The recent death of a man in a New Bedford seafood plant presents a sad reminder of the dangers faced by industrial workers. According to the most recent publication from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011 alone there were 4,693 fatal work injuries in the U.S.
When a worker is seriously injured or killed on the job, OSHA investigates, as was apparently done in this case. By definition, OSHA’s investigation focuses on the employer, and whether the employer could have or should have done something more to prevent the injury. OSHA investigations are nearly always critical of the employer in some respects, because it is OSHA’s job to critique employers on safety practices.
What OSHA rarely focuses on are other causes of accidents beyond the employer’s control. For example, improperly designed machines are common causes of workplace injuries and deaths. Often, the adequacy of a machine’s guards and warnings is either not addressed by OSHA, or unfairly blamed on the employer who is not in the business of machine design.
Why can this be important to the injured worker or his family? Because by law, with rare exceptions, an employee may not bring a claim for negligence or personal injuries against his employer. No matter what fault OSHA finds lies with the employer, all the employee is entitled to is worker’s compensation benefits, which are often modest compared to the real damage done to the worker and his family.
If, however, a worker is injured because of a defective machine, the worker may very well have a separate claim against the machine manufacturer. In such a claim, the worker can collect the full amount of his damages beyond worker’s compensation benefits.
For this reason, in order to preserve their rights, workers and their families should make sure that there is an investigation of all causes of an accident–including any machinery involved–and not just rely on the investigation conducted by OSHA.