March 19, 2014 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 3Comment

[Update below]

What would it take to get police departments to refrain from calling work-related fatalities “just an accident”? I read it all the time. A 60 year-old mechanic falls 50 feet through an unguarded floor opening, and it’s an “accidental death.” Or a 30 year-old production clerk gets pulled into a machine, and it’s a “tragic accident.”

The latest example I read involved a 23 year-old man, Erik Deighton, who was crushed a few weeks ago at Colonial Plastics. The small suburban Detroit manufacturing plant fabricates specialty parts for automakers. Shelby Township Police Captain Stephen Stanbury told the press, “This is totally an accident.”

In a few months, I bet we’ll hear something different from Michigan OSHA (MIOSHA) about what happened on March 5 at Colonial Plastics. I’ll be surprised if they conclude “it was just an accident.” In reality, it’s a rare thing when on-the-job fatalities are “accidents.”

The news accounts relying on Captain Stanbury’s comments indicate that the 23 year-old worker was trying to clear an obstruction from a press machine. The machine cycled to stamp a part and he was fatally crushed. Catherine Kavanaugh of Plastics News writes:

The police did not indicate “…the exact kind of press involved but officers described it as a large machine with doors on two sides. The victim and a co-worker were operating the press together but could not see one another. The victim was leaning through the door on his side when he was killed.”

Kavanaugh quotes Officer Stanbury:

“So even though the guy was leaning in through an open door, the machine thought both doors were closed and that’s why the guy on the other side who couldn’t see him [the victim] was able to start the machine or cycle it. It could be a machine malfunction or operator error. I don’t think it’s a sloppy operation from what our guys found at Colonial Plastics. Based on the management’s reaction, this is totally shocking. It seems they definitely care about their employees. It was truly an accident, just a sad state of affairs all the way around.”

Officer Stanbury’s commentary about the employer is not unusual. It’s difficult for most people to accept that an employer in their community gambles with workers’ lives. I’m sure the owners of the company did not wake up on March 5 and say “Let’s make the plant unsafe and maybe one of our workers will get killed.”

Having an employee killed on the job is no doubt a shock. But after the shock subsides, most reasonable people recognize that fatal and non-fatal work-related injuries and illnesses are largely preventable. LaborSafe’s Peter Dooley, an expert in workplace health and safety and someone with broad experience conducting fatality investigations said this when he learned of the incident that killed Erik Deighton:

Most workplace fatalities result when several failures in the safety systems occur at the same time to result in the disastrous loss of life. Modern machine guarding, along with other safety precautions, could have prevented this loss of life. State-of-the-art machine guarding makes it nearly impossible for something like this to happen, yet many companies are far behind the times to invest in the best protections for workers.”

There’s no record that MIOSHA conducted an inspection at the plant in at least the last 20 years. The agency is now conducting one. Their conclusions, in the form of citations and monetary penalties, will be released by early September 2014.

[Update: Read the follow-up post reporting MIOSHA’s findings.]

3 thoughts on “A preventable work-related death is not “totally an accident”

  1. Will part of the investigation focus on management’s commitment to safety systems, maintenance reviews and operator training? Will we find out if there was a safety management system in place?

  2. Does OSHA ever contact local public safety agencies after such public comments? What if this was turned around and a Federal or State OSHA inspector commented to the press on police matters,” that (this incident) does not seem to be a criminal act?” I suspect the Area OSHA office would be hearing from the local police Department.

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