Thursday, May 20, 2004

A Family Left Behind: The Death of Scott Shaw

I wrote last week about the very moving hearing organized by New York Congressman Major Owens that highlighted witnesses' stories of losing their loved ones in workplace "accidents," the paltry fines their employers recieved from OSHA and the need to strengthen penalties in the OSHAct.

One of the most moving witnesses was Holly Shaw, widow of Scott Shaw. If her story doesn't bring tears of sorrow and rage to your eyes, you're tougher than I am.
Thank you for letting me have the honor of speaking to you. I am here because I lost my husband to a workplace accident. He was killed on the job. He was too young, and it should not of happened.

Scott Shaw celebrated his 38th birthday on July 13, 2002. Scott and I celebrated our 9th wedding anniversary on August 14, 2002. Our son, Nicholas, celebrated his 3rd birthday on September 12, 2002. His Daddy wasn't there. His Daddy died 5 days before, when he fell into the Schuylkill River. Scott fell off a barge he was working on, helping to dredge the river. There were only two other employees on both the barges at the time. Scott walked from one barge to another to get oil. He was missed after several minutes, and his hat was discovered floating in the water. Scott's body was found two days later.

Scott didn't have a life jacket on. He wasn't required by his company to wear one. There were no life preservers on the barge. When Scott walked from one barge to another, he navigated tires that were attached between the barges. This is how the employees traveled between the barges. No one saw Scott go in the water. I like to think he hit his head and didn't know what happened. He was 6'3", handsome, strong, and was an excellent swimmer.

This was not the first time Scott had fallen off of the barge. I can remember two times that Scott came home soaking wet, complaining that he had fallen in. The company should have known then that there was a problem.

Scott's death was needless. The company Scott was working for neglected to follow safety regulations. OSHA completed an investigation into Scott's death, and found the company had committed 6 serious violations. This was defined as 1 citation, with 6 items violated. The company was fined $4,950.00. That's what my husband's life was worth??

The first violation was committed, as OSHA says in their report, the employer did not assure that all affected personnel were instructed on the recognition and avoidance of hazardous conditions while working on the Hopper Barge and/or the Work Barge, especially around the unguarded edges of the same and when traveling between barges. For this, his company was fined $2,100.

The second violation was found when the employees weren't checked and confirmed that they were wearing life jackets. As OSHA says, Employees walking or working on the unguarded decks of barges were not protected with U.S. Coast Guard approved vest or buoyant vest. The company was not fined for this violation.

The third violation was for the way that the "bobcat" front-end loader was not stored safely, and workers were not instructed in the dangers of hazardous fumes. Again, this was termed a "serious" violation. The company was fined $750 for this item.

The fourth item was that ring buoys with at least 90 feet of line were not provided and readily available for emergency rescue operations. The cost for this item was $1050. I'll never know if having life preservers on deck could have saved my husband's life.

Item number five concerned the way that the workers traveled from one barge to another. As OSHA says, employees were made to negotiate an approximate eight foot difference in elevation, while climbing on the rubber tire fenders, to pass from one barge to another. This fine was a measly $1,050.

The last violation found concerned the way workers came back on top of the barge, after stowing the front-end loader in the hold of the scow. Again, no fine for this violation.

I am here today to personalize the fact that a worker's life is worth more than the fines that OSHA places on these companies that are at fault. Scott and I have two sons, who are now 7 and 4 years old. Ryan, my 7 year old, doesn't have a dad to watch him play baseball, to practice throwing and catching with him. He sees a therapist weekly, because of grief issues. Ryan and I also attend weekly peer grief counseling sessions. Nicholas is starting to ask about his dad. Every balloon he gets he wants to let go into the sky so it can go to Daddy in Heaven. My sons are without a father. I am without a husband. I will never buy my first house with my husband. We will never sit together and watch our sons graduate from high school, and then college. I will never feel my husband's arms around me again. I will never again be able to hear his voice.

According to the fines OSHA levied on Scott's company, Scott's life was worth $4,950.00. The company owner was not prosecuted. If he had been charged criminally, he would have been convicted of a misdemeanor. That's it. Not a felony. He could walk away, and live his life. My husband didn't walk away. Scott left behind a wife, three sons (two sons from our marriage, and one from a previous marriage)., two sisters, one brother, a mother, and many family members and friends who loved him tremendously.

A bill is being introduced that will raise the fines that OSHA can levy against a company, when there is an accident. The company can be criminally prosecuted, and can be convicted of a felony. I believe it is imperative that a message is sent that a worker's life is worth more than a couple of dollars. Companies that do not practice safety precautions should be convicted, and sent to prison. They must be punished.

As a teacher and as a parent, I know that it is important that a child understand there are consequences to their actions, and they must accept responsibility for what they have done. Adults must face their responsibility, and must be held accountable for their actions. Please, don't let another family suffer as we have. The more that companies are actually punished, the more they realize they must practice workplace safety, and must protect their workers.
Thanks to Donna Spadaro for sending this. Donna, whose brother was killed in the workplace, is a workplace safety activist living in Pennsylvania.