Workplace Safety: A Review of Important Moments in United States History

On March 25, 1911, a tragic event known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire killed 146 workers who were trapped inside a burning factory with no way to escape the blazing flames.  Besides claims that the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory had a history of committing insurance fraud in other buildings they previously owned, there were many crucial factors which led to the deaths of these workers.  Some of these factors were: (1) the fire; (2) the emergency exit doors—which served as the only safe means for escape—were locked; (3) the rotten water hose that could have been used to put out the fire; (4) the rusted valves that prevented the workers from accessing the water supply; (5) only one of the factory’s four elevators was operational, and the one elevator that did work was only able to transport a few workers before it completely broke down due to the fire; and (6) the fire trucks which responded to the emergency were not equipped ladders that could only extend up to the seventh floor (the fire was on the eighth floor).

While the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire contributed to the death of an unprecedented amount of factory workers, it also contributed to a critical reformation regarding safety in the workplace.  In 1913 (just two years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire), the National Safety Council (“NSC”) was founded.  In the beginning, the NSC determined that poor working conditions caused more than 20,000 deaths of industrial workers each year in the United States. In light of these daunting statistics, the NSC set out to accomplish one primary goal: make workplaces safer.  This goal, coupled with its new core values (e.g., Be Safe, Be Bold, and Be Impactful), has helped create a culture of safety in the workplace.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) is another agency that has made a significant impact in creating and maintaining safe workplaces.  Since OSHA was founded in 1971, the workplace fatality rate has dropped an astonishingly 42%.  OSHA also established workers’ rights in the workplace, including the right to secure information and training, in a language that you understand, about hazards, methods to prevent harm, and the OSHA standards that apply to your workplace.

The NSC’s impact has not only brought positive changes to the workplace, but it has also created a nationwide awareness regarding the dangers found in the workplace.  This year, the NSC celebrated June’s 25th anniversary as National Safety Month.  Despite the foundation of the NSC and OSHA, there is still much to be done as the number of workplace injuries (including deaths) has recently begun to increase.  According to recent studies, it has been determined that each day in the United States 16 workers die on the job and more than 14,000 workers suffer an injury or illness.

Preventing Common Hazards in the Workplace

Texas Supreme Court case law has clearly established that “all companies owe third-parties a duty of reasonable care.  As stated in Crosstex North Texas Pipeline LP v. Gardiner, 505 S.W.3d 580, 614 (Tex. 2016), “in the conduct of one’s business . . . the law imposes upon all persons the duty to exercise ordinary care to avoid injury . . . to others.”

The following are examples of common hazards that lead to injuries or death in the workplace:

Struck by Objects

The National Safety Council characterizes “struck by objects” as one of the most common causes of work-related deaths.  According to the NSC, these types of hazards often occur as the result of a worker who is:

  • Struck against an object
  • Struck by an object
  • Caught in an object or piece of equipment
  • Caught in collapsing material

According to a recent study, about 75% of workers who suffer fatal injuries at the workplace were killed while using heavy equipment, such as trucks or cranes.

Preventive Measures that can be enforced to eliminate Struck by Objects Injuries:

  • Conducting routine maintenance to ensure that a vehicle or piece of equipment are safe to operate
  • Ensuring that large and/or heavy objects are not stored at dangerous heights
  • Providing initial (and supplemental) training to employees regarding safe practices around heavy machinery
  • Posting adequate signs that warn workers regarding the risks/dangers of working in certain areas where heavy machinery is operated
  • Ensuring that all employees have access to, and understand how to use, proper protective equipment
  • Ensuring that all safety mechanisms (e.g., emergency stop buttons) are easily accessible and are in proper working order
  • Utilizing properly rated chains, straps, or slings to lift and move heavy objects

These Kinds of Hazards Common in Offshore Oil and Gas Accidents are often due to:

Another common cause of work-related deaths is commonly found in the offshore oil and gas industry.  According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”), there are an average of 16 offshore fatalities each year relating to oil and gas operations in the United States.  Many of these fatalities were determined to have taken place in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  Since this study, there have been other tragic accidents which have taken place in the Gulf of Mexico, such as the capsizing of the Seacor Power which resulted in more than a dozen fatalities to seaman located on the vessel.  Some of the common hazards found in the offshore oil and gas industry result from:

  • The use of damaged or defective equipment
  • Being exposed to dangerous chemicals which ultimately lead to burns or a respiratory disease
  • Exposure to electrical hazards
  • Inadequate safety policies
  • Failing to enforce safety policies
  • Failing to follow OSHA regulations
  • Failing to conduct routine maintenance of equipment and facilities
  • Failing to monitor weather conditions before operating a vessel offshore

Preventive Measures that can be enforced to eliminate Offshore Oil and Gas Accidents:

  • Immediately replacing or repairing damaged and/or defective equipment
  • Training employees on how to work around dangerous chemicals that can cause severe injury or death if mishandled
  • Training employees how to recognize electrical hazards, how to eliminate electrical hazards, and how to protect other workers from electrical hazards
  • Revising and enforcing safety policies
  • Ensuring that workers who should be OSHA certified are OSHA certified
  • Creating policies that require routine maintenance of equipment and facilities

Generally, most employers (and workers) are familiar with the phrase “all accidents are preventable.”  While most of the obvious hazards that existed in the early 1900’s during the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire are no longer a threat to workers in today’s workplace, many other hazards to workers still exist.  Accordingly, the specific safety measures that an employer must implement to prevent workplace accidents depend on the type of work that the employer (and its employees) perform.

Do Injured Workers have Rights?

Another important consideration that industrial workers should be aware of deals with employees’ rights.  Injured employees do have rights, many of which depend on whether the employer is a subscriber to Texas Worker’s Compensation.  Below is a list of some (not all) of the important rights found on the Texas Workers’ Compensation website and which all employees should be aware of:

  1. Texas, unlike other states, does not require an employer to have workers’ compensation coverage.
  2. Subscribing to workers’ compensation insurance puts a limit on the amount and type of compensation that an injured employee may receive—the limits are set in the law.
  3. Being a “non-subscriber”, i.e., going “bare” or without coverage, leaves an employer open to personal injury lawsuits from employees who are injured on the job – the damages and attorney’s fees are almost unlimited – in addition, certain defenses available in most personal injury lawsuits, such as assumption of the risk, contributory negligence, “last clear chance”, and co-worker negligence, are not available to a non-subscriber in a job injury case.
  4. Under workers’ compensation law, an injury or illness is covered, without regard to fault, if it was sustained in the course and scope of employment, i.e., while furthering or carrying on the employer’s business; this includes injuries sustained during work-related travel.

Why Hire a Houston Work Injury Attorney?

For decades, employers have spent an unquantifiable amount of time attempting to either shirk their duties to injured employees and/or find loopholes to avoid being held responsible under the law.  This should not come as a surprise since most workplace accidents will eventually involve an insurance company, which commonly use one-sided tactics that result in arbitrary decisions that ultimately deprive or deny the injured worker certain benefits to which he is entitled.  It follows that an injured worker who is entitled to certain rights or benefits may not receive these rights or benefits due to the unrelenting efforts which these big companies utilize to their benefit.

Fortunately, the Houston work injury attorneys at Morrow & Sheppard LLP are familiar with the tactics employed by these big oil and gas companies, and more importantly how to overcome them.  If you or a loved one were seriously injured or tragically killed in a workplace accident, call us now at (800) 489-2216 for a free consultation regarding your rights under the law.