By David Michaels
It seems to happen almost by instinct. When a worker dies in a workplace accident, the employer responds by expressing sadness but making it clear it was the worker’s own damn fault (and the employer is faultless, of course). The management of BP initially blamed worker mistakes for the Texas City refinery blast that killed 15 and injured 170 workers. (Numerous investigations have proved that to be incorrect, of course.)
Here’s the latest example: On March 6th, At a Oklahoma City commercial laundry run by Cintas, the national laundry company, Eleazar Torres-Gomez, was killed when he was dragged by a conveyor into a dryer that reaches temperatures of 300 degrees and became trapped for at least 20 minutes.
According to the Cincinnati Enquirer:
Five Democratic congressmen called for a nationwide investigation of machinery safety hazards at Mason-based Cintas Corp. following the death of a worker who got caught in a dryer at the Tulsa plant.
In a letter to Occupational Safety and Health Administration Assistant Secretary Edwin G. Foulke Jr., the congressmen allege the death could have been prevented because a 2005 OSHA memo warned special protection was needed for the type of equipment used at the Tulsa plant.
The March 9 letter also suggests that Cintas knew about reports of hazards at the Tulsa facility.
Yesterday, Cintas responded by blaming Mr. Torres-Gomez, the dead worker (or dead “partner,” in Cintas speak):
“We have always said that employee safety is our top concern,” said Cintas CEO Scott Farmer. “That’s why we are personally saddened by the death of a fellow Cintas partner in a wash-alley accident in Tulsa on March 6. But I’m saddened even more by the circumstances surrounding our partner’s death.”
“Although the investigation is still ongoing, it is clear that our partner did not follow established safety rules which would have prevented this tragic accident. Unfortunately, the partner climbed on top of a moving conveyor to dislodge a jam, contrary to all safety training and procedures, and fell into a dryer. I’m grief-stricken at the loss of a fellow partner and deeply saddened for his family, and for his fellow partners in the facility. It hurts us all.”
Thousands of workers have no doubt been killed while trying to keep production lines moving. Anyone who has worked in a continuous flow operation with pressure to maintain production knows the pressure to break safety rules “to dislodge a jam” are enormous. That’s why good safety procedures require equipment that protects workers in these situations. Relying on training is simply inadequate. OSHA knows this. Cintas no doubt knows it too.
David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.