Wednesday, May 28, 2003

A Preventable Death

It's nice to see newspaper editors get it right sometimes.

I ran across this article the other day and thought I should check it out, but never got around to it. The title read: "Greensboro considers changing safety policies after worker deaths." The story was about a sanitation worker, Edmond Davis, who fell off the back of a garbage truck and was run over and killed when the truck backed up over him. What struck me was this:
The death comes less than two years after a similar incident, which resulted in an [OSHA] fine against the city.

Assistant city manager Mitchell Johnson says sanitation workers have been instructed not to ride on the back of the truck when its in reverse. He says the city will review what it has done and what it needs to do to keep it from happening again.
The city was cited under OSHA's General Duty Clause, referring to an ANSI standard: "Caution-Do not use riding steps when the vehicle is exceeding 10 mph or operating in reverse or when the distance travelled exceeds 2/10 mile." Amazingly, the city appealed the original OSHA citation and a hearing will be held next month.

What's wrong with this picture? Greensboro considers changing safety policies? After the second death? After already being cited for the first one?

I wasn't the only one who thought there was something odd.

The Greensboro News and Record also smelled something rotten:
A casual observer would say the policy review following sanitation worker Edmond Davis' death shouldn't last long.

It takes little time to see that losing two city employees in less than two years to nearly identical, preventable deaths calls for substantial change. It takes even less time to see that the Band-Aid placed on the problem after Stephen Antwoine Allen was killed - admonishing workers not to ride the rear of garbage trucks that are backing up - was terribly ineffective.

The easiest solution would be barring employees from riding on the backs of trucks at all, until the city's entire fleet could be automated.

But then the city's self-reflection needs to go deeper. Why wasn't it sufficient to spark change when the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the city $6,300 last year? And why did the city seek an appeal rather than pay the fine quickly and change the rules to ensure employee safety?

Briefly, after Allen's death, employees were required to stand on the ground. Had that policy stayed in place, Davis likely would be alive today.
But that wasn't OK with the city. After evaluating the problem, "the city decided to push the envelope, permitting workers to mount the trucks - but only when they were moving forward. Had that policy been strictly enforced, perhaps Davis would be alive today."

The News and Record isn't settling for any lame excuses:
Before the temporary ban on rear riding, the city's safety manager complained that the practice was safer than having workers on the ground at risk of being hit by passing traffic. And the city quibbled with OSHA's interpretation of the safety guidelines, saying the rules only applied to riding on the side of trucks, not the rear. As if one couldn't fall beneath a wheel just as easily from either rickety perch.

Surely such callousness will not be repeated this time.

Whether the reforms come in equipment, policy (strict rules keeping sanitation workers on the ground or in the cab) or elsewhere, something must change this time around.
In a way, Greensboro workers are lucky. If Edmond Davis and Stephen Antwoine Allen had been killed in Pennsylvania or Massachusetts or over half the states in this country where public employees have no OSHA coverage, there would have been no OSHA investigation and no fine for either death.

So what's the city doing while waiting for its old appeal and new citation? Workers were given the day off and "have been asked to stay off the back steps of the rear-loading bulk-waste trucks 'for right now,' and employees are being asked to redouble their focus on safety.

'We're asking them to step back and think of everything they're doing,' said [environmental services director Jeryl] Covington."

Too bad. Just one of those things when workers aren't being careful.