Minimize conjecture to protect yourself
I read your newspaper because it gives a good global picture of what is going on in industry. You frequently write of fatal accidents, which turned out to be quite useful in my case.
[Editor's note: a worker died in an industrial accident at Vincent Corp.'s Tampa plant in 2002.]
Here are some things we noted after the lawyers were made to go away:
Probably the most important item was one that they never taught me at the seminar on how to handle an accidental death in your factory. At the seminars, they teach you not to say anything, because you will feel guilt. But that's not good enough. I needed to stop and imagine any way whatsoever to blame the tragedy on someone else. ``He was despondent and committed suicide.'' ``He was on drugs and OD'ed.''
This chain of thought would have led to the notion that the worker blacked out and fell into the machine. Ironically, that is very likely what happened.
Instead, people started talking about his being caught by loose clothing. This conjecture even ended up in the coroner's report! Yet, it could not have been further from the truth. The man did not have a stitch of loose clothing.
In the minutes after the accident, I needed to know that the TV crews were on the way. Two actually showed up. The thing to do would have been to block the view and send home all but the essential people to minimize speculation.
In the hours after the accident, I needed to know that I was in for an extremely thorough [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] inspection. We could have been much better prepared by the next day, when they came for that inspection.
The OSHA inspectors found a prescription medicine in the worker's toolbox, with a ``causes drowsiness'' warning. We needed to have the coroner check for the presence of this drug, and anything else that would have made the worker pass out. I called the police detective on the case, and I asked him to have this done. Lotsa luck. That man was so overloaded nothing happened, and the worker was cremated. Instead, I should have called our worker's compensation carrier and had their medical director (I never dreamed they had one) get it done. He actually knew the coroner!
When we were asking to have the wrongful death case dismissed, I think it would have helped to point out that OSHA had given us a minor fine and they had not cited us for a single willful violation.
It certainly would have taken some wind out of the plaintiff, who made a big deal of a large number of unrelated serious violations.
It was not until months later that I read in Plastics News that willful violations are the ones that carry weight, not the serious ones.
It never occurred to me that a private detective was going to call employees at home and record the conversations. We could have told the employees beforehand not to talk to anyone.
I thought your readers might find this useful.
Robert B. Johnston