NSC 2011: OSHA Compliance Officers Discuss Fatality Cases Involving Falls, Heat Stress

Nov. 4, 2011
At the National Safety Council (NSC) Congress and Expo in Philadelphia on Nov. 1, OSHA compliance officers shared some of their most notable workplace safety investigations. The following cases involved preventable workplace fatalities – heat stress and falls from height.

Anthony Towey Jr., OSHA compliance safety and health officer, reported on a heat stress fatality that took place in Chicago on April 15, 2010. The employee in question was working in a forging operation in front of an oven – a job not part of his regular duties – when he became disoriented and eventually collapsed. The outside temperature was only 81 degrees on that day, but the radiant heat in front of the oven was as high as 130 degrees F.

The employee was taken to the hospital, where he began having seizures. It was later determined that his core body temperature had reached 107 degrees F. He received treatment for 15 days, including a blood transfusion and dialysis, but ultimately experienced organ failure and internal bleeding and passed away. His cause of death was directly related to heat stress.

According to Towey, OSHA's inspection found that the employer had not implemented a heat stress program or training. While employees working in hot environments at this facility were meant to take breaks, the workers were paid based on production. The more they produced, the more money they made, so they had an incentive to skip breaks and continue working.

"People exposed to heat stress are hard workers who don’t take breaks," said Towey. "With heat stress [concerns], you have to force people to take breaks."

Following the fatality, OSHA issued a $1,250 penalty and the employer implemented a heat stress program.

Towey explained that supervisors and employees should be aware that heat stress can cause cramps. If workers experience cramps, their core temperature may be approaching 105 degrees F, so they immediately must cool down.

He also stressed that workplace heat acclimation programs often are not implemented properly. It can take 7-14 days to acclimate a worker to heat. Employers also must be aware of how much fluid their workers need to drink and whether they need to replace the electrolytes. Cool break areas should be air conditioned, and emergency response training should be offered to help workers know how to identify hazards associated with cramping.

OSHA offers additional heat stress resources here.

Death Trap

David Scott Maloney, CSP, an OSHA compliance officer, detailed an industrial painting contractor's multiple workplace fatalities. The contractor had experienced five fatalities in a 15-year span; Maloney’s investigation surrounded the three separate fatalities that took place within a 6-month period.

According to Maloney, the company, a union contractor that used a patented scaffolding system to paint the undersides of bridges, did not adequately protect workers from a range of hazards or offer proper training or require proper PPE use. Fatalities occurred when workers fell while erecting the suspension scaffold system or by falling through holes in the platform.

One worker, for example, plunged from the scaffold into the Mississippi River in February 2006 and drowned. His body was not recovered for weeks – all while the company argued they didn’t have a workplace fatality because they "did not have a body." Another employee performing striping duties was walking backwards when he fell through a hole in the platform and dropped 40 feet to his death. This hole was one of 20 found in the platform.

During the trial, the company argued that the platform holes were necessary to pull workers up through the opening. Maloney stressed, however, that tarps often would cover the holes, preventing workers from seeing where they were about to step.

"They were walking on a death trap," Maloney said.

Maloney pointed to a lack of competency, lack of supervision, lack of PPE, lack of proper rigging, lack of proper equipment, lack of training and poor engineering as contributing factors in the company's multiple fatalities. One supervisor apparently was afraid of heights and therefore never went up on scaffold or inspected it even though he was a designated competent person.

Maloney also alleged that the company encouraged employees to sign falsified training documents and to lie about wearing fall protection when they actually hadn't. Employees perjured themselves on the stand during the trial as they attempted to cover up for the company.

OSHA issued $2.3 million in penalties, including a willful violation under the agency's egregious policy, in a resource-intensive case that resulted in six weeks of a trial and depositions. Today, the contractor remains in settlement negotiations but has reached an abatement agreement that resulted in three full-time safety personnel replacing the one safety employee who failed to do his job.

"All of this was cost savings for the employer," Maloney said about the contractor's various violations, "but it ended up costing 3 lives."

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