I was on a jobsite recently with a good friend of mine who also happens to be a scaffold sales representative. We were there to evaluate a particularly interesting scaffold situation that involved placing scaffold on a roof of unknown capacity. But this article isn’t about that; it’s about what was said while climbing up an adjacent scaffold to gain access to the proposed scaffold location. I noticed that the scaffold was not constructed very well, that is, it didn’t comply with the rules and standards. After expressing my opinion of the scaffold, my friend exclaimed: “The heck with the rules, nobody follows them anyway!”
He had a good point. What good are the rules if nobody is going to use them? Carry this thought another step. Why should I follow the rules if my competition doesn’t? And then there’s the old standby: I’ve being doing it this way for years without problems, why should I change now? Ah, ignorance indeed is bliss.
So, should we throw out the rules? In a way, I believe we have. In 1970, the U.S. Congress passed a law, the Williams-Steiger Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, that was meant to improve workplace safety. This was the beginning of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, OSHA, and of course, the OSHA standards. This law addresses both the employer and the employee. First it requires that each employer “shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees;” (This is commonly known as the General Duty Clause.) Secondly, each employer “Shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act.” In other words, the employer must comply with the OSHA standards because the standards address “recognized hazards.” This would strongly suggest that the standards are there to address hazards, which of course they are.
So, why do I think we have thrown out the rules? Well, there’s more to the law then just the portion that applies to the employer. This third section applies to employees. It requires that “Each employee shall comply with occupational safety and health standards and all rules, regulations, and orders issued pursuant to this Act which are applicable to his own actions and conduct.” This seems pretty clear to me in that scaffold erectors are suppose to know the rules well enough so that when the scaffold is constructed it is constructed correctly. My experience suggests that we are no where near meeting this goal. And yet, except in rare cases, OSHA doesn’t cite the employee. OSHA assumes that the employer could have done more to improve workplace safety whenever an accident occurs. While I generally agree with that theory, the reality suggests that some employees just don’t appreciate the hazards involved with scaffolds, even after training, retraining, and in some cases, re-re-retraining.
So why don’t we cite and fine errant employees? I’ll bet that if an employee who didn’t erect the scaffold correctly got hit with a $110.00 fine, he/she would be more conscientious the next time. How about the user who modifies the scaffold and leaves it in a potentially hazardous situation? $250.00 to the government, please! We aren’t doing this. Instead we go after the employer in spite of the fact that the employer has made strong efforts to train employees in the hazards of the workplace. In other words, we’ve thrown out the rules. Sure, employers still have to follow them. But what about the law that was passed 34 years ago? It did include employees as well as employers. Frankly, its time to hold everybody responsible for his/her actions or lack of actions.
There are those who will certainly object to this concept. The most valid objection is that employers will have an excuse not to do their part. However, I don’t buy it. The law clearly states the employer’s obligations under the law; the employer must do everything reasonably possible to provide a safe place of employment and provide a program of compliance with the standards. If this threshold has been met, then it is the employee’s obligation to complete the process. I believe that then and only then will we meet the full expectation of the law.
Politically, this concept of holding employees responsible may not be easy to accept, but after thirty four years I think this industry has to recognize that safety is a partnership between employers, employees, and OSHA. If you don’t think so, throw out the rules. See what happens.