Work Smart, Be Safe by Phillip S. Oberrecht

20-Nov-2015

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has recently cited the U.S. Forest Service for repeated workplace safety violations at two ranger districts in Eastern Oregon’s Malheur National Forest.  Those violations were not found in the dangerous outlying camps near the fires, but at the home bases of those ranger districts.  OSHA found numerous fall, electrical, compressed gas storage, and other safety violations, including: 

  • Circuit breakers missing blanks or breakers.
  • Electrical junction boxes and outlets without covers.
  • Failure to require employees to wear eye protection while working with caustic chemicals.
  • Ladder flaws that could lead to fall hazards.
  • Woodworking machines without  devices to prevent restarting after power failures.
  • Unacceptable guardrails that could cause dangerous falls.
  • Unguarded terminals for welding leads.
  • Failure to inspect fire extinguishers monthly.
  • Seasonal housing with insufficient secondary fire exits.
  • Inadequate employee hazard identification training.

(OSHA Regional News Release, Region 10, October 8, 2015.)

The violations OSHA found would have resulted in approximately $352,000 in penalties had a private sector employer committed them.  However, a federal agency cannot assess fines against another government organization.

Workplace safety is not the province of the private sector only.  Nor is it focused merely on construction or heavy machinery.  Workplace safety should be the focus of all of us, to save lives, prevent injuries, and conserve resources.

Most dangerous jobs

The most dangerous jobs in America have been reported on the basis of fatalities per 100,000 workers.  The most recent statistics show the top 10 most dangerous jobs to be commercial fisherman, logger, back country airplane pilot, farmer and rancher, mining machine operator, roofer, sanitation worker, truck driver and deliveryman, industrial machine repairman, and police officer, in that order.  Idaho has every one of those occupations except for commercial fishermen.

Not all accidents in industries which are dangerous can be prevented.  However, thorough and frequent safety training coupled with well maintained, accessible safety equipment has clearly been found to prevent the vast majority of accidents in each of the most dangerous occupations.

Top 10 most frequent OSHA violations in 2015

According to Roger Marks of Lion Technology, Inc., the top 10 most frequently cited workplace safety violations are:

  • Fall protection (6,721 citations)
  • Hazard communication (5,192 citations)
  • Scaffolding (4,295 citations)
  • Respiratory protection (3,305 citations)
  • Lockout/Tagout (3,002 citations)
  • Powered industrial trucks (2,760 citations)
  • Ladders (2,489 citations)
  • Electrical – wiring methods (2,404 citations)
  • Machine guarding (2,295 citations)
  • Electrical – general requirements (1,973 citations)

Reporting violations

Company management should remain vigilant to ensure that safety equipment and training are adequate and up-to-date.  If safety violations are noted, the company should immediately resolve them.  But, safety is everyone’s responsibility, not just that of the safety officer, supervisor or manager.  If a safety violation is not taken care of, the company could find itself addressing that violation with OSHA.  OSHA inspectors frequently receive anonymous tips, and even if the tips are not anonymous, companies are prohibited from taking retaliatory action against whistleblowers under Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.  That provision prohibits discrimination against employees exercising their rights to file OSHA complaints, to participate in inspections, to talk to an inspector, to seek access to employer exposure and injury records, to report an injury, and to raise a safety complaint with the employer.  Employees who have been discriminated against for exercising their rights are required to file a complaint with OSHA within 30 days of the alleged adverse action.

Public policy exception to at-will employment

Employees who exercise their rights to report safety violations not only have the right to whistleblower protection under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, but they receive protection under state law from retaliatory termination.  Although Idaho is an at-will employment state, a termination in violation of public policy is actionable as an exception to the at-will doctrine.  This exception provides that when an employer’s motivation for a termination contravenes public policy, the employee has a claim for wrongful termination.  As explained by the Idaho Supreme Court in Bollinger v. Fall River Rural Electric Coop, Inc., 152 Idaho 632, 640 (2012), “this public policy exception is triggered only where an employee is terminated for engaging in some protected activity, which includes (1) refusing to commit an unlawful act, (2) performing an important public obligation, or (3) exercising certain rights and privileges” [such as reporting safety violations].

Safety first and always

Large sectors of Idaho’s workforce are employed in physical, machine-heavy occupations.  Those jobs require attention to safety details to keep employees free from harm.  The best protection is careful attention to safety requirements after good training and continual inspection of safety equipment. 

Be smart, be safe, and live to work another day.