Do you sit in a comfortable office all day, outraged by what you read in Confined Space, and wonder what else you could be doing to help workers — aside from the constant stream of highly persuasive phone calls and letters you send to your Congresspersons, Senators and Secretary Acosta every day?
Well, here’s one answer to that all-too-common problem: Be an observer, a nag and a complaint filer. You too can play at being a real OSHA inspector, just like the ones you idolize on TV.
There are a lot of workplace safety and health issues that you will never see unless you happen to be short-cutting through a poultry processing plant or auto parts facility on your way to work in the morning.
But most of us don’t do that.
What most of us DO do, however, is walk to work, or to the bus or metro, drive the city streets or bike around town. And inevitably we pass construction sites or homes being built along the way, with workers right out in the open for everyone to see.
So what are you looking for? There are two highly common — and deadly hazards that lots of people see every day, and just pass by. But not you. Not any more.
The most obvious — and deadly — construction-related hazards that you’re likely to see on the way to work or the store, or on the way to pick your kids up from school are fall hazards and trenching hazards.
They’re easy and highly visible, and the basic safety rules are pretty easy to understand:
Falls from height kill more construction workers than any other hazard. The easy-to-remember rule is that anytime you see a worker on a semi steep roof over 6 feet high, they should have fall protection — generally recognizable as a harness with a rope hanging off, that is attached (or “tied off”) to an anchor capable of holding that worker’s weight if he falls.
And yes, a fall of just six feet can seriously injure or kill you, especially if you fall on your head. If you don’t believe me, climb up on the roof of your house, back up to the edge, lean back and fall off head first. Use the comments below and tell me how that turned out for you. (←Don’t really do this. It’s a joke.)
Anyone who has ever tried to dig a hole in the sand at the beach has a sophisticated understanding of soil dynamics and how a deep trench can collapse on top of a worker. Unlike your small hole at the beach, however, soil collapsing on top of a worker can be deadly. And the worker generally can’t just dig himself out.
Guess how much one cubic yard of soil weighs?
Ding! Time’s up. The answer is that one cubic yard of soil weighs close to 3000 pounds, the weight of a small automobile. And when a small automobile falls on top of you, you’ll have trouble getting yourself out from under it. Not only that, but even your head isn’t covered, you’ll probably die anyway, because you won’t be able to breathe and your internal organs are likely to be crushed. Just to add to the bad news, you’re buddies won’t be able to dig you out because a) it will take too long, and b) there is a strong likelihood that if they jump into the trench to dig you out, the trench will continue to collapse on top of them, with deadly results. Which is why trench rescues usually become body recoveries.
It’s pretty easy to know if a trench is deadly. Any trench that’s more than 5 feet deep needs to be protected. That generally means if the trench reaches up to someone’s shoulders, it’s probably unsafe. If workers are in a trench over their heads, it’s definitely deadly.
How to make sure the worker is protected? The most common way is using a trench box that protects the work from a soil collapsing on top of him. You can also slope the trench back, but that takes a lot of space, so you don’t see that as much. Also, the “spoils” pile (that’s the dirt that’s dug out of the trench) has to be placed back at least two feet from the edge of the trench. Finally, there should be some kind of ladder or means for the worker to get out fairly easily and quickly.
So Now What?
So now I have cursed you with the power of hazard recognition. I say “curse,” because now you can never again pass one of these situations without either doing something, or feeling guilty about not doing something.
If you see one of these hazardous situations what do you do? Well, this is what I’ve done in similar situations and how that has turned out.
At minimum, you can just call OSHA, either your local OSHA Regional or Area Office or 1-800-321-OSHA. Explain the problem, especially if you saw workers in danger. Give them the address and the company name if you know it. You’re not an employee of the company, so your complaint may not be the top priority. On the other hand, if a worker is in imminent danger of death or serious physical harm, the complaint will be pushed up the priority list.
Or you can confront the employer yourself and see if you can fix the problem faster. Find one of the workers, preferably one who looks like he or she is in charge and say “Hey! Isn’t that guy supposed to be using fall protection?” Or, “I think that trench is way too deep for that guy to be in…” If you can’t find the foreman, talk to any worker on the site. Ask for the supervisor or just explain the problem. And while you’re talking, pull out your cell phone and start taking pictures. That never fails to get their attention.
Here are the likely responses you will get, and how you should react
- “Oh, yes, you’re right, thank you. I don’t know what that guy was thinking. We’ll fix this right away. Hey, you up/down there! Get off of the roof/out of that trench! Now! You know better than that!”
- You: “Thank you. I’ll be back around in a little while to make sure that’s happening. If not, I’m going to call OSHA. Have a nice day….”
- “I don’t know nothing about that, but I’ll check with my boss. Thanks for stopping by.”
- You: “OK. Good, check with your boss. Meanwhile that guy needs to come down/come up. And I’ll be back in a little while. If it isn’t fixed, I’m calling OSHA. Have a nice day….”
- “Who the f*ck are you! Don’t mess with me! Get the hell out of here!”
- You: “Don’t worry, I’m not going to mess with you. OSHA is going to mess with you. Hope no one dies in the meantime. Have a nice day.” (or if that seems inappropriate or foolhardy, just say nothing, and walk away, smiling, with you fingers on the 911 button of your cell phone.)
I have experienced all three situations. In the first, I came back an hour later, and lo and behold, a trench box had appeared. In the second, I had no faith that they were going to do anything. I called OSHA. They came out (three days later). The guys were still on the roof, two stories up, with no fall protection. 13 citations later, I’m pretty sure they got the message. The third scenario happened right down the block from me a couple of weeks ago, and actually went on for a few days. (My Facebook friends got a blow-by-blow narrative.) I ended up calling OSHA. Don’t know if they actually came out, but a trench box did finally appear.
Now, a few warnings:
- Don’t pretend to be an OSHA inspector. Impersonating a federal (or state) employee is illegal. You’re just a concerned citizen. A well-informed concerned citizen. Who knows how to call OSHA.
- Don’t risk your life (or the life of your cell phone). If the manager is hostile and you’re uncomfortable — especially if you’re in an isolated area — beat a hasty retreat and call OSHA from a safe distance. We had more than a few stories of company owners threatening OSHA inspectors or even pulling a gun on them in a few cases.
- If you can, go back again and check to see if they’ve gotten the message. If they haven’t, you can try talking to them again, and/or call OSHA.
- If you can’t go back to check, use your judgement. Do you think they’re really going to remedy the situation? Were they just trying to get rid of you? Maybe you’re calling OSHA for no reason. On the other hand, if you don’t call and read the next morning about someone getting killed on the site, how will you feel?
Personally, I don’t find it easy getting in someone’s face. But I find it even harder to just walk away when I know someone’s life is at risk. This is a personal decision you will have to make. I’m just trying to provide a little help along the way.
And if you have experiences with this type of situation, let everyone know how it worked out in the comments below.