Articles Posted in Industrial Accidents

On this May Day it is appropriate to pause for a moment and give some thought to workplace safety. With that in mind I’d like to highlight a rather stunning statistic that appeared in the pages of The Oregonian this week: more than 54,000 Americans die every year from workplace-linked causes. That figure was part of a report published by the National Council for Occupational Health and Safety, drawing on data gathered by the federal government.

According to the study, in 2013 (the most recent year for which figures are available) 4,585 workers died on the job in the United States. That figure is far too high, but based on what we all know regarding dangerous jobs such as logging, truck driving or working in certain types of industrial facilities it is, perhaps, not overly surprising for a country the size of ours. In addition to that, however: “an additional 50,000 people die each year from long-term exposure to workplace hazards such as asbestos, silica and benzene, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration,” the report said, according to The Oregonian.

That figure is, frankly, stunning, especially when one considers that one of the toxic agents named – asbestos – is a product whose dangers have been known for decades. Add to that the paper’s comment that “proven prevention strategies are available for all the major categories which result in worker deaths, including transportation incidents, contacts with objects and equipment, falls, workplace violence, exposure to harmful substances and environments, and fires and explosions” and one has to ask why these numbers are so high.

A new report by Oregon Public Broadcasting indicates that the Prineville Mill, whose roof collapsed on a snowy morning last November, was warned of the possible danger well in advance. According to OPB the Mill’s own employees raised the alarm to no avail.

Astonishingly, no one was hurt when the roof at Woodgrain Millwork collapsed. That does not, however, change the face that this incident is an almost textbook example of an Oregon industrial accident and a reminder of why our court system is crucial in holding companies to account where their employees safety is concerned.

Plant employees who spoke with OPB “paint a picture of an environment at Woodgrain where building maintenance was lax and the roof leaked for years. The former Woodgrain workers described what they saw as a number of unsafe conditions and potential safety hazards at the mill, even before the roof collapsed.”

With the return of baseball there is also renewed interest this week in “subrogation” – a term that most non-lawyers aren’t familiar with, but one which could ruin the lives of many accident victims here in Oregon and elsewhere even as it enriches their insurance companies.

As outlined in a recent Bloomberg Business story, subrogation, a concept whose origins lie in the American Revolution, is a legal doctrine that allows insurance companies to claim damages from third parties in cases where they must pay claims. “An insurer, for instance, might seek to be repaid by the maker of a faulty furnace that caused a fire in a building the company covered,” the news agency writes. Few would argue with a straightforward example like that, but as is so often the case in modern America big business has turned a well-intentioned legal doctrine on its head in the service of its own bottom lines.

What has brought subrogation into sudden focus is the case of Bryan Stow, the San Francisco Giants fan who was beaten nearly to death in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium on Opening Day four years ago. Last year, Bloomberg reports, Stow won an $18 million judgment against the Dodgers and his two assailants (both of whom are now in prison) but “he has yet to receive any money” because his insurance company is aggressively using the legal system to try to claim millions from the settlement. This is happening even as his medical bills continue to mount, and as the 46-year-old faces a life of hospital visits, physical therapy and expensive ongoing medical care – not to mention decades of lost wages and the long-term emotional effect on him and his family.

A recent Associated Press article republished by The Oregonian reported that Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Division has fined a Salem company and the Oregon Department of Transportation for separate incidents that led to worker deaths. The deaths raise both possible Oregon wrongful death and employment liability law issues but, more immediately, leave open questions about the effectiveness of OSHA’s fines themselves.

According to the news agency, citing the East Oregonian newspaper, OSHA fined a Salem-based concrete company “$840 for not ensuring safe work conditions, which led to the death” of a 64-year old man employed by the company. “The company was installing rumble strips at the paving project on Interstate 84 west of Boardman when (he) was run over by a pickup towing equipment operated by another employee.”

The agency also fined the state transportation agency $3500 over the death of a highway maintenance crew member who was “paving Highway 320 when a dump truck backed up and ran over him.”

The Oregonian is reporting that a fire this week at the Western Star truck factory on Swan Island caused over half a million dollars in damage and has slowed production at the facility. As details of the blaze emerge, it is also becoming apparent that the incident raises significant employment liability law issues and may also merit investigation as a possible Oregon industrial accident.

According to the newspaper, “the fire started when sparks created by an employee grinding near the plant’s paint booth ignited flammable liquids in the area. The fire bypassed the sprinkler system and spread to the ceiling.”

Here in Oregon an employment liability law claim can be brought against employers who fail to install or properly maintain safety equipment or who don’t give employees the safety training they need to carry out their jobs. Based on the media reports about this factory fire several of these conditions ought at least to be open to examination. Why were flammable materials anywhere near the place where an employee was doing a job that produces sparks? How was it that a fire moving along the ceiling failed to trigger the sprinkler system? Was there flammable residue on the ceiling itself that helped spread the fire and, if so, how did it get there? These questions raise issues related to both training and maintenance procedures at the plant and all need to be examined closely in the days and weeks to come.

Investigators from Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration are looking into a possible Oregon industrial accident that claimed the life of a Scappoose woman on Thanksgiving Day.

According to a report in The Oregonian the 43-year-old woman “died Thursday afternoon in an explosion that investigators believe was started by sparks from a metal grinder at an industrial work site.” The fact that, according to the local sheriff’s office, the site of the accident was being leased by a trucking company from a third party may prove to be significant in determining whether this incident meets the legal definition of an Oregon industrial accident.

Third-party liability is often overlooked in reporting on incidents like this, but is important nonetheless. Under Oregon law a company or a property owner’s duty to provide a safe workplace extends to sub-contractors as well as its employees. While we obviously cannot draw any firm conclusions based solely on the short piece in The Oregonian, it will be important for OOSHA investigators and, in turn, the courts to consider where ultimate responsibility for this fatal accident may lie.

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.

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.

Following up on a blog I posted a few days ago concerning Oregon industrial accidents, it is my happy duty to report a significant sign of progress both for public safety and for the public’s right to know.

Wednesday evening The Oregonian reported that “the owner of the oil train terminal near Clatskanie (will) begin requiring safer tanker cars to deliver oil to the facility starting June 1.” Regular readers will recall that just a few days ago I wrote about a reversal of policy by the Oregon Department of Transportation. After The Oregonian won a court case seeking access to documents that rail companies are required to file regarding hazardous shipments, the ODOT initially announced it would no longer collect this information, on the grounds that it was now public. As I reported a few days ago, the agency reversed that policy under pressure from the Governor, the media and, most importantly, the public.

Today, it is good to report that the owners of a major oil terminal will require higher safety standards for shipments passing through their facility. While there is no way to link this directly to the events of the past week, it is always good to welcome a victory for the public’s right to know and, more broadly, for public safety.

In a reversal that highlights the power of public opinion, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is backtracking on a plan to stop receiving reports on hazardous materials shipments that it is supposed to be regulating.

According to an article published in The Oregonian earlier this week ODOT had planned “to stop asking railroads for annual reports showing where crude oil moves in the state… because The Oregonian successfully sought to have them made public.” In other words, because a newspaper successfully argues that Oregonians have a right to know about hazardous materials being shipped through our state the state agency charged with regulating that industry planned to stop collecting the reports – reports which are required by law.

At the risk of stating the obvious, hazardous materials shipments are inherently risky. The possibility of an Oregon industrial accident as a result of negligence or improper training or procedures anywhere along a long chain of suppliers and hundreds of miles of railway track is significant. That is why ODOT is supposed to be regulating hazardous materials shipments: to exercise government’s function as the people’s representative in the interests of public health and safety. After the backlash prompted by the announcement the newspaper quotes ODOT director Matt Garrett acknowledging “in an interview that ODOT needed to begin fulfilling its duty as the state’s rail safety regulator to protect Oregonians, not the companies it oversees.”

50 SW Pine St 3rd Floor Portland, OR 97204 Telephone: (503) 226-3844 Fax: (503) 943-6670 Email: matthew@mdkaplanlaw.com
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