Whose Responsibility is Safety is the Workplace?

I believe the symptoms that caused the Imperial Foods Products Plant Fire in 1991 were, in a nutshell, apathy and indifference. While each and every business is now required to meet certain safety standards and OSHA standards, on a day-to-day basis, those safety precautions seem to go by the wayside when the monotony of the workplace steps in. While both the employees and the administration of Imperial Foods knew that precautions needed to be taken, they had both become lax in the enforcement of those precautions. While the management certainly knew it was a fire hazard to keep the doors locked, they obviously felt it was more important to prevent employee theft than ensure employee safety.

Additionally, the employees, who certainly knew that the doors were not supposed to be locked, had obviously grown apathetic about their own safety, and had not come forward and demanded the safety in their workplace they were entitled to. The delivery truck was likely an “I know I’m not supposed to park here, but it will only be a few minutes—what could it hurt?” on the part of all parties. To an extent, each employee and employer are guilty of this attitude on a daily basis. We know we’re not supposed to climb a rickety ladder to reach the light bulbs residing on the unreachable shelf in the supply closet, or that we are not supposed to pick up a heavy box without proper support devices in place. However, when the situation arises, we are very likely to think, “Oh, what could it hurt—just this once?” It is this underlying attitude that can potentially cause serious, even fatal accidents in the workplace. We become indifferent to our surroundings after a period of time, and our subconscious mind feels that our employers are protecting our safety anyhow, so why should we be so diligent in our efforts? Apathy sets in, and accidents occur.

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In the specific case of the Imperial Products Fire, the cause of the fire was the ignition of hydraulic oil from a ruptured container just a few feet from a natural-gas cooker. Subsequently additional OSHA violations were uncovered such as: locked doors, no marking of exits or non-exits, excessive travel distance to exits, no fire alarms, obstructed doors, no emergency action plan or fire prevention plan, and no automatic fire suppression plan. (U.S. 2006).

While management is generally diligent about the initial setup of safety precautions in the workplace, over time those precautions are not implemented so strictly. Generally in order to start a business safety requirements must be proven and met. In this case, it appears that the exits were never marked—perhaps it was assumed that every employee obviously knew how to exit the building. Additionally, the fact that the exits were excessively far and there were no fire alarms or emergency plans tends to leave us with the inescapable fact that Imperial never set up safety precautions, even in the startup phase of their business. Imperial seemed very lax in the issue of safety for their employees, and by the same token, the employees seemed lax in not bringing certain issues to management’s attention. It is typical in most businesses that management is not in the day-to-day actual running of the company, therefore perhaps does not see firsthand the potential safety problems.

On the other hand, employees can be afraid to bring such issues to the attention of management for fear of losing their job. They may decide it’s better to take their chances on safety issues rather than create conflict at work—the place where they spend at least one third of their lives.

One course of action for limiting the apathy of both employees and employers would be the “shock treatment,” or a mandatory viewing of a video about workplace hazards, or perhaps mandatory attendance at a speech given by a safety expert on a regular basis—maybe once every 30-60 days. Additionally, there should be a meeting with management and employees on a weekly basis in which both sides hear suggestions from the other—keeping an open mind. These meetings need to be limited in time and not combative, but rather with the spirit of helping both sides to work more efficiently and safely. Management will obviously have to find a way to make this appealing in some way to the employees—perhaps they can provide snacks and early release from work on the day of the required safety training, and some kind of reward for innovative ideas from employees on safety issues.

The advantages of the “shock video” are that it keeps the fact that tragic accidents can and do happen uppermost in the minds of the management and employees. On the other hand, after a certain point, employees may begin tuning out the videos and speeches, believing they already know all the safety hazards involved. The advantages to weekly meetings where ideas are shared between management and employees is that the two parties begin to know one another in a more personal way, and the issues of safety become more real when they involve someone you actually know. The disadvantage is that meetings like this can turn into a “gripe fest,” rather than a productive time between employees and employers. Employees tend to believe that management doesn’t really have a clue what goes on daily, while management is responsible for the “bottom line,” and often feel that employees are lax and lazy. In the case of Imperial, management obviously felt that the employee stealing was a greater issue than employee safety, and it would be interesting to find out what led to that belief.

Ultimately, I think a comprehensive program which implements some video, some lectures, plenty of safety posters and literature in the workplace, weekly meetings and incentives for safety implementation are the best way to ensure workplace safety. Incentives could be that each month the employee who had exhibited the most safety precautions and followed safety rules closely would be rewarded by a day off, or a monetary reward. This incentive from the employers might make the employees much more diligent about following safety precautions and keeping an eye out for new hazards.

Considering the opening quotation regarding the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, I would doubt that the families of those who were killed in the fire felt that their loved ones were “martyrs,” but rather victims. Consider that “at the time of the fire the only safety measures available for the workers were 27 buckets of water and a fire escape that would collapse when people tried to use it.” (Triangle, 2005). Additionally, when the fire engines made it to the scene, they found that the water streams from their hoses could only reach the 7th floor. Girls from the 9th floor flung themselves from the window, and their tarps were callously covered with tarps as they hit the ground.

While we would certainly like to believe that “new concepts of social responsibility and labor legislation” came from this tragedy, the fact that in 1991 twenty five workers were killed in the Imperial Fire would certainly make one wonder. While OSHA standards are certainly in place, the reality is that many times before the arrival of an OSHA employee, both employers and employees scramble to meet the OSHA requirements in order not to be written up for deficiencies. However, the moment the OSHA employee walks out the door, safety precautions once more become lax. Since these inspections by OSHA are few and far between, it becomes way too easy to only implement safety precautions when it is necessary to get a clean report from OSHA.

I believe that the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire certainly created awareness of the problem, and led to the inception of more safety precautions in the workplace, but even more I think it was a human issue, a social issue that grabbed the very hearts of Americans when they realized that these low-paid female workers, many of them barely out of their teens, had been working in such hazardous conditions.

A state inspection of Imperial Foods might have changed the outcome in this situation because Imperial was lacking many of the very basic safety precautions. If they had been inspected they would certainly have been ordered to keep the doors unlocked, and they would have been forced to find an alternative to employee theft besides hazardous locked doors. They would have been forced to mark all exits as well as install fire alarms and deal with the obstructions in front of exit doors. If all these issues had been addressed, this is a tragedy that could reasonably have been averted.  I believe that the fines imposed by OSHA need to be so substantial that they make an indelible impression on the company. Money is the one area that speaks to management loudly, and if Imperial had been heavily fined for their workplace hazards before the fire took place, it is likely all would have been corrected and the fire would not have occurred.  The safety issues at Imperial were willful and deliberate, and the penalties should certainly have been very stiff. Many safety hazards at other companies, however, are not so willful or deliberate, but rather a result of lax enforcement and a feeling that “it won’t happen to us.”

While to the employer or owners of businesses, OSHA fines could be devastating, on the other hand it makes them much more aware of safety issues and much more likely to ensure their employee’s safety. I believe that the states should, in addition to OSHA, have their own safety requirements and their own safety inspectors. As stated above, OSHA visits are relatively infrequent, leading businesses to grow lax. The individual states need to work closely with OSHA, but have much more frequent inspections—at least some of them unannounced. I believe this could make a real difference in the safety of workplaces. If you never knew when an inspector was going to walk in the door, safety precautions would become, by necessity, a daily issue, and not one to be taken lightly.

 

Reference Page

Author(s) (Year of Publication). Name of Text, Publishing Company.

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (2005). Leap for Life, Leap of Death. . Retrieved August 30, 2006

from: http://www.csun.edu?~ghy7463/mw2.html  

U.S. Department of Labor, (2006). Fire Safety.  Retrieved August 30, 2006 from:

http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/poultry/general_hazards/firesafety.html

 

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