A couple years ago, the Discovery Channel’s Mike Rowe set off a firestorm of commentary on the role of safety in the workplace. Rowe stars in the Discovery Channel show Dirty Jobs. Following one episode a viewer called him out for not wearing proper safety gear. How did Rowe respond? Rowe called the “Safety First” slogan a bunch of “nonsense.” He also responded:
In the jobs I have seen thus far, I can tell you with certainty, that safety, while always a major consideration, is never the priority.
Never. Never, ever. Not even once.
Those are pretty harsh words about safety. Rowe also added:
When a business tells you that they are more concerned with your safety than anything else, beware, . . .
They are not being honest. They are hedging their own bets, and following the advice of lawyers hired to protect them from lawsuits arising from accidents.
What do I think? I do think some companies place a top priority on worker safety. A few do. During my college years, I worked summers at an automotive manufacturing facility near Decatur. That facility closely studied every part of the work process to ensure safety. That company took safety seriously. Yet, many more companies do not. Most do not. Some pay lip-service to the term “safety” while ignoring the substance of real safety. Through many years of helping accident victims, I’ve been disappointed far more often than not with true corporate attitudes and motives about safety.
Some companies talk safety. But, that’s all it is — talk. It sounds good. It looks good on paper. It provides a ready defense when an injury occurs. And, it may help the company avoid liability. Yet, real safety takes a back seat to maximum profit production. I’ve seen it throughout my legal career. For the worker who gives so much to his or her job, it’s a terrible injustice. Imagine suffering a disabling injury and then being blamed falsely for it. That scenario is very real for many workers hurt or disabled on the job.
Companies blame workers for a couple reasons. First, a worker who intentionally violates clear rules related to safety or protective equipment can be barred from receiving workers’ compensation in Alabama. Second, a company with a culture of violating or ignoring safety might be subject to penalties by OSHA or other agencies. Of course, both reasons provide strong economic incentives for dishonest executives to blame the person injured.
In past cases, I’ve seen many examples of workers suffering the post-injury insult of being wrongly blamed for the accident. The following are a few examples we’ve encountered:
Missing Personal Protective Equipment. A plant maintenance worker near Huntsville suffered severe injuries due to heavy metal dust exposure. The worker’s job required him to clean ductwork and air filters full of metal dust. He developed occupational lung problems and sought workers’ compensation benefits. The company argued he failed to use personal protective equipment (PPE). In this case, the PPE was a respirator. The company even produced a respirator for show in court. Surprisingly, it looked clean and unused (as if just purchased). The company’s respirator defense had a big problem. The company never supplied respirators to any of its workers! It only had one – in the front office for management. You know, one for looks. When we started serving subpoenas on workers in the facility, the company quickly paid workers’ compensation benefits to its injured worker.
Fake Safety Awards. This may be hard to believe but it’s true! The company managed major construction projects. On it website, it touted its many safety awards for zero workplace injuries. The company website painted a glowing picture of safety. But, the image did not match the reality. My client suffered a disabling fall due to a complete lack of supervision. Like all our cases, we did some investigating. We discovered numerous workplace accidents and even fatalities. The safety awards and trophies were simply for show. How did this company misrepresent its safety history? The company managed construction projects and oversaw many different workers. Yet, the only people counted by the company for safety “award” purposes were its on-site project managers. The real workers were classified as independent contractors and not considered. It’s easy to tout your safety history when you don’t count the real workers.
Safety Devices That Did Not Exist. A heavy piece of equipment collapsed, crushing my client’s pelvis. He suffered multiple fractures as well as internal organ injuries. He would never return to any work. We filed a workers’ compensation claim. When we did, the employer and its lawyer presented a photograph of a safety device. The employer argued my injured client ignored the device as well as clear instructions to use it. My client remained adamant — He had never before seen the safety device and it was not available at the time of his injury. We believed our client. We investigated and discovered the company was not being honest. The employer had purchased the safety device AFTER the accident. We won the case.
Rules That Did Not Exist. The worker suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him comatose over a week. He would never again work. He would never again live independently. The case should have been simple. The doctors all agreed on his injuries. Yet, the employer’s attorney wanted a trial. So, we gave him one. That attorney claimed the worker intentionally broke a safety rule and should not receive workers’ compensation benefits. At trial, a company supervisor took the witness stand. He testified safety was important. He testified the company had a safety rule that would have prevented the accident. My law partner (who has since retired) cross-examined him hard. And, during that examination, the supervisor finally admitted the company only began enforcing the so-called safety rule, AFTER the accident. The case was won but only after a lot of hard work.
Training That Did Not Occur. The lift collapsed and the worker fell to the concrete floor. The injuries were tremendous. We sued the project manager for not maintaining a safe construction site. Did the defendant offer to help the injured worker? No. First, management argued it held daily safety meetings where the workers were instructed in safety issues that would have prevented the accident. We investigated. Other workers confirmed there were no daily safety meetings. Next, management argued it held a training session related to the lift before putting it to use. Again, the real facts revealed something different. The company provided no training, either in-house or through an outside source. After a week-long trial, we successfully recovered compensation for our client.
Is safety a priority? Is it simply an afterthought to avoid liability? How often do companies escape liability with false safety claims? These are important questions in many cases. Working men and women deserve real safety programs that prevent harmful accidents and injuries. When accidents do occur, working men and women deserve better than to be blamed by the same company that refused to place a priority on safety.
At the Blackwell Law Firm, we believe in helping injured workers. We have tried cases in counties across Alabama. Outside the courtroom, we continue to advocate for safer workplaces. We frequently discuss workplace safety on our blog and welcome any questions.