No matter how terrible an incident, no matter how many workers are injured or killed, there are a few constants you can always depend on.
- The employer will express sorrow and heartbreak at the terrible tragedy. The worker was part of the corporate family. And they will promise to do better next time.
- The employer will claim that they are actually running a very safe workplace with an excellent safety program, despite the blood and bodies.
- The employer will attempt to blame the workers, despite clear violations of the law.
We’ve seen all of this play out recently in a particularly disturbing way at Fraser Shipyards in Wisconsin, as described in an excellent investigative piece by Brady Slater of Forum News Service:
Even after he’d been badly burned in a workplace incident at Fraser Shipyards in February, Joseph Burch figured he hadn’t seen the last of his welding torch.
“He was always optimistic,” said Burch’s sister-in-law Stacy Mackie. “He would talk about going back to work.”
The reunion between the welder and the tools of his trade never happened as Burch, 53, died in April — two months after the incident aboard the docked freighter Roger Blough.
Burch succumbed to sepsis, Mackie said, which had been the result of infections to the burn wounds on his legs.
A Superior resident, Burch was a single man who doted on his nieces and loved to camp. But after the incident, he never left Essentia Health’s burn unit at the Miller-Dwan Building — except to spend his last days at Solvay Hospice House.
Burch would be alive today if he had been wearing flame resistant clothing, required by OSHA, instead of a jacket and cold-weather coveralls that were “allowed to have holes and frayed fabric.” Fraser should have known this. OSHA has made it very clear that fire-resistant clothing is required during welding work.
But as most companies do following a tragedy (see above), Fraser claims they’re doing a superb job.
James Farkas, president and chief operating officer, issued a full-page statement extolling the company’s attention to safety which said, in part, “We have developed a strong safety culture,” while repeatedly citing the “unique” and “special safety challenges” presented by shipyard work.
And, of course, we also have the old employer stand-by: When all else fails, blame the worker for his own injury or death (see above.)
One Fraser manager, whose name was redacted in the [OSHA case] summary, seemed to blame Burch when the manager filed a company incident report that said, “This incident could have been prevented if the employee would not have been performing hot work while wearing frayed coveralls.”
But not so fast.
The company’s track record of playing catch-up in the safety arena was on display again in the Burch case. Only after Burch was burned did the company begin to provide fire-retardant clothing and require workers wear it while performing the “hot work” involved in welding and the use of cutting torches.
OSHA issued a $12,548 penalty to Fraser for Burch’s death, later reduced to $7,530. This was not Fraser’s first OSHA citation. In fact, the shipyard has been cited 19 times since 1972. The most recent (before Burch), was just last year and amounted to almost $1.4 million in fines for knowingly overexposing workers to lead, asbestos and a number of other hazards. Overexposure to lead can cause brain damage, kidney disease and other problems. That was one of OSHA’s largest recent cases and in a press release, OSHA’s Assistant Secretary, Dr. David Michaels noted that Fraser knew about the lead exposure, but was unsafely rushing the job because they had signed a contract requiring the company to get the vessel back in service before the summer iron ore shipping season:
“Fraser Shipyards accepted a contract with a very low profit margin and penalties for delayed completion, but could not meet the schedule without endangering its workers. This employer was unwilling to pay the necessary costs to protect employees from lead exposure,” said Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for Occupational Safety and Health. “When companies prioritize profits and deadlines over the health and safety of their workforce, it is the workers who pay the price. Law-breaking employers must be held accountable for their unlawful behavior. “
Even faced with 75% of tested employees showing elevated blood lead levels, Fraser CEO Farkas insisted that the company had a serious safety program:
“We are a family-owned company that has been in business in Superior for 126 years…We take the health and safety of our people and our community seriously. We acted to protect our people as soon as we learned of the problems. … We strongly disagree with OSHA’s statement that any of the issues were caused or worsened by business or profit motivations.”
Despite their protestations, that citation landed Fraser on OSHA’s Severe Violator list, which results in increased OSHA oversite. Fraser eventually reached a settlement with OSHA, reducing the penalty and promising to clean up their act. But whatever they promised, it wasn’t enough to save Joseph Burch’s life.
Fraser later agreed to pay OSHA $700,000 as part of a settlement agreement that included the development of a new safety plan in exchange for not having to admit fault or liability. In an August 2016 news release, company officials described the new safety plan as one that included “protections for how employees, laborers and contractors prepare for work, conduct work and clean up after work.”
The new safety plan didn’t help Burch, who was burned six months later.
Of course, had Fraser been in compliance with the OSHA lead standard, they would have conducted monitoring showing possible overexposure before their people had problems, not after.
But the sad fact is that workers need jobs — even unsafe jobs — to feed their families. And then hope for the best:
“We understand they’ve made some mistakes,” said Mark Garrett, the Kansas City-based director of health and safety services for the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, the union that represents a large swath of the shipyard’s workers. “We’re going to make sure they’re held responsible, but it wasn’t going to be something like a nail in the coffin for the shipyard. It’s an important industry for our members.”
Won’t get fooled again? We’ll see. Slate notes that Fraser’s environmental health and safety manager, Clyde Gruebele, told the OSHA investigator, “Holes in clothing is (the) nature of the business.”
So how confident can we be?
Midway through its summary on the Burch case, an OSHA investigator described a follow-up visit to the worksite. By that time the company had already reacted to the Burch incident by providing fire-retardant coveralls to its workers.
“One employee was viewed wearing the now-provided and required green fire retardant coveralls,” the investigator wrote. “There was a tear in the backside.”