spider.jpgActors have been dropping like flies on the set of the new Broadway musical “Spider-Man” and finally safety regulators and politicians are peeling off their cobwebs of inertia to actually do something to protect workers.

According to an article in Workforce Management magazine last week, regulators in New York want to clamp down on what has become increasingly technical and complex and risky live theatrical performances. Spider Man, the story said, has 38 aerial maneuvers that involve actors being hoisted into harnesses and flying through the air.

“The current legislation that governs these kinds of performances dates back to 1953 and has not been materially updated since then,” New York assemblyman Rory Lancman told the magazine. “Spider-Man is not going to be the last Broadway performance that pushes the envelope in terms of the stunts and special effects it uses.”

I am glad regulators are stepping in here but it made me wonder why it took so long. The headlines on the show, dating back to fall rehearsals, have been full of accidents and near-death experiences for the actors. Accidents were actually caught on video and made the rounds on YouTube:

Unfortunately, there’s sometimes a lack of motivation to get ahead of serious workplace risks, and as a result 2010 was a bad year for worker safety.

The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health provided me with a top ten list of worker tragedies from 2010, which I include below, and it’s a disturbing commentary on safety in the United States. Our nation is ranked 120 out of 176 nations when it comes to occupational safety and health protections, according to Hazards magazine, a UK publication.

“In 2010, we saw some of the deadliest workplace disasters in recent history,” Tom O’Connor, the Executive Director of the Council, said, “but the sad fact is, thousands of Americans were killed on the job in accidents that got very little, if any, attention at all. Unfortunately, because Congress failed to act this year on legislation that would have protected American workers, we can expect more of the same next year.”

Nearly 5,000 workers died on the job in 2010, O’Connor said, and despite their diverse nature, the vast majority of these accidents – including the incidents that made the Top Ten, O’Connor said, were easily preventable.

Yes, most of the jobs these employees were doing had risks. I have heard from some people who say, “hey, the worker knew what they were getting into”, but we shouldn’t fault employees. If you want to be an actor, or bring in a good wage, sometimes you have to take risks. Would you take a risk for a paycheck? Maybe not. However, no one should lose their life on the job, especially if accidents can be prevented, and most safety professionals I’ve interviewed over the years believe such risks can and should be mitigated.

We may not be doing enough as a nation:

“The solution to the problem of worker safety in our country is not complex,” O’Connor said. “Fines for serious hazards, currently averaging only about $400, need to be greatly strengthened. Workers who fear for their safety on the job need to be given real ‘whistleblower’ protections, so that they can warn others about serious hazards without losing their jobs. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) needs far more resources in order to be able to inspect workplaces more than once every half-century or so on average, and employers who knowingly and recklessly place their workers’ lives in danger should face more than misdemeanor charges with a maximum sentence of six months in jail that current law provides for.”

Clearly, legislation that created OSHA has done a lot for worker safety. In the 40 years since, on-the-job deaths have plummeted to about 5,000 a year from nearly 14,000 in 1970. But the OSH Act has not been updated since it’s inception and many believe it needs to be in order to reduce deaths further.

It’s unclear if this Congress will move to beef up the Act, but all signs point to a political movement to decimate regulations, not expand or add more.

Maybe this list from the Council of top disasters from last year will get some politicians reaching for their handkerchiefs:

April 20, 2010 – Deepwater Horizon explosion. An explosion at the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, off the Louisiana coast, killed 11 workers and injured 17 others and resulted in the largest oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. Media reports indicate that management knew key safety equipment had been compromised in earlier incidents, but chose to ignore the significance and continue operations. Four weeks later the rig exploded, resulting in one of the worst environmental, economic, and worker safety disasters in modern U.S. history. If workers on the rig had felt free to express their concerns about safety and if pressure to keep to a production schedule hadn’t caused shortcuts in safety, the explosion almost certainly could have been prevented. According to an Associated Press story, the federal government is now suing BP and eight other corporations in connection with the explosion and the resulting spill, seeking unlimited liability in an effort to recover the cost of cleanup and environmental recovery from the spill, as well as civil penalties under the Clean Water Act. In June 2010, family members of the 11 workers killed in the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon testified before Congress asking them to hold BP and other corporations connected to the incident accountable for their failure to adequately protect the workers on the rig. Despite the magnitude of the incident, the 111th Congress failed to act and workers across the country, including those on offshore drilling rigs, are just as vulnerable today as they were the day the Deepwater Horizon erupted in flames.

April 5, 2010 – Upper Big Branch mine explosion, Montcoal, WV. An explosion –– at the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia, killed 29 workers. The accident represents the worst mining disaster in the U.S. since 1970. Public documents show that the mine’s owner, Massey Energy, has a long record of safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine and, in fact, had been cited for no fewer than 57 “serious” safety violations at the cite in the month before the explosion – including several for improper ventilation. Indeed, Massey even received two citations the day before the explosion. All told, Massey had received more than 1,300 citations for safety violations in the five years before the accident. Although the investigation into the cause of the explosion is still ongoing, media accounts indicate that improper ventilation was most likely an important factor in the tragedy and that, had Massey been forced to bring the mine into compliance with the violations for which it had previously been cited, the explosion probably could have been prevented.

Feb. 7, 2010 – Kleen Energy Power Plant, Middletown, CT. On April 2, contract workers at the Kleen Energy plant in Middletown, CT, were performing a “gas blow,” a procedure that uses natural gas at very high pressure to clean pipes of debris. During the process, the gas encountered an ignition source resulting in a massive explosion, killing six workers and injuring 30 others. News reports suggested that workers were rushing to complete construction of the plant, which was 95% complete at the time, ahead of schedule. Following its in-depth investigation, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) called natural gas blows “inherently unsafe practices” and called for the immediate ban on the procedure. They noted that safer alternatives existed, such as the use of air or non-flammable nitrogen to purge pipes, and called on regulatory agencies to require that these safer methods be used. The Kleen Energy explosion occurred just eight months after another catastrophic natural gas explosion at the Con-Agra plant in Garner, North Carolina, in which 4 workers were killed and 67 injured. Investigations of the Kleen Energy plant found that workers were not adequately informed of the hazards involved in the gas blow procedure. Further, many workers in the building were not informed that the gas blow procedure would be taking place and were not ordered to leave the building. Some workers, alarmed by the smell of gas, left on their own. The explosion, heard ten miles from the site, was so powerful that people in surrounding towns thought that an earthquake had occurred. A major subcontractor of the plant, Keystone Construction and Maintenance Services, along with Blue Water Energy Solutions, which was involved in the commissioning of the power plant, and the Torrington-based O&G Industries, the plant’s general contractor, were cited by Federal OSHA for more than 100 safety violations and fined $16.6 million.

April 2, 2010 – Tesoro Refining & Marketing Company, Anacortes, WA. A rupture in aging equipment triggered an explosion that killed seven workers. Federal and state investigators later determined that Tesoro acted with knowing indifference and disregard for the danger to its workers. A ruptured heat exchanger at the Tesoro Refinery about 70 miles north of Seattle, WA caused an enormous explosion that rocked the plant and killed seven workers. A six-month long investigation by Washington state OSHA personnel determined that the explosion could have been prevented if the company had carried out proper testing and maintenance of the equipment. Tesoro had only tested the 40 year old heat exchangers once, back in 1998, but cancelled plans to do so again in 2008. Testing after the explosion found numerous cracks in the welds of the heat exchanger that exploded. Washington OSHA cited Tesoro with 39 “willful” health and safety violations and slapped the company with a $2.39 million fine, the largest in the agency’s history. “Willful” violations, rarely employed by state and federal OSHA inspectors, indicate that the company knowingly violated legal safety standards and was indifferent to correcting these deficiencies.

Dec. 9, 2010 – AL Solutions Plant, New Cumberland, WV. An explosion of undetermined origin killed two brothers working at the plant and injured a third worker. According to media accounts, the AL Solutions plant has earned a reputation as a “dangerous place to work” and the deaths of the two brothers represent the third and fourth deaths, respectively, at the plant in the last 15 years. AL Solutions manufactures additives for the aluminum industry and processes titanium powder, which is highly explosive and burns particularly hot. Investigators are still examining the incident to determine the cause of the explosion.

March 2, 2010 – Northwest Insulation, Artesia, NM. Four insulation contractors were installing insulation on top of a new crude storage tank. Workers were welding when a fire ignited. Two workers were injured when they fell while a third remained on top of the tank and was fatally burned. A fourth worker was confirmed dead more than a week later. The plant refines crude oil into gasoline, jet fuel and other petroleum products and operates 24 hours a day. An OSHA investigation into the cause of the accident is ongoing.

May 5, 2010 – Amtec Corporation, Huntsville, AL. Two workers were killed in a violent explosion at a plant that manufactures rocket fuel. The two were separating chemicals at the plant when an enormous explosion ripped through the facility, fatally burning the two workers. One paramedic who responded to the scene later described the site of the blast as “horrific,” according to media accounts of the incident. Federal investigators later cited the plant’s owners for six serious violations and willfully exposing workers to fire and explosive hazards without proper protection.

June 12, 2010 – Top Notch Cleaners, LLC, Valley, AL. Two employees of the company were buffing floors during the night at a mental health outpatient facility with machines that use propane gas. An employee of the outpatient facility discovered both men dead the next morning. Both the employee and the police who responded to the incident smelled gas when they entered the building where the men were working. Investigators believe carbon monoxide poisoning and inadequate ventilation contributed to the deaths, according to media accounts.

July 22, 2010 – Horsehead Corp., Monaca, PA. An explosion at the Horsehead zinc refinery, a facility with a long history of safety violations and OSHA citations, killed a pair of workers and injured two others. The Horsehead refinery is the largest zinc refinery in the country. First responders said it was hours before emergency personnel could safely enter the plant to check on the victims after the explosion. Although investigators have still not determined the cause of the blast, the company has a long history of safety violations, according to OSHA. Since 2006, the company has received citations from OSHA for more than 50 violations, including citations for 27 “serious” violations for failing to provide adequate safety protections to workers. The company has also been cited for a failure to keep adequate records pertaining to its safety procedures.

July 23, 2010 – Northeast Energy Management Inc., Cheswick, PA. Two workers engaged in arc welding were burned to death when the tank they were working on exploded, throwing their bodies approximately 60 feet away from the site of the ignition. The explosion and fire that killed the workers was the third involving Northeast Energy Management since September 2007, when one employee was severely burned in an explosion at a gas and oil well. Northeast has been cited repeatedly by OSHA for a litany of safety violations including 10 serious violations in connection with September 2007 explosion. The company also paid a $4,000 fine in November 2008 in connection with a drilling rig fire at another of its facilities.

Dishonorable Mention

September 29, 2010 – C. Johnson & Son Excavating, Kalamazoo, MI. A single worker was killed when an 8-foot-deep trench collapsed while he was working in it, according to the Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Office. The incident is currently under investigation by the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration. This fatality is symbolic; the unfortunate fact is that incidents such as this remain all too common in the American workplace and most are entirely preventable if basic safety precautions are in effect.

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