Unguarded machines, a worker is dead, and workplace with model safety program promises to have a model safety program

Beau Griffing remembers how proud his mom Kristine, 52, was of the work she did at the Eaton Corporation’s Kearney, Nebraska facility. He told a local reporter how she loved taking him and his siblings to the plant to show them where she worked.

“She provided so much for us,” Beau Griffing said. “She wanted us to be able to be whatever we wanted to be,” added his brother, Christopher Griffing, 20.

Not quite five months ago, Kristine Griffing was working on a Bliss 150 ton shear press at the Eaton Corp plant, making valves and gears for the auto companies. Neither the press itself nor the feeder tables were properly guarded. That made the nip points, rotating parts and pinch points a deadly hazard for workers operating them. Ms. Griffing, a 17-year employee of the plant, was working the night shift on December 7 when she was pinned by this equipment. She was gravely wounded and died 16 days later from her injuries.

Federal OSHA conducted a post-fatality inspection at the worksite. An inspectors wrote citations for one serious violation for the employer’s failure to have the press and feeders guarded, and an other-than-serious violation for an incomplete injury log. The monetary penalty proposed by OSHA totaled $8,000, which includes the maximum allowable penalty of $7,000 for a serious violation.

As allowed under the OSH Act, the company and OSHA officials met for an informal conference and reached a settlement. In exchange for deleting the recordkeeping violation and reducing the penalty to $5,950, management at the Eaton Corporation plant in Kearney, NE agreed, among other things, to:

“improve its overall safety and health program to meet or exceed the guidelines as given in OSHA’s Safety and Health Management Guidelines (1989). Specifically, the company will put into place Action Plans that ensure effective implementation of these elements: (a) Management commitment and employee involvement; (b) Worksite analysis to identify existing hazards; (c) Hazard prevention and control; (d) Safety and health training of all personnel.”

OSHA expects this employer to take steps that go beyond mere compliance with regulations. The firm will be implementing a comprehensive system to identify and fix hazards, actively involve workers in that process, and provide them specialize training. Good thing, right?

The problem is: this site is already supposed to have an effective H&S program of this sort. Eaton Corporation’s Kearney plant is one of the OSHA-designated Voluntary Protection Program worksites, and has been since 1994. This worksite is supposed to have a stellar injury and illness prevention program, not just on paper but in practice. The OSHA website says these workplaces

“work cooperatively and proactively to prevent fatalities, injuries, and illnesses through a system focused on: hazard prevention and control; worksite analysis; training; and management commitment and worker involvement.”

In exchange for meeting these requirements, these workplaces are exempt from routine OSHA inspections. But as the Center for Public Integrity’s Chris Hamby reported last year, these VPP model workplaces may not be so stellar.

“Since 2000, at least 80 workers have died at these sites, and investigators found serious safety violations in at least 47 of these cases…. Workers at plants billed as the nation’s safest have died in preventable explosions, chemical releases and crane accidents. They have been pulled into machinery or asphyxiated. Investigators, called in because of deaths, have uncovered underlying safety problems — failure to follow recognized safety practices, inadequate inspections and training, lack of proper protective gear, unguarded machinery, improper handling of hazardous chemicals. These companies have rarely faced heavy fines or expulsion from the program. In death cases in which OSHA found at least one violation, VPP companies ultimately paid an average of about $8,000 in fines. And at least 65 percent of sites where a worker has died since 2000 remain in VPP today.”

Following the Center for Public Integrity’s reporting on OSHA’s VPP, and audits by the Government Accountability Office, (here, here) OSHA officials indicated the agency was conducting a top-to-bottom review of the program. In a December 2011 news story, deputy assistant secretary Jordan Barab said that a six-person team of OSHA field staff had completed their report and recommendations. Their document, he noted “is being reviewed and will have to go through the agency’s lawyers.”

I made an inquiry with DOL’s public affairs office to learn the status of this report. A spokesperson acknowledged my question and said he would check into it. I haven’t yet heard back from him.

Meanwhile, the Eaton Corporation ( NYSE: ETN) insists the plant is safe. The plant manager told a local tv station: “This has been a very, very safe facility.”

I’m not sure how this manager defines safety, but common sense alone tells me that an unguarded 150-ton press is a deadly hazard. Something was/is terribly amiss with their supposed model safety program. Those deficiencies didn’t happen overnight. I have to wonder, yet again, what OSHA is doing to ensure that worksites with the OSHA VPP designation truly are model workplaces with respect to injury and illness prevention.