Tuesday, February 24, 2004

L.E. Myers and MYR Group: Losing Lives 'While Winning With Safety'

I'm not a lawyer, so maybe that's why I really don't understand this what's going on here.

I reviewed an extremely disturbing article in the Chicago Tribune last November about L.E. Myers, an electrical contractor that seemed to have the habit of electrocuting large numbers of its employees.
Rolling Meadows-based L.E. Myers has a long history of on-the-job deaths, accidents and safety violations. At least 35 employees have died--17 by electrocution--in the three decades the government has been keeping workplace safety records.

The deaths and accidents at L.E. Myers raise questions about the company's commitment to safety as well as about the effectiveness of the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, created by Congress in 1970 to prevent workplace injuries and illnesses.

It also underscores the safety problems inherent in an industry that relies heavily on union hiring halls for its workers, often without evaluation of individual job skills or experience.

L.E. Myers is awaiting trial on criminal charges in U.S. District Court in Chicago for allegedly violating job-safety regulations that led to the deaths of Blake Lane and Wade Cumpston. The company has pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors say it is the first time an electrical contractor has been charged with criminal violations of federal safety rules in connection with the deaths of workers on high-voltage transmission towers.
L.E. Myers is a subsidiary of the MYR Group, which was also indicted in this case because MYR "began a major initiative in the 1990s to improve and expand safety and training programs."

The charges against MYR were dismissed last year because a judge ruled that "MYR Group had no control over the work sites, the specific hazards faced by Lane and Cumpston or their job assignments."

Now, however, OSHA and federal prosecutors are seeking to overturn that decision and have the indictment against MYR reinstated.

Here's where I get confused.

The National Electrical Contractors Association is criticizing federal prosecutors and OSHA because
Defense lawyers have argued that MYR Group should not be held criminally liable because Lane and Cumpston were not directly employed by the parent. MYR Group had no control over the work sites, the specific hazards faced by Lane and Cumpston or their job assignments, the lawyers contended.

"MYR Group had no connection whatsoever with any of these work sites," Corey Rubenstein, a company lawyer, told the appeals court panel.

In a friend-of-the-court brief, lawyers for the electrical contractors association argued that reinstating the charges against MYR Group could have nationwide repercussions.

Contractors often use the services of trade groups or consulting firms to provide safety training and advice to their employees. Those programs would be jeopardized if the firms thought they might face criminal charges, the lawyers said.

The judges seemed troubled by the thought of extending criminal liability to consultants or others who might provide safety training to workers who are not their employees.

"People would be terrified," Judge Ilana Rovner said.
I don't get it. MYR owns L.E. Myers. They're not a consultant or a trade group. They are the corporate parent.

And check out MYR Group's web site. The "About MYR Group" section states that "MYR Group provides support to the subsidiaries in the areas of safety management, equipment procurement, management development, personnel training, marketing, accounting, finance and administration."

Click on the "Safety" page and you'll find:
Safety is the first priority of the MYR Group. It is the cornerstone of our philosophy and fundamental to the success of our projects and our company....

In bringing a strong safety culture to all of our projects, we utilize a corporate safety plan, training program, monitoring system and incentive programs, which are standard for all MYR Group operating subsidiaries.
Yeah, standard on paper, maybe, but not where the rubber hits the road.

Along with their elaborate incentive program, highlighted a couple of years ago in the Wall St. Journal, the MYR Group also has a nifty slogan, "Winning With Safety" and this truly inspiring and educational logo:

Gosh, it kind of get's you all choked up and makes you want to.....PUKE!

So what we have here is a parent company that prides itself on the safety program it has imposed on its subsidiaries. Turns out the safety program may look good on paper and on coffee mugs and posters and shirts and cookouts, but isn't worth a bucket of warm spit when it comes to actually making the workplace safer.

Then when people continue dying and the program is revealed as a sham, MYR suddenly "has no connection whatsoever with any of these work sites."

"Who, me? Never seen 'em before in my life!"

Anyway, it was the dumb workers' fault:
“Neither L.E. Myers nor MYR Group believe there is any criminal wrongdoing with these unfortunate accidents caused by human errors” by the workers who died, says Corey Rubenstein, an attorney for the contractor. Myers carries out extensive safety training, he says. “Obviously, it’s a very dangerous industry and all participants have accidents from time to time,” he says.
Yeah, shit happens. Sounds like a good defense to me.

And if that's not bad enough, MYR and their electrical contractor association buddies seem to be successfully selling the notion that they are just some totally unrelated "trade group" or "consulting firm" that was just trying to be helpful when big, bad OSHA entraps them in their evil web.

Well, again, I'm no lawyer, but personally I say "Give me a break! Throw 'em all in jail."


For more information on the hazards of electrical line work, check out this Engineering News Record article which blames many of the safety problems on the restructuring of the industry:
Electrical industry restructuring also has bred a new bottom-line consciousness among electric utilities and other operators of transmission lines. Many are getting by with fewer workers and are largely abandoning apprentice training, say industry insiders. As a consequence, fewer linemen often perform more work....With experienced journeymen scarce, younger and less experienced hands have been pressed to take more responsibility.

Crews are working longer hours, while promotions to foreman sometimes are made prematurely. One result, some say, is more deadly accidents. And when the voltage is several thousand times that delivered to an average light fixture—sometimes as high as 765,000 v in a transmission line—burns and injuries can be grotesquely severe.
And, as in many other industries, contractors are increasingly being used for the more dangerous work:
Contractors perform much of the line repairs now, as much as 60%, some say. A key Labor Dept. official says contractors also account for a disproportionately high share of the deaths. Contractor personnel “are getting killed at twice the rate of those working for utilities,” says David Wallis, director of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s office of engineering safety. Contractor linemen forget to use personal protective equipment, such as insulated gloves, more often than utility linemen, he says.
Forget?! What, does the job of contractor tend to attract early Alzheimer patients, as opposed to the utility linemen? Could we possibly have a training or management safety system issue here?
But contractors also are hired to do many of the dangerous jobs that utilities or industrial owners prefer not to do, notes H. Brooke Stauffer, executive director for standards and safety at the National Electrical Contractors Association, Bethesda, Md. There also are deeper issues affecting jobsite behavior. At a recent meeting, NECA contractors and federal officials agreed that “a pervasive culture of risk-taking is partially to blame.”
Yeah, but who's taking risks with whose lives? The utilities and industrial owners "prefer" not to do these jobs because they're dangerous and they'd have to hire expensive skilled workers and provide them with expensive training and safety equipment. It's much cheaper to hire more inexpensive contractors who can cut their costs along with a few safety corners and pay cheaper wages to less skilled workers who tend to "forget" to use their safety equipment.

You know what? Maybe those Chinese aren't so far off.

I gotta go.