SAFETY SOLUTIONS: How Much is a Life Worth?
That’s a question that is asked of many people especially after an accident occurs. How many times have you or someone in your company identified an unsafe condition or practice and knowingly did nothing about it? Since, you or your family were not the person at risk did you ever make the statement as a supervisor or plant manager "it cost too much or we do not have it in the budget?"
After an accident occurs we always find time to get many people involved and the money to fix the problem. In my 32 years in the safety field, including a position as an OSHA compliance officer, I can tell you this lament was heard many times. I have investigated hundreds of accidents and have testified as an expert witness, sometimes in favor of a machine manufacturer, sometimes the injured person.
In my previous articles, I have written of many unsafe pieces of machinery found in our Junior & Senior High Schools and asked our readers to visit the schools where their children or grandchildren attend. I explained to you in the article on "A Fresh Look at Machine Safeguarding" (March 2001 edition) that it took one person, Mr. Norm Chaffee, with the State of Minnesota Department of Children Families & Learning, to help start a program that now is working to protect teachers and students from hazards created by others. Each day I wonder how many of you have took the time to try and contact him and ask how this was accomplished? Believe it, many machine manufacturers still produce unsafe machinery. These machines are being sold to your place of employment and especially your schools. And yes, believe it or not, your child or somebody’s child, is operating that piece of powered equipment.
I have encouraged you all in past articles to please contact me if you have a question. You can either write care of the magazine or e-mail me at email@example.com, and we will try to help, but guess what? We rarely receive questions. This magazine is your avenue to improve your bottom line and increase your profits.
The definition of an "Accident" is an unplanned event. This statement, believed by others, is just not true. I can tell you from experience that many accidents were not unplanned events, they were caused by people or processes that were neglected. How about the statement that it was "employee error"? Do you believe that a person woke up one morning and stated "I think that I will go to work today and just get myself injured"?
Some accidents destroy cars. We know, at least roughly, how to measure the cost of a car. But other auto accidents destroy people. How does one price a life?
Economists measure costs and value by revealed preference, by people's actual behavior. If someone offered to buy your heart for a million dollars, even ten million, it is unlikely that you would agree. By that standard it looks as though most people put an infinite value on their life.
But consider the decision of how often to get a medical checkup or have your brakes checked. Such activities buy you life in the form of a slightly lower chance of an undetected heart blockage or a lethal skid. If life is of infinite value to you, you ought to divert time and money from activities that do not prolong your life, to activities that do, as long as the latter have any payoff at all, however small.
I was reading the paper today and noticed that a person fell through a skylight on the roof of a building. Well I wondered how this happened? I really knew how it happened. The skylight that gave years of light to our work areas inside the plant was worn out, became brittle and was not properly guarded. Do you have a skylight installed in your factory or roof at home? I pondered the writing of this article, and asked myself, would the readers like it, would they care? Well, I hope you care.
OSHA requires that all skylights be guarded with a cover or guardrail system. The older skylights on top of buildings could never support a person if that person fell against it. I researched the data banks of OSHA and came up with the following accidents. Could this happen at your place of employment?
Case No. 1 - One Death February 7, 1995
An Employee working on a 27’ high flat roof tripped while shoveling gravel and fell to his death through an unguarded skylight. The skylight was only covered with a plastic dome.
Case No. 2 - One Death February 19, 1995
An employee was cleaning scrap materials from cyclone area of roof. While walking through the accumulation of scrap, employee walked upon a plastic building skylight which was concealed by the scrap. Employee’s weight broke the skylight and he fell 25’ to the work floor below.
Case No. 3 – Dislocation No Date
The victim and a fellow worker were patching a customer’s roof leak and as the victim was removing roof debris, he walked backward into a skylight. Attempting to catch himself, the victim stepped backward, onto the plastic skylight, which broke, causing the victim to fall 25’ to a concrete floor. The victim broke and dislocated his right wrist and was severely bruised.
Case No. 4 - One Death March 11, 1995
On March 11, 1995, at approximately 10:15 a.m., employee #1 fell through a skylight which was not guarded and/or had a cover which was not strong enough to hold him. There were no witnesses to the accident, however, shortly before the accident fellow employees saw the victim walking across the roof holding a cup of coffee. After they turned their backs on the victim, they heard a crash. It is believed the victim may have sat down on the skylight or may have possibly taken a shortcut by stepping across it. Victim fell 23' 3" to the concrete warehouse floor below. He died at the scene from multiple head injuries. Size of skylight was 4' 6" x 8' 6" long. The skylight had a plastic cover but was worn and weathered.
Case No. 5 - One Death March 11, 1995
On March 11, 1995, at approximately 5:00 p.m., employee #1 was helping another employee cover roofing materials stored on the roof with plastic. A gust of wind caught the plastic and employee #1 backed up to straighten out the plastic. Employee #1 backed into an unguarded 4’ x 4’ skylight hole and fell approximately 21’ to a concrete floor below.
Case No. 6 - One Death May 3, 1995
Employee was pulled from his regular welding duties to assist an electrician laying a six-inch thick electrical cable into a cable tray. The cable tray was being installed for a new building construction, and it was located on top of the existing building’s flat roof, which had several plastic skylights. As the workers were moving the cable over to the cable tray, a loop in the cable struck employee #1 in the chest knocking him backwards. Employee #1 then fell through an unguarded plastic skylight 30' to the inner concrete floor.
Case No. 8 - One Death No Date
The owner, employee #1, of a painting company and another employee were walking across a roof when the owner stepped on a skylight which had a fiberglass cover over it. The cover was not capable of supporting anyone walking on it and the owner fell through the opening. He hit his head on an outboard motor boat that was parked in the shed, and then fell to the concrete floor below. He died from head injuries.
We all need to work together to prevent these and other needless types of accidents. I beg each person reading this article, take the time to correct problems before it is too late. That person who gets injured has a family and the cost of correcting the unsafe condition will always be less expensive then correcting it later. Check the machines, work areas, roofs where you work and maintenance personnel have to perform work.
We have been writing of the problem of compensating people for being injured or killed. When someone is tortuously blinded or crippled, he/she is worse off in at least three different ways. The injury imposes pecuniary costs: medical bills, lost wages, and the like. It imposes non-pecuniary costs; life is less fun from a wheelchair. Finally, the injury reduces the value to the victim of additional money, at least once the medical bills and the wheelchair are paid for, since many of the ways in which he/she could have made money, in the past, are no longer available to him/her.
Take the time to help prevent accidents. I believe I have now solved the puzzle with which I started this story: How can we adequately compensate people for loss of life or limb? The answer is that, ex post, we often cannot and usually should not. But our inability to compensate ex post does not mean that life is infinitely valuable, nor does it imply that we should avoid any activity that imposes any risk of death on other people, any more than it is a reason to avoid any act that imposes any risk of death on oneself. Put your safety program to work, look for those hazards and correct them before it is too late.
For past Safety Solutions articles see our website at www.plasticsmag.com and click on Safety Solutions under "Columns". As always, we want to hear from you. Send your questions care of the magazine or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information, click on the Author Biography link at the top of this page.