Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Entirely Preventable Workplace Fatalities

When the monsignor shows up at your door early on a Saturday morning along with an Army officer, bad news is sure to follow. So it was that my former mother-in-law learned of the accidental electrocution of her husband. He’d gotten up that morning, just like any morning, except that this was a weekend, and a busy weekend at that. He had been working at the nearby Air Force Base, preparing for an influx of visitors on Armed Forces Day. Whether he’d kissed his wife or any of his six children goodbye that early morning in the 1960’s is one detail of the story that I will never know.

What began as a typical day for this suburban Irish Catholic family turned into a tragedy with generations-long repurcussions. For nearly 20 years, these people were my in-laws, the family of my now ex-husband. I never met the man who would have been my father-in-law. He was killed when my ex-husband was 15, the second oldest of his family, but now the de facto male head of household.

My would-have-been father-in-law was working on something electrical, and had shut off the asociated circuit breaker, as was the accustomed practice. His colleague and best friend showed up at the Base shortly thereafter, and noticed that the circuit breaker for this necessary equipment required for the day’s activities was in the “off” position. He turned it on, instantly electrocuting his best friend, widowing his wife, and leaving six children from 6 months to 17 years of age without a father.

As you’d expect, my mother-in-law was overwhelmed by the loss. The older kids in the family did their best to step up and take care of the younger ones. With the help of friends, parish members, and extended family, she learned to drive, and to take on the role of both mother and father. This was just a few years before my ex-husband, tired of waiting for his draft notice from the Army, enlisted in the Marines and headed to Vietnam. Until then, he was living at home, working full time after graduating high school, and looking after his younger siblings while his older sister was in college.

His father’s best friend, the man whose simple action of throwing a circuit breaker devastated so many lives. This fine family man attempted suicide on more than one occasion, an act that would have left his own five children fatherless, another woman widowed. Even that prospect was not enough to quell his desire to extinguish his anguish and his life. In the end, he lived on to the terminus of his natural life, no doubt a broken man, unable to face or comfort the widow and family left to mourn the loss that he had precipitated.

How could this have been prevented? Follow along below for the rest of the story.  

As Republicans are all too eager to point out, American businesses face crushing regulatory burdens. Federal agencies make it difficult and costly for businesses to operate. In an ideal world, the regulations would be repealed, and the agencies drained of life-giving tax dollars for, well.. Freedom.

One such regulatory agency is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA’s mission is quite simple and logical:

With the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, Congress created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.

Among the many regulations promulgated by OSHA are the so-called “Lockout – Tagout” regulations, codified in OSHA 1910.147(a) which govern “The control of hazardous energy”:

This standard covers the servicing and maintenance of machines and equipment in which the unexpected energization or start up of the machines or equipment, or release of stored energy, could harm employees. This standard establishes minimum performance requirements for the control of such hazardous energy.

Lockout life on the line

Simply put, the regulation outlines measures for physically preventing the very sort of scenario that fatally electrocuted my would-have-been father-in-law. These measures rely on physical controls of the sort pictured here, and training in their deployment, as well as associated documentation procedures.

lockout-tagout sign

Lockout. The placement of a lockout device on an energy isolating device, in accordance with an established procedure, ensuring that the energy isolating device and the equipment being controlled cannot be operated until the lockout device is removed.

Lockout device. A device that utilizes a positive means such as a lock, either key or combination type, to hold an energy isolating device in the safe position and prevent the energizing of a machine or equipment. Included are blank flanges and bolted slip blinds.

Yes, pesky regulations, in the eyes of some (including our so-called leaders whose most daunting occupational risk is coronary artery disease from sitting on their asses). One more useless, time-consuming step in a busy day. I mean, really: what could go wrong, just this once, if we skipped this? If you’re still wondering what could go wrong, please re-read the portion of the diary above the fold. There’ll be a quiz when you’re done.

A device like the one below might have saved one life, prevented attempted suicide, and affected the lives of eleven kids and two wives whose fathers and husbands were involved in a single tragic moment in the workplace.

Lockout circuit breaker

According to this article, summarizing information from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) many workplace fatalities due to electrocution are preventable:

NIOSH reported that among 224 fatal electrocution incidents evaluated by the Fatal Assessment and Control Evaluation program, at least one of five factors was present. Established safe work procedures were either not implemented or not followed, adequate or required personal protective equipment was not provided or worn, lockout/tagout procedures were either not implemented or not followed, compliance with existing OSHA, National Electrical Code, and National Electrical Safety Code regulations were not implemented, or worker and supervisor training in electrical safety was not adequate.

We’ve come a long way since the days before OSHA, but we still have a long road ahead to eliminate entirely preventable workplace fatalities and injuries. In America, we would like to think that every worker can return home in the same state of health that they left to begin their shift. After all, this isn’t some developing country where corporations run dangerous sweat-shops with unsafe and abusive labor practices.

Well, not yet, anyway, although that utopian vision delights and emboldens some of our Republican politicians. It’s up to all of us to ensure that we – and our loved ones – can earn a decent living without the risk of entirely preventable workplace fatalities, injuries, and illnesses. We need to remind our political “leaders” that there’s a very human face to “government regulations”.

OSHA’s workplace safety regulations were decades in the making, too late to help my would-have-been father-in-law and millions of others. Now that the laws are on the books, it’s the job of government to enforce them. Those who’d prefer to wipe the slate clean and allow a return to the perils of the past so that their corporate friends can profit (and donate to their campaigns) will have blood on their hands.  

Cross-posted at the Orange Place.


  1. iriti

    Even with OSHA regulations in place, human error can still result in injuries or death…we had an incident at my workplace where an electrician was working on something, had it shut off, but drilled through and hit some unrelated electrical in the wall. It was on the drawings, but he thought he knew where everything was. He was badly injured.

    But lock-out tagout alone has probably saved hundreds or thousands from injury or death over the years. OSHA regulations about hazardous chemicals and personal protective equipment are also lifesavers, along with many more.

    Some employers look at OSHA as a burden, others as a partner in keeping employees safe. It’s for the first group that regulations and their enforcement are so important.

  2. Portlaw

    at turning the personal, the particular, into the the larger more general issue. It makes your point indelible.

  3. pittiepat

    Houston one of their best engineers died in a very similar accident.  He had turned off the power to whatever he was working on before leaving for lunch but someone turned it back on.  The soon-to-be-dead engineer didn’t check to make sure the power was still off before beginning work again.

    The human factor is a huge contributor to on-the-job accidents.  At Gulf’s Port Arthur refinery a maintenance worker was working inside a tank and when it was time to leave he stepped out the door and into space.  Someone had removed the scaffolding before checking to see that the employee in the tank had gone.  We just get in a hurry and do not always take the time to consider things that can hurt us.

    As for OSHA, they are really good at checking out things like refineries (and heaven help you if the paperwork isn’t in order) but there is no way they can check every business for regulatory compliance.  OSHA is understaffed and underfunded and the best most companies can do is follow the regulations as best they can.

Comments are closed.