Safety Disappears in a Hurry

April 5th, 2006 by

Dressed in surgical scrubs, Dr. Michael Tsan Ty was driving through downtown Boston on his way to Brigham & Women’s Hospital. He was in the midst of his usual 80-hour workweek as a neurology resident. Perhaps he was thinking about his post-doctoral work at MIT, where he studied the way brain cells recover after they are damaged by disease or injury. Or he might have been thinking about his small theatre group, which he somehow found time for during his hectic week. We will never know, because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time: a scaffolding fell off of a building and crushed his Honda. In addition to killing Dr. Tsan, two construction workers died in the accident.
A series of articles in the Boston Globe describe how the scaffold came down during the dismantling process. It might have been human error. It might have been mechanical failure. Investigators are focusing on the apparent disconnection of a metal tie that had secured the 3-ton platform to the building. While there is much that is not known at this point, we do know this: Bostonian Masonry, a subcontractor to the general contractor Macomber Builders, was under tremendous time pressure to finish the job.
According to one employee of the masonry company, Workers had been laboring two shifts a day, seven days a week to try to get the building ready for the next school year. This push to complete the job has left many of the workers exhausted.
”The pressure is unbelievable,” said the worker.
Robert Beane, 41, the supervisor killed in the accident, worked so hard at his construction job that ”it seemed like it beat the snot out of him,” said Edward Page, who once was Beane’s roommate. Beane had plenty of construction experience and had completed a number of OSHA training programs. His co-worker, Romildo Silva, a young Brazilian with a family, dreamed of opening a hair salon. He, too, died in the accident.
Time Pressures
Where did the pressure come from? We need look no further than the public statement of the customer, Emerson College. Officials said that from the outset, the project, renovating an office building into dormitories, had been scheduled to open this fall.
”It’s going to open September 2006, and that was stated at the outset of construction,” said Emerson spokesman David Rosen. ”We expect it to be finished on time if work resumes within a week.” In other words, inspectors have a week to complete their work and draw their conclusions. A week to bury the dead and move on. Then it’s back to business as usual.
We are in no position to judge the pace of the work or the working conditions. Both Macomber and Bostonian Masonry have been cited for OSHA violations in the past, but that does not necessarily mean there were problems at this particular jobsite. At this point I would guess that human error caused the accident. But how can you factor in the deeply-rooted fatigue that appears to permeate the Emerson jobsite?
Fingers pointing everywhere, but no one is to blame. Let’s extract just one simple lesson from this incident: haste trumps safety, every time. No safety program can adequately adjust for an unreasonable pace of work. Whether you’re driving a car or working on a scaffold, when you’re in hurry, you and the lives around you are always at risk.

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