Saturday, July 09, 2005

Bad Trench, Worse Article

Sometimes you run across a news article that just makes you sit up and say "Huh?"

And then it makes you think that all journalists who cover local issues should be required to take a short workplace safety course.

Here we have a news article about a trench collapse that happily didn't kill the worker.
Immediately after Tito Flores was rescued Wednesday afternoon from the 15-foot-deep trench, the investigation began. How did the Bay City sewer worker become buried for more than five hours?

An internal and state investigation aims to answer that question.

"We're reviewing standard operating procedures with regards to sewer dig-ups and also evaluating training techniques -- whether we need to look at confined-space training," said Bill Kaiser.
Confined space training? Trenching and excavation training might be more appropriate in this case.
The state agency MIOSHA that investigates construction accidents has strict guidelines on supporting a trench deeper than 5 feet before any worker can go down inside.

The trench must be supported by trained personnel, or the sides must be dug out at angles to prevent a cave-in. The work can be done above ground.
Now, that would be interesting. I just hope those trained personnel are pretty darn strong.
Bay City Mayor Bob Katt is concerned about worker safety as more of them head down to work in deep trenches.

"I don't think we could've controlled this particular accident, but I think we can control future exposures to workers by making sure they have proper training and are not put in harm's way," he said.
Uh, Bob. Maybe you could have controlled this particular incident if you had made sure that they were complying with the law, that the trench was protected and that the workers were trained before they went down into the trench this time.
As part of its investigation, MIOSHA is also looking into whether the sewer workers got too comfortable working in trenches and possibly didn't follow proper procedure.
Oy. Those dumb fucking workers again.

First, workers certainly can get "too comfortable" doing all kinds of unsafe things. That's why OSHA standards require training. I've never heard of anyone getting "too comfortable" in a work situation after they've been made fully aware that conditions are so dangerous that they could easily be crushed to death or buried alive in a matter of seconds.

Second, workers' failure to follow proper procedures is usually the end-result of failures in management systems, not the root cause of the incident. Failure to follow proper procedures is what managemetn want you to think causes accidents because that lets them off the hook. But that's almost never the case.

What were the procedures weren't being followed? Going down in an unprotected trench? Was anyone supervising the crew, making sure no one went down in an unprotected trench? And why was the trench unprotected? Did anyone read OSHA's trenching and excavation standard which requires a "competent person" to inspect the trench for "evidence of a situation that could result in possible cave-ins." It is a basic principle of heath and safety law that the employer is responsible for the safety of the workplace. That's why they call them "managers."

What's troubling about this article is not just that journalists often don't understand anything about workplace safety hazards and OSHA regulations, but that they don't understand that most workpace injuries and fatalities are caused by unsafe conditions (not unsafe workers)and that we have laws that are supposed to force employers to eliminate or control those unsafe conditions. The problem with not being knowledgable is that when people say dumb things to them, there are no intelligent follow-up questions. (Of course, as anyone who's watched a presidential news conference knows, the inability to ask intelligent followup questions is not just limited to local reporters.)

But what's most troubling is that newspaper articles such as this serve as more than just "news." Workers who go down into trenches are more likely to read this article than to read an OSHA standard. If done well (like this and this), articles about trench collapses can serve an educational purpose. This one doesn't.