Who Is Responsible For Worker Safety?

safetyOne of the free services we provide here at Confined Space world headquarter is helping journalists write better articles. Here we have a news outlet doing the right thing: “News4 I-Team’s Lindsay Bramson started watching construction sites after learning 12 construction workers have died in the past two years.”

And, not surprisingly, finding some serious problems that they brought to the attention of Tennesse OSHA (TOSHA).

The problem is that someone reading only the headline and the first couple of paragraphs of this article might get the wrong idea — that workers are solely responsible for their own safety on the job.

Headline:  “Construction workers caught violating safety rules at sites in Nashville

And then this:

Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration (TOSHA) Assistant Commissioner Steve Hawkins was certainly concerned — and he says what the News4 I-Team captured shows workers putting themselves in dangerous situations that could cost them their lives.

Well actually, a construction employer was caught violating safety rules.  And the workers didn’t put themselves in a dangerous situation, their employer put them in a dangerous situation.

WSMV Channel 4

But in Hawkins’ defense, I’m pretty sure that was not an accurate summary of what he said. I say this partly because I know Steve Hawkins and safety-wise, he gets it. And I say this because Hawkins’ later quotes in the article and on the video are closer to the mark.  Hawkins later states that “both men working on this site at 11th and Charlotte Avenue should have been wearing harnesses.”

And then we find that “News4 cameras also caught a man TOSHA believes is a supervisor standing near the edge of the building at a construction site in Green Hills off of Crestmoor Drive — also without proper fall protection.”

And this:

“We have concerns that the employer at this site, that gentleman’s employer, is not taking these requirements seriously,” Hawkins said.

While we did find some sites where workers were clearly following the law, we wanted to know if the State is doing enough so that more workers are protected.

“TOSHA is an oversight agency.  We do training [and] consultations, but, at the end of the day, it’s the employer’s responsibility to provide the safe workplace,” Hawkins said.

Well, more precisely, TOSHA is also an enforcement agency, although given the political orientation of the Tennessee state government, he may not want to emphasize that aspect of his job too much.

And this:

As we first told you last week, a man died in June after falling off the roof of a house in South Nashville.

His brother, Hermenegildo Dominguez, says Tennessee needs to take more responsibility for what’s happening.

Many workers, Dominguez says, are afraid to speak up — his brother included.

“We do get scared,” Dominguez said. “There’s mainly the fear we lose our jobs or something else that can go wrong — so we do have fear to speak up. I don’t think the state is doing enough to be able to help out.”

But the state disagrees. Hawkins says it’s not their job to keep people safe.

Now technically, Hawkins is right. The employer is responsible for keeping workers safe. TOSHA’s job is to make sure that employers are complying with the laws designed to keep workers safe.  Could the state be doing more to make sure employers are in compliance, and should the state be doing more to make sure that scared workers are not fired or retaliated against for speaking up?

Definitely. But Tennessee, like every other state plan state, as well as federal OSHA, isn’t anywhere close to being funded to oversee more than a small number of the workplaces under their authority. Ensuring that workers — especially immigrant workers — aren’t afraid to speak up to their employers, or to OSHA is more challenging. That not only takes staff that can relate to workers, but also close work with their communities and with public interest groups that have a better working relationship with immigrant communities than OSHA does.

Lesson:

  • Read critically
  • Read beyond the headlines and first few paragraphs
  • Educate your local reporters.
Blame the Worker OSHA

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