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In this edition of ISHN's e-newsletter we direct your attention to top stories from the world of workplace safety that could affect your future training, regulatory or policy priorities:
WAVE OF VIOLENCE
Between July 2nd and Labor Day this summer eight fatal shootings rocked workplaces. The toll: 28 employees murdered, 18 injured, all by gunshot. As far is known, all the crimes committed by men.
Two of the incidents were suspected robberies. One of the killers was a worker on disciplinary probation, two were former employees who had been fired from their jobs, one worker who pulled the trigger was angered over a vacation dispute, and another had just stormed out of sensitivity training.
Both white collar and blue collar worlds were shattered. Workplaces ranged from a Century 21 real estate office, a credit union, and an Outback Steakhouse to warehouses and manufacturing plants. Most of the violence targeted managers, supervisors and owners, with employees caught in the crossfire.
Five of the eight incidents ended in suicides.
"If we think this cannot happen we are just kidding ourselves," an operations manager told ISHN. "Last year my day shift supervisor was having difficulty with one of his team members, and I brought the employee and the supervisor into my office to discuss the situation. After a lengthy discussion and a bad attitude displayed by the employee, I terminated the employee. While escorting him out, he assaulted me.
"After spending over four hours in surgery and nearly two months off work, I learned first hand how violence is becoming a part of our workplace. The doctor told me if I had been hit one more time I could have died."
After investigating two fatal explosions earlier this year in manufacturing plants, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has concluded: The dangers of explosive dust are not well known, and helping industry to understand this hazard is a priority.
Lax maintenance and housekeeping, along with employee ignorance of dust hazards, contributed to warning signs being missed.
In January, a West Pharmaceuticals plant in North Carolina exploded, killing six people, and resulting in 86 safety violations. Investigators concluded that a dust explosion occurred above an area where rubber strips were coated with moistened polyethylene powder.
Weeks prior to the explosion, maintenance workers had seen layers of dust coating surfaces above a suspended ceiling, according to the report. "Tragically, there was no recognition of the explosion hazard posed by this accumulated dust," said one investigator.
"We never had any training. We were never told that the dust could explode," one employee said.
In February, an explosion fatally injured seven workers at the CTA Acoustics plant in Corbin, Ky. Investigators said the blast was likely caused by a fire in a malfunctioning production line oven that ignited flammable dust particles.
Maintenance had been scheduled for the production line but the repairs had been delayed in the days before the blast, according the investigation.
Less serious explosions linked to combustible dust have occurred in California, Mississippi, and South Carolina.
Chemical Safety Board officials worry that flammable dust in factories represents the same kind of danger that was identified two decades ago in grain elevators. Stringent safety standards were adopted in the wake of deadly explosions linked to combustible dust in the silos.
New Jersey recently added reactive chemicals to the list of "extraordinarily hazardous substances" that trigger the risk management planning requirements of the state's Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act.
New Jersey announced it would require companies handling reactive chemicals to prepare accidental release prevention plans and examine safer technologies to prevent industrial incidents like the tragic ones that occurred at Napp Technologies in Lodi, N.J., in 1995 and at Morton International in Paterson, N.J., in 1998. Both explosions resulted from improper mixing of certain chemicals.
Last fall, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board approved recommendations to EPA and OSHA urging the need for additional regulation of reactive hazards. A CSB study identified 167 reactive incidents that caused 108 deaths over a 20-year period.
Chemical products often are made through the process of chemical reactions. But when chemicals are improperly mixed or improperly exposed to heat, pressure or incompatible substances, they can explode and cause death and destruction of property.
"We have found a need for plant management to study potential reactive hazards before they make changes to their processes because accidents occur when inadequate safety and control measures are in place," said the board.
NASA'S CRACKED SAFETY CULTURE
It is a story with parallels to workplaces in industry: Tight schedules. Resource constraints. Managers pressed to show results. Employees concerned but intimidated. Fluctuating priorities. Conflicting goals of cost, scheduling and safety. Mixed signals sent from on high. Be faster, cheaper, better, and oh yes, safer. Meanwhile, near miss incidents were ignored.
Those were some of the pressures that caused NASA's safety culture to crack, leading investigators to conclude that the space shuttle Columbia was doomed by failures in judgment and communication as much as it was by the chunk of foam that punctured one of its wings during its launch this past January.
What happens now? Top NASA officials vow to look into the mirror, own up to mistakes, and follow recommendations by the independent board to the letter. "We get it," said NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe.
But it will take more than mirrors and memos to mend NASA's culture. Nine months before Columbia's seven astronauts were killed as the shuttle broke into pieces over Texas skies, O'Keefe had sent a memo to all NASA employees urging that "no activity is important enough to compromise your safety... If something doesn't feel right, ask questions and never be reluctant to prompt a second look?Always remember that mission success starts and ends with safety for everything we do."
Culture vultures will be watching this high-profile case of safety soul-searching. Says one investigator: "It's easy to be receptive six months after a major accident. The question is whether it's going to last."
"Over a period of a year or two, the natural tendency of all bureaucracies, not just NASA, (to) morph and migrate away from that diligent attitude is a great concern to the board," said Ret. Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., chairman of the investigative board. "The history of NASA indicates that they've done it before."
OSHA OUTREACH BACKLASH
Every hot topic in safety eventually triggers a backlash. Think behavior-based safety. Incentive programs. Ergonomics. So it is inevitable that OSHA's current emphasis on outreach and compliance assistance would run into resistance.
But the latest squawks are not coming from organized labor. The Safety Publishers Council, a trade group of safety training vendors, will meet with OSHA chief John Henshaw in October to discuss their complaints of unfair competition.
OSHA's Web site carries an inventory of 29 downloadable "e-tools" and a dozen "expert advisors", plus 11 videos and 20 PowerPoint presentations. They're all free of course, developed with taxpayer money. The training companies don't like the idea of having their tax dollars used for products that compete against their own.
Says OSHA chief Henshaw: "I guess H&R Block would say the same thing about the IRS (Internal Revenue Service), in terms of giving the tools out on how to submit your income tax. Congress gave us the responsibility 30 years ago to do certain things, and we're executing that, using all the tools and all the ability and responsibility Congress gave us."
Counters Rick Pollack of the Safety Publishers Council: "OSHA should focus on enforcement" and "get out of the areas of compliance assistance that are well-served by private industry."
At least one safety and health consultant says his business is being hurt by OSHA's helping hand
"If this 'friendly OSHA' trend continues unchecked, us private sector trainers will be gone when OSHA gets bored with the challenges of teaching America's workforce and is told to get back to their core mission of enforcing America's safety laws," says Richard Hughes, owner of the Excellence in Safety consulting service in Falmouth, Mass.
Dave Johnson is the ISHN E-News editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (610) 666-0261; fax (610) 666-1906.
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BEHAVIORAL SAFETY NOW CONFERENCE
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WE NEED YOU!Are you a safety and health pro or a manufacturer or provider of occupational safety and health products or services who enjoys writing?
Shakespeare need not apply, but ISHN is looking for authors to publish short articles (1,000 words) in our monthly issues.
Topics include: safety success stories, close calls and personal experiences, training tips, use of software, engineering controls (machine guards, lockout-tagout), gas detection and air monitoring, confined space safety, personal protective equipment, and OSHA compliance issues.
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