Confined Space
News and Commentary on Workplace Health & Safety, Labor and Politics

Monday, November 07, 2005


Get Killed On The Job and You're Fired!

"Damn workers and going and getting themselves killed and bringing us down, hurting the shareholders. So any more of you get yourselves killed and we'll fire your asses."

This was approximately how Frank Williams III, chief executive at Williams Industries of Manassas, described the construction company's financial problems to its shareholders at its annual meeting.
Executives at Williams Industries Inc. shed new light on the construction firm's financial problems at a shareholders meeting Saturday, saying two work-related deaths contributed to $1.6 million in workers' compensation payouts this year.

At the annual meeting, a glum affair after Williams Industries of Manassas recently reported a $11.4 million loss for the fiscal year ended July 31, chief executive Frank E. Williams III said the two workers had not followed company safety rules.

The accidents involved "very seasoned veterans, and in both cases I believe the individuals put themselves in a situation where they shouldn't have been because of complacencies," Williams said, responding to a shareholder's question about the company's safety policies.
Those damn complacencies again. Ought to be a law against 'em. But don't worry, the problem is being dealt with:
Williams said the company has new safety rules. "We have instituted a zero-tolerance policy in the field," he said. "If you are caught not obeying the company's safety rules you are terminated. There is no warning system. There is no probation. You are gone. We can no longer afford to allow a safety violation of company policy to occur."
I tried to do a bit of research on the two deaths. According to the Washington Post, one occurred at the Springfield Interchange project in Northern Virginia in April.
Virginia Department of Transportation spokesman Steve Titunic says two workers were in a steel cage about 70 feet in the air, preparing to move the last of four large steel beams into place, around 2 a.m.

Titunic says it's believed one of the workers looked over the side of the cage, accidentally moved it and hit his head on the beam, suffering a fatal head or neck injury.

The man, identified as 35-year-old Darren Havermale, of Berkley Springs, W.Va., was pronounced dead at Inova Fairfax Hospital. Havermale worked for Williams Steel Co. based in Manassas.
I found it on OSHA's website. OSHA fined the company $8375 for two serious citations.

The other fatality happened at a steel-fabrication plant in February, according to the Post, but I could find no evidence of it on OSHA's web site. I did, however, find a story about the death of Ronal Alvarado Gochez, 25, a Williams Steel employee who was crushed to death under a 35-ton concrete slab yesterday morning, when the top two floors of a six-story parking garage being built for the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda collapsed. That fatality resulted in a $14,000 OSHA fine.

Zero Tolerance Policies

Now I'm sure to get a comment from someone asking how I could possibly have a problem with a "zero-tolerance safety policy." The problem is bloody pocket syndrome which Steelworkers union health and safety director Mike Wright describes as "steelworkers who may have as little as a cut on their hand while on the job and in fear of retribution will hide it and wait until after their shift to go to the hospital."

After all, if you get injured, it means you must have violated some kind of safety rule, otherwise you wouldn't have gotten hurt. And if you violated a safety rule, you're outta here. To quote Mr. Williams III again, "There is no warning system. There is no probation. You are gone."

As we have said over and over (and over and over) again here at Confined Space, most workplace accidents are caused not by careless workers or "complacencies," but by unsafe working conditions. Blaming accidents on employees, disciplining and firing them for any injury or safety violation doesn't encourage employees to look for, report and analyze the root causes of workplace accidents and close calls, but to hide them.

Most accidents can be traced to someone doing something "wrong." That's generally known as the "direct cause." And, of course, if that's where your analysis of the accident stops, the obvious answer is to find out who made the mistake and fire his ass. Zero tolerance. Problem solved. Right?

Wrong. If you really want to prevent future similar accidents, you need to go further and look for the root causes. The simplest way to do that is to keep asking "why?" Someone used the wrong equipment, or pressed the wrong button, or didn't follow the written procedure. Why? Were they told to do it by a supervisor who had a quota to fill? Did they feel rushed by the constant drive to finish a job by the deadline? Were they not well trained for the job? Were they tired from too much overtime? Were the controls on the machine unnecessarily complicated or not logically located? Were employees expected to take shortcuts to get the work done faster?

In addition to worker getting themselves killed, Williams blamed the company's financial problems on soaring steel prices, acquisition of a steel-fabrication facility in Alabama that failed, and the fact that the Springfield project was "very unprofitable." In other words, the company was having all kinds of problems. Did the problems cause projects to be rushed? More overtime? Short cuts to get the job done on time? Or is the company stricken with an epidemic of "complacencies?"

Who knows?

One thing I do know is that if you fire the workers as soon as a mistake is made, you'll never find out.


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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this Blog are my own and do not, in any way, shape or form, reflect or represent the views or policies of my employer. Links to or from other websites of individuals or organizations do not constitute an endorsement of these views.
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