Fix the hazards; don’t blame the workers

These programs are cruel. They don’t work. And they must stop. This Workers Memorial Day, a day on which we honor those killed in the workplace and recommit ourselves to ending the slaughter, workers and their families across America demand an end to “blame the worker” safety programs.

Last year, among those killed on the job were 44 members of my union, the United Steelworkers (USW), which represents industrial workers including those in the paper sector. That is nearly one a week. Bergen was among them. His friends Jesse and Nigell Hutson wrote after his death:

“Such a tragic loss for everyone. He will be missed more than words can say. We love you, John.”

Over the past 18 years, the number of Steelworkers who died on the job has remained tragically constant, at about one every 10 to 12 days. So far this year, 11 Steelworkers died at work.

The stubborn consistency of the death toll demonstrates that the corporate-favored behavior-based safety programs achieve nothing.

The premise of behavior-based safety is that employees can work around hazards if they are just careful enough -- if they are ever vigilant. “You are looking at the person responsible for your safety,” these programs proclaim on stickers attached to workplace mirrors. One behavior-based safety consultant actually counseled that if there were an opening in the shop floor, the employer should leave it there because repairing it would give workers a false sense of security.

Al Chapanis, an expert on workplace safety, explained why behavior-based programs fail to keep workers safe. Chapanis was a professor of psychology and industrial engineering at Johns Hopkins University and a founder of ergonomics -- the branch of engineering that considers product and workplace design from the physical point of view of the actual user.

“Everyone, and that includes you and me, is at some time careless, complacent, overconfident and stubborn. At times each of us becomes distracted, inattentive, bored and fatigued. We occasionally take chances; we misunderstand; we misinterpret, and we misread. These are completely human characteristics. . . Because we are human and because all these traits are fundamental and built into each of us, the equipment, machines and systems that we construct for our use have to be made to accommodate us the way we are, and not vice versa.”

His message is simple: eliminate or control the workplace hazard. Cover the opening in the floor or at least surround it with a guard railing; don’t expect ever-vigilant workers to walk around it because humans aren’t ever-vigilant. Change the workplace because human nature won’t change.

In behavior based programs like Clearwater Paper’s COBRA, observers scrutinize workers’ performance. Their reports say: These workers acted like humans this many times today. They don’t say: There’s a giant gaping opening in the floor and someone might fall through it to their death!
 
At the Clearwater Paper Corp. plant in Lewistown, Idaho, the COBRA safety program failed to correct a gaping opening in the floor.

On June 30, late in the evening, 35-year-old John Bergen, a third generation paper worker and model employee, attempted to remove jammed paper from what was called the third auxiliary roll, a massive steel roller with paper wrapped around it. It stood above two other giant steel rolls of paper.

Bergen reached above his head with a knife and sliced into the paper. Beginning at one end, he walked forward, dragging the knife through the paper. Another worker, who was kneeling on a landing above the rolls, reached down and cut starting from the other end.

As Bergen scored the paper above his head, he stepped into a huge opening in the floor, two feet wide by four and a half feet long. He fell through to a conveyer belt below. There, unconscious, he was delivered to a 1,500-gallon hydrapulper tank, where he suffocated.

The opening in the floor accommodated a particular paper process called “thread up.” When that process was not occurring, a hatch was to be placed over the opening. But when the thread up process was done, vibrations caused the hatch to fall, covering the opening and thwarting the threading.

Someone tied the hatch open to keep production running. Afterward, the opening in the floor remained uncovered. In addition, no guard railing enclosed the opening to prevent workers from falling in. An inspection of the opening revealed post holders around it that could have secured a guard railing. But the railing was missing. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited and fined Clearwater for not covering the hole or providing a railing.

Bergen died because of design and maintenance flaws. Clearwater’s COBRA did not work because the philosophy behind blame-the-worker programs is fatally flawed.

Today, in Lewiston, Idaho, the two USW local unions that represent workers at the Clearwater plant, will conduct a special Workers Memorial Day ceremony honoring John Bergen III and other fallen workers.

Clearwater, and employers across America, must stop trying to cover their culpability with “blame the worker” programs and, instead, cover dangerous floor openings -- which means pursuing life-saving and worker-respecting workplace hazard elimination and control.

Leo W. Gerard is the international president of the United Steel Workers (USW).