The Workplace Safety Rules Changed and Most Companies Don’t Even Know It.

OSHA ReflectionIn late March, a Houston company selling Christmas trees was hit with fines of $117,000 for OSHA violations.  The case stemmed from a worker injury in December, triggering an inspection that found more than a dozen serious violations.  The most significant thing about the case is that, prior to last year, OSHA would probably never have even inspected the location.  


At the beginning of 2015, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) launched one of the biggest changes in American safety in years and most companies don’t even know about it.  The change came in the form of a new definition for “severe injuries” under OSHA’s regulations and new reporting requirements.  Before, companies were required to report any time a worker was killed or at least three workers were hospitalized within eight hours of the accident.  However, as of January 1, 2015, employers are now required to report fatalities and any injury resulting in a hospitalization, amputation or loss of an eye.

One of the first businesses in the country to learn what a change that meant was a Houston-area construction company.  Less than one month after the change was instituted, a worker fell through a hole in the roof and was seriously injured on one of the company’s projects.  The details of the case caused OSHA to hit the company with a massive fine of $362,500, including $70,000 because it waited three days to report the accident.

Since then, more than 600 other companies have been fined for failing to properly report incidents, according to Bloomberg BNA.  But it is not the fines for failing to report that have made the biggest impact; it is the way the reports give OSHA an up-close, real-time view of how people get hurt on the job in America.

Now a year later, OSHA has released a report that shows just how much they have learned about on-the-job injuries.  For starters, the agency received more than 10,000 reports last year, about 30 a day.  Making matters worse, OSHA estimates that industry is under-reporting by 50 percent.

The reports that are made give OSHA two things: a big-data window into the relative safety of different industries, and a brand-new approach to inspecting and investigating individual businesses.

Big Data

The injuries included 7,636 hospitalizations and 2,644 amputations.  As one OSHA publication puts it, “statistics are people with the tears washed off.”  It is the amputation statistics that jumped out.  OSHA has been preaching to the manufacturing sector about amputation hazards for a long time.  However, amputations in grocery stores and other companies that use food slicers appear to have been an eye-opener for agency officials and they have singled that sector out with a program to raise awareness and also for stepped-up enforcement.

Grocers are one example of the way the new rule has allowed OSHA to target its limited resources.  Before, a store had relatively little chance of ever getting a visit from an OSHA inspector.   Now they are getting attention from regulators.   In March, a national grocery store chain was fined $45,500 after a worker sliced off a fingertip.   And that may be the least of that company’s worries.  As attorney Howard Mavity of Fisher & Phillips has pointed out, a second violation at any of a company’s stores in the next five years could potentially make it a repeat offender under the regulations and open the door to a $70,000 fine for each offense.

What happens when the data identifies a high number of injuries within a certain industry or area?  On March 16, after reviewing reports that indicated that meat processors in Nebraska had an injury rate well above the national average, OSHA launched a local emphasis program. The very next day, OSHA added a regional emphasis program for Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri poultry processors.  OSHA emphasis programs are part carrot, part stick approach – The carrot is a communications outreach to companies and workers. The stick is dramatically increased, targeting inspections.  In the words of the order, “Meat processing facilities will be evaluated to determine whether the employers are in compliance with all relevant OSHA requirements, to help employers come into compliance, and to ensure that employees are protected from the hazards related to animal slaughtering and processing. “

Once an industry is on the list, companies in that industry will see increased inspections, which bring the potential for new violations, the threat of becoming a repeat offender and, over time, more pressure on the agency itself to take any measures within its power to improve safety in that industry.  Suddenly companies that have flown under OSHA’s radar will get to know their regulators very well.

Company Inspections

The rules also triggered a complete change in the way OSHA handles investigations of incidents.   Most companies are still not prepared for this.  To understand the change, you must first understand that OSHA already does a lot with a very limited budget.   Once accident reports started flooding in, local offices did not have the resources to visit every accident site.

So they started a triage system.   About a third of the time, investigators went to the accident scene and performed an inspection.  About five percent of the time, they decided no investigation was required.  What about the remaining 62 percent?  For those cases, OSHA invented a new type of investigation, the Rapid Response Investigation (RRI).  Employers are asked to perform their own investigation, including a root cause analysis.  The company is told to:

  1. Analyze the incident;
  2. Identify the causes;
  3. Present its finding to OSHA, potentially including pictures and blueprints; and
  4. Propose steps it will take to keep the accident from happening again, such as training or changes to procedures.

For companies with staff who understand incident analysis and safety programs, this has not been much of a problem.   Anecdotally, company safety professionals have said OSHA was easy to work with and focused on prevention more than punishment, which should be everyone’s goal.

But smaller companies may lack that expertise and this process can be difficult and potentially expensive.  A lot of companies, especially those in low-risk industries, may go years without an incident, even though they don’t have formal programs or training in recognizing hazards.  However, if someone is hurt, they may find themselves in a kind of double jeopardy.  First they had the accident, and then they run the risk of bringing additional scrutiny by performing a haphazard investigation.  Sure enough, OSHA investigators say privately that they spend a lot of time explaining to small companies what they need to do to perform the investigation.

Finally, there is always the temptation to cheat.  As OSHA says, if there were 10,000 reports last year, there may have been 10,000 more injuries that went unreported.  Of course, lying to OSHA has always been a reckless approach that can result in criminal penalties.

Overall, OSHA is one year into an ambitious program that could dramatically improve workplace safety in America, but there are still some bumps along the way.  Companies need to understand the new paradigm, step up their safety programs and recognize that the way they investigate an accident and the steps they put in place to prevent it in the future are critical in determining how OSHA treats them in the future.

Ken Wells is the founder and president of Lifeline Strategies, consulting firm located in Houston.  Lifeline Strategies’ units work with companies to manage their safety and regulatory programs, maintain healthy workplace through occupational medicine management and establish integrated brands for their customers and the public.

And Now We Have Fighting Bulldozers.

On the streets of Houston we routinely have small altercations between wrecker crews competing to haul off cars, but we have nothing to even compare with what happened in China recently.   It seems rival excavator companies couldn’t agree on who was going to do the bulldozing, so they just fought it out on the street.  Hard to imagine how things escalated to this level:

This is not the only example of bulldozer mayhem.  This video shows what happens when there is a perfect storm of bulldozer, alcohol, crowded streets and angry mob:


How Long is Too Long to Wait to File Workers Comp?

Thanks to the excellent website for calling attention to a case where an injured employee waited two months after an alleged incident to apply for workers comp.   His argument was that he didn’t think the injury was serious, but it got progressively worse for two months, when he had to see a specialist. He said he informed the company as soon as he realized the seriousness of the injury.  The company argued that “it always stressed to its employees the importance of immediately reporting injuries because of the presence of bacteria and chemicals in the workplace that could cause even minor cuts to become infected.”

It happened in Kentucky where the workers comp laws say workers need to tell the company about an injury “as soon as practicable.”

The courts found against the worker because so much time had passed, but it creates a question, how long is “as soon as practicable?”    Apparently it is not two months, but is it one month?  Is it a week?   Back injuries may take a while to heal or present themselves as a longer-term problem.  How long is too long to report?

For employers that creates a high degree of uncertainty and potential exposure for incidents they didn’t even know occurred.  It is a pretty common problem in the oilpatch where crews may head home after a hitch, only to see their local doctor and start the workers comp process.

That is one reason why companies should look at companies that provide immediate post-incident injury management.  Typically an injured worker will talk to a trained professional by phone and describe the symptoms. In most cases on-site first aid is warranted and the employee is urged to contact them again if the symptoms worsen.  If the injury requires treatment, the service may recommend a clinic or, if it is an emergency, the worker can be taken to an E.R.

What does this accomplish?

  1. It establishes a treatment regime that is aimed at the right treatment for the injury.  Sending an employee home with an injury that could get worse with time doesn’t help the employee or the employee. Proper and early intervention has been shown to dramatically reduce the need for workers comp and shorten the period before an employee is able to return to work.
  2. It answers worker questions quickly and opens a communications channel in case the injury needs further treatment.  This helps encourage workers to report an injury when it happens.
  3. It “freezes the facts” by giving a quickly documenting what happened, the severity of the injury in real time and the recommended course of treatment.
  4. It gives a clear process and documentation that makes it harder for a worker to not report an incident and come back later with a claim.

CORE Health Network‘s TimeZero injury case management gives companies and their employees the peace of mind to know that an RN is just a call away if there is an incident.  CORE’s nurses are experienced in injury management and OSHA regulations, and are certified on workers comp in all 50 states.  If a worker is injured, they will be on the phone immediately to perform triage, find the nearest clinic qualified to treat the specific injury and will follow-up to ensure that the worker is receiving the right care.   For more information contact 



Dropped Objects – When Injury is Determined by Chance

1281360-beware-of-falling-objects-sign-on-blue-illustration-960x720The International Association of Oil and Gas Producers has released a safety alert to its members concerning a dropped object injury on a U.S. offshore rig.  A link pin weighing one-and-a-third pounds fell about 40 feet.  It had enough velocity to bounce up and hit a worker in the jaw.

It is one more reminder that in the offshore industry, or for that matter any industry where work is done overhead, dropped objects are a real hazard that needs to be managed carefully.   Dropped objects also fall into that category of safety hazards where near-misses are clear predictors of serious or fatal injuries.Heinrich-300-29-1-Model2

The safety profession is sort of reconsidering the relationship between near misses or minor injuries and serious injuries.   For many years, the theory of accident prevention was driven by what is known as the Heinrich pyramid, based on H.R. Heinrich’s observations in the 1930’s that, statistically, for every 300 near-misses industry experiences, there are 29 minor injuries and one fatality.   Given that the 1930’s were sort of the dawning ages of safety management, that was a pretty bold concept.

But it doesn’t hold up well today.  As safety programs have become more sophisticated, minor injury rates have fallen, but there hasn’t been an equivalent drop in fatalities.  The simple truth is that minor and major injuries frequently have different causes and need to be addressed differently.  In fact one Canadian study found that the lost-time claim rate fell by 37.3 percent from 2006 to 2010, while during the same time fatalities rose by nine percent.  Some even argue that too much of a focus on minor injury prevention can blind a company to the big stuff, i.e. the Macondo disaster.

But that is not the case with injuries from dropped objects.  A falling object generates tremendous force and speed. The falling pin in the safety alert took about one-and-a-half seconds to hit the ground; that is not a lot of time to see it, react and move out of the way.  In most cases the object hits the ground harmlessly, but if some unlucky soul happens to be under the object, he is likely to die.  The two factors are where the object falls and where the worker is standing.  In other words, it is a throw of the dice.

Many in the oil and gas industry have taken this to heart and have realized that near misses are a clear indicator of future serious injury or fatalities.  Attack the near miss potential and you are managing the fatality risk.    Through an organization named DROPS, industry has developed a number of programs to address the hazard.  One of the most interesting is a calculator that shows the potential harm of each drop.  Enter the weight and the distance an object falls and it will tell you whether the potential injury is likely to result in:

  •  First Aid (Slight Injury),
  • Medical Treatment Case (Minor Injury),
  • a Lost Time Injury (Major Injury) or
  • a Fatality.

What does this do for safety managers?  Imagine a meeting with the CEO where you say, “we had 10 near misses and no injuries last year.”  Now, imagine that you use the calculator to show the potential outcome of 10 dropped object incidents and you say, “We were just inches away from five fatalities, four major injuries and three minor injuries. ”

That’s how you get the boss’s attention.


Maybe We Should Wrap The Kids in Bubblewrap!

kid-in-bubble-wrapFrom New Zealand comes what appears to be a case of safety protection run amok.   Apparently, the legislature passed a health and safety reform bill, dubbed the “Working Safer: a Blueprint for Health and Safety at Work” framework.  The overall goal is to reduce the  workplace injury and death rate in New Zealand by 25 per cent by 2020.

According to an article in the local newspaper for the town of Hawkes Bay, the bill has schools scrambling to injury-proof their playgrounds.   What has them so scared is a provision that says “those with significant management influence in a workplace may be subject to prosecution and a fine of up to $600,000 and five years in jail if they fail to meet the duty of due diligence.”

The principals looked at the law, looked at their schools and realized that they could be the ones who go to jail.  At least one of the schools has banned kids from climbing trees as a result.   Maintenance crews are apparently using scissor-lifts instead of ladders to clean gutters.

As a guy who’s childhood monkey bars were made of un-padded metal pipes which loomed over a pad of solid cement, I am pretty sure having the chance to break your neck is an important learning experience for a kid.  On the other hand, the chance to play on a scissor-lift when no one was looking WOULD HAVE BEEN AWESOME!

The article also points out that this may all be an over-reaction, perhaps stirred up by those dreaded consultants.  According to one principal, “”Consultants are certainly queuing up to offer their services but I think the most important thing for boards of trustees and principals is not to be caught up in scaremongering and myths which can distract from the realities of [the Act] and the constructive ways that people can improve health and safety at work.”

Glad to know consultants work the same way in New Zealand that they do here in the States.

Tracking SEMS – Finally, One Database That Connects Everything

pinion-logoOne of the biggest complaints I hear about SEMS is how hard it is to keep up with all the moving parts of a functioning SEMS plan.  Its ironic; SEMS standard for Safety and Environmental Management Systems, but companies are finding that managing all the details in their plans is next to impossible.   In some cases they are using two, three and even four different databases to track different elements.

This week, I was fortunate to participate in a demonstration project showing how a SEMS program can be tracked in a user friendly database. The database, called Pinion,  was developed by OQSG, a leader in the pipeline OQ world.   Our goal through the demonstration was to show how the database can be used to manage every section of a company’s SEMS.

The challenge for anyone who has to manage a SEMS program is that there are so many different and potentially unrelated part, but they need to be connected in a logical way. For example:

A change in equipment may prompt a management of change process, which in turn triggers new procedures. Workers may need to be trained and evaluated on those procedures and the maintenance process may change.   And on it goes.  

One reason that safety systems fail is that they become too complex to manage.  The problem with most databases is that they are designed to handle one piece of that – training or audits or equipment.  Companies wind up trying to manage multiple databases or paying the programming costs to make one type of database work for different types of data.

What makes the Pinion system different is that it is built to give customers a maximum amount of flexibility.   the system doesn’t really care whether the company is tracking training, equipment or processes.  Data is data.

SEMS processThe demonstration showed that Pinion can connect different SEMS elements together. Using Pinion a company can:

  1. Identify a piece of equipment;
  2. Pull up the maintenance and inspection records for that equipment;
  3. Access up to date operating procedures for that equipment;
  4. Identify all employees who have been trained and evaluated on those procedures; and
  5. Produce a report that shows that it is complying with the Mechanical Integrity, procedures and training requirements for any equipment it sends offshore.

Why is this important?  Because more and more contractors now realize that they need a SEMS plan that dovetails with their offshore operator customer’s plans.  They are finding that developing the policies is the easy part.  Keeping track of them is the challenge and it is a challenge that the Pinion system seems to be well suited for.

Let me know if you are interested in knowing more about what we are doing to tie company SEMS plans together.


Safety Risk Taking – Its Contagious.

Here’s a problem that safety professionals have seen before: You have four crews.  Three of them follow safety rules and are incident-free.  The fourth crew has incident after incident.   It is a common problem, but solving it can be extremely difficult.

This image shows a region of the brain called caudate nucleus responding to the degree of risk in the gamble. Credit: J. O’Doherty Laboratory/Caltech
This image shows a region of the brain called caudate nucleus responding to the degree of risk in the gamble.
Credit: J. O’Doherty Laboratory/Caltech

A new brain study shows why it happens and why it is hard to fix.   It turns out risk-taking is contagious, like catching a cold.   The study was done by the Caltech Brain Imaging Center, a part of the California Institute of Technology.  Researchers put volunteers under a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity in experiments measuring risk and gambling.

To put it in simple terms, when a subject took more risk, a specific part of the brain was triggered and it made it more likely that the subject would repeat that behavior in the future.   What researchers found was that, when a subject watched someone else taking risks, the same part of the brain was triggered and it was more likely to trigger in the future.  In other words,  your brain reacts the same way when you watch risky behavior as when you do something risky yourself, and that brain reaction makes it more likely that you will repeat risky behavior in the future.

So now lets look at the crew with the bad safety record.  The research seems to indicate that if one worker takes too many risks, their behavior will be “contagious.” Other worker see it, their brains react as if they had taken the risks themselves.  It makes it more likely that they will take their own risks in the future.

What do you do about this?  I have heard of companies switching around crews to break the pattern, but in some cases, the problems continue, probably because new workers model their behavior on the risk-takers.

One solution is to use psychology to fight psychology.  Double-down on behavior-based programs.  Reinforce the message that everyone is responsible for safety as a way to protect each other.   But it is just as important for the manager of that crew to watch and listen.   Figure out if one or two crewmembers are the main risk-takers.  Deal with them as individuals.  Make it clear that they need to follow the rules or leave.

This is especially tough when the main risk-taker is also the most skilled worker.  They believe that their skill means they don’t need to toe the line on safety rules and, because they are models for the rest of the crew, their risk-taking is more likely to spread to everyone else.

But the main thing you can’t do is ignore it, because risk-taking, like other contagious diseases, just gets worse if you don’t treat it.

When Being Wrong Feels So Right.

Copyright 2014 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
Copyright 2014 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. 

It has been noted over and over that some of the best minds in the energy business have been wrong about every change in the price of crude.  Goldman Sachs has come in for particular criticism for predicting that oil was headed to $200 a barrel before it crashed and $20 a barrel right before it rose again

But take heart professional and amateur oil forecasters alike.  It turns out a lot of people are wrong a lot of the time.

An interesting presentation from Industry week looks at the worst tech predictions of all time.  They are worth a look.


At least we can all take some comfort in the fact that we are not TV weathermen who have to predict the future at 5, 6 & 10 p.m.   Nate Silver is a statistician who heads ESPN’s FifeThirtyEight Blog.  Click the picture to see is his take on why the local weatherman is wrong so much of the time.

video of weather