Distracted boss plus inattentive worker adds up to tragedy

by on January 10, 2012 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

“I didn’t see what happened,” said Supervisor Al Hampton. “I was talking on my cell phone to the site superintendent and had my back turned to the platform.”

“What did the superintendent want?” asked Safety Director Jerry Barnett.

“He asked me if we could finish cutting the platform down by shift’s end,” said Al. “I told him we were going as fast as we could.”

“Then what happened?” asked Jerry.

“I heard the platform collapse,” said Al. “I turned around and saw Joe Perez trapped in the rubble.”

“Why was he in harm’s way to begin with?” asked Jerry. “I mean, someone is cutting the bolts to demolish a platform, and Joe’s standing on top of it at the time?”

“Well, we didn’t think the platform would collapse at that moment,” said Al. “But we knew we were down to the last few bolts. Anyway, I don’t know what Joe was doing on the platform.”

Harness untied
“Why wasn’t his harness tied to anything?” asked Jerry. “He could’ve tied off to the platform above him, which didn’t collapse, and then he wouldn’t have spent the last two months in a coma.”

“I agree,” said Al. “His accident was his own fault.”

“I’m not so sure,” said Jerry. “Did you warn him to stay out of the area?”

“If I’d seen him, I would have,” said Al. “But you know I have to take calls from senior managers.”

“I’m not so sure of that, either,” said Jerry. “Not when you know the platform is ready to fall.”

“That’s easy to say with 20-20 hindsight,” said Al. “A guy wanders onto a platform for no reason, fails to use fall protection, I take an important call – and this is my fault?”

“No one’s blaming you,” said Jerry. “It’s just that Joe Perez is suing, and I’m trying to understand what happened.”

Joe sued under state labor laws, saying the company was negligent in allowing employees to work on an unstable platform. The company countered that the worker failed to tie off and caused his own injuries.

The company couldn’t get the case dismissed and now faces a jury trial on damages. The problem was the supervisor didn’t:

  • warn the worker to stay away from the high-hazard area, and
  • instruct the worker to tie off.

A crucial part of all safety laws is communication – companies need to show that workers knew what to do and ignored the instructions. In this case, the supervisor couldn’t show either. Suggestions:

  • Before any high-hazard work, let workers know exactly the procedures and PPE required. Supervisors should be able to prove they warned workers of the hazards.
  • Workers shouldn’t wander around in a danger zone. The worker here had no good reason to be on that platform. The supervisor should have directed him to retreat to a safe place.
  • Don’t turn your back to a work site when taking a cell phone call. We’ve seen many cases where supervisors have been killed, injured or didn’t see accidents because they turned their backs to the work.

Cite: Nunez v. New York, No. 30333/06, NY Sup.

photo credit: masser

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