A preventable work-related death is not “totally an accident”

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Today’s post was shared by Gelman on Workplace Injuries and comes from scienceblogs.com

This article is an excellent perspective on how people’s gut reactions can cloud a situation. First, I have to say it’s tragic that we need to talk so much about work-related fatalities, but it’s also important to remember that they happen to real people doing real work in real towns, just like ours, and yes, even in ours. I realize that people talking to the press are human and make slips of the tongue, but words are important, and how a person describes a situation is also important. That’s why I think this article is so important. Because describing a work-related fatality as an accident devalues the situation and the worker’s death. There is power in words.

I also appreciated the article’s comments section. Mr. Mark Catline from Maryland wrote, “Does OSHA ever contact local public safety agencies after such public comments? What if this was turned around and a Federal or State OSHA inspector commented to the press on police matters, ‘that (this incident) does not seem to be a criminal act’? I suspect the Area OSHA office would be hearing from the local police department.”

Although OSHA’s ability for enforcement is limited to safety violations, its representatives have referred company incidents to the Department of Justice for criminal sanctions. This process most likely involves local law enforcement as part of the investigation, so for them to declare an “accident” early on – when there may eventually be criminal charges – can’t be helpful to anyone’s investigations.

In a recent special report by Lincoln’s channel 10-11 about grain elevator fatalities, Bonita Winingham, OSHA Area Director for Nebraska, noted OSHA’s safety focus, saying “‘Our penalties do not reflect what someone’s life is worth at all.’”

She “says they make citations after each incident investigation, but they can lower those fines if the employer gets rid of the hazard or makes extra safety improvements.”

“‘When we talk to them about these cases we’re looking for abatement of the hazard, correction of the violation so that employees are no longer exposed to those hazards,’” says Wingingham. “‘That’s the main thing, we want to make sure that no one else is exposed to those hazards so everyone goes home safe.’”

“Wingingham says they can, and have, made recommendations to the Department of Justice if they find a company has willingly disregarded safety. Two companies, Crossroads Cooperative in 2009 and Farmers Union Coop of Stanton in 2012, have pled guilty to criminal sanctions for Nebraska grain-related deaths.”

The full text of the article below includes this information.

“Having an employee killed on the job is no doubt a shock. But after the shock subsides, most reasonable people recognize that fatal and non-fatal work-related injuries and illnesses are largely preventable.”

So please do not call these preventable tragedies accidents anymore.

What would it take to get police departments to refrain from calling work-related fatalities “just an accident”? I read it all the time. A 60 year-old mechanic falls 50 feet through an unguarded floor opening, and it’s an “accidental death.” Or a 30 year-old production clerk gets pulled into a machine, and it’s a “tragic accident.”

The latest example I read involved a 23 year-old man, Erik Deighton, who was crushed a few weeks ago at Colonial Plastics. The small suburban Detroit manufacturing plant fabricates specialty parts for automakers. Shelby Township Police Captain Stephen Stanbury told the press, “This is totally an accident.”

In a few months, I bet we’ll hear something different from Michigan OSHA (MIOSHA) about what happened on March 5 at Colonial Plastics. I’ll be surprised if they conclude “it was just an accident.” In reality, it’s a rare thing when on-the-job fatalities are “accidents.”

The news accounts relying on Captain Stanbury’s comments indicate that the 23 year-old worker was trying to clear an obstruction from a press machine. The machine cycled to stamp a part and he was fatally crushed. Catherine Kavanaugh of Plastics News writes:

The police did not indicate “…the exact kind of press involved but officers described it as a large machine with doors on two sides. The victim and a co-worker were operating the press together but…

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The offices of Rehm, Bennett, Moore & Rehm, which also sponsors the Trucker Lawyers website, are located in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska. Five attorneys represent plaintiffs in workers’ compensation, personal injury, employment and Social Security disability claims. The firm’s lawyers have combined experience of more than 95 years of practice representing injured workers and truck drivers in Nebraska, Iowa and other states with Nebraska and Iowa jurisdiction. The lawyers regularly represent hurt truck drivers and often sue Crete Carrier Corporation, K&B Trucking, Werner Enterprises, UPS, and FedEx. Lawyers in the firm hold licenses in Nebraska and Iowa and are active in groups such as the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers, Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG), American Association for Justice (AAJ), the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys (NATA), and the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). We have the knowledge, experience and toughness to win rightful compensation for people who have been injured or mistreated.

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