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OSHA tackles workplace violence, temporary worker risks

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DENVER — A complaint and eventual settlement over workplace safety lapses at a Mississippi prison demonstrates how the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration aims to encourage and require employers to take steps to mitigate workplace violence risk.

Investigators from five OSHA field offices shared lessons learned from cases that involved fatalities, severe injuries and unique circumstances on Wednesday during the American Society of Safety Engineers Safety 2017 conference in Denver.

Among the case studies presented were an overloaded crane accident that killed two workers in Massachusetts, a struck-by fatality on an oil platform in Western Kansas caused when a safety line came undone, and an investigation of a facility cooled by ammonia refrigeration that may have averted potential injuries or fatalities from the toxic gas in Florida.

Patrick Whavers, an occupational health and safety specialist in OSHA’s Jackson, Mississippi office presented a unique case he investigated at a privately operated state prison after OSHA’s national office received an eight-page complaint in 2011 from a correctional officer working at the prison.

Some of the points in the complaint did not fall under OSHA’s jurisdiction, Mr. Whavers said, but issues such as shortage of staff, assaults on correctional officers, inadequate locking mechanisms on cells and limited means of getting out of the facility were sufficient to warrant an investigation, he said.

Mr. Whavers visited the facility and observed a shortage of two-way radios, which limited the ability of officers to communicate with central control stations which controlled opening and closing of doors. In addition, there were no body alarm systems deployed at the facility, he said.

Many cell door locks were inoperable or malfunctioning, and Mr. Whavers said inmates had devised ways of circumventing the surveillance system on cell doors using gum wrappers so that cell doors that were actually open would appear closed on surveillance systems.

He also noted staffing inadequacies that increased risk for correctional officers who were supposed to work in pairs. The officers were not allowed to carry mace or any weapons, sometimes didn’t have a two-way radio, and frequently had to work alone, all of which increased their vulnerability to violence, Mr. Whavers said.

The facility was cited for one willful violation under the agency’s general duty clause for failing to knowingly provide adequate staffing, fix malfunctioning cell door locks or provide required training to protect employees from violence by inmates, including stabbings, bites and other injuries. The facility also received a repeat health violation related to medical evaluations, two serious health and one serious safety violation, and one other-than-serious safety violations. Proposed fines were $104,100.

The agency was able to establish a willful violation, which requires heightened awareness on the employer’s part of a dangerous situation. Mr. Whavers said the facility had recorded 72 cases of workplace violence, 32 of which resulted in 776 days away and 226 restricted days. The facility tracked violent incidents on a chart that hung on the wall.

In addition, management acknowledged in statements and emails that there was a likelihood of serious injury to employees, and the company had prior citations at another one of its facilities, Mr. Whavers said.

The company agreed in February 2014 to implement safety modifications at all its facilities nationwide, including hiring a third-party corrections management consultant, implementing a workplace violence prevention program and creating workplace safety committees.

“That’s pretty significant as far as an OSHA settlement,” Mr. Whavers said.

In a separate case, a hotline complaint led to field officers investigating a pallet manufacturer operating in Ohio’s Amish community in 2015. The office received word that a teenager working in the plant had suffered an injury that resulted in his hand being amputated. The 14-year-old’s injury occurred when he touched operating parts of a wood planer, said Howard Eberts, area director of OSHA’s Cleveland office.

The investigation revealed that the owner and three employees worked at the company, including a 14-year-old, a 16-year-old and an 18-year old. The 14-year-old who was injured was considered a temporary employee, Mr. Eberts said.

Among the problems at the facility leading to the injury were that it was a remote facility with no one trained in first aid and that the wood planer lacked safety guards, Mr. Eberts said. The company also illegally allowed an employee under the age of 18 to work on a power-driven woodworking machine, he said.

Amish companies are allowed to employ underage workers if they are a direct relative of a family-owned business and are constantly supervised, Mr. Eberts said. That was not the case in this situation, and OSHA referred the matter to the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division to investigate violations of child labor laws, which resulted in a separate $39,150 fine, he said.

OSHA issued 17 serious safety violations with proposed fines of $43,200 in July 2015. However, the company did a good job with abatement and OSHA settled the citations, reducing the penalties and allowing the company four years to pay, Mr. Eberts said.

In this case, the agency’s goal was to demonstrate the dangers of the equipment used and to “make sure the company owns the safety and health of (temporary) workers.”