How good supervisors miss worker’s shortcuts

by on July 5, 2011 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

Two workers were removing wall asbestos while working on a 20-foot-high wheeled scaffold.

The supervisor immediately thought of the most dangerous safety hazards to watch. From his hazard-recognition training, he knew the biggest threats were:

  1. Containment: The work area needed to be properly sealed off so that no asbestos escaped. Escaped fibers could harm passersby and contaminate other rooms.
  2. PPE usage: Workers had to use the proper PPE, including respiratory protection, so that that they didn’t breathe in asbestos fibers.
  3. Work procedures: The workers had to remove and dispose of materials in a safe manner; use the right tools and use them safely; make sure that the removed asbestos was contained; didn’t damage the structure, and left no dust lying around.

Not enough
The supervisor did a good job making sure the basics of asbestos removal were done properly. He inspected regularly as the work progressed and made sure workers took care of these hazards.

Problem: He focused on the major safety challenge – asbestos – and forgot about ordinary day-to-day hazards like scaffolds.

When the workers had to reposition the scaffold, they took a common, but unsafe, shortcut. Since the scaffold was on wheels, they pulled it and themselves along the wall rather than climb down and move the scaffold.

As the work progressed, the supervisor checked now and again. But he focused on the core work, and never saw them moving the scaffold. Worse, he didn’t watch long enough to see how they would move it.

What happened? The wheels locked, and the scaffold fell over with the workers on it.

Ends up in court
Since this occurred on a a multi-employer worksite and a subcontractor’s employee was seriously injured, the company faced a negligent-supervision lawsuit – one the company was unable to get dismissed in court.

The court ruled that the supervisor didn’t do enough to make sure workers weren’t taking shortcuts – namely, pulling themselves along the wall with the scaffold. A jury could decide the oversight was negligence, the court said.

Usually companies will settle cases like these on the courthouse steps, rather than risk a big verdict by a jury sympathetic to an injured worker.

What to tell supervisors
Bottom line: Supervisors can’t stop with the most dangerous hazards. They also need to watch for the most likely shortcuts workers will take.

Some suggestions to give to your supervisors. Have them:

  • Think about the most irresponsible worker they’ve known over the years. Use the lowest common denominator as the benchmark.
  • Ask themselves: How would this irresponsible person handle each part of the job? In this case, the supervisor would probably think: “Sam would likely pull himself along the scaffold.”
  • Watch for the shortcut. If supervisors are inspecting every so often, it’s easy to get a misleading picture. Once supervisors have identified the most likely shortcuts, they should wait until workers have to do that task (such as move the scaffold) to make sure they handle it correctly.

Cite: Kostrzewa v. Suffolk., No. 07-P-1450, Mass. App.

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