Supervisors Gone “Rogue.”

Work BootsAs a business owner or a manager, you always face a problem when you try to ensure legal compliance.  You can set policies, but chances are you can’t be in the field to make sure those policies are followed.  That’s why you have supervisors.

But what do you do if your supervisors fail to make sure the crew complies with the rules, or worse still, what if the supervisors are the ones who break the rules?   A new court ruling makes companies responsible for their supervisors unsafe behavior.  That could create a real problem for companies that do not have clear and effective oversight of their supervisory personnel.

The case came out of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta and it covers a case in which a worker and supervisor were both working at a 15-foot height with no fall protection.  The company was fined and challenged it in court, arguing that it should not be held liable for the actions of a “rogue supervisor.”

The court disagreed and found the company liable.   The decision creates a confusing situation for employers.  An earlier court decision had found in a different case that companies may not always be liable for the actions of their supervisors if those supervisors acted against company policy or were “rogue” in the words of the court.  It said that supervisors were the “eyes and ears” of their employers and that a supervisor who acts against the rules leaves the company “deaf and dumb.”

There is a very good analysis of the two cases here.  It indicates that these instances need to be looked at on a case-by-case basis and that the “rogue supervisor” defense may be very limited.   When I looked at this case, I was struck by the fact that the fine that the company objected to was actually pretty low ($11,400) and the violation was a pretty common one (using a step ladder incorrectly).  You can spot improper ladder use when you drive by most residential construction jobs.  How does this decision apply when a supervisor fails to enforce the rules, perhaps ignoring safety to meet a deadline, and he or a worker dies?   The penalties and blow to their reputation could ruin a mid-sized company.

How do you make sure your company doesn’t get caught in this dilemma?  Here are some suggestions:

  • Make sure your supervisors are properly trained on managing crews and their responsibilities as company representatives.  We have a really good class on supervisory leadership if you don’t have one yourself.
  • Review your policies with supervisors to make sure they understand them and why they must be followed.
  • Adopt and enforce a stop work policy that stresses supervisor and worker responsibility for stopping the job if unsafe conditions exist or a company procedure is not being followed.
  • Perform field audits, preferably by a third party.   Make sure that what you think is happening in the field is actually happening.   Contact me if you need help with this.  If the cost of bringing in an outside auditor bothers you, think of it this way – it costs about as much as an hour or two of your lawyer’s time if something goes wrong.
  • Document everything!  Especially if you find and correct a problem.

One final note – Apply what I call the Dust Theory of Safety Management.   Look around your facility and your worksites.  If you find a layer of dust on your safety manual, you know you have a problem.  And if you are the CEO and the dust is on your copy  of the safety manual, you have an even bigger problem.

Poisoned Pork and Dumpster Diving – Wildest Sick Day Excuses Ever

you reIfmember the opening scene of Ferris Bueller, when he wanted to take a day off, all he had to do was convince his parents he was sick.

But apparently it is a lot harder to convince employers.   A survey done by Careerbuilders looks at some of the most ridiculous excuses people use to explain why they couldn’t come to work.   Here’s a list of some of the weirdest excuses:

  • Employee claimed his grandmother poisoned him with ham.
  • Employee was stuck under the bed.
  • Employee broke his arm reaching to grab a falling sandwich.
  • Employee said the universe was telling him to take a day off.
  • Employee’s wife found out he was cheating. He had to spend the day retrieving his belongings from the dumpster.
  • Employee poked herself in the eye while combing her hair.
  • Employee said his wife put all his underwear in the washer.
  • Employee said the meal he cooked for a department potluck didn’t turn out well.
  • Employee was going to the beach because the doctor said she needed more vitamin D.
  • Employee said her cat was stuck inside the dashboard of her car.

I especially liked the employee who needed to be at the beach because of a vitamin D deficiency.   Sounds like the cure should be a job deficiency.  One that I actually saw was an employee who called to say she had the flu, but was nearly drowned out by the casino slot machines in the background.   You can read more about the survey here.

There is a very serious side to this however.  Workers who fake illnesses cost companies in lost productivity.  In fact, a study by the Integrated Benefits Institute found that absenteeism, both for real causes and for the types of made up excuses seen above, costs U.S. businesses more than $227 billion a year.

In a way, employees who fake injury or illness are stealing from the company.  Businesses are getting more sophisticated about tracking phony excuses, including checking to see what “sick” employees put on Facebook while they are supposed to be home in bed.

There is another way to look at it.   High rates of absenteeism may be signs of stress, lack of worker engagement or other problems.   If rates are unusually high, employers may need to look at root causes, just as they would for injuries or other risk factors.    A strong occupational medicine program may be just what “the doctor ordered.”

If you need to take a deep dive into your health and wellness program, contact me at and I can put you in touch with people who can help.


Useless Safety Measures – How Much of Your Safety Program is Ineffective?

 Take a close look at the picture on the left.  It is the famous landing of a US Airways jet in the Hudson River.  Notice anything missing?   How about life preservers.

Before every takeoff, you are advised where to find your life preserver or flotation seat cushion.  Yet, in the most famous and successful landing on water in history, almost no one has on a life preserver.  If ever there was a time to wear one, you would think this was it.

A report in the Wall Street Journal this week looks at life preservers on airplanes.  It is worth a read for anyone in the safety field, because it describes a complete failure for a critical piece of personal protective equipment:

Even though life vests have been a routine part of overwater air travel, there are problems with their design that limit their usefulness in crash landings. They are so difficult to find under seats and put on securely in an emergency that only 33 passengers of 150 aboard US Airways Flight 1549 had a life vest after the plane splashed down in the Hudson River in 2009. Only four people managed to properly don their life vest, securing the waist strap so it wouldn’t pop off.

So why do they put life preservers on planes?  Largely for psychological comfort and public relations – Airlines don’t want to look like they aren’t doing anything to protect passengers in a water landing.  In other words, it is a placebo, a harmless piece of equipment that makes us feel safer.

In the working world, how many safety placebos do we have in place?   One of the sacred cows of safety, Job Safety Analysis (JSA’s) may fit into this category depending on the way it is used.   Insurance companies are an  important source of statistical analysis for what actually improves safety and what doesn’t.  An insurance risk expert once told me the insurance companies don’t pay any attention to whether companies have JSAs because they do not see any correlation between JSAs and injury rates.   Yet some companies spend a lot of time and energy making sure crews fill out JSA forms.  I once heard about an oil company that required a JSA for the drive from the road to the drill site.

That is not to say that JSAs aren’t valuable, but in my experience, too many companies rely on checklists, forms and other documentation to prove they are working safely, in other words, safety placebos.  The real value of JSAs comes from the discussion on the crew over how they will do the job, the leadership of the supervisor in making sure everyone understands his or her role and the training that goes into working safely.

What safety placebos does your company rely on?




Why Occupational Health and Safety is a Part of Your Bottom Line

Is worker health and safety a part of your bottom line cost savings plan?   A new study says it should be.   In an article published by the MIT Sloan School of Business, the authors look at numerous case studies and conclude that companies that have strong safety cultures also have increased productivity.  They start by attacking the arguement that companies need to choose between increasing production and protecting worker health and safety.  Many companies that give lip service to safety may sacrifice safety when it is time to “get the job done.”  The authors say that is a false tradeoff. They point out that companies with effective safety management programs can reduce the costs of injuries and illness by 20-40%.   Those savings go directly to margins.

One of the most interesting findings is that companies that have the discipline to make sure the work is done safely are able to use that discipline to increase efficiency.   Companies that slack off on safety to achieve productivity frequently fail to achieve either.

This should be a must read study for anyone who nneeds to justify their investment in safety.

First Case of Zika Virus Makes it to Houston

Mosquito_Tasmania_cropThe Zika virus, which has raised so much concern in Latin and South America, has arrived in Houston.  It was not a surprise to health experts, who had said it was just a matter of time before someone who had traveled to the affected regions returned with the virus.  Apparently it is not a cause for alarm either, because it is not transmitted between people.   In this case it was a man who had recently been in El Salvador and, once back in Houston, came down with the symptoms – rash, fever and joint pain.

The Center for Disease Control says the real threat is coming when the mosquitoes that carry the virus move north or a mosquito bites someone who has the Zika virus here in the U.S. and then bites other people.  Experts predict the virus could gain a foothold here by this spring.

The greatest risk group at this point are babies born to mothers who have the Zika virus.  In Brazil, where there has been a serious outbreak, scientists believe there is a connection to birth defects.

There is a good article about the spread to Houston here.

The CDC has posted material on the outbreak here.



Handtruck safety: Safety Meeting Video

Nothing like a video to “drive” home the point on safety.  In this case it involves a worker using a powered handtruck to unload a truck.   The load on the handtruck is so tall he can’t see where he is going, he isn’t aware of where the edge is and then gravity takes over.   The great part is that it all takes place at a vodka factory; so there is also a lesson about not sampling the wares:


Grisly Cruise Ship Death Has Lesson For All of Us

cruise ship fatalPassengers on the Carnival Ship Ecstasy were on their way to dinner when they passed a grisly scene – A crewmember who had been working on an elevator had been crushed to death.  Here is the report on CNN. Warning: it shows a homemade video that is hard to watch.

Why did it happen?   The incident is still under investigation, so that is not clear.  However, what appears to be clear is that it could have been prevented with an effective lockout/tagout policy.  There is a very good analysis of the problem here.  The author lists other deaths involving elevators on vessels and points out a sign in the video, apparently put up after the death occurred that says, “Sorry, but I am not working at the moment.”  As the author of the post  puts it, “that is the image that should be burned into our memories because had the elevator been isolated and inoperable then 66-year old Italian crewmember Jose Sandoval Opazo may not have died in such horrific circumstances.”

While the focus is on elevator accidents on ships, the larger lesson is that lockout/tagout procedures are there for a reason and the moment we cut corners or bypass them, we are putting lives at risk.

Severe or Fatal Injury? New Online OSHA Form Released.

OSHA made a dramatic change in the way on-the-job injuries are reported a year ago when it implemented new reporting requirements.  As of the beginning of 2015, employers were not only required to report any fatalities within 8 hours, but also  injuries that required overnight hospitalization, amputations or loss of an eye injuries within 24 hours.

Now the agency has launched a new online form to report those injuries.   The form can be found here.   Companies can still report the incident by phone.  The site also has some fairly important guidance on making reports.   For example, there is a 1-800-number to make reports; OSHA doesn’t just want companies to leave a message on the voice mail of the local OSHA office.  Also, for incidents involving temporary workers, the company that supervises the worker is responsible for making the report.

Why is this important?   The change in what needs to be reported triggered a whole change in the way OSHA approaches incidents.  OSHA has been investigating about half of the incidents on the spot. For most of the rest of the incidents it has required the company to do an in-house analysis and provide investigators with a report and they may then follow up.  One Houston company received a large fine for failing to report within the 24-hour period.  The bottom line is that any accident that puts a worker in the hospital may open the company to an investigation, fine and future inspections.

Employers need to understand the new rules and know what to do before the incident happens.  If you need help addressing your policies or if you have had an incident and need to implement safeguards to keep it from happening again contact me at