Monday, April 10, 2006

Boston Scaffold Collapse: Asking The Wrong Questions

An April 5 article in the Boston Globe began with the question:
Investigators examining the Boston scaffolding collapse that killed three people have focused their probe on whether it was human or mechanical error that resulted in the disconnection of a metal tie that had secured the 3-ton platform to the building, possibly triggering the fatal plunge, according to a high-ranking city official.
Ted Comick and Macy Goldstein-Gelb, cochairman and executive director, respectively, of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, respond to the article in a letter to the Globe:
Asking wrong questions in probe of building accident
April 8, 2006

IF FEDERAL, state, and Boston safety investigators ask if human error caused the tragic loss of three lives Monday at a downtown construction site, the answer they are likely to get is yes. The problem is the question (''Scaffold probe focuses on removal of metal tie," Page A1, April 5).

The science of worker health and safety and injury control anticipates error and builds in fail-safe mechanisms. Yes, equipment breaks and people make mistakes; this is predictable. Construction safety requires redundant systems so that equipment failure or human error does not cause death and injury. The frenzied push to complete construction without adequate protection puts workers at increased risk.

Here are some better questions to ask: How should a hydraulic working platform be installed and removed? Are standard protocols and adequate instruction available? Are the people responsible for safety supervising operations? Do the workers feel they can shut down a job if they feel their safety is endangered? Do they have sufficient authority on the site to correct hazards? Are there enough workers assigned to the project to ensure that workers are not fatigued, overworked, or distracted by too many tasks? How can federal, state, and local agencies work together to make sure safety is ensured? How can we ensure that penalties by enforcement agencies are strict enough to act as a true disincentive to shortcuts that endanger safety?