Faking Safety

By Tara Hart | September 28, 2010

Editor's Note: The names are not real but the following incident did happen, and because it can happen anywhere, the place is intentionally left out.

Today, Jack Rodgers is going to die.

Jack kissed his wife goodbye this morning as he promised to pick up the cake on his way home for their daughter's birthday party. He kissed Maricella goodbye, three years old today, as she slept. Clearly, he did not intend to kill himself today. But he did, all the same.

Jack and Gus were chosen from an adjacent job site to ride over with the heavy equipment specialist, Dave, to a nearby job site to help disassemble the crane boom and get it ready for hauling. He and Gus were chosen because they had helped Dave disassemble crane booms on several other jobs. They were meeting Julio, the lead man at the job site, who had called for help to prepare the crane for hauling.

Upon arrival at the site, Dave noticed there was no dunnage (boards to support the crane boom) when they laid it down, and that the gantry was still up with the ball still attached. Dave told them to take the ball off and wait for him and that he'd be back shortly with the dunnage. Julio, knowing the haulers were on their way and to keep them waiting would cost the company a lot of money, said, "But the haulers will be here at 8:30," to which Dave replied, "Let them wait."

Julio, as the lead man and certified crane operator, turned to the task of directing the helpers in what to do next. This is when things began to unravel. Jack told Julio he didn't need to be told what to do; he knew what to do. Julio said he was telling him anyway. Jack argued there was no reason to be late for the haulers, that they could get the job done without Dave. Julio told Jack to just take the ball off and wait for Dave. Julio then went to his truck to make some phone calls.

Having helped disassemble many crane booms for hauling, Jack felt sure that he not only knew what to do, he knew he could get it done before the haulers arrived and could save the company money. Jack intended to do a good thing. But his intention and his outcome were very different.

Jack and Gus knew what to do to disassemble a boom. What they didn't know is why they did it, and that the physics behind doing the tasks in a very precise order were critical to the safety of disassembling the boom. So they jumped in without lowering the boom, creating slack or securing the bridle pin before they started hammering the boom pins.

When Julio began walking back toward the crane he was alarmed to see that both Jack and Gus were hammering at the primary boom pins to knock them out. He ran toward them, screaming for them to stop, but it was too late. Jack struck a successful blow to the pin that became a fatal blow when the boom arm collapsed upon him.

At the OSHA investigation, the Compliance Officer shared that this was the third fatality with these same identical facts. While there is no OSHA regulation requiring helper training, there is a General Duty clause, which requires employers to ensure that known hazards in the workplace are mitigated or eliminated. Further, since the manufacturer's instructions require the tasks to be conducted in a certain order, OSHA can cite employers for failure to follow the manufacturer's guidelines.

OSHA aside, any ethical employer will care first for the safety of his most valuable asset — the human beings who keep the operation running. Yet the profit- and cost-driven culture in American business today often results in creating "heroes" out of those who put themselves at risk to save money, or make money, for the company. This means that even when an employer does the right thing in directing his or her employees in a task, as was the case with the crane incident above, the culture the employee works in may be a more powerful driver, causing the worker to take risks to achieve recognition, even at the cost of his or her own life or limb.

Why does the problem persist? Many workers give in to the pressure to be "team players" in a profit-driven, fear-based culture.

Recognition by companies to establish a culture of safety is the key to change. Companies, workers and the American public need to recognize the enormity of the Faking Safety problem — only then will meaningful change happen at the speed necessary to save lives.

Note: Tara Hart is the CEO of TCA/The Compliance Alliance, an internationally recognized safety services firm, and author an upcoming book Faking Safety.