There Are No Workplace Accidents: Lessons From Deepwater Horizon

David Michaels

David Michaels Assistant Secretary of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA)

Workplace deaths are often called accidents, but they are rarely “accidental” – a matter of chance or bad luck. For the most part, they can be traced back to a series of decisions, large and small, made by employers and managers: Perhaps cut a corner to meet a deadline or save a few dollars, dismiss an inconvenient concern from a worker, or disconnect a protective mechanism to keep production moving.

In the recently released film “Deepwater Horizon,” we see a clear example of how poor choices by an employer can lead to tragedy. The 2010 explosion of that oil rig off the coast of Louisiana killed 11 workers and injured 17. Families were forever altered. For some, the pain will never go away. Absent the heroism of the rig’s workers, the toll could have been far greater.

It became clear in the aftermath that no minor financial savings could have justified decisions made by the company. The explosion and subsequent oil spill have already cost BP over $60 billion.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which I lead, did not investigate the catastrophe on the Deepwater Horizon because the rig, 40 miles off shore, was beyond OSHA’s jurisdiction. But the story line is very familiar to us. We see that dynamic in action every single day.

Each year, more than 4,500 workers are killed and more than 3 million are injured in U.S. workplaces, pushing working families out of the middle class. They are seldom memorialized in movies: only their families, co-workers and OSHA demanding to know what happened. Why did someone’s husband or mother or sister or son die, or lose a limb, from something that could so easily have been prevented?

Under federal law, employers are responsible for safety of their workers. We tell employers to listen to concerns from workers, who often know more about what’s really going on than any manager. And employers need to ensure that workers can stop a dangerous job without fear of retaliation. Only by working together can employers and workers make sure a job is safe.

To help them, OSHA offers free on-site consultations for small employers, along with many other resources. Saving lives and limbs isn’t difficult or complicated, but takes employer commitment: There are commonsense ways to protect workers from ghastly injuries or death. It may simply be a matter of providing fall protection, or installing a guard to keep hands out of machines.

This is an epidemic that gets too little attention. We know how to keep workers safe in every occupation, no matter how potentially hazardous. It’s simply a matter of making the right decisions, every time. Workers should never have to accept risks to their safety or health as a condition of the job.

Smart, responsible employers have figured this out. They recognize safety is an investment, not a cost. At firms with safety in their DNA, everyone knows, from the front office to the floor supervisor, that shortcuts are unacceptable. Workers’ concerns are always worth checking out and close calls are always investigated. Rather than look the other way, they look for problems and fix them immediately.

The bottom line is that safety improves the bottom line. Safety protects not just lives but jobs, too. Listen to managers at the last board game manufacturing plant in the U.S., who would have moved production to China but kept the jobs in Massachusetts because their safety management program increased productivity and profitability.

Learning from some of the nation’s most successful firm, OSHA has just issued new Guidelines for Safety and Health Programs to help small and medium -sized employers who want to protect their workers and integrate safety into operations.

Like almost all workplace disasters, the Deepwater Horizon explosion was not accidental ― it was predictable and preventable. Making safety a precondition for production ― not simply one of several competing priorities ― saves lives and improves profitability. That is a message we hope audiences around the world will take away from this movie.


This was reposted from The Huffington Post.

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Failing Bridges Hold Public Hostage

From the USW

From tumbledown bridges to decrepit roads and failing water systems, crumbling infrastructure undermines America’s safety and prosperity. In coming weeks, Union Matters will delve into this neglect and the urgent need for a rebuilding campaign that creates jobs, fuels economic growth and revitalizes communities.

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) gave the public just a few hours’ notice before closing a major bridge in March, citing significant safety concerns.

The West Seattle Bridge functioned as an essential component of  the city’s local and regional transportation network, carrying 125,000 travelers a day while serving Seattle’s critical maritime and freight industries. Closing it was a huge blow to the city and its citizens. 

Yet neither Seattle’s struggle with bridge maintenance nor the inconvenience now facing the city’s motorists is unusual. Decades of neglect left bridges across the country crumbling or near collapse, requiring a massive investment to keep traffic flowing safely.

When they opened it in 1984, officials predicted the West Seattle Bridge would last 75 years.

But in 2013, cracks started appearing in the center span’s box girders, the main horizontal support beams below the roadway. These cracks spread 2 feet in a little more than two weeks, prompting the bridge’s closure.

And it’s still at risk of falling.  

The city set up an emergency alert system so those in the “fall zone” could be quickly evacuated if the bridge deteriorates to the point of collapse.

More than one-third of U.S. bridges similarly need repair work or replacement, a reminder of America’s urgent need to invest in long-ignored infrastructure.

Fixing or replacing America’s bridges wouldn’t just keep Americans moving. It would also provide millions of family-supporting jobs for steel and cement workers, while also boosting the building trades and other industries.

With bridges across the country close to failure and millions unemployed, America needs a major infrastructure campaign now more than ever.


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There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work