Who sets your plant’s safety standards?

The standard for safety begins at the front door of your plant. You and your employees set the standard for safety.

By Bob Vavra October 23, 2015

"The standard for safety begins with not OSHA nor with NFPA, but at the front door of your plant. You and your employees set the standard for safety."

Safety, as has been noted in this space many times, is not a point of negotiation in manufacturing. It is a fundamental and inviolable human right. It isn’t something workers should ever have to demand. It is something management must provide at every moment of every day.

As I tour manufacturing plants, safety is the first thing I look for, and the first thing with which I’m usually confronted. From something as simple as safety glasses to as comprehensive as a 5-min safety video for visitors before they can enter the facility, safety is the benchmark for almost all great and good manufacturers.

So when encountering a situation such as chicken-processor Case Farms in Winesburg, Ohio, I have to remind myself that this really is an exception to the rules of safety. Still, the quote from OSHA Administrator Dr. David Michaels does give one pause, because government officials usually aren’t this blunt.

In announcing 55 violations against Case Farms on Aug. 13, Michaels left little doubt as to his agency’s disdain for Case Farms’ safety practices. "Case Farms is an outrageously dangerous place to work," Michaels said in a press release announcing $861,500 in fines against the company. "In the past 25 years, Case Farms has been cited for more than 350 safety and health violations. Despite committing to OSHA that it would eliminate serious hazards, Case Farms continues to endanger the safety and health of its workers. This simply must stop."

Case was accused of violating standards on fall protection, personal protective equipment (PPE), improperly stored oxygen cylinders, amputation hazards, and what the OSHA press release called "numerous violations of electrical safety standards." The company also has been added to OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program.

In deciding to contest the latest round of fines and violations, Case Farms officials said in a statement published by Farm and Dairy on Sept. 1, "We do not agree with the negative characterizations that have been made about our company and our employees … The citations are being reviewed and we will work with OSHA, as we have in the past, to address the concerns outlined in the citations."

There’s a long distance between the statement from Michaels and the one from Case Farms, except for the part that says: "We will work with OSHA, as we have in the past." Everyone agrees this is not the first time OSHA and Case Farms have discussed safety practices. It probably also is worth noting the irony of the first line on the Case Farms corporate website home page, which reads: "A core component to Case Farms’ quality commitment is to ensure the welfare and health of our chickens."

In September of this year, OSHA reported that there was an increase in the number of workplace fatalities in 2014, the last year for which statistics are available. There were 4,679 workers killed on the job in 2014, compared with 4,585 in 2013. The fatality rate dropped 3.3% in 2014 because of increased hours worked, but that’s probably little consolation to the 4,679 families who lost loved ones at work in 2014.

Stories such as Case Farms and numbers such as the latest workplace fatality figures are why we have safety standards. OSHA and the NFPA are just two of the groups studying the key issues around workplace safety. The standards around this issue continue to evolve. No one is satisfied with workplace safety because not everyone is safe. The efforts these agencies and others make to improve workplace safety must continue, and must be adopted and enforced.

But the standard for safety begins not with OSHA nor with NFPA, but at the front door of your plant. You and your employees set the standard for safety. No one should be able to impose upon you a safety standard greater than one that you should insist on for yourself, and no nasty words or huge fines will be able to abate the damage if you fail to meet that standard.