Comment |

Who’ll Take Responsibility for Safety?

FRIDAY, MAY 2, 2014

By Michael Halliwell

Although I am an environmental professional by trade, my work is tied into enough health, safety and environment (HSE) programs to have exposed me to a variety of safety programs, styles and attitudes over my career.

I’m thankful to report that I have seen many strides in the area of safety. Unfortunately, too many people still go to work in the morning and do not return at night.

Christopher Adame
Provided via

Christopher Adame, a 26-year-old father of four, died April 22 in a 25-foot fall while doing pressure-washing work at a plant in Texas.

Lately, there have been a lot of articles and discussions in Paint Square News about worker injuries and fatalities.

With more projects kicking off as we get into construction season in North America, there are more of these incidents, most involving common scenarios: falls, confined spaces and overhead loads (be it hoisting something or unloading a truck).

We also read about employers who are facing multiple repeat and willful violations after OSHA inspections, including many with long histories of safety violations.

Each of these tragedies is unfortunate. Each has a real cost in terms of lives; disabilities; and impact on families, friends, co-workers and the jobs.

And in each case, the discussions have boiled down to some very basic questions: What responsibility does each party have in safety? And how do we get those who will not operate safely out of the industry?

Let's talk about that.

The Employee

The employee plays the most fundamental role in his or her own safety. An individual's actions (or inactions)—whether through carelessness, inattention, negligence, complacency or even ignorance—always factor in worksite accidents.

Employees can also be some of the best resources about a job—especially in how to do it right, so that everyone goes home at the end of the day.

Lee Murray and water tower
Family via (left); Campbell County, VA (right)

Walter Lee Murray Jr., 29, perished April 9 in a fall inside the Campbell County (VA) water tower. The victim, known as "Lee," was wearing fall protection, said authorities. The investigation is continuing.

In my jurisdiction, workers have certain responsibilities when it comes to safety.

The most important one is to refuse unsafe work. That's actually written into the Health and Safety Code that applies where I work.

Employees also must come to work prepared to work (i.e. not under the influence or in some other unsafe state), inform the employer of unsafe conditions, participate in the training provided, and use the proper equipment and protection.

It sounds great, but what about new, temporary or foreign workers? What about those who are not yet competent in the job, or who are afraid to challenge practices for fear of losing their job?

Here's why employers and regulators also have responsibilities.

The Employer

This varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but generally speaking, the employer's role is to provide employees with the training, equipment and oversight necessary to enable them to perform their jobs competently and safely.

In a perfect world, that’s almost all you’d need to say, but it is seldom the case.

Precision Custom Coatings
Precision Custom Coatings

OSHA fined Precision Custom Coatings LLC, of Totowa, NJ, $185,000 in April after an employee's hand was crushed in a machinePCC's seventh case since 2005.

Most occupation acts, codes and regulations are thick documents spelling out minimum requirements for a variety of tasks, job sites and high-risk activities. Keeping on top of these details can be a logistical nightmare for an employer.

Some employers are quite proactive in doing what regulators require and in listening to employees about what works, what doesn’t, and how improvements can be made.

Unfortunately, and as shown in far too many articles, other employers see safety primarily as a cost.

They consider worker training, safety equipment, equipment repair and replacement a bottom-line burden that can slow productivity. Others seem to think of the employees themselves only as costs, with higher productivity and lower pay/benefits overriding safety.

Some of these employers use fear, intimidation or worker ignorance to shave their costs and boost profits; hence, the need for regulations, enforcement and, perhaps, a way to get recalcitrant employers out of the industry.

The Regulator

In the safety world, regulators have one of the most thankless jobs.

On the one hand, critics see them as creating red tape for the sake of it, making regulations that are complicated and overbearing, hurting the employer’s bottom line, stifling the economy, meddling in others’ business, and so forth.

OSHA inspection

In the safety world, the regulators probably have one of the most thankless jobs.

On the other hand, if a new or big hazard is identified, they are often accused of not acting (or reacting) quickly enough to make and enforce appropriate regulations.

And Heaven forbid a major incident should occur (such as the one in West, TX). Then the cries become, “Where were the regulators to prevent this tragedy?”

When enforcement does take place, the penalties can be a bit of a charade as well. Monetary fines are often significantly reduced on appeal, making it easier for employers to remain recalcitrant and consider the fines a less expensive cost of doing business.

Criminal charges, though an option, are seldom laid, and there are essentially no methods for regulators to keep chronic violators from getting right back into business.

Turning it Around

If you’ve worked in the construction industry for any length of time, nothing in this is new. You’ve seen and heard it all before: Accidents happen, fingers point, but not much seems to change.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a magic solution, but I do wish that more could be done to empower or protect workers when it comes to dangers on the job.

Improving whistleblower legislation might be an option, but I don’t know how much impact it would have.

Until we can all come together; put quality, workmanship, safety and people ahead of the dollars; look after each other with the respect every person deserves; and get the bad apples out for good, we’re going to continue seeing these unfortunate articles.

That said, I challenge each of us to commit to little changes that can help all of us go home at the end of the day.

I’m willing to do my part and look out for myself and those around me. I will help the green worker learn to do it right and refuse to let unsafe working conditions get swept under the carpet. I will not let outside influences pressure me to do something unsafe, even if it is on a “routine” activity.

Will you do the same?


Michael Halliwell

Michael Halliwell, M.Eng., CESA, EP, P.Eng., is an Associate and Environmental Engineer for Thurber Engineering Ltd. in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. During his 17-plus years with the company, he has been involved with environmental site assessment, remediation, construction inspection and supervision, and project management. He also performs hazardous building material assessments for asbestos and lead paint.



Tagged categories: Engineers; Environmental Controls; Environmental Protection; Project Management; Thurber Engineering Ltd.; Health & Safety; Health and safety

Comment from William Cornelius, (5/5/2014, 11:44 AM)

"... afraid to challenge practices for fear of losing their job?" We've all seen plant managers pressure QC to approve a batch that doesn't meet spec and we all know there are implied punishments for not doing so. It's hard to believe a disreputable organization would not pressure a worker to ignore safety.

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