Tracking investigators’ findings about on-the-job fatalities

Hedilberto Sanchez, 26, was killed on Monday (Jan 11, 2010) at a construction site in Elmhurst, NY when an 18-foot high cinder block wall collapsed on him. He leaves behind his wife, and two sons, Luis, 6 and Edison, 3. Three other workers were injured in the incident, including Mr. Sanchez’s brother. The men worked for a subcontractor (who I’ve been unable to identify) who was hired by the property developer Thomas J. Huang. Mr. Huang has been described in some circles as a one-man wrecking crew for his disregard for building codes, zoning rules and other laws. The New York Times’ Fernanda Santos explains how four Sanchez brothers came to live and work together in the U.S. from Tepexco in central Mexico.

I’ve no doubt that officials from federal OSHA were quickly on the scene to begin an investigation. They’ll interview witnesses, take video or photographs and collect other evidence. Within six months, they’ll determine whether safety standards were violated and if so, issue citations and penalties to the responsible employer(s). Unfortunately, OSHA doesn’t have an effective on-line mechanism for the public to easily track the status of fatality cases.

Since July 2009, OSHA has been posting a weekly summary (example here, here) on its website of worker fatalities and incidents in which three or more workers are hospitalized. A typical description from these weekly on-line reports is:

8/20/2010: Pacific Gas & Electric, Tuolumne, CA 95379, Worker was setting up a truck to auger a hole for a power pole. While raising the drill, boom made contact with 17 KV overhead power line.

8/13/2010: Grannis Construction, Detroit Lakes, MN 56505, Worker fell from catwalk while removing a hopper on a silo.

It was a good start, but as I’ve written before, OSHA needs to link these initial reports with its investigation results. If citations and penalties are proposed, they should be noted or a link provided. If no investigation was conducted, perhaps because the deceased was not an employee, it should say so. Without this follow-up information, the interested public is left in the dark, only to remember the last line in the news story from a few months back:

“OSHA officials are investigating.”

Responding to fatalities is one of OSHA’s highest inspection priorities and its field staff devote substantial resources to responding to them. Only the harshest opponents of government programs would reject spending taxpayer dollars on worker fatality investigations. Determining for a family, for co-workers and a community whether safety rules were broken and led to a worker’s death serves the common good in a civil society. OSHA would do itself a service by making the results of those investigations easily available to the public.

Somebody at OSHA seemed to understand that when they wrote the heading that appears on the top of every one of these weekly Fatality/Catastrophe reports, dating back to September 2009:

“After OSHA’s investigation is complete, these reports will be updated with inspection results and citation information.”

These promised updates have yet to materialize.

OSHA’s sister agency, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) devotes a unique page on its website for fatality investigation information. In 2010, there were 41 incidents in which 71 mine workers were killed on the job or sustained injuries at work that later contributed to their death. This includes the disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, WV that killed 29 men.

Using this MSHA site, it is easy to see which investigations are completed. MSHA typically rolls out the information about a particular fatality investigation in three phases. First, within 3-7 days of the event, MSHA posts a preliminary report of accident (example here) with basic facts about the incident, jobsite and victim. (OSHA provides no comparable information.) Second, within 1-3 weeks of the event, MSHA posts a one-page “fatalgram” which describing the event in brief and ways to prevent similar incidents (example here.) Finally, MSHA issues an investigation report (example here.) Unlike OSHA, MSHA does not have a six-month statute of limitations for issuing violations or penalties. To-date, 24 of the 41 investigations commenced in 2010 by MSHA inspectors are completed and final reports released. (I don’t mean to suggest that MSHA’s system is perfect,** but the difference in how these two agencies within the same Department share fatality investigation information is striking.)

MSHA also provides some information on other fatal incidents that occurred on mine property, but were determined not to be work-related incidents. In 2009, MSHA conducted preliminary investigations on 59 such incidents.

Granted, MSHA’s narrow jurisdiction to only the mining industry means it conducts only a fraction of the fatality investigations performed by OSHA. In fiscal year 2010 (October 1, 2009 through September 30, 2010) federal OSHA and the 27 states and territories that operate their own OSHA programs received reports for 1,193 work-related fatalities. Some portion of them, perhaps most, were investigated by federal or State OSHA officials. Looking at these weekly reports, however, there’s no way to determine that simple detail.

Again, I believe that only the most hardcore, government critics would reject spending taxpayer dollars on worker fatality investigations. OSHA should be proud of the work performed by the staff who conduct these grim investigations. They perform a public service. It’s time for OSHA’s Weekly Report of Fatalities to offer the public more than a blurb that an incident occurred. When the investigators’ work is done, update these reports to let us know whether laws were violated, whether the agency proposed penalties, or whether no violations were found.

**One small change on MSHA’s investigation reports would be for the agency to include the date on which report was issued.