By Joe Fisher
If you’ve taken a major highway in Texas such as I-10 or I-35 anytime within the last 50 years, you know there’s a good amount of construction taking place. With that in mind, let’s consider a hypothetical situation.
A group of workers is building an on-ramp, and the construction site is crowded with all the vehicles and equipment you would expect to see in a project like this. One worker, operating a front loader, puts the vehicle in park and gets out to take a short break. For some reason, the vehicle begins to roll, striking another worker and severely injuring him.
How did this happen?
To help figure that out, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is typically brought in to investigate. But what role does OSHA play, and who is it there to help? There are two issues to consider in this entire, unfortunate situation:
- The accident itself
- The injured worker
Whenever an investigation such as this takes place, there’s a not entirely unreasonable assumption that it’s going to determine exactly what happened and help those who were wronged. While the first of those two outcomes is true – at least in theory – the second isn’t necessarily. The reality is that OSHA’s purpose is to make sure state and federal rules are enforced, and to hold businesses that violate those rules accountable. If someone was hurt in an accident, OSHA might consider that unfortunate, but getting that person the proper medical attention isn’t its job. It tends to focus its efforts on occupational safety, much as the name implies.
Once an investigation has been completed, OSHA makes a determination as to whether any rules were broken. If so, the employer is penalized, the investigators go home, and life goes on. Ostensibly. But what about the construction worker, the one injured by the front loader? Depending on what caused the accident, it’s possible OSHA can ensure that steps are taken to prevent incidents like it from happening in the future. But while the worker is undoubtedly grateful for that, he’s in need of help now.
So, how can an attorney help?
Let’s go back to the accident. What caused it?
That’s an important question because the answer can determine who’s liable for the worker’s injuries and can be made to pay for his medical expenses, lost wages, even lost earning capacity. In our situation, a co-worker was operating the front loader and exited the vehicle immediately before the accident. So, what caused it to move? Did the worker fail to completely shut it down, or to engage the brakes? If so, fault may lie with the employer. Perhaps employees weren’t given a sufficient level of safety training. Perhaps the worker simply forgot.
There are other possibilities. One is that there is something wrong with the vehicle itself. Perhaps its brakes failed, or it shifted out of gear. Should that be the case, fault may lie with the manufacturer. If the machine was recently worked on, a mechanic or technician may be to blame. This is why consulting an attorney is important, even if one is unsure it’s necessary. Other parties may have contributed to the accident. If that’s the case, the compensation a victim is entitled to may go beyond what’s allowed through workers compensation.
To determine whether that’s the case, an attorney will investigate. As the victim’s advocate, the attorney can determine what happened and who should be held responsible. The attorney can also make OSHA work for the victim. This means they can contact OSHA on a worker’s behalf, alert them to a problem and request that they investigate. Should an employer be cited following that investigation, the worker can use that as evidence, should they have the grounds and decide to file a lawsuit. Violations can be costly and disruptive. Because of this, workplace safety is significantly better today than it has been in years past. It also means there are instances in which violations and unsafe practices are covered up in order to keep a company from being penalized. Workers can be threatened or intimidated into staying silent about these infractions. As an advocate, attorneys can act as intermediaries between workers and OSHA, providing them anonymity and protecting their interests.
OSHA serves an incredibly important purpose. Because of it, workers are safer and accidents fewer. But while workers benefit from the services OSHA provides, they are still in need of help. The results of an OSHA investigation can be used to get the victims of workplace accidents the compensation and help they need. But it doesn’t fall to OSHA to make that happen.
For that, workers need skilled attorneys who are willing to stand up and fight for them.