The death this week of a 33-year-old Mill City man is being investigated by the sheriff’s office in Linn County but, based on a report in the Salem Statesman-Journal, there are strong indications that it fits the definition of an Oregon industrial accident.

 

As I wrote in this space just a few days ago, the lumber industry has one of the highest rates of workplace fatalities here in a state where workplace deaths rose last year, even as they declined nationwide. According to the Statesman-Journal this particular accident took place on Wednesday in Mill City. The victim is reported to have been at work in a lumber mill “repairing a wood press when it activated and crushed him.”

 

“Police are investigating the situation along with the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA,” according to the newspaper. One of the things they will surely look at is whether this fatality should be classified as an Oregon industrial accident. Oregon law requires that machinery, particularly potentially dangerous machinery, be serviced properly and that workers operating and maintaining it have proper training. It is disturbing to read that a wood press activated at a point when it should not have been connected to a power supply at all. In lumber mills and other potentially dangerous workplaces proper “Lockout/Tagout” procedures, like those outlined by the US Department of Labor (see this link) are essential. Rules like this do not represent onerous government regulation but, rather, are essential safety measures designed to protect workers from employers who might be tempted to cut corners to put a few extra dollars onto the bottom line.

 

Among the questions that need to be examined will be whether the workers preparing the machinery for repair were not properly trained in the procedures for making the machine safe prior to servicing that could be a cause for legal action. Similarly, if the machine activated due to a fault that can be traced to a failure to maintain it properly that, too, would fit the definition of an industrial accident. Finally, if any party is at fault due to negligence in performing any of these duties, they may also be subject to Oregon wrongful death claims, that includes third parties, such as independent contractors, who may be assigned to set-up and/or maintain machinery.

 

As an Oregon industrial accident attorney I see cases like this all too frequently. As the police and OSHA conduct their investigations, let us all hope that the cause of this tragedy can be quickly pinpointed and appropriate action taken to ensure that nothing similar happens again.

 

The Statesman-Journal: Mill City man crushed to death in lumber mill

 

A report released by the Bureau of Labor statistics earlier this month draws attention to a disquieting trend: though the number of workplace deaths fell nationally last year, here in Oregon the numbers went up.

 

According to reporting by The Oregonian, the BLS report found that “the number of Oregon work-related deaths increased 12 percent, from 43 to 49, between 2012 and 2013. Yet the number of workplace fatalities decreased by 5 percent nationwide to 4,400.” As someone who has written extensively about Oregon industrial accidents and the importance of workplace safety I find both the numbers and the overall trend disturbing.

 

The largest single source of Oregon workplace deaths was crashes involving cars, trucks and other vehicles. “Safety regulators tied a majority of the Oregon deaths to traffic- or equipment-related accidents. The report says 19 workers died as a result of vehicular crashes and 12 people were killed by machines or other objects.” The report’s accounting system also takes note of police and firefighters killed or injured in the line of duty. The relatively large number of vehicle crashes (accounting for more than one-third of all workplace deaths) is worth special attention. Under Oregon law there may be a case for a wrongful death action by surviving loved ones if a third party is found to be at fault in the incident.

 

According to the newspaper, most of the Oregon workplace deaths took place in the “natural resources, construction, transportation and administrative and support services” sectors (the last category is described by the paper as “an umbrella industry that includes trash collectors and cleaning companies”). Natural resources, which includes the logging industry, along with transport and construction are all areas that involve danger and where workplace safety is critical. I have written about the potential dangers of the logging industry on many occasions and also of the hazards that poorly-maintained semi-trucks and over-worked truck drivers pose to everyone who uses our roads and highways. Oregon law regarding industrial accidents requires employers to conduct proper maintenance on all workplace equipment (including vehicles) or to ensure that vendors carry out the proper maintenance and that the people operating the equipment receive appropriate training. With fatality numbers going up, one can question whether these laws are being universally observed.

 

As an Oregon industrial accidents lawyer I am saddened to see that the number of workplace deaths in our state rose last year after declining from 2011 to 2012. The BLS report is a reminder of how important it is for all of us to remain alert to possible workplace dangers and to hold employers accountable when they fail to do the right thing and protect their employees.

 

The Oregonian: More Oregonians died on the job last year, new report shows

The extraordinary tragedy that unfolded at Hagg Lake late last month is spurring calls for action. As reported by The Oregonian, four people, representing three generations of the same family, all drowned in the lake on August 25. The bodies of a three-year-old boy along with those of his “mother, grandmother and uncle” were located “about 30 to 40 feet from the shoreline in water that ranged from 8 to 13 feet deep.”

 

A week later “members of fire agencies across Washington County, as well as invited guests including Washington County Parks Superintendent Todd Winter and Forest Grove Parks and Recreation Director Thomas Gamble, spent about ninety minutes discussing ideas and safety concerns at Hagg Lake.” Their talks came as part of a safety forum organized with the help of SafeKids Washington County. The meeting was called to consider community responses to the drownings and ways to prevent anything like this from happening again, The Oregonian reports.

 

Prevention emerged as the most significant theme among the participants. Though the focus on safety for children was paramount, last month’s events also show that safety is not something anyone should take for granted.

 

Among the recommendations to emerge from last week’s forum: “increasing the number of life jacket loaner stations and repositioning the existing stations for greater visibility, roadside electronic reader boards displaying rotating safety messages, establishing safe swimming areas with flotation ropes and stationing life guards at popular swimming areas,” according to the newspaper.

 

As a Portland attorney I have long supported the work SafeKids does at the local, state and national level and I am proud to see them taking the lead in bringing the Hagg Lake and Washington County communities together. It is only by learning from tragedies like this that we can hope to prevent their recurrence. That is a lesson not just for this one community, but for all of us in Oregon and throughout the Northwest.

 

 

The Oregonian: Signs and more life jackets suggested at brainstorm meeting after Hagg Lake drownings

The Oregonian: Hagg Lake drowning: 3 generations of Hillsboro family die in apparent accident

 

Historically Labor Day weekend is second only to New Years when it comes to driving danger on Oregon’s roads. So it is good that both the Oregon State Police and a number of local departments are going out of their way to remind Oregonians and visitors to drive safely this holiday weekend, and are stepping up patrols designed to intercept Oregon drunk drivers. A news release from the OSP notes that the agency “will put all available sworn personnel assigned to field operations on the road” for a period that began Friday night and will continue through Monday night/Tuesday morning.

 

We have all, perhaps, become a bit too accustomed to warnings like this. Whenever holiday weekends roll around TV and newspaper stories appear, public service announcements are aired and blogs like this are posted.

 

So it is useful that the State Police have put the issue into stark perspective for those who might think that holiday drinking-and-driving is overhyped. An OSP news release (see link below) notes that “throughout the year, someone is killed on a road in the United States in an alcohol-impaired-driving crash every 51 minutes. Over the Labor Day weekend, that statistic jumps to one death nationally every 34 minutes.”

 

The release goes on to note that Oregon suffered only two DUII-related deaths over last year’s Labor Day weekend period (defined as 6pm on Friday to Midnight Monday night/Tuesday morning), but that during that same period “OSP troopers made 54 DUII arrests.”

 

As a Portland drunk driving victims’ lawyer I hope everyone reading this blog will take these numbers to heart. As the OSP note, “drunk driving takes a particularly heavy toll during nighttime and among young drivers, the age group that is most often at risk.” Indeed, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures cited by the OSP, 18-to-34 year old drivers accounted for nearly half of all drunk driving crashes nationwide during the 2012 Labor Day holiday weekend (the most recent year for which data is available). Let’s all work to lower those numbers this weekend, even as we all take time off to mark the end of Summer 2014.

 

 

Oregon State Police News Release

The Oregonian: West Linn Police steps up drunk driver patrol over Labor Day weekend

 

Portland residents began to get some sense this week of how the “street fee,” the proposal to help fund city roads and maintenance that has been debated all summer, may eventually help to improve health and safety around our city.

 

According to an article published this week in The Oregonian, “the (city’s) Transportation Needs and Funding Advisory Committee (this week) produced the most detailed list to date of potential transportation projects.”

 

Though explicitly described as a “wish list,” – a fact designed to indicate that not all of the projects listed in the report will be funded, and that some may be funded at different levels from those recommended in this report – the document does offer some sense of how city leaders would like to allocate the revenue raised by the Street Fee.  According to the newspaper “The list included an estimated $109 million in dozens of specifically identified sidewalks, pedestrian crossing, bicycle and other safety projects.” The estimate is “based on roughly $35 million annually in net revenue for a six year period.”

 

I do not want to use this space to debate the merits of the Street Fee, but if we are going to have it here in Portland it is important that the money be spent carefully. According to The Oregonian, over a six-year period the fee may lead to significant sums being invested in safe routes to schools ($24 million), neighborhood greenways ($6 million), protected bike routes ($9.6 million) and improvements to street crossings ($14.4 million).  The key there is the word “may.” For all of us as Portlanders it is important that we get involved in this and other civic affairs to ensure that Street Fee monies are spent wisely.

 

As a Portland attorney focusing on public safety and personal injuries I am glad to see a proposed Street Fee project list that emphasizes public safety. Perhaps even more importantly, all of these expenditures have the potential to yield secondary benefits that more than justify their cost. The emphasis on improving safety along auto routes where crashes are prone to occur, for example, has the potential to save every Oregonian money down the line in the form of reduced medical and emergency services bills. The same can be said of the money invested in protected bike routes. Especially important for their inclusion in the list are ‘safe routes to schools’ – a category that promises protection for our children, a benefit that any parent puts above and beyond whatever money may ultimately be saved in infrastructure costs.

 

 

The Oregonian: Portland street fee: City unveils potential six-year wish list for safety projects topping $109 million

As we all prepare for another school year, SafeKids Oregon, an organization that regular readers will know I admire and support, is distributing an important report that is worth every parent’s attention. “Changing the Culture of Youth Sports” (see link below) offers essential information and perspective on injuries to children here in Oregon and elsewhere. The report is distributed by the umbrella organization SafeKids Worldwide. A summary can be found on the SafeKids Oregon homepage.

 

Among the report’s key findings are the disturbing fact that “One in four young athletes reported it is normal to commit hard fouls and play rough to ‘send a message’ during a game. This norm leads to a disturbing number of injuries: 33 percent of athletes report being hurt as the result of ‘dirty play’ from an opponent.” Among the report’s other key findings: “that athletes hide injuries to stay in the game” and that parents often try to get coaches to let their injured children participate in sports.

 

On one level none of this should be particularly surprising. From Hollywood’s images of sports in movies and TV shows to the sports broadcasts that can be found on television every night, sports culture celebrates toughness, ‘playing through the pain’ and a give-no-quarter attitude. Earlier this summer during the World Cup soccer tournament one player was celebrated for remaining in a game despite suffering a hard kick to the head – and despite the fact that TV viewers around the world could see that he was visibly woozy.

 

It is one thing for highly-paid professionals to insist on playing through an injury. Doing so may be unwise but professionals know the game better than the rest of us and they are, after all, adults. It is another thing entirely for a child to do so, and it is simply irresponsible for the adults running a game to allow, let alone encourage, that kind of behavior.

 

As a Portland personal injury attorney with a particular interest in helping prevent injuries to children I recommend that every parent of a young athlete look closely at the SafeKids report and talk to their children’s coaches about the “culture-changing strategies” the organization recommends. These include setting clear ground rules before a season gets started and emphasizing education for the athletes themselves about potential injuries and the best ways to avoid them. Most importantly, however, the recommended strategies call on parents and coaches to “encourage athletes to speak up when they’re injured. Remove injured athletes from play” and to “put an end to dirty play and rule-breaking.” Sports can be an excellent way for children to keep fit while learning lessons like teamwork – but only if the adults in charge teach the right lessons to begin with.

 

SafeKids Worldwide: The Changing Culture of Youth Sports

SafeKids Oregon Homepage

 

A story from Ohio last week highlights the danger of industrial accidents throughout the United States and the need for all of us to be vigilant. According to Ohio.com, the website of the Akron Beacon-Journal newspaper, “a 45-year-old man was killed after he was pulled into a machine while working at a northeast Ohio industrial company.”

 

The article goes on to note that the man died “after his clothing was stuck in the machine and he was pulled into it. A fire official said that when rescuers arrived… (the victim) had been freed from the machine by co-workers, but he died from crushing injuries.”

 

Had this industrial accident taken place here in Oregon there would be a number of clear-cut legal issues that would merit examination. In particular, we would have to consider whether the deceased and his co-workers were properly trained in the use of the equipment they were hired to operate and whether the employer maintained that equipment properly. The latter point is especially important because it highlights the responsibility of employers not only to give their staff the necessary and appropriate knowledge to do their jobs but also the employers’ responsibility to maintain the machinery in a safe manner.

 

As a Portland industrial accident lawyer I see cases like this all too often. It is important for employers to understand that their responsibility does not end with establishing a workplace. All employees, whether here in Oregon or anywhere else around the country, deserve a safe workplace. It is unfortunate that we as a society need courts and laws to ensure that companies do the right thing, but also reassuring that we as Americans have the right to have our complaints heard by a court when employers fail to live up to their responsibilities.

 

 

Ohio.com: Man dies in northeast Ohio industrial accident

 

A recent article in Slate highlighted an important but little noticed executive order signed by President Obama on the last day of July. According to the online magazine, the “Fair Play and Safe Workplaces” order, as it is formally known, “requires companies bidding for federal contracts worth more than $500,000 to make previous violations of labor law public, if they have any to report.” A less well-publicized, but potentially further-reaching, provision “says that companies with federal contracts worth more than $1 million can no longer force their employees out of court, and into arbitration, to settle accusations of workplace discrimination.”

 

As the article goes on to note, arbitration clauses buried deep in the fine print have been spreading widely since a Supreme Court ruling (focused on cellphone contracts) upheld them in 2011. The result has been a loss of court access for many Americans. This trend reached both absurd and frightening proportions earlier this summer when food giant General Mills tried to contend that by ‘liking’ any one of its many products on Facebook or other social media sites, or simply by purchasing an item, customers would surrender the right to sue the company ever, over anything.

 

General Mills later retreated in the face of a storm of public criticism, but the incident highlighted a trend in corporate America that is little-noticed but deeply disturbing: efforts to use ‘terms of service’ to force ordinary Americans to surrender our constitutional right to a trial by jury, as guaranteed by the 7th Amendment. Slate, citing figures compiled by the watchdog group Public Citizen, notes that since that 2011 Supreme Court decision “at least 139 class action suits have died” including cases “brought by consumers who said they’d been stung by predatory lenders, or misleading mortgages, or false promises by vocational schools. And also on the line are complaints by employees of discrimination on the job.”

 

Why are companies so eager to avoid a real courtroom in favor of arbitration? Because, as Slate lays out, in arbitration the table is tilted in the management’s direction: “a study of 4,000 arbitration cases found that employees complaining of on-the-job discrimination won only about 21 percent of the time. In court, they win discrimination suits 50 to 60 percent of the time, other studies show, and receive damage awards that are five times higher, on average.”

 

In my practice as an attorney here in Portland I have always focused on court access – a basic right without which many of our other rights as Americans can be rendered meaningless. In the world of federal contracting $1 million is a comparatively small sum – meaning that many, perhaps most, workers on federal contracts are already enjoying the protections put in place by the president’s executive order. Companies may hate it, but the “Fair Play and Safe Workplaces” order promises to be a powerful new tool for ordinary Americans seeking to protect their rights.

 

Slate: Obama is on a Pro-Labor Roll

 

A significant case involving alleged negligence leading to an industrial accident became more serious last week when obstruction of justice charges were added to it, according to the Associated Press. The news agency reports that a San Francisco-based “federal grand jury charged Pacific Gas & Electric… with lying to federal investigators in connection with a fatal pipeline explosion that killed eight people and leveled a suburban Northern California neighborhood in 2010.”

 

The AP reports that the new charge sheet lists a total of 28 counts against the utility giant, replacing an earlier indictment containing only 12 charges. It accuses PG&E of “lying to National Transportation Safety Board investigators after the blast.” In particular, it alleges that the company sought to mislead government officials about “pipeline testing and maintenance procedures.” A spokesman for PG&E told AP that he had not yet seen the charges, but that the company was expecting them. The company disputes the allegations.

 

If these charges are proven they reflect about as clear a case of bad corporate citizenship as one could imagine. Lying to federal investigators not before but after the company’s negligence has led to the deaths of eight people gives new meaning to the idea of putting profits before people. Righting wrongs like this is why we have an independent court system.

 

According to AP, the allegations, if proven, could leave PG&E liable for more than $1 billion in fines. This is on top of what it may have to pay as a result of lawsuits that are already pending plus “$2.5 billion in civil fines from regulators, including the (California) state public utilities commission.”

 

As an Oregon industrial accident attorney I look at cases like this and am angry that companies feel so secure about engaging in this kind of conduct. PG&E now faces billions of dollars in fines, legal fees and potential negligence and industrial accident damages. All this could have been avoided by simply doing the right thing, but the company apparently believed that it would not get caught – or that if it did the consequences would be slight. We can all be thankful that our courts are here to help average Americans challenge corporate negligence, but mounting those challenges requires constant vigilance from all of us.

 

 

AP via Yahoo! News: PG&E charged with obstruction over San Bruno blast

An article published earlier this month by Al Jazeera America looks at a new academic study focusing on the costs and benefits of bike lanes and other publicly-funded spending on cycling infrastructure. Living in Portland, a city often cited as one of the most bike-friendly in North America, its findings are not likely to be particularly controversial. Still, they are a useful reminder of how bike riding benefits the community at large and not just cyclists themselves.

 

The study (see link below) was published in Environmental Health Perspectives, an academic journal sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. It comes with the ponderous title “The Societal Costs and Benefits of commuter bicycling: Simulating the Effects of Specific Policies Using System Dynamics Modeling” but reaches, Al Jazeera reports, a fairly straightforward conclusion: “for every dollar spent on bike-related infrastructure, cities can receive anywhere from $6 to $24 in cost savings in the form of reductions to pollution and traffic congestion, as well as lowered health care costs from decreased traffic fatalities and increased exercise.”

 

Some of those conclusions may seem obvious to an audience here in bike-friendly Oregon, but they are a reminder that it is important to get the details of infrastructure right. More importantly, in focusing on the big picture – by, for example, citing long-term benefits such as lower health-care costs the study is especially useful.

 

Both the ODOT and local groups are constantly collecting data in an effort to refine Portland and Oregon’s approach to the increasing number of bikes on our roadways. For example, in 2012 evidence emerged that the green bike boxes at many Portland intersections – which seem like a common-sense move – may set in motion a surprising number of Portland bicycle accidents. Discoveries like that do not mean that spending on bike infrastructure is a bad thing – only that more and better data can help us spend the money in more useful ways. That also echoes one of the study’s main conclusions: that dedicated bike lanes, though more costly to build, often offer greater long-term health and safety benefits. Al Jazeera reports the study’s conclusion that dedicated bike lanes are one of the most cost-effective ways to realize these benefits. “The study found that these lanes could increase bike commuting by 20 percent by 2040. Separated bike lanes alongside car traffic also decrease injuries by 50 percent, the study said.”

 

As a Portland bike accident lawyer I am glad to see both the state and the federal government taking these matters seriously. We should all be proud of Portland’s embrace of bike culture – but that does not mean we should not stop trying to improve on our existing record of success.

 

 

Al Jazeera America: Study: Bike lanes save money and lives

 

Link to the Study at the National Institutes of Health website

 

Portland Mercury: City finds bike boxes may actually increase crashes (2012)