Paris Hilton – 23 days; BP Officials – 0

How many workplace “accidents” does it take for the federal government to acknowledge that negligent homicides are being committed in U.S. workplaces?

There long has raged a debate about criminal prosecutions for companies and company officials following workplace fatalities in which “egregious” or “willful” violations were found by OSHA investigators to have contributed to worker deaths.

At the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Exhibition last month in Philadelphia, several events occurred that made me rethink this issue.

First, I went to a lecture offered by Jordan Barab, a former blogger (“Confined Space”) who now works for the House Education and Labor Committee’s Subcommittee on Workplace Protections. Barab discussed the human toll of workplace injuries and fatalities. He talked about a father who sent him a photograph of himself with his son, who was killed in a workplace incident. The father wrote: “He was my reason for living.”

Often, we hear quotes like that associated with the victims of homicides or fatal highway incidents. Those members of the U.S. population who kill other people with guns or with their cars often find themselves facing charges ranging from murder to manslaughter. The same rarely is true of negligent employers.

Another event that occurred while I was in Philadelphia was that Paris Hilton surrendered herself to begin serving a 23-day jail term for violating parole in a drunk driving case ... a case in which no one was injured. Ironic, I thought.

Finally, while in Philadelphia, I reread Josh Cable’s excellent article in the May issue, “Anatomy of a Tragedy.” The article examines the March 23, 2005, tragedy at BP’s Texas City, Texas, refinery, in which 15 workers were killed. One message that came through loud and clear, to quote Josh, is: “The body of evidence and information available to the safety community – and to the public – is the anatomy of a workplace tragedy that never should have happened.”

BP fired six (low-level) employees in the wake of the incident. BP spokesman Neil Chapman acknowledged that the company “took disciplinary action against both supervisory and hourly personnel.” BP, in its report, has tried to pass off the March 23 incident as the result of a set of “underlying reasons for the behaviors and actions during the incident.”

To say the incident was the result of human error occurring at that facility on March 23 is disingenuous. The truth of the matter is that BP had a broken safety culture at that facility – probably at other facilities as well – and management knew it. In the 30 years prior to the 2005 disaster, there were 23 worker deaths at the refinery – three of them in 2004.

Unbelievably, or, perhaps, predictably, another occurred there on June 6. Electrician Richard Liening, 44, of Texas City, an employee of AMEX Electrical Services Inc., was electrocuted while working as a contractor at the facility.

I find it interesting that BP CEO Lord John Browne resigned from the company 2 months ago following allegations that he allowed a former romantic partner to use company resources. Browne issued denials and then said he was stepping down “to avoid unnecessary embarrassment and distraction to the company.”

Browne resigned because his personal laundry was about to be aired in newspaper reports and he didn’t want to face the embarrassment of a corporate investigation. Apparently, creating a work environment that contributed to the deaths of 19 employees since 2004 is not cause for embarrassment for Browne or the corporate culture he fostered at BP, unlike giving favors to a lover.

Browne is a coward. He hid behind the six employees fired from Texas City. He hid behind numerous managers, supervisors and employees, blaming them for safety shortcomings at the facility. He hid behind the coffins of 15 employees killed on March 23, 2005, allowing reports to be published by his company that indicate they made fatal errors in judgment that resulted in their own deaths.

It is time for U.S. legislators and the federal government to stop being cowards. I realize that workplace fatality cases are difficult to prove, but so are many murder cases. Any employer who is cited for a serious or willful violation, and then has a fatality occur later as the result of the same or similar violations, is negligent and is guilty of a willful disregard for the health and safety of employees.

From this point forward, as long as I’m editor, Occupational Hazards will no longer refer to workplace “accidents.” From now on, we acknowledge that there are no such things as “accidents” when it comes to workplace safety and health. There are incidents and tragedies – homicides, even – but no accidents.

Correction/Update

Due to a glitch in the production process, there were several minor punctuation errors in Arthur Sapper’s article, “The Multi-Employer Doctrine: End of the Line or a Chance for a Fresh Start?”, which appears in the June issue. We apologize for these errors.

Also, OSHA has appealed the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission decision (on which the article centers) to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

To read the corrected and updated version of the story. click here.

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