Boss didn’t probe for question-behind-the-question

by on March 22, 2012 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

A worker makes an unusual request. A supervisor answers right away, without wondering what prompted the question. That lead to a serious accident.

Three workers came up to General Contractor Site Superintendent Joe Gasparino at the same time.

“A building inspector just showed up, boss,” said GC employee Bobby Laurino.

“Tell him I’ll be with him in a few minutes,” said Joe.

Problems, problems …
Bobby left, and GC employee Frank Hudson stepped up.

“We’re still getting leaks through the foundation,” said Frank. “We need to get something done about it.”

“I know a subcontractor to call in,” said Joe, writing a note to himself. “We can get them on site tomorrow.”

“We can work around the leaks until then,” said Frank.

Next up was Tom Beltz, a subcontractor employee. Tom operated a lull – a forklift that uses outriggers for added stability. “I need to set up over there,” he said, pointing to an area outside the site grounds.”

“Sorry, you can’t do that,” said Joe. “That’s not on our property.”

Tom dropped the issue, and Joe left to talk to the building inspector.

Then the accident
A few minutes later, a scaffold came crashing down on top of the lull. Tom was severely injured.

Later, GC Safety Director Juan Lewis came up to Joe and said, “Looks like the lull operator didn’t extend the outriggers when dismantling that scaffold.”

“How could he?” said Joe. “The only way to access that scaffold was through a narrow alley, and you’d never extend the outriggers in there.”

Juan, the safety director, looked around for a second, to see if there was any other solution.

“What about if the operator came at the scaffold, not from the alley, but from over there?” asked Juan, pointing to the exact off-property location the lull operator asked to use.

“Oh my,” said Joe. “Now I know why the operator asked if he could use that area.”

The injured worker sued the general contractor, saying that Joe, the GC’s site superintendent, refused to let him complete his task in a safe way, forcing him to use an unsafe way.

The GC countered that Joe only nixed a safe way, but never approved the unsafe procedure. Did the company win?

Yes, the GC got the case dismissed.

Reason: The company wasn’t on notice that the subcontractor planned on taking a big risk – the supervisor merely said “no” to a request to go outside company property, not realizing the worker would then ignore safe operating procedures.

This type of legal decision is a double-edged sword. Not knowing got the company off the hook legally – but not knowing also led to the accident.

Take home: You’re better off informed what workers are planning.

When a worker asks something unusual, it’s tempting to answer just the question and not dig deeper. That can be a mistake because you’ll miss the question-behind-the-question; in this case, “How do I dismantle the scaffold safely?”

Only when you probe a worker’s unusual request can you discover, and solve, the real problem.

Cite: Amore v. URS Corp., No. 05-3560, D. N.J.

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