Friday, June 13, 2008

Taking Responsibility For Worker Safety

Just one man's opinion.
by Curtis Gray

Having spent a large part of my life as executive management in manufacturing companies, often directly responsible for implementing safety compliance systems, I have to speak up on the notion of OSHA regulation.

In my experience, OSHA is a joke agency. All their efforts are spent running around trying to impose fines on small companies for failing to comply with this or that accident reporting requirements and not on safety inspections or regulatory compliance. The bigger the company the less likely they will ever see an OSHA inspector. Even when complaints are lodged by workers, the investigation consists of asking the company management for its side of the story, and then promptly accepting whatever explanation for the infraction is given.

Disband OSHA
Like most government regulatory agencies, OSHA is just a dog and pony show to placate people's need for "someone to do something" about a problem. They talk and talk, and spend millions of our tax dollars on developing regulations and then never really do anything but pay lip service to enforcement. To make matters worse, that same agency prevents any private recovery by barring employees from suing company owners for their willful negligence in taking calculated monetary risks with worker health and safety.

This is the true reason the agency even exists. Like most governmental agencies, OSHA was not founded "by, of and for" the people for some altruistic motive. OSHA was founded through collaboration between business owners whose primary concern was to protect themselves from lawsuits and to make the cost of killing people predictable as part of their financial risk management strategies, lawyers and insurance companies who thrive on regulatory environments, and legislators who can point to their efforts in support of regulation to show how “hard” they work for their constituents, especially in an election year.

So, in my opinion, the entire country might be MORE safe if OSHA was disbanded and the private sector was allowed to enforce safety by suing companies completely out of business that fail to provide safe work environments.

DeBruce Grain Elevator Explosion
I was just down the road a couple of miles when the De Bruce grain elevator in Wichita, KS exploded in 1998, killing seven and injuring several others. The ground shook so hard we believed that McConnell Air Force Base was under missile attack. Windows were shattered for blocks in every direction. Flames shot hundreds of feet into the air and the smoke plume choked us all.

We watched in horror as helicopters attempted to lift survivors from the burning roof. It is hard to imagine how many tax and private dollars were spent in rescue and firefighting efforts, or how much was lost by disruption of the companies all around the area. Then millions more was spent on legal fees while a flurry of lawsuits were attempted.

To my knowledge, no suits succeeded, because of OSHA regulations blocking those worker's families from such action. Instead, they were all given the "standard" $200K (the value OSHA places on a life) and told "too bad", that’s the way OSHA works. A recent article in the Wichita paper remembering the anniversary of the event says the fines to De Bruce for their part in the incident amounted to about $650K, if I remember the figure correctly.

I suspect that did not even cover the legal costs OSHA itself incurred in conducting the investigation and imposing the fine. I'm equally sure it meant nothing to De Bruce -- probably less than a week's profit, and probably paid by their insurance company, anyway. This was not the first incident for De Bruce, and not the first violation at that particular elevator.

60 Minutes Story
I read with interest the story produced earlier this month by "60 Minutes", as well as the long list of comments made by readers concerning dust explosions. All one has to do to really understand a huge underlying problem is to look at those comments, along with information available on this web site. People in this country spend too much time trying to get someone else to do something about their problems instead of dealing with the issue directly themselves.

One person says it's OSHA's fault, Another says it's the company's fault. They blame the workers. Another says the insurance companies should fix the problem. Good grief. There is only one fix. Hello to the workers of America - REFUSE TO WORK IN THOSE CONDITIONS. GO ON STRIKE OR GET ANOTHER JOB.

More Lawyers and Legislators
The only sure way to stop companies from taking advantage of the savings associated with failure to provide a safe work environment is for them not to able to get anyone to work for them. It’s all about the money. That is the nature of capitalism. We had a saying I remember growing up, “money talks, sh__ walks.” More tax dollars spent on bigger government and more unenforceable regulations will never solve the problem. People will continue to die and be injured. The only thing that will change with new legislation is that more lawyers and legislators will make more money.

The only way any public company has ever been forced to change anything about its behavior is through clipping its revenue stream. Fines and such mean nothing. It does not come out of “their” pocket, it comes out of “ours”. When a company is fined or the insurance rates go up because a law suit is lost, that just becomes another cost of doing business.

Costs are just rolled into price. The stock holders and managers don’t dig into their pockets and pay the fine. The price of the product just goes up. So, ultimately, passing regulations that result in fines to businesses only serves as another taxing mechanism for the government. No one gets hurt but the consumer, and of course, the worker.

True worker safety is about workers behaving in a safe manner, not about rules telling them they should. Don't we have enough history under our belts yet on this earth to recognize that people don't follow rules unless they want to? God himself, Creator of the universe, gave us rules to follow that have been violated since the dawn of time.

Why do we think rules made by OSHA will be any more respected? Even severe consequences, no matter by whom imposed, won't get it done. Again I site the consequences for failure to comply with God's rules. I don't think it can be much more severe than that. But we still don't follow the rules a great majority of the time because it is not convenient or expedient for us on an individual level.

My heart goes out to those who have been directly affected by every incident in the work place, dust explosion or otherwise. Thousands of workers are injured or killed at work every year. I have been injured on the job myself and spent years recovering to 90%, which is the best I will ever do. But it happened because I didn’t think about the unsafe manner in which I was behaving, not because I didn’t have Big Brother standing over my shoulder. I think most workplace injuries fall into that category. They are truly just legitimate accidents caused by the imperfect nature of the humans involved.

However, many ARE the direct result of known, unsafe working conditions for which regulations are already in place, like the De Bruce incident. The conditions are known both to the management AND the workers. And though I feel the corporations are complicate and liable, if you walk out in front of cars every day and eventually get hit by one, it's hard for me to place all the blame the driver or the manufacturer of the vehicle, even if they were speeding and talking on a cell phone, and even if the pedestrian had the legal “right of way”.

My dad only finished the 6th grade, but he was smart enough to teach me that rules don’t protect people – people have to protect themselves.

YOUR TURN: OSHA has lost its map


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