Saturday, August 23, 2003

Don't Rush In

Attached here is a tragic article about three electrocution deaths -- the original victim when the crane he was operating touched an energized electrical line, and two rescuers.

The death of rescuers is a tragic, but all too common event in confined space, trenching and electrical incidents. Everyone's first instinct is to jump in and rescue your buddy -- often with fatal consequences.

Of course it's not easy to sit and watch someone die -- even if you understand that you could just as easily become a victim:
"The crane was on fire and we had three fatalities laying on the ground," Telford Fire Chief Joseph Rausch said.

Paramedics, police and firefighters called to the plant had to stand by for 10 minutes until utility workers could shut off the power.

"It's tough standing here doing that," Rausch said. "We had to protect our guys. [The crane] was energized, so we couldn't just rush in here."
This reminds me of a story.....

A few years ago, humorist Dave Barry wrote a column making fun of OSHA for citing a company whose workers had jumped into a collapsed trench to (successfully) rescue workers from another company who had been trapped when the trench collapsed. Barry cited it as just another example of government stupidity.

Although I thought the OSHA citation in this case was probably unnecessary (and was later dropped), as it was another company's employees trapped in the trench, I sent a letter to Barry defending the principle of the citation and the OSHA standard, and describing the frequency of deaths among rescuers in confined space and trenching incidents. I also enclosed some news clips and a NIOSH report. He wrote me back almost immediately, replying "Yeah, well if it was your friend, I bet you'd jump in too."

Well, that's the point, Dave. I'd want to jump in. Which is why OSHA has standards (so that no rescue is needed in the first place) that require, among other things, that workers to be trained NOT to jump into a trench or confined space, and that employers need to be cited even if such attempted rescues seem like "good Samaritan" actions.

(Check out OSHA information on trenching here and confined spaces here.)

Here is a happier story where the men who helped rescue their co-worker from a trench were luckier.

Which reminds me of another story....

I was training a bunch of New England public works employees about trenching hazards around ten years ago. I asked for a show of hands how many of them had received safety training. Most of them raised their hands. I was surprised as most of them were from Massachusetts and New Hampshire, states where public employees don't have any OSHA coverage, and they didn't seem familiar with the OSHA regs.

But knowing from experience that there's training and there's training, I asked what their training consisted of.

"Sure, they train us," one of the local presidents replied, "They train us how to dig someone out when the trench collapses on them. And we've had to do it a bunch of times."

Two morals to this story: First, when you're trying to find out what kind of training workers have received, don't just stop with the question "Have you been trained?" What did the training consist of? How was it given? Did they train you about this? About that? Did you have an opportunity to ask questions? You get the idea.

The second moral is that while "rescue" training is necessary in these cases (as often more unprepared rescuers are killed than original victims,) OSHA standard and the majority of our efforts need to be focused on prevention. Rescue is a sign that preventive measures have failed.