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January 03, 2017
OSHA chief: Workplace deaths are ‘rarely accidental’

Although workplace deaths are often called accidents, they “are rarely ‘accidental,’ as in a matter of chance or bad luck,” according to Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels in a recent opinion piece. Michaels says the issue can usually be traced back to decisions by employers and managers. Agree? Disagree? Keep reading to find out why Michaels turns to a recent motion picture to make his point.

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In the article, published in The Huffington Post, Michaels says the film Deepwater Horizon, which dramatizes the 2010 explosion of a BP oil rig that killed 11 workers and injured 17, is “a clear example of how poor choices by an employer can lead to tragedy.”

According to Michaels, an inquiry into the tragedy revealed that “no minor financial savings could have justified decision made by the company.” He says the explosion and subsequent oil spill have already cost the energy giant more than $60 billion.

OSHA did not investigate the Deepwater Horizon incident, as the agency did not have jurisdiction over the rig, located 40 miles off shore. But according to Michaels, the dynamic at the site is a very familiar one. “Like almost all workplace disasters, the Deepwater Horizon explosion was not accidental—it was predictable and preventable,” he says.

Michaels emphasizes that saving lives and limbs isn’t difficult or complicated. But it requires employer commitment. “There are commonsense ways to protect workers from ghastly injuries or death,” he writes. “It may simply be a matter of providing fall protection, or installing a guard to keep hands out of machines.”

Characterizing worker injuries as “an epidemic that gets too little attention,” Michaels concluded, “We know how to keep workers safe in every occupation, no matter how potentially hazardous. It’s simply a matter of making the right decisions, every time.”

And while safety for its own sake is a key value, Michaels notes that safety also improves the bottom line. He cited one board game manufacturer that kept jobs in the United States rather than moving operations to China because their safety management program increased productivity and profitability. “Making safety a precondition for production—not simply one of several competing priorities—saves lives and improves profitability,” concludes Michaels. “That is a message we hope audiences around the world will take away from this movie.”

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