Learn from History

Safety Procedures binder

History repeating itself is a sad and all too common occurrence in the safety world. Is there anything more tragic than well-known hazards causing multiple injuries over time? If we could only learn from our mistakes, we could greatly decrease injury rates across all industries. Sometimes it takes a tragedy to garner our attention and to precipitate actions. Rather than wait for the next mass casualty incident let’s review a few from the past and use this as motivation to prevent history from repeating.

March 25, 1911, New York City- The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

When a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the Asch Building it spread extremely fast throughout the floor and the floor above. These floors were occupied by the Triangle Waist Company that employed about 500 workers making women’s blouses, then called shirtwaists. The fire was over in minutes and the result was 146 workers dead. Exits were locked to prevent theft, elevators were too small, and the fire escapes collapsed. Fire department ladders could only reach to the sixth floor and many workers perished while jumping to the street to escape the flames.

Could this happen again? Sadly, the answer is yes- unless everyone in your facility contributes to workplace safety. Consider these points:

  • Are your exits blocked with the latest delivery or items you just don’t know where to keep?
  • Do you have an Emergency Evacuation Plan? Is it time for a fire drill?
  • Is your fire alarm and suppression system properly inspected and maintained?
  • Is combustible dust from manufacturing operations controlled?
  • Are fire extinguishers inspected monthly and do individuals know how to use them?
  • Do you store flammables in accordance with OSHA and NFPA standards?

March 27, 1977- Los Rodeos Airport, the Spanish Island of Tenerife. History’s worst aviation disaster.

When a Pan American 747 and a KLM 747 collided on that foggy runway only 61 survivors emerged while 583 passengers and crew perished on the two aircraft. Although not many of our readers operate jet aircraft, there are many lessons to be learned from this incident, no matter the industry. In this case, fatigue, communication failures, bad weather, and unexpected schedule changes all impacted safety. How do you handle these issues at work?

  • Are workers monitored for signs of fatigue? Do they take their breaks away from their work? Are third shift workers injured more often than others?
  • Does your team fully understand their role, responsibilities, and limitations? Are you clearly communicating expectations and holding people accountable for best practices?
  • Are adverse weather conditions accounted for in scheduling assignments? Are all walking surfaces free of ice and snow?
  • Is safety considered when someone calls in sick or workloads unexpectedly increase?

December 2, 1984, Bhopal, India. A gas leak resulted in over 3,000 immediate deaths, thousands more in the weeks following, and over half a million injuries.

When this leak from the Union Carbide pesticide plant released methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas into the atmosphere the results were horrific. The causal factors discovered during the investigation became a laundry list of malfunctioning valves, corroded piping, disconnected alarm systems, and complacent employees. The end result was the release of over 40 metric tons of MIC that were blown by the wind over Bhopal. Forgetting the lessons learned nearly 40 years ago would be opening the door to another disaster. If your organization handles any hazardous chemical, ask yourself:

  • If applicable, do you have an updated Process Safety Management Plan?
  • Are all workers fully trained on proper use, storage, disposal, health hazards, and required PPE for all the chemicals in your workplace?
  • Is your Safety Data Sheet library up to date and readily accessible?
  • Do you have a written Hazardous Communication Plan and are all employees trained in accordance with that plan?

Fortunately, major disasters such as these are rare. But the truth is that conditions may exist today, in innumerable locations across the country and the world, that could lead to similar results. Although you may not be able to prevent the next international air disaster, you can help your organization prevent the next injury. Consider all the questions asked in the paragraphs above, review your own policies, procedures, and compliance issues. Address the hazards you find, ensure all equipment is maintained, and verify that all workers are following best practices.

As noted in a previous Safety Net post, Most Frequently Cited OSHA Standards- A Case of History Repeating Itself, the great British statesman Winston Churchill once said, “When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong–these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.” I couldn’t have said it any better.