location or activity:
45% - Open Areas (including sports fields)
23% - Going Under Trees To Keep Dry
14% - Water Related Activities (swimming, boating, and fishing)
6% - Golfing (while in the open)
5% - Farm And Construction Vehicles (with open exposed cockpits)
4% - Corded Telephone (#1 indoor source of lightning casualties)
25 - Golfing (while mistakenly seeking "shelter" under trees)
1% - Using Radios And Radio Equipment

Experts estimate that about a third of all injuries occur during work. Survivors often face daunting medical after effects, which can include personality changes, seizures, memory lapses,fatigue, and depression. Victims are also often are left with permanent scars and markings that are sometimes referred to as lightning flowers or lightning trees, or arborescent erythema.

Resources
For help in learning about or coping with lightning strike after effects, survivors and their families can turn to the non-profit support group Lightning Strike & Electric Shock Survivors International, Inc. (LS&ESSI, Inc.).

The National Lightning Institute issues a fact sheet on Lightning Safety for Outdoor Workers. For more information, see NWS' page of Factsheets, Publications, Statistics, Policy Statements, Lightning Strikes, More Links. Also, see our past posts on the topic: Lightning safety precautions for work and home and Lightning strike prevention and survivor resources

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July 21, 2009

 

The following article is a guest post by Joey Lucia, a loss prevention supervisor at Austin-based Texas Mutual Insurance Co., the largest provider of workers' compensation insurance in Texas.

Non-English-speaking Hispanic workers present unique safety challenges.

Picture this: It's your first day on the job with a construction crew. Your boss asks you to help lay a foundation for an office building. High above, another worker is walking along a scaffold. He accidentally kicks a hammer off the scaffold, and you're directly below it.

Fortunately, your company embraces a "total safety" culture. In a "total safety" culture, employees look out for one other. Everyone is accountable for not only their own safety but also their co-workers' safety.

With that in mind, someone yells, "¡Cuidado, el martillo se puede cáer sobre ti!" Your co-worker warned you to get out of the way. If you didn't understand Spanish, you might have been involved in a serious accident.

In 2006, Hispanic workers died at a rate that was 25 percent higher than all other workers in the United States, according to a study published last year in Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report. As of 2006, nearly 20 million workers in this country were Hispanic, making them one of the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. workforce.

Here are some tips for keeping non-English-speaking Hispanic workers safe. Follow the ones that fit your business, and you can help make your workplace safer and more productive.

Challenge: language
Language can be a barrier to communication, even among people who speak the same language. Imagine how hard it is for Hispanic workers who speak little or no English.

Solutions

  • Use more pictures and fewer words to point out hazards and teach safety procedures.
  • Most communication is nonverbal. Watch workers' eyes, body language and expressions to see whether they understand instructions.
  • Train supervisors in basic, conversational Spanish. Send non-English-speaking Hispanic workers to a conversational English class. Focus on commonly used words in your industry.
  • Hire Spanish-speaking supervisors who have experience in your industry.
  • Ask bilingual employees to translate safety messages.
  • If you have training requirements, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration mandates that you provide them in a language that workers can understand. Hire a translation company to put safety training material into Spanish. Make sure the translator is fluent in the Spanish dialects spoken by your employees.
Challenge: literacy
Many Hispanic workers do not have the luxury of pursuing their education because they have to help support their families. About 40 percent of Hispanics age 25 and up do not have a high school diploma, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By comparison, about 14 percent of the total U.S. population does not have a high school diploma.

Solutions:

  • Keep training basic.
  • Provide simple, hands-on safety demonstrations.
  • Do not let employees start work until they show that they understand the training.
  • Provide follow-up training, and be sure to address new workplace hazards.
Challenge: fear
Have you ever been afraid of asking a question in front of a large group of people? Imagine asking it in a different language. Non-English-speaking Hispanic workers may put themselves at risk because they're too embarrassed to ask questions about safety procedures. Some may even fear for their jobs if they report unsafe working conditions.

Solutions

  • Encourage every employee to report unsafe conditions.
  • Offer safety training away from the workplace. If the trainer is someone other than a manager, employees may be less intimidated and more likely to ask questions.
  • Make sure non-English-speaking Hispanic workers have peers they feel comfortable talking to.
  • Deliver the safety message to employees in their environment. For example, distribute Spanish-language safety training material at community functions.
  • Reward safe behavior in front of co-workers.
  • Take time to learn about your Hispanic workers and their culture.

Past blog posts that relate to this topic:
Safety for Spanish-speaking workers must address cultural as well as language barriers
Keeping the multicultural workforce safe
Qualified interpreters can save lives
Hispanic Fatalities on the job: the Tip of the Iceberg
When it comes to safety, make sure you speak the same language!
Mandatory English at the workplace?

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July 14, 2009

 

Earlier this year, legendary baseball great Mark Fidrych died while working on his farm in Northboro, Massachusetts. He was working underneath his truck when his clothing became entangled in a power takeoff (PTO) shaft. PTOs are used to transfer power from tractors or trucks to other machinery. They spin at an incredible rate of speed. A single thread or a wisp of hair can lead to a fatal encounter. Few who are entangled in a PTO live to tell the tale. According to a PTO fact sheet put out by the North Dakota State University's Agricultrual Department, they could "...Wrap your arm or leg around the PTO shaft nine times in one second at 540 PTO rpm, or nearly 16 times in one second at 1000 PTO rpm."

Farm injury survivor Kristi Ruth learned the reality of that statistic the hard way. She was working on her family farm with her Dad and her brother in 2007 when her arm became entangled in a posthole digger's PTO.

"But as Kristi began to remove her hold on the three-point support bar by the auger head, the back of the glove on her cupped left hand caught on a shear bolt that was a quarter inch too long. Although the PTO had already begun to wind down, it was too late.

In a frantic instant, Kristi's left arm wrapped around the machinery up to her shoulder, breaking her bones with every rapid turn. She was trapped, and what started as a beautiful winter day suddenly became a horrific moment frozen by the piercing screams of her father and brothers and sounds of snapping bones and ripping flesh, like fabric being torn into rags. A race to free Kristi from the implement began. Her life hung by the threads of her torn coat.

With the PTO stopped, Joe frantically jumped from the tractor and fished for his cell phone, handing it to Jake, who quickly dialed 9-1-1. With her good hand, Kristi reached for her own cell phone and gave it to Josh so he could also call for help while her father and Jake worked feverishly to untangle her.

They unhooked the digger from the hitch point, and Jake dug in his pocket for his pocketknife. In what seemed like hours, Jake used his dull knife to painstakingly saw away at the shreds of Kristi's coat, being careful not to cut her. They hurriedly unwrapped her from the auger -- her arm spun around the cold metal like a wet rag -- and as she stood, her limp arm drooped to her knees."

Kristi broke her arm in six places and severed a major artery. The level-headed response of her family and an incredible medical effort managed to save her life and her arm, although she has severely diminished functionality in that arm. But after several years of recovery and surgeries, Kristi is on the lecture circuit bringing the farm safety message to other kids. She's also tells her story in My Name is Kristi, a safety DVD available from Iowa State University Extension Service.

Even before her injury, Kristi was all too familiar with agricultural dangers - her uncle was killed in a tractor rollover in 2005. Farming is a dangerous business and encounters with PTOs continue to be an all-too-common common source of farming fatalities. PTOs must be shielded and guarded at all times.

Helpful resources
National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety

Childhood Agricultural Injuries (PDF)

Farm Safety 4 Just Kids

Straight Facts About PTO Shafts and Sheilds

A PTO safety sheet along with a grim tutorial on freeing a PTO accident victim from the National Ag Safety Database

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July 2, 2009

 

There are certain aspects of civilized life that few of us want to experience directly. Once our garbage has disappeared from the curbside, we are unlikely to give it any further thought. We have little curiousity about the desolate environments where this garbage is taken. But some folks work in these places, such as the ironically-named Regal Recycling Company on Douglas Ave, Jamaica, Queens. New York Times writer Robert McFadden describes the location as "an ugly street of waste plants, garbage scows and sheds enclosed by chain-link and topped by fluttering American flags."

A manhole-size, 18 foot deep well at Regal was the sight of a terrible accident earlier this week. S. Dahan Piping and Heating Corporation was hired to clean the manhole. They apparently were not alerted to the hazard of poisonous gases in the well. First, Harel Dahan, son of the owner, climbed into the well's three foot diameter opening and disappeared. His father - we can only imagine his desperate concern for his son - followed him down and did not return. Finally, a Regal employee named Rene Rivas entered the well to help out.

All three workers were quickly killed by the high level of hydrogen sulfide in the confined air of the well. Hydrogen sulfide is a highly toxic and flammable gas. Being heavier than air, it tends to accumulate at the bottom of poorly ventilated spaces. Although very pungent at first, it quickly deadens the sense of smell, so potential victims may be unaware of its presence until it is too late. Exposure to 50 parts per million can be lethal within 10 minutes. The level in the well measured an astounding 200 parts per million.

A Firefighter from the rescue squad named Robert Lagnese recovered the bodies. He wore protective clothing and an enclosed breathing apparatus.

Hydrogen sulfide is a by-product of decomposing organic matter. (Here is a five page MSDS sheet for anyone interested.) At this point, no one is sure how the gas accumulated in the well. When trucks enter the facility, they empty their contents into two categories of waste: "putrescible" and "non-putrescible." It is the former that generates the poisonous gas.

When Shlomo Dahan arrived at Regal, he expected to find a routine job of pumping out a well. He was not aware of any immanent danger. It's clear that Regal employee Rene Rivas was also unaware of - and untrained in - the danger. Regal handles tons of "putrescible" waste, but apparently had no awareness of the accompanying dangers.

We are left with a chain of doomed, heroic actions: Harel Dahan's collapse in the well, followed by the rescue attempts of his father and of Rivas. It should never have happened. But let's face it. We all want the debris of our civilized lives to be removed from our sight as quickly as possible. No one wants to look at - or smell - garbage. What happens to it after it's removed is someone else's business.

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June 24, 2009

 

Chemical & Engineering News has a followup story on the UCLA lab fire which killed Sheri Sangji in December 2008. The University of California, Los Angeles has paid the OSHA fine but is appealing the state's findings of workplace safety violations. According to the article, UCLA's vice chancellor for legal affairs, said the university's appeal was necessary to ensure "that there was no citation or finding that can be used against the university in any future proceeding."

We recently profiled the Sangji case, echoing some of the preventive measures suggested by the original article. Our post drew some push back in our comment section. Chemjobber disagreed with our recommendation and pointed to an article he wrote disputing much of the original article. (He has covered the Sangji case extensively over a series of posts so if the case interests you from either a science or a safety perspective, we've listed some of his excellent entries at the end of our post.)

Another commenter said "Certainly agree that suggestion to make safety records a key driver for tenure descisions is ignorant. Not to mention self-serving, when made by a "safety professional."

We had a chuckle at the use of the scare quotes on the term safety professional...but in this case, it is spot on. Just to clarify the record, nobody at Lynch Ryan is a "safety professional" and we don't make any money from providing safety services. In point of fact, if we really wanted to be self-serving about things, we would keep our mouths shut about safety because more frequent workplace accidents usually mean we make more money -- out-of-control workers comp costs are generally what drive employers to seek our consulting services. Despite this, we would happily see workplace accidents and injuries eliminated and feel confident we could find another business niche were that the case. Maybe we would go back to school and study chemistry!

Regardless, we don't think safety professionals should be lightly dismissed. We have seen other "exotic" workplaces involving science, medicine, and technology make their peace with safety standards and oversight and still be innovative and competitive. And in this case, if Cal/OSHA is correct, there was nothing particularly exotic about the safety procedure that might have saved this young worker's life. They cite the lack of a lab coat as the single most significant factor in the severity of the burns that led to Sangji's death. And as the C&E story notes, on a recent lab walk-through by union reps, people in the lab still weren't wearing lab coats.

Some workplaces come by safety voluntarily with a commitment from the top. Other employers - even generally well meaning employers - don't truly embrace safety until they have had paid some very steep price. Sometimes that price is a gut-wrenching human one, as when a worker dies; other times, the toll is purely economic, in high workers comp costs, ruinous lawsuits, and bad publicity. Unfortunately, money is often the best change agent. That, and the push provided by standards and enforcement under OSHA.

While the case under discussion involved a paid employee, many workers in academic labs are students so workers' comp generally doesn't come into play. We don't believe that making lab and worker safety standards a factor in tax-funded research and grants is a particularly radical suggestion. We would also favor safety being a line item in any performance reviews for professors who oversee labs as is often the case in private industry. Right now, the professor in the UCLA lab will likely suffer an enormous personal toll; we favor prospective and preventative measures over retrospective ones.

In any case, we thank our commenters for their opinions and we would point any interested readers to the fascinating comments that followed the original article in Slate's discussion forum. Students, scientists, private lab workers and safety professionals all weigh in, and as would be expected, opinions run the gamut. Some agree with much of the article citing a prevailing culture of bravado and a tendency to view safety as the "the redheaded stepchild" or "the scapegoat who took the fall when anything bad happened." Others see safety as the responsibility of the individual, with one prickly commenter going so far as to suggest that Sangji's carelessness was such that her death should have been labeled as a suicide. Yikes.

To follow this story as it develops, we refer you to Chemjobber. For those interested, here are some of his posts to date, with the most recent post at the top
Where is Sheri Sangji's notebook?: further details emerge in the UCLA/tBuLi case
Sheri Sangji update: recent articles
Expectation": more details emerge about the UCLA/Sheri Sangji case
Patrick Harran, peeing in the jury pool?
Critiquing the LA Times Sangji article, etc.
What happened to Sheri Sangji?

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June 23, 2009

 

At least nine people were killed yesterday when a Red Line Metro Rail train crashed into an unmoving train. Washington D.C. trains are equipt with the latest fail-safe technology. Accidents are not supposed to happen: trains are controlled by computers, which theoretically prevent any two trains from occupying the same space at the same time (the textbook definition of an accident).

Something failed yesterday. The key player in determining the cause was the second train's driver, Jeanice McMillan, 42. She died in the crash.

The accident occurred in full daylight. The first train had stopped due to traffic ahead. The second train, traveling at high speed while rounding a slight curve, crashed into the stationary train: the brakes had not been applied. We may never know what McMillan was doing at the time of the crash, but we can guess that she either was not looking ahead or was too panicked by what she saw coming.

It is too early to point fingers, but Metro officials have already singled out McMillan. A Metro source said McMillan was "relatively inexperienced", ranking 18th from the bottom on the seniority list of 523 train operators. She had been a Metro employee since January 2007. Train operators must first operate a bus for a year before they can apply to operate the train. They then receive about 12 weeks of training. Among the many things we will learn in the coming weeks is just how effective that training program is.

The Operator's Passive Role
Lyndsey Layton, a Washington Post staff writer, describes how the system is supposed to work:

The trains in yesterday's crash were supposed to be in automatic operation, which means the operators would have been relying on the computerized system to run the trains. The only function required of a train operator during automatic operation is to close the doors after a station stop.

This raises an interesting issue: if computers operate the trains, how much attention on the part of the driver is required? With little to do between stations, drivers may tend to "zone out" because they don't have to pay as close attention as they do when running trains manually. The computerized system creates a false sense of security.

Four years ago the signal system briefly failed in the tunnel between Foggy Bottom and Rosslyn, forcing a quick-thinking operator to stop his train manually to avoid a crash. The operator of one train noticed that he was getting too close to the train ahead. The signal system was telling him the track was clear, but he hit the brakes anyway. For reasons that we may never know, McMillan was unable to do this yesterday.

The problem may lie in the concept of a system that cannot fail. Ultimately, no mechanical system can be totally fail-safe. Perhaps DC needs to re-evaluate the role of drivers and figure out a way to keep them more actively involved on a moment-to-moment basis. We are all lulled into a false sense of security by the technical wonders that surround us. As yesterday's crash demonstrated, that security might be an illusion.


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June 18, 2009

 

In searching for some safety videos, we chanced upon these vintage clips about workplace safety for women and supervising women, which we pass along for your amusement and elucidation. We're happy to note that in the ensuing years, there have been significant advances for both women and for safety!

The Trouble With Women (1959)

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June 8, 2009

 

Alan Rosenbaum is a revered professor of art at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). He shows students how to work with clay - at least, he used to, until he was disabled by silicosis. Rosenbaum was exposed to silica dust in the clay mixing room and ceramic studios of the university. The state Workers Compensation Commission last year found that the professor's silicosis was caused by his exposure to hazardous dust and awarded him permanent disability benefits totaling $211,800.

Silica is a common mineral found in clay, sand and rock. The dust in the VCU's Fine Arts Building came from the powder that students and staff mixed with water to make clay, as well as from scraping kilns clean of bits of clay and glaze after firing. There are intake vents directly above the five mixing machines, designed to take in dusty air and run it through a filter before releasing it outside the building. However,the vents failed to function properly, because for five years university staff members taped plastic bags over them, apparently to keep the dust from spreading elsewhere in the building. (There were complaints from woodworking and other shops that the dust migrated from the intake vents into work areas.) By blocking the vents, all the dust was contained in the ceramics area.

In addition to the vents being blocked, janitors swept the floors daily, causing the dust to fill the air for thirty minutes or more.

The Hazards of Sand
Ironically, VCU art classes included instruction on the hazards of silica in clay. (Here is a fascinating, if somwhat bizarre MSDS sheet on sand. It might make you think twice about heading for the beach...) It is hardly surprising to learn that students and teachers ignored the warnings.

Air-quality tests conducted by VCU staff after Rosenbaum's diagnosis found dust levels were 98 percent below hazardous levels -- but VCU did the testing after removing plastic bags that blocked the ventilation vents. In addition to activating the vents, janitorial staff began using sweeping compound to capture fine particles before they were released in the air. In other words, mitigation of the risk was readily available, but such measures were not implemented until Professor Rosenbaum became ill.

As in Julie Ferguson's post last week on laboratory hazards, this situation in the art studio of a major university reminds us that education is not without risk. A little learning can quickly become dangerous. The budding artist working with clay and the mason cutting a cinderblock face essentially the same hazard. Dust is dust. If we are not careful, dust can speed our return to the dust from which we all come. That's one lesson that Professor Rosenbaum is unlikely to forget.


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June 4, 2009

 

Earlier this year, 23 year-old research assistant Sheri Sangji suffered an excruciating death after having been engulfed in flames in a UCLA science laboratory. A drop of t-butyl lithium, a substance that ignites on contact with air, spilled on her clothing causing an instant conflagration. Sheri suffered second and third degree burns over 40% of her body. Beryl Lieff Benderly writes about Sheri's death in Slate, raising the question of what makes academic laboratories such dangerous places to work? Benderly notes that the safety failures that led to this fatality were unfortunately not an anomaly in private academic laboratories:

The death of a healthy young woman from a chemical spill at a UCLA lab is deeply shocking. But the presence of flagrant safety violations at a major research university is no surprise. After reading about the Sangji incident and others like it, a columnist for the peer-reviewed journal Chemical Health and Safety wrote that he'd come to the "disheartening conclusion that most academic laboratories are unsafe venues for work or study." Though no one keeps comprehensive national statistics on laboratory safety incidents, James Kaufman, president of the Laboratory Safety Institute in Natick, Mass., estimates that accidents and injuries occur hundreds of times more frequently in academic labs than in industrial ones.

In the wake of this accident, Cal/OSHA imposed a $31,875 penalty, citing safety lapses and lack of training. Benderly notes that had Sheri been a student rather than a paid technician, her death would not have been investigated by OSHA because the occupational health and safety laws that protect workers in hazardous jobs apply only to employees, not to students. The contrast between the culture, attitudes and practices of private laboratories and academia can be dramatic. Benderly describes an all-too-frequent academic machismo that can be disdainful of practices that would enhance safety, viewing them as bureaucratic and potentially stifling to academic freedom. In fairness, similar arguments and protestations have been raised by various private industry segments in response to OSHA standards, but the difference is in accountability. With most federal grants, "... applicants are routinely asked to document the steps they will take to safeguard the people and vertebrate animals they'll be studying, but they needn't provide any information on how they'll protect the experimenters themselves."

In another article for ScienceCareers, Benderly uses this incident as a springboard to discuss the issue of safety in academic laboratories in greater depth. In Taken for Granted: The Burning Question of Laboratory Safety, after examining various reports of the accident, she points to two areas that require attention, both in the UCLA lab, and frequently in other academic settings. These will be no surprise to safety professionals anywhere: better training and the need for a safety commitment that starts with the senior-most level of an organization. "The impetus to make safety a priority in academic labs must come from those able to enforce consequences."

She is right. There are rock star academics whose research can bring huge grants and critical acclaim to a university. Safety is generally not a criteria that is evaluated as a part of their record, but it certainly should be. Benderly makes a compelling case that federal funding sources and university officials need to add safety as a criteria of evaluation to foster a culture of safety that will protect researchers as well as the research subjects.

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June 1, 2009

 

We've been following the tentative steps taken by management to confront a relatively new and ubiquitous risk: the use of cell phones while driving. Most people seem to realize that cell phone use is a dangerous distraction, whether involving talking or, lord help us, texting. While surveys indicate that nearly every driver (98 percent) considers him or herself a safe driver (NOT!), fully 20 percent of drivers between 16 and 61 admitting to texting while driving and 80 percent admit to talking on their cells. What we have is a serious disconnect between risk and action. We are all just driving obliviously up DeNile.

We have focused our attention on the potential risks to corporations, who are liable for the actions of their employees "in the course and scope of employment." Back in 2001, Dyke Industries settled a case for $16 million, involving one of their salespeople taking out an elderly pedestrian while chatting on a phone.

Maggie Jackson in the Boston Globe writes that some corporations have taken aggressive action to mitigate the risk. Back in 2005, the engineering firm AMEC prohibited employees from any and all cell phone use while operating a vehicle. DuPont, a legendary leader in safety, first required employees to use headsets and then, on second thought, forbid all cell phone use while driving. AstraZeneca has similar policies in place.

Risky Business
What about everyone else? When, if ever, will managers of major and minor corporations bring the hammer down on blatantly risky behaviors behind the wheel?

We have two thoughts on the matter. First, it will take a few more tragedies to get the attention of corporate America on this risk. We all seem to labor under the delusion that multi-tasking is necessary and harmless. It is neither. Secondly, insurance companies are bound to wake up and smell this distinctly acrid brew: underwriters for general liability and fleet auto policies will begin to ask whether potential insureds have policies in place prohibiting the use of cell phones while driving. Those failing to implement such policies may find themselves scrambling for coverage. Perhaps a few innovative carriers will begin to offer discounts to employers with credible policies in place.

Employees subject to cell phone restrictions are beginning to develop new means of coping. Heck, there are support groups for everything, why not for cell phone withdrawal? Here are some of the tips that have emerged:

Plan Ahead. Call and send messages before leaving your desk.

Play relaxing music in traffic jams to reduce the frustration of "not doing anything."

Turn off wireless devices. Still tempted? Lock them in a bag. Place the bag in the trunk.

Put a message on your voicemail saying, "I'm in a meeting or driving."

Take a cab instead of driving, especially on out-of-town trips.

Warn people who regularly call - i.e. spouses - that you aren't available in transit.

The Insider would add one more tip: when driving, just drive, with one relentless point of attention and with one goal in mind: arriving safely at your destination. For most of us, driving is the riskiest part of the work day, yet we treat driving as a relatively mindless means to an end. Alas, if we are not careful, driving may be the last thing we ever do.

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May 21, 2009

 

With the full heat of summer bearing down on us, the Insider has deputized its readership to become informal safety inspectors: the next time you leave the office, observe any people who are working outdoors. Your checklist should include the fundamental safety drill: fall protection for height exposures; personal protective equipment such as hard hats, work boots and goggles; secure scaffolds and ladders; proper use of machinery (lawnmowers, clippers, circular saws, etc.); proper lifting and efficient material handling.

Here is a safety issue that you are likely to observe in the breach: protection from skin cancer. Exposure to the direct rays of the sun, especially at midday, is a significant safety hazard. Alas, when most people labor in the full sun, they usually take action against the heat, at the expense of protecting themselves from the sun's rays.

Cancer prevention dictates the wearing of long-sleeved shirts, a hat with neck flaps, sunscreen for exposed skin and sunblock for the nose and lips. When was the last time you saw a landscaper, carpenter or roofer dressed appropriately? When the heat rises, the shirts tend to come off. Bandanas and "do-rags" - considered cool in working circles - keep sweat out of the eyes, but they do little to protect the skin from the sun's rays. Hats with flaps? Dude, you must be kidding. Goggles and hardhats? They are the first to go when the heat rises.

As for the advice to "avoid exposure between the hours of 10 am and 2 pm," that is simply not going to happen. There is work to be done and those are prime hours for doing it. Siestas might be culturally acceptable in the tropics, but in our productivity-driven culture, siestas are not an option.

The Compensability Conundrum
As we have pointed out in prior blogs, the connection between work and occupational disease is often difficult to prove. With the exception of public safety employees, most workers face formidable odds in collecting comp for occupational diseases. There often are factors that mitigate against the acceptance of a claim: family history, smoking, fair skin, etc. Workers must be able to prove that workplace exposures are the "predominant cause" of the cancer. Sure, a laborer is under the sun at work; but he or she might also have significant exposure during leisure time, going to the beach, fishing, or just working in the garden.

It's always interesting to see how state legislatures translate emerging hazards into proposed legislation: lawmakers tend to react in a limited, ad hoc manner. See for example this proposed bill in the New York legislature:

This bill would provide,with respect to active lifeguards employed, for more than 3 consecutive months in a calendar year, by certain local agencies and the Department of Parks and Recreation, that the term "injury" includes skin cancer that develops or manifests itself during the period of the lifeguard's employment. This bill would further create a rebuttable presumption that the above injury arises out of and in the course of the lifeguard's employment if it develops or manifests during the period of the employment.

Note that the symptoms must develop during employment: this in itself may prove problemmatic, as many cancers occur some time after the direct exposure. Beyond that, the bill establishes a compensability presumption for one very limited class of workers, lifeguards. It does not address the myriad workers who face similar hazards on a daily basis (even if their work uniforms involve more than just a bathing suit).

Despite the fact that many workers will develop skin cancers which are likely to be work related, the number of compensable incidents will remain modest. The comp deck remains stacked against workers in the general area of illness.

Compensability and safety are two separate issues. We may not be able to do much about expanding coverage for work-related cancers, but we can take aggressive action to prevent them. It all comes down - as it does so often - to management: do you tolerate your workers's ad hoc efforts to combat the heat, or do you enforce "best practices" in cancer prevention. Do you make sunscreens and head protection readily available on the jobsite, or do you allow your workers the "individual freedom" to do as they please?

We all know how most managers respond. They take the path of least resistance. The risk of an accident is one thing, the seemingly remote risk of illness is quite another. It will take many more tragic cases of work-related cancers before a true prevention mobilization takes place. For workers struggling under today's galring sun, we can only hope that a word to the wise is sufficient.

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May 18, 2009

 

Albania Deleon is a entrepreneur. A legal immigrant and naturalized citizen from the Dominican Republic, she founded and operated Environmental Compliance Training (ECT) in Methuen, Massachusetts, the largest asbestos removal training school in New England. Between 2001 and 2007, she trained over 2,500 people in the intricacies of asbestos removal. Except that she didn't. Instead, she would fill out tests for certificate applicants and enter a passing grade. For $400, the (usually undocumented) worker was handed a certificate and then placed in a job through Deleon's other enterprise, Methuen Abatement Staffing. Her temporary workers handled hazardous abatement jobs throughout New England. (You can read the sorry details in a fine article by Beth Daley of the Boston Globe here.)

By the way, the training involves a total of 32 hours - not much of an investment in a life or death matter. (Some ECT students paid $350 and actually completed the training; for an additional 50 bucks, you could skip the training, pocket the certificate and get right to work, earning upwards of $15 per hour.)

ECT "graduates" went in to hundreds of schools, hospitals, churches, libraries, and homes throughout New England to remove asbestos. Most of them had no idea what they were supposed to do. Now there is deep concern that the workers, mostly young men from Central America, breathed the fibers, which can lodge in the lungs and lead to death decades later. Most had no idea how to properly wear a respirator.

In addition to their own exposure, these workers may have exposed their families to the cancer risk. Asbestos workers, if not properly trained, can inadvertently carry the fibers home on their clothes or hair.

More than a third of the 12,750 asbestos worker licenses and renewals issued in Massachusetts between 2002 and 2007 went to ECT "graduates." In New Hampshire, it was more than two-thirds.

Crocodile Tears
In November 2008 Deleon was convicted on 28 felony counts. Shortly before her sentencing, she wrote a rambling, hand-written letter to the sentencing judge. Among other things, she wrote:

"I pray that God will forgive my soul and allow me to atone the rest of my life repaying and repairing the harm I have done. This is my solemn promise...I commit myself to work ceacelessly [sic] to make restitution to the government and to the keeper of my soul until I draw my last breath life (sic)."

The reference to "last breath" is especially ironic, given that many of her "students" - along with innocent family members - will suffer excruciatingly painful deaths, as their breathing slowly and inexorably shuts down.

Facing more than 7 years in prison, Deleon skipped town. There is a warrant out for her arrest. Oh, she abandoned her 3 year old son in the process. Alas, it appears that "the keeper of her soul" doesn't have a whole lot to work with...

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May 11, 2009

 

Aiden Quinn is 24 years old. He drives a trolley for the Mass Bay Transit Authority (MBTA or T) in Boston. He has a mediocre driving record, with three speeding violations (while operating a motor vehicle). Last week he was driving a trolley underground between Park Street and Government Center. He was texting his girlfriend, when he ran a red light and crashed into another trolley stopped in front of him. Over 40 people were injured, including Quinn. The T was shut down for hours.

Quinn has been fired - no surprise - and the T has now issued a policy prohibiting drivers from carrying cell phones. (I'm sure that made the other drivers real happy with their former colleague.) The 40 injured passengers are going to have numerous avenues for lawsuits, including: negligent hiring/negligent entrustment (should Quinn have been operating the trolley in the first place?); and negligent policies (they only prohibited cell phone use after the accident). We can assume that the T will settle as quickly as possible. This case is a real loser.

The larger policy implications are intriguing. It is safe to assume that any employee in the course and scope of employment who tries to text while driving is opening a huge liability for the employer. Texting is even more dangerous than talking on a cell phone: after all, you have to look at the screen to read a message and at the key board to reply.
[Aside: my teenage daughter assures me that her friends can text behind their backs without looking at the keyboard. This might work in class, but not very well on the road: "Look Ma, no hands on the wheel!"]
[Second aside: speaking of Ma, for a truly appalling (YouTube) video of a teenager who texts over 5,000 times a month, often while driving, check this out. If you can explain the passive "what can you do?" attitude of the mother, please explain via our comment section.]

Policy Conundrum
Employers are caught in a bind: they are virtually compelled to issue policies limiting cell phone use and texting while driving, even while they recognize that some of their best and most productive employees are multi-taskers who routinely operate this way.

Which brings us to the sad story of Phyllis Jen, a talented internal medicine specialist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Jen was driving her 2007 Toyota Prius when she drifted over the center lane at 6 pm (in full daylight). She crashed into another vehicle and was killed.

Police say it did not appear speed or alcohol played a role in the crash, but they were investigating whether Jen was using her Blackberry. Jen was famous for always being available, always willing to go the extra mile. Alas, she has abruptly and tragically run out of miles to go.

As companies struggle to integrate new technologies into safety procedures and as public officials struggle with whole new categories of risk, one thing is certain: the ubiquitous cell phone and related texting have taken a firm hold in our professional and personal lives. We just cannot seem to function without them. The problem is, in making ourselves available 24/7, we put our own lives and the lives of strangers at risk. Sure, we have important things to communicate. But on the scale of life itself, virtually all of these communications can and should be put off until time and circumstances allow. We might be dying to communicate with a colleague or friend, but it's certainly not worth dying for.

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May 5, 2009

 

We recently announced Jordan Barab's appointment as Acting OSHA administrator and, as expected, he is losing no time in making changes. Last week, he testified at a hearing held by the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections of the House Committee on Education and Labor, outlining some immediate OSHA changes. These include:

  • the addition of new inspectors under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009
  • formation of Severe Violators Inspection Program (SVIP). This is a reformulation of the Enhanced Enforcement Program (EEP), which will step up inspections and enforcement of large companies with repeat OSHA violations
  • the intent to work more closely with the Department of Justice to prosecute serial safety violators
  • a new National Emphasis Program of specialized inspections focusing on flavoring chemicals (diacetyl)
  • a suspension of establishing goals for new Voluntary Protection Program sites and Alliances so that more resources can be put on enforcement

Lisa Mascaro also discusses the shift to a more aggressive OSHA in the Las Vegas Sun. She notes that various either have been introduced or are expected to be introduced that would strengthen penalties for employers with serious or repeat safety violations and add a new criminal felony category.

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April 29, 2009

 

To follow up on my colleague Jon's Monday post on Swine Flu Meets Workers Comp, we've compiled a list of swine flu news and planning resources for employers.

How Employers Should Respond to the Swine Flu Outbreak - the Workplace Safety Compliance Practice Group of the employment law firm Jackson Lewis suggests 8 steps for employers to take in responding to employee concerns.

PandemicFlu.gov - Workplace Planning - HHS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have developed guidelines, including checklists, to assist businesses, industries, and other employers in planning for a pandemic outbreak as well as for other comparable catastrophes.

Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for an Influenza Pandemic - a new guide for employers from OSHA

CDC Swine Influenza - news, updates, and resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

WHO Swine Influenza - global updates and news from the World Health Organization.

MedlinePlus: Swine Flu - excellent page with news, articles and links to a variety of resources.

Taking Care of Yourself: What to Do if You Get Sick with Flu - from the CDC
Taking Care of a Sick Person in Your Home - from the CDC

Maps
Global disease alert map from HealthMap
H1N1 Swine Flu

News feeds
CDC Emergency Twitter feed
What's new on the CDC Swine Flu page
CNN Health News
Y! Health Cold & Flu News

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April 27, 2009

 

It's only Monday morning and many of us are just refocusing after a weekend of gardening, football drafts, NBA playoffs, baseball (Ellsbury steals home!), so we are probably not quite ready to think about the unthinkable: a potential swine flu pandemic, originating in Mexico and already active in several major American cities.

Here is the official government announcement (which appears to circumvent potential panic by burying the bad news in gov-speak):

As a consequence of confirmed cases of Swine Influenza A (swH1N1) in California, Texas, Kansas, and New York, on this date and after consultation with public health officials as necessary, I, Charles E. Johnson, Acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, pursuant to the authority vested in me under section 319 of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. § 247d, do hereby determine that a public health emergency exists nationwide involving Swine Influenza A that affects or has significant potential to affect national security.
[Where, oh where, do they learn to write like that?]

As is our custom, we focus on the implications for workers comp. Back in 2005 we blogged the ramifications of smallpox exposure from the comp perspective. The smallpox exposure - a result of the terrorism scare - proved to be a false alarm. The swine flu, unfortunately, appears to be all too real.

The Comp Dimension
It's not difficult to isolate the kinds of activities that might expose an individual to the Swine flu. Many of these exposures are prevalent in the world of work:
: travel
: frequenting congested areas (travel terminals, public transportation, classrooms, etc.)
: touching anything handled by strangers
: eating out
: meeting business colleagues from around the country and around the world

In order for the flu to be a compensable event under comp, certain requirements must be met:
: the individual must be "in the course and scope of employment" when exposed to the virus
: the exposure must arise out of work (as opposed to being a totally random event)
: work itself must put the individual in harm's way

An individual commuting to work via public transportation might have high risk exposure, but flu caught on a subway or bus would not normally be covered by comp. But if the exposure stems from company-provided transportation (for example, a van), the subsequent illness might well be compensable.

If one worker in a closed environment brings the flu to work, co-workers who succomb to the virus can make a good case that the illness is work related. The initiator, however, would not have a compensable claim, unless he/she could demonstrate a definitive work-related exposure.

Health workers are on the front lines of any pandemic. Even though it might be impossible to prove that they actually caught the virus at work, any and all cases of Swine Flu are likely be compensable.

If you fly on an airplane on company business and the person next to you is sneezing and coughing, your exposure is work-related and the subsequent illness is likely to be compensable. If you are flying to visit Aunt Martha, you are on your own.

The comp system is not well equipt to deal with illness. It's usually very difficult, if not impossible, to determine exactly when an individual actually caught the virus. With state laws varying in their assumptions of compensability, with a multitude of insurance carriers and third party administrators making compensability determinations, we will see a crazy quilt of decisions regarding the compensability of swine flu.

There is a lot of money at stake in these compensability decisions. For mild cases, the issue is moot. It's the more severe cases - prolonged illness and even death - that raise the greatest concerns. While thus far the fatalities have been limited to residents of Mexico, if the feared pandemic occurs, there will be prolonged illness and even fatalities in the states. Then the crucial decisions regarding compensability will directly impact the future cost of workers comp insurance.

What is to be Done?
So how should employers handle flu exposures? For a start, educate employees on prevention. The above government website has some helpful hints - and they are actually written in plain English; unfortunately, they are only written in English.

Any employee showing up at work with flu symptoms should be sent home immediately. And if any employee appears to come down with the flu while "in the course and scope" of employment, employers should report the illness to the insurer/TPA, so that a proper compensability determination can be made. As in all things comp, it is usually a mistake for the employer to make assumptions about compensability. When in doubt, report the illness and let the experts determine what to do.

As the world lurches from one crisis (economic) to another (pandemic), it is all too clear that we have fulfilled the Chinese (?) curse: "May you live in interesting times." We do, indeed.


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April 19, 2009

 

In catching up on blog reading this weekend, we find we missed an important piece of good news last week: via Liz Borkowski at The Pump Handle, we learn that longtime safety advocate and erstwhile safety blogger Jordan Barab has been named Deputy Assistant Secretary for OSHA and Acting Assistant Secretary. We couldn't be more pleased and extend our heartfelt congratulations to Jordan on his appointment. Anyone familiar with his excellent work at Confined Space knows that Jordan has been a passionate and tireless advocate for worker safety. Thousands turned to his excellent blog for safety updates and education - we certainly were and still are among that number - if you haven't got his site bookmarked, run don't walk. Although he hasn't updated since being appointed an advisor to the House of Representatives a few years ago, it remains one of the web's most valuable safety resources. Unfortunately, so many of the serious and egregious safety issues that he blogged about are still open issues that need addressing, so he has his work cut out for him. .

Many of his blog readers may not be aware that worker safety has been a lifetime commitment for Jordan. To quote Borkowski:

"Of course, Jordan also lots of work experience not directly related to his blogging: He spent 16 years running AFSCME's health and safety program; served as a Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary for OSHA; was a recommendations specialist for the Chemical Safety Board; and then became a senior policy advisor to the House of Representatives' Education and Labor Committee. (He mothballed Confined Space upon starting the Committee job.)"

We sincerely hope that "acting" will lead to a permanent appointment - we can't think of anyone more deserving of the post!

Here are what some other bloggers are saying about the news:
Effect measure
OSHA Healthcare Advisor
AFL-CIO Now Blog
OSHA Underground
OSHA Aboveground
SafetyXChange
Safety news Alert
John Gelman

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April 9, 2009

 

Recessions tend to place downward pressure on workers' compensation frequency, according to NCCI economists who made a recent presentation to the Casualty Actuarial Society. That makes sense. Reduced payrolls means fewer claims. Plus, with potential layoffs looming, some employees may be reluctant to report injuries - which might be part of the reason why there can be an uptick in claim reports after a layoff. The folks at NCCI note that economic expansions are times when frequency spikes - more injuries occur as payrolls climb and new, less experienced employees are added to the work force.

But despite a drop in frequency, safety experts would caution that an economic downturn requires greater vigilance, not less. In a white paper entitled Leading Safety in a D