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Safety Superheros: Confined to the Shadows?

Every day, there are many cases where a worker steps up, risking their own safety to ensure that of another. They see a dangerous situation, and a person they may or may not know about to walk into it, and step forward to prevent it or rescue them from it. These are the Safety Superheros. The ones you rarely hear about. Their impact can be enormous, in the great scheme of things.

Back in 1862, a young 15 year old teenager named Al was selling newspapers and candy on the Grand Trunk Railroad to Detroit.. As Al was working one day, he spotted a three year old boy walking along the tracks, unaware of a freight car approaching him.  Al quickly ran to the boy, pulling him from danger just in time. In gratitude, the boy’s father- who happened to be the railroad’s station master, offered to teach Al how to operate the telegraph. Al was intrigued by this technology and he sought to improve upon it. This simple act of recognizing a hero helped propel Thomas Alva Edison to go on and become America’s greatest and most famous inventor.

Acts such as this should inspire other to do likewise. Those that step beyond the ordinary to help another should be celebrated! Unfortunately, it seems that the opposite view is the most common- at least in the eyes of those charged with enforcing safety regulations.

In 1993 Kevin Gill, a construction worker in Idaho, was at a multi-employer construction site when he heard a worker from another company cry for help-he was trapped by a trench cave-in. Kevin jumped in to dig the employee out, acting quickly to save his life. And the result of this worker’s heroic action?  Kevin’s employer was fined nearly $8,000 in penalties by OSHA because Kevin did not shore up the trench or wear a hard hat during the rescue.

That was then. Thanks in part to intercession by Idaho Senator Dirk Hempthorne, the fines and penalties were rescinded against the company. He also proposed the Heroic Exemptions to Regulations Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. In response, OSHA issued a Policy on Employee Rescue Efforts (1903.14) on Dec. 27, 1994. This is the policy OSHA follows today. However, it isn’t as simple and straightforward as one might expect, and the differences can still mean fines and penalties.

The policy exempts from citations employers of workers who voluntarily rescue people in imminent danger, provided the worker performed the rescue outside of his or her normal job duties, and did so voluntarily.

The policy does not cover employees assigned to rescue, first-aid, or emergency response activities. It also does not cover workers in operations where the likelihood of life-threatening accidents is foreseeable, such as confined spaces or trenches, hazardous waste, and construction over water.

Training programs also have an impact on the likelihood of being fined for an employee’s heroic action. The policy does not cover the employer who fails to provide protection of the safety and health of the rescuer, including failing to provide appropriate training and rescue equipment. [29 CFR Part 1903.(f)(1)(ii)]

In other words, the “rescuer” must be trained in rescue and provided with the necessary rescue equipment…. but cannot be assigned to a position that includes rescue in the job description or would be otherwise expected to perform rescues.  That seems to be what the policy states,  but in an interpretation letter to administrators, James Stanley- Deputy Assistant Secretary for OSHA in 1994- “clarifies that section in this way:

“Although this does not necessarily mean that the employer is required to provide rescue equipment (except where required by a specific standard, e.g., 1926.106) or to train the employees in proper rescue procedures unless he intends them to conduct rescues, circumstances may arise where the employer may be under an obligation to supply such equipment, e.g., where he knows that conditions at a site are dangerous and that his employees are likely to attempt rescues. It does mean that he must instruct employees in the dangers attendant upon rescuing persons without such training and equipment and that they are not to attempt such rescues in the absence of proper equipment and training. “

So, they don’t necessarily have to provide rescue training to employees who are not normally rescuers, but those employees are prohibited from engaging in a rescue without proper training and equipment.

While the determination and fervor of OSHA and other government agencies to protect workers and ensure a safe workplace to the extent possible is commendable, it is inherently wrong to discourage employees from willingly going to the aid of others, even when they recognize the risk to themselves. Every situation is unique. Restrictions that are too rigid and uncompromising, such as those in the Act, do more to discourage employees from stepping up than anything else. It is enough that they risk their own safety, without worrying about risking their job or financially hurting their employer as well.

Why provide incentives for working safe for x number of days, or suggesting improvements, or anything else, when the penalty for voluntarily rescuing someone in distress- even saving their life- is actively discouraged?



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