Worker crushed to death – was company willfully negligent?

by on February 28, 2012 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

“Refresh my memory of Earl’s fatal accident,” Safety Director Ernest Hart asked supervisor Randy Fitzsimmons. “I have to explain it to our lawyer. His widow is suing us for willful wrongdoing.”

“Well, one of those 700-pound pipes must have rolled off the rails at the test press,” Randy said. “We found Earl flat on his back with the pipe on his chest. It crushed his internal organs.”

“But how can a pipe just roll off the rail?” Ernest asked, startled. “There’s an anti-rollback mechanism, isn’t there?”

Randy looked uncomfortable. “Some guys disable it every so often to get pipes on and off the press faster,” he admitted.

Bad timing
“Oh, boy,” Ernest said. “Don’t tell me this was one of those times.”

“Yeah, it was,” Randy acknowledged, “Earl’s partner that day, David Crane, told me he put a couple of pipes across the rollback guard to defeat it, because they were in an extra-big hurry.”

Ernest smacked his forehead. “And you allowed this to happen?” he asked, incredulous.

“I didn’t just let them do whatever they wanted,” Randy said defensively. “I made sure they pushed a wooden chock up against the stack of pipes. It’s never been a problem before.”

“Did David put the chock in on the day Earl was killed?” Ernest asked.

“Not sure,” Randy replied.

The company opposed Earl’s widow’s claim that it intentionally caused his death by willful negligence. Did the company win?

Yes. The court said the fact that the disabling of the rollback mechanism hadn’t caused any reported accidents before, plus the fact that OSHA had issued no related citations before Earl’s fatal accident, meant the company couldn’t be found guilty of intentionally causing his death.

Other points in the company’s favor:

  • The supervisor didn’t completely ignore the disabling of the safety mechanism, but insisted on chocking the pipes,
  • There was no indication the company insisted on disabling the mechanism to boost production, and
  • Evidence showed workers didn’t routinely and regularly disable the mechanism.

When an employee or dependents sue for more than a workers comp payout, as in this case, they have an uphill struggle proving the employer willfully caused an accident – as opposed to carelessly failing to prevent it. That’s why this company won in court.

But that doesn’t mean the company did the right thing. For one thing, the accident triggered an OSHA investigation and a citation.

For another, a man died, and that’s a moral and practical tragedy. The company faced a big workers comp bill, and a loss of trust and confidence among Earl’s co-workers.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Safety Directors and front-line supervisors have a responsibility to back workers off when they cut potentially dangerous corners – no matter how infrequently it happens or how plausible the workers’ justification for it.

If that means disciplining people, so be it. The cost of not doing so can be somebody’s life.

Cite: Fermaintt v. McWane Inc., No. 06-05983, D. N.J., 3/5/10.

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