Temporary solutions have a way of becoming permanent

by on August 23, 2011 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

“I’m here because a worker complained to us,” said OSHA Compliance Officer Dale Bergman. “He said that another worker’s PPE got sprayed with a flare of acid mist a few weeks ago.”

““Yes, a little flare escaped from a pressurized pipeline, but no one got hurt,” said Supervisor Al Ott. “We make sure everyone wears PPE when they repair that line.”

“Oh, do you repair it a lot?” asked Dale.

“We’ve patched it in a half dozen places,” said Al. “But so far, nothing’s held more than a few weeks. We monitor the patches every day and as soon as they start to spring leaks, we put on another.”

“Sounds like you’ve got your hands full here,” said Dale.

“Yeah, we’ve got caution tape up to keep everyone out of the area,” said Al. “And some of the other supervisors and crew have been researching to find out if there’s a patch that’ll last longer.”

“How long have you been dong this?” said Dale.

“About two years,” said Al. “I tell you, we really stay on top of this section of the plant. But with PPE and patching, we’re keeping it safe until we can put in the replacement pipe.”

“That’s my next question,” said Dale. “Why haven’t you replaced it?”

“It would require a complete plant shutdown to do it,” said Al. “We’ve built the replacement line and it’s ready to be installed as soon as we get the go-ahead.”

“Fair enough,” said Dale. “When do you think that’ll be?”

“The bosses upstairs say it’ll be on our next scheduled shutdown, in about five months.” said Al.

“Think these patches will hold?” asked Dale.

“Obviously, we need to replace them frequently,” said Al. “But we watch ‘em real close and so far we’ve only had the one problem.”

“OK” said Dale.

Two weeks later, a patch blew and a fire broke out, injuring one worker. The OSHA inspector returned and wrote a willful citation, saying the company knew about the hazard and still put workers in harm’s way.

The company challenged the willful classification, saying that they were monitoring the situation closely, made numerous efforts to fix the problem, and that the fire was just an accident caused by an equipment failure in a different part of the plant.

Which way did the OSHA Review Commission rule?

The company lost and had to pay a hefty fine. The OSHA judge said the following facts added up to willful disregard of OSHA regulations:

  • Two years of patchwork meant the company knew its efforts were failing.
  • At least one worker’s PPE was sprayed with acid mist.
  • While caution tape was up, workers frequently went under it to conduct repairs
  • The company’s decision to wait five months to replace the pipe risked workers’ lives.

The only good news: The OSHA judge cleared the company’s safety director and supervisors of any wrongdoing, saying they were making the best of a difficult situation. The supervisors’ dogged efforts here to stay on top of the danger and to insist on PPE likely prevented more workers from getting hurt.

Take home: Keep your ear to the ground about worker complaints. If workers are doing more than grumbling, really raise alarms internally. Otherwise, the next call could go to OSHA.

Cite: Sec’y of Labor v. Wynnewood.

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