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GUEST OPINION - A Death in the Family

by Peter De Luca, administrator of Oregon OSHA

Most of us have experienced a death in the family. We can't stop it; it is the conclusion of life and is inevitable for each of us. In a world of "guarantees" it is probably the only absolute. The tragedy occurs when someone passes from our lives well before their time.

In addition to your family at home, you have a family at work, too. They work next to you, or you supervise them every workday. The team comes together to deliver the product, provide the service, manage the resource and keep the economies of small towns and large metropolitan areas moving. In an era of working longer hours we may see our work family more than our home families.

Too many work families in Oregon this year have had a member die on the job. In 2001, Oregon celebrated the lowest number of workplace fatalities to date. We will not have good news to report for this year. As I'm writing this, a great many senseless deaths have occurred at work, and been reported to Oregon OSHA for 2002. Deaths this year will exceed last year's record low number. People are losing their lives in a variety of ways: vehicle collisions, being struck by an object, falls, explosions, being pulled into machinery…the list seems endless.

Analysts with Oregon OSHA are examining the data for factors which may indicate a pattern or trend in these deaths, however nothing that we have found in preliminary analysis supports a trend. The seemly random nature of deaths in the workplace frustrates those of us who commit to keeping workers safe. We have found an unusual number of heart attacks claiming the lives of workers in 2002. Are we as a nation under so much stress, or in such poor health, that we are literally dropping dead at our desks?

From the standpoint of dollars and cents, fatalities are expensive. They cost employers thousands of dollars in investigative expenses, increased insurance premiums, potential litigation and numerous hidden costs that distract from the business of doing business. There must also be new recruiting and training costs. But the 'soft costs' of grieving time for surviving coworkers, the downtime that occurs as people try to cope with loss while continuing to work, the lost productivity as workers cope with long term scars - those costs are beyond calculation. It seems ironic that we grant time to help people deal with deaths outside the worksite, but we frequently don't give people the time they need to heal a loss in their own workplace.

I have yet to visit a worksite that is the same after experiencing a workplace death. It affects the workers every day, every time they have to walk past a piece of machinery that brought their friend down, or they see an old familiar work shirt still hanging on a peg. The company softball team is missing that clutch shortstop, and you see their eyes well up when they recall a great joke that the departed told the crew so many times before. There is the awkward silence when you realize you have one handout too many at the company meeting. A death has occurred in the family.

The best means to guard against these losses are to prevent them!
We need to change the climate in Oregon's workplaces from taking a passive approach to safety and health on the job, to making it a top priority. This year, deaths have occurred in a broad range of industries, from offices to production floors, to mills and forested hillsides. Nobody is immune. Perhaps it is denial, perhaps it is 'trying to survive' during difficult economic times or a doctrine of 'acceptable losses.' Whatever the reason, we are seeing a less aggressive attitude toward the awareness of safety and health at work.

Raise the awareness among the people you work with.
During 2003, Oregon OSHA will be urging businesses to take a "Coffeebreak for Safety" to gather their team together over coffee for a few minutes, and talk about safety and health in their business. We will encourage employers to talk about safety and make sure everyone realizes they contribute to the safety team by how safely they perform their work. Transform workplace safety from being a sign on the plant entrance to being a philosophy that workers carry with them every day, a philosophy that saves lives. You will be hearing more ideas about good "Coffeebreak for Safety" topics during the next few months.

Take advantage of the consultation and training services offered by Oregon OSHA
. We will have a safety consultant evaluate your worksite at no cost and make recommendations on how to improve your safety and health program, reduce hazards and even increase employee satisfaction and performance on their job. This next part is very important. An Oregon OSHA consultative services evaluation does not trigger an inspection or an enforcement action against the employer. Consultants and compliance officers do not 'share lists' or target employers who make use of our proactive services. Training classes on safety and health topics are presented by Oregon OSHA in nearly every county across the state. They cost nothing and may be the best investment of time you will make this coming year.

Finally, we need insight from you. Tell Oregon OSHA what you are seeing on the front line of the new Oregon economy, and how we can assist you. Write your suggestions to me at Oregon OSHA, 350 Winter Street NE Room 430, Salem Oregon 97301-3882.

My condolences if you have experienced a death in your family at work. Please, let's spare as many people as possible the loss of a member of Oregon's valued workforce. Good people, slow down; pay attention; stay alert. Please be careful out there.