Why it pays for supervisors to make safety instructions clear

by on July 19, 2011 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

This case demonstrates the consequences of an employer’s failure to effectively communicate company policies on removing defective equipment from service:

“I’m issuing the company a serious citation for failing to remove the articulating aerial lift from service after you realized it wasn’t working properly,” said OSHA Inspector Tina Walden.

“We’re all very upset that an employee was killed when the lift flipped over,” said Supervisor Ken Anderson. “Tony was a good man. But no one had any idea what was going to happen that day.”

Mechanical malfunction
“As I understand it, the problem was that the lift’s lower portion would not extend properly and one of the mechanical hinges was stuck,” said Tina. “The lift obviously wasn’t functioning properly, so why wasn’t it taken out of service?”

“The malfunction wasn’t as obvious as you make it sound,” said Ken. “I talked to Tony just before the accident, and he thought that the problem might be the hydraulics weren’t warmed up enough. At worst, he thought this was a minor inconvenience, not a major problem.”

“The lift’s safety manual and your company’s own safety policy says you should immediately take malfunctioning equipment out of service,” said Tina. “Tony didn’t do that.”

“Not every piece of equipment immediately works properly every moment,” said Ken, getting exasperated. “Sometimes, you test equipment and work out the kinks. Most of the time, you can fix it and get back to work.”

“Tony wasn’t testing the equipment’s function at the moment he was killed,” said Tina. “He was lifting a load.”

“Clearly, he didn’t see the danger,” said Ken. “In 20-20 hindsight, he was wrong.”

“So you’re arguing employee misconduct?” said Tina. “Fine, let’s go that direction: How did you communicate that rule to Tony and your crew?”

“We had a training session about two months ago,” said Ken.

“Apparently, that wasn’t good enough if Tony didn’t see the danger,” said Tina.

“That was his mistake,” said Ken. “We explained the rule and have the records to prove it.”

“You’re trying to have it both ways,” said Tina. “You’re saying Tony’s actions were understandable, but that he knew better, too.”

The company challenged the OSHA citation. Did the company get the dismissal?

No, the court upheld the fine. The judges noted that the company’s safety rule didn’t allow operators to test and attempt to repair equipment. Instead, operators were supposed to take it out of service.

Ken, by explaining that his crew sometimes tries to “work out the kinks,” was failing to communicate the company’s safety rule. And a company needs to prove workers knew the rules before it can argue a worker disobeyed them.

As this case shows, supervisors need to stick to the company’s own safety rules. If your company’s policy is to take malfunctioning equipment out of service, then that’s what workers need to know.

Bottom line: Regular safety-rules reminders will make clear how workers should act in potentially dangerous situations.

Cite: Valley Interior Systems Inc. v. Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, No. 07-4118, 6th Cir.

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