Chain of Thought

OSHA's Bloody Press Releases

I visited OSHA's website this morning looking for something to write about and scanned through a couple months worth of press releases. Apparently OSHA subscribes to the network news philosophy of “if it bleeds, it leads.” I'm talking about scads of safety violations. Almost every press release is about some clueless employer who, by neglecting to train their people or to give them a safe work environment, allowed an employee to hurt themselves. Very often employers are cited for both. Lift trucks were a common vehicle for pain delivery.

One of the more recent press releases was datelined Denver and involved homebuilder DR Horton and four subcontractors. They were cited for fall hazards at a Parker, Colo., construction site. Proposed penalties for all employers at the worksite total $93,640.

"D.R. Horton failed to properly manage a residential project jobsite by allowing subcontractor employees to be exposed to serious fall hazards," said John Healy, OSHA area director in Englewood. "This employer is well aware of the requirements for fall protection and has been cited several times for similar infractions."

Horton was cited for one repeat violation of OSHA's residential construction fall protection standard, which alone accounted for $70,000 of the penalties. The remainder was divvied up among Denver-based subcontractors Kellory & Co. Inc., Webb Construction Inc., Dain Construction Inc. and LBR Construction Inc. Their repeat and serious violations amounted to $23,640, and entailed a lack of fall protection during framing and sheathing, and inadequate training on the use of forklifts. That last violation caught my eye because Material Handling & Logistics has been preaching about the importance of site-specific industrial truck operator training for decades now. I just wonder how this particular violation manifested itself.

I guess it doesn't matter. No matter how much we beg, cajole, and warn about the consequences of failure to train, the carnage goes on. If you look at a list of the top ten OSHA violations for the past three years, they haven't changed much in position or number of instances. Number one involves scaffolding, and you can count on roughly 9,000 of these violations every year. That's followed by fall protection violations, at around 6,500 a year. Number three involves hazard communications violations, and there are around 6,000 of these every year—although there was a dip in 2009 at about 4,000, for some reason—probably unemployment at the Recession's peak.

Powered industrial truck violations ranked consistently at either number seven or eight—with around 3,000. What's both amazing and confounding is the consistency of these lists. Other than the Recession's mitigating effect on the numbers in 2009, you could almost reprint the same list every year and not be far off from the real numbers. No matter how many citations OSHA issues or how much ink we devote to preaching, industries don't seem to be changing their unsafe ways.

Sure, there are plenty of exceptions, and sometimes you'll read about an employer making safety its number-one priority. But usually that's an “oh, by the way” type of thing that makes its way into an overall report about best practices. It's rarely what leads—because nobody bleeds.

I will give OSHA's p.r. people credit for occasionally spreading some cheer. Occasionally you'll come across an announcement like this among their press releases:

BETHLEHEM, Pa. – The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has recognized the employees and management of Milliken Valve Co. in Bethlehem for excellence in the company's employee safety and health program. The Milliken Valve facility has been designated as a "star" site, the highest honor in OSHA's Voluntary Protection Programs.

"Milliken Valve's dedication to ensuring a safe workplace for its employees makes it most deserving of this honor," said OSHA Deputy Regional Administrator Edward Selker, who attended a ceremony at the Bethlehem facility and presented the company with a plaque and flag.

The Voluntary Protection Programs recognize private and federal work sites with effective safety and health management systems that have maintained injury and illness rates below national Bureau of Labor Statistics averages.

The VPP is a great program, but it's a shame we need it. Are we little kids who need a pat on the head and an “atta boy” to do the right thing? Eight years ago, my predecessor, Bernie Knill, reported on OSHA's new strategy for enforcement to be a last resort, “after all voluntary efforts have failed.” Time has shown us how that worked out.

The only consolation for industry writers like me is that on slow news days we can always find something to write about by rifling through OSHA's bloody press releases. Now excuse me while I wash my hands.

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