Chain of Thought

Safety is Yours—If You Claim It

OSHA's been playing “Bad Cop,” for the last couple years and in 2012 it will go from bad to worse. By “bad,” I mean “carry-a-big-stick” bad. According to report from Sherman & Howard, a law firm specializing occupational safety and health law, last year OSHA issued more “Significant” citations—where the proposed fines are $100,000 or more—than in prior years. Some “mega-penalty” citations exceeded $1 million.

Penalties deemed merely “serious” doubled from $1,053 in 2010 to $2,132 in 2011. But Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, says these aren't enough, especially compared to the fines other regulatory agencies levy. He sees higher fines as an important tool in OSHA's overall efforts to increase enforcement.

My question is, enforcement of what? The definition of what constitutes a violation can vary, even within a single area of a plant. The shipping dock is the perfect breeding ground for fines because of a lazy use of terminology. For example, according to Ron Allen, OSHA and Bureau of Labor statistics data collection methodologies and terminologies don't do a great job of distinguishing between trailer/dock separation incidents and other types of lift-truck-related incidents.

Allen, a consultant and founder of Safety Turnaround Services, began his safety career 37 years ago when he was appointed as administrator of technical services for the American Society of Safety Engineers. He offers the following examples of unclear definitions from various OSHA and BLS databases and summaries:

“Fall from Loading Dock” incidents can include trailer/dock separation incidents—incidents where lift trucks fall from vacant docks, or incidents involving workers who fall or jump from docks.

“Struck by Falling Objects or Equipment” incidents can include trailer/dock separation where the lift truck falls on the victim, lift truck rollovers on the dock or other locations, or incidents where workers are struck from falling freight or objects.

However inconsistent these incidents are, they are definitely “persistent.” They keep happening year after year, even with the wide availability of safety devices ranging from wheel chocks to dock lock mechanisms to dock monitoring systems.

During FY 2010, OSHA alleged 3868 citations for powered industrial truck violations with proposed penalties of nearly $3.2 million. Could it be there are so many ways to address lift truck operator safety—some administrative, or enforced by rules, and some engineered, or enforced by design—that they sometimes cancel each other out?

“There is no single solution or best approach,” Allen acknowledges, “but providing redundant controls or layers of safety is recommended. Final approaches are best defined by local teams that consider the specific risks associated with their truck dock operations.”

In other words, don't leave safety to the cops. Safety's too complicated for that. Somebody on your team has to take responsibility for it—otherwise your team members will just keep expecting it to be guaranteed by “somebody else.”

And if you think lift truck safety is complicated, just consider the rags used in their maintenance. Are your people finding other uses for them as well? That could be a safety problem.

According to a study of 263 U.S. manufacturing workers conducted last year by Harris Interactive for Kimberly-Clark Professional, only 44 percent of workers were aware of an exposure risk after shop towels are laundered. This risk was reported in a 2011 study conducted by Gradient, an environmental and risk science consulting firm that found toxic heavy metal residues remained on 100 percent of the laundered shop towels tested.

Shop towels are routinely used in manufacturing to wipe machines, parts and equipment, then washed by industrial launderers for re-use at multiple facilities. This report's authors state that residues retained on shop towels after laundering could pose a long-term health risk to workers who handle the towels daily.

Even if workers are aware that shop towels can retain heavy metals post-laundering many still tend to bring shop towels home, use them to wipe exposed skin on the job and even use them for personal hygiene and first aid—including to stop bleeding or to wipe up blood.

The bottom line on safety seems to be that the solution lies in a layered approach, with a heavy emphasis on employer intervention:

“Workers do not indicate a clear understanding of how to address the problem, so they are looking to their organization's leadership for effective solutions,” the Harris Interactive researchers conclude. “Half of shop towel users cite working with them simply because they are what is provided on the facility's shop floor. As a result, 71 percent see the primary responsibility for keeping them informed on shop towel safety issues as the duty of their employers. Additionally, more than four in five workers feel unions should do more to keep them informed.”

Some of us like the idea of a more confrontational OSHA protecting the poor, helpless worker. Others like to use technology as a fail-safe for on-the-job protection. Still others say it's the bosses and unions who need to protect workers from themselves. Hey, American worker, feeling insulted yet? Then tell your boss you want to reclaim ownership of your safety—and work with him or her to let you.

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