Safety standards: How far is too far?

June 2004 » Columns » PERSPECTIVE
A newspaper story that was called to my attention by an engineer from North Carolina got me thinking about OSHA.
Alfred R. Pagen, P.E., L.S.

A newspaper story that was called to my attention by an engineer from North Carolina got me thinking about OSHA. The incident happened in, and to, the town of New Bern, N.C. While it doesn't involve civil engineering directly, it could just as easily have happened on a civil engineering project.

The story is relatively simple. In New Bern, several masonry workers were employed on a two-story-tall scaffolding when it collapsed under their feet. Four of them were injured and the 62-year-old owner of the company doing the masonry work was killed by falling debris. But the OSHA connection is not about the accident, itself. Presumably, OSHA wanted to go after anyone responsible for safety on this project—and rightly so—although it may very well be that the person who is most responsible is dead.

The aftermath of the tragedy got the attention of the federal and state safety watchdog agency. The accident happened while workers were laying concrete blocks above the entrance to a discount store under construction. Reports indicate that the scaffold was overloaded, or improperly assembled, or that it was struck by a forklift hoisting blocks to the workers.

The first outcome of the accident was that a $963 fine was levied by OSHA against the city of New Bern because its rescue workers (who rushed under emergency conditions to the scene and who were attending to the victims) were not wearing hard hats! The city manager said at the time that city employees still were busy cleaning up after a hurricane, but when that work was finished, the city would re-evaluate its safety procedures.

He said the city was cited because two police officers—the first to arrive on the scene—climbed onto the pile of debris and performed first aid on some of the injured workers and on the dying man. The policemen were not wearing hard hats.

Incredibly, a state OSHA inspector, who was also one of the early arrivals, suggested that a reason for the citation was that one of the rescuing officers could have taken the hard hat from a victim's head for his own protection. The New Bern police chief responded: "The man was injured. I wouldn't recommend taking anything away from him. It could injure him more."

In defense of OSHA, federal labor officials maintained that the citation was for city employees who remained at the site after the injured workers were treated, and that by then, it was no longer an emergency situation. The director of the state division of OSHA also defended its actions: "Our main concern in citing the city of New Bern and its employees in this incident was to make them aware of the importance of protecting their workers who—even in a lifesaving effort—were placed in danger."

A broad mix of city employees responded compassionately to the scene of the accident, including police, firefighters, and building inspectors, and the area was sealed off from the general public. Apparently, that was not enough for the OSHA inspector. The police chief iterated that his officers are trained to assess emergency situations, and not become victims themselves.

As far as the citation is concerned, there is a relatively happy ending to the story. A state senator, representing the district in which New Bern is located, intervened with the labor commission, stating she was absolutely stunned by the citation. A labor spokeswoman responded that "We have been getting a lot of feedback on the public perception regarding this citation. The feeling was that [the OSHA division responsible] was second-guessing the early responders who administered first aid. That is not at all what we're trying to do with the citation."

Indirectly, the feedback sparked the department to reconsider the fine. Soon after the municipality was cited, the state OSHA division "— decided to withdraw the citation, but the city has also agreed to review its policy in such matters." The city manager held that OSHA finally made the right decision by withdrawing the fine. Harmony on this subject appears to have been restored.

It is not my intent to ridicule OSHA. I am fully aware of the many good things the agency has accomplished. While it has many detractors, by and large the agency is one of the success stories of federal and state intervention into the activities of lower levels of government and of the private sector. Formal intervention is usually only entered into for the purpose of improving the public welfare. It is only in the way things are administered that I find fault—as happened in this case.

Of course, I am not privy to all of the details of the accident and its aftermath. But it seems to me that the overzealous OSHA inspector could have used better judgment when he started writing out the citation. Perhaps he could have consulted his superiors or, even better, written up a report suggesting that while the technical letter of the law was probably violated, procedures in New Bern should be tightened up in the future. These could provide an additional level of protection to emergency workers while they go about the very important business of trying to save lives during an emergency.

Perhaps New Bern's altered procedures and regulations for responding to emergency situations can be used as a model for other levels of government, and even for the private sector. If that is so, something good will have come out of the New Bern incident.

Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., L.S., is a consulting engineer in Hackensack, N.J. He can be reached at 1-201- 441-9719. E-mail: pagan@cenews.com.


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