Safety director learned about modifications after the fact

by on August 11, 2011 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

When a worker gets seriously injured, his or her lawyer may look around for any evidence to make a case that the injury is your fault. In this case, the attorney kept the lawsuit in court for years, even though the company had its own strong evidence:

“Why was the machine guard modified?” asked Safety Director Lou Holt. “I’ve reviewed the manufacturer’s manual, and the machine guard wasn’t where it belonged.”

“Some operators thought the guard was slowing them down and creating too many jams,” said Supervisor Neal Murrow. “So they moved it back a bit – not enough to create any danger, but enough so materials didn’t cause the machine to clog up as often.”

“Yeah, but those modifications aren’t within manufacturer’s guidelines,” said Lou. “And a worker lost two fingers on that machine.”

Not a modification problem
“Anita’s injuries had nothing to do with the modifications,” said Neal. “She reached into the machine while wearing metal-mesh gloves.”

“Why did she have to clear the machine?” asked Lou. “She wasn’t even assigned to that equipment. Plus, you just said the modifications took care of the jamming problem.”

“The machine jams less often, but it still gets clogged up,” said Neal. “That day, a new equipment operator got some materials caught in the machine, and asked Anita, who had been doing work requiring gloves, to take a look.”

“She reached in to move some materials away from the cutting blades, and the machine cycled,” Neal explained. “It cut off two of her fingers. But the real problem is she was wearing gloves.”

“Why was she wearing them?” asked Lou.

“She didn’t bother to take them off when she switched tasks,” said Neal.

“Anita told a different story,” said Lou. “Anita claims she didn’t reach into the machine, but only tried to touch the off switch.”

“Because the machine guard wasn’t where it belonged, the blades caught her glove and pulled her hand into the equipment,” Lou continued. “Those modifications created an extremely dangerous situation, she said, and our company was ‘grossly negligent’ in creating that hazard.”

“Obviously, she’s suing us and wants more than workers’ comp,” said Neal. “But I’ve got witnesses who saw her reach into the machine. I trained her never to use gloves near the machine.”

“And I’ve backed up that training by reminding people never to use gloves around that equipment,” Neal explained. “We’ve never had this kind of accident here. She’s trying to pin her own negligence on us.”

Anita lost her lawsuit, but took it all the way to a state appeals court first. The court said there was no evidence the company knew the accident would happen, or was grossly negligent in modifying the equipment.

No one was ever hurt on that machine when following the supervisor’s instructions. The first and only injury occurred when Anita violated Neal’s specific instructions not to wear gloves.

Take-home: Make sure all machine modifications get your approval, not just the supervisor’s.

Also, you can’t communicate hazards too much. Neal’s reminders saved the day for the company here – so don’t be afraid to keep reminding people of the need to follow safety procedures.

Cite: Williams v. Rice, No. 07-1952, Iowa App.

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