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By Expert ID: 44021, PhD PE

Workplace injuries and deaths are a frequent source of lawsuits. These lawsuits are usually civil actions but criminal prosecution is a possibility. This article presents a framework of accepted good practice.

The preferred safety method is to eliminate the hazard. An example would be to substitute a water-base for a solvent based paint. A variation on this would be to substitute a non-carcinogenic solvent (xylene) for a carcinogenic solvent (benzene). You would still have a potential solvent exposure issue but the carcinogen hazard would be eliminated.

Eliminating the hazard is not always possible. A second preference is to isolate the employee from the hazard. For example; sawing logs at a sawmill creates a noise exposure issue. The sawyer should work from a soundproof, climate controlled enclosure with filtered air (avoiding sawdust). A second example is in an electric steel mill placing the furnace operator inside a climate controlled enclosure with filtered air. This avoids exposure to lead, cadmium and other harmful fumes.

The employer incurs responsibility for (1) providing an effective design for the enclosure, (2) properly maintaining the enclosure, (3) training the employee how to properly use the enclosure and (4) creating a supervisory atmosphere such that the employee will use the enclosure. The latter is rarely a problem in that the enclosure is usually more comfortable than the general plant area and the employee considers it to be a plum job. Please note the expansion of employer responsibility (and potential liability) from the hazard elimination option.

The first two options are often unattainable. The third option when the first two options are either unattainable or impractical is to provide employee personal protection (PPE for Personal Protective Equipment). This option greatly expands the employer’s efforts, costs and responsibilities. The employer must provide the PPE, maintain the PPE, in many cases, fit the PPE to the employee (respirators for example), train the employee on how to use the PPE and provide a managerial environment such that the employee will always use the PPE.

PPE vendors are often a source of what PPE is suitable for the job. They want to both make a sale and also avoid responsibility for any mishaps. OSHA and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) frequently provide standards for PPE. The OSHA standards have the force of law in the US. Going from head to toe, PPE can include a hard hat, a face shield, safety glasses, ear covers or plugs, respirators that can use either filtered ambient air or supplied air (divers for example), protective clothing and safety shoes. The protective clothing can either fit over the employee’s clothing or be an employer-furnished uniform.

The employer needs to set up, implement and support a safety program. The essential ingredients are management commitment and support. These ingredients must be strong enough to survive 20/20 hindsight in the event of a serious accident. There must be in the organization someone with the responsibility and authority to ensure good safety practices.

In a very large organization, there can be a safety department staffed by safety professionals with recognized credentials. In a somewhat smaller organization, a single such professional can suffice. But what if the organization is not large enough to afford a full time safety professional?

Still, someone in the organization must have the responsibility and authority for safety. It can be one of a supervisor’s responsibilities. This person can usually receive guidance from the organization’s liability insurance carrier. Documentation and implementation of this guidance can establish good faith in the event of a serious accident. When Personal Protective Equipment is the answer, equipment vendors’ recommendations can be useful. While the vendor is trying to sell you something, that you sought and implemented such advice can be evidence of good faith. Finally, qualified consultants can on a one time or continuing basis, assist in setting up and implementing a safety program. Again remember, that in the event of a serious accident 20/20 hindsight may be the basis for judgment.

By Expert ID: 44021, PhD PE