The uncompromising result of an unsafe workplace

Safety must be paramount and a major and permanent priority in the workplace and in life

10/16/2013


With this month’s issue, Plant Engineering is doing something we’ve really never done before. This entire issue is focused on workplace safety in manufacturing. We’ve brought together the top safety experts at some of America’s best companies, including DuPont, the 2013 Green Cross for Safety award winner from the National Safety Council.

We focus on safety each October because the National Safety Council holds its annual National Safety Congress each October. We focus on safety because, as a former editor at the NSC, I got a full immersion in the value and importance of occupational safety and health and I understand its importance in the workplace. We focus on safety because safety is a fundamental right of the American worker, and we need to continue to hold up that ideal to ourselves and to the rest of the world.

So with all of that, I have a confession to make: I really hate writing about safety.

The problem with writing about safety is that there’s no conflict here. Safety is not black or white, good or bad, right or wrong. There’s no middle ground here. Safety simply is. The fact we must consume time and effort and ink and electricity to convey the ideas and ideals of safety in the workplace is really a fairly distressing thought, and that is why it’s no fun to write about safety.

If a task can be performed safely once, then it ALWAYS can be performed safely. If safety is part of your culture, then it is engrained and celebrated. If it is not part of your culture, then what is the alternative?

Safety must be uncompromising, because the alternative is equally uncompromising. Safety must be a permanent part of your life, because the lack of safety is equally permanent. 

Consider the story of Larry Kinzer, who went to work at Adams Thermal Systems in Canton, S.D., on Nov. 7, 2011. The 42-year-old Kinzer was killed on the job that day when he was crushed in a machine that made radiator cores. 

“Safety is not black or white, good or bad, right or wrong. There’s no middle ground here. Safety simply is.” 

 

In an August 2013 press release announcing the $1.33 million in fines and civil penalties against Adams Thermal Systems, OSHA officials related this chilling fact: the accident occurred “after management instructed and authorized workers to bypass the manufacturer’s barrier guard in order to adjust the machine to keep it running.”

And then there was this from OSHA administrator Dr. David Michaels: “Adams Thermal failed to provide a safe workplace, and those conditions ultimately took the life of a worker. There is no excuse for an employer to compromise safety to keep production running.”

The $1.33 million in penalties included $450,000 paid to Kinzer’s widow. It also included $450,000 in criminal penalties, because the U.S. Attorney’s office was considering criminal prosecution.

Adams Thermal Systems agreed to make the following operational changes:

  • Increase the size of its safety and health department
  • Implement a companywide safety and health program
  • Provide incentives for managers and workers to report safety issues and make safety recommendations
  • Hire a qualified third-party to review guarding and lockout/tagout for all plant machinery and to audit the abatement of all identified hazards.

 I look at that list and think about the fundamental things I know about safety, and the fundamentals of safety itself, and I cannot conceive of a single reason why any of those simple rules were not already in place. Even in a company which places profit above people, it certainly seems that you would be able to spend far less than $1.33 million to implement a safety program sufficient to keep this accident from being possible.

Safety is not a choice between people and profit, because safety is not a choice. It is a human right to work in a safe environment, and a business imperative to encourage, enforce, and reward safe work practices. It is not enough—it is never enough—to discuss safety in anything but human terms.

Whenever we fail in this imperative, we weaken our role as a global leader. And that’s one consideration. But when we fail in this imperative, people get hurt. People lose the ability to work. And one day in November 2011 in South Dakota, Larry Kinzer died.

All the OSHA fines in the world won’t change that.



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