The recent Texas fertilizer plant explosion has focused the nation’s eyes on the important matter of workplace safety. When an employee is injured or killed on the job, Warren investigators are often called in to identify what went wrong and how it could have been prevented.
That was the case when I investigated an employee fatality at a commercial laundry facility. The employee was using a mechanical hoist to transfer a trolley containing a 200-pound bag of clothing, approximately 20 feet in the air, to be transferred onto an overhead track. The employee heard the trolley’s restraint mechanism activate and assumed the machine was properly aligned and running smoothly between its two tracks. Unfortunately, the tracks had failed to connect. As the lift lowered, the trolley and attached bag rolled off the hoist, fell, and hit the operator in the back of the head. The injury eventually led to his death.
A detailed investigation of the lift revealed many facts about the machine, its history, and installation at the laundry facility. Originally purchased in 1995 by the laundry’s parent company, the lift was installed in a laundry in Illinois and later moved to the facility where the incident occurred in 2003. What wasn’t installed as part of the move was an important safety mechanism — a trip cam — designed to prevent the hoist lift from lowering if the trolley failed to properly transfer from the hoist track to the overhead rail.
Ultimately, a lawsuit was brought against the laundry’s parent company, which installed the equipment, for failing to correctly install the original manufacturer’s safety devices when the equipment was relocated. While state workers’ compensation laws protected the laundry as the worker’s employer from being sued, a federal court ruled the parent company could be sued when the parent company and the laundry maintained separate identities as these two businesses did. The suit eventually culminated in a multimillion-dollar settlement.
Tragedies like these underscore the importance of following equipment manufacturer guidelines that are developed to ensure worker and workplace safety. Equally important is ensuring workers are not working within known hazardous zones or situations. The parent company’s negligence in failing to reinstall the manufacturer’s safety trip cam was a contributing factor to the death of the employee — a death that could have been prevented by due diligence.
Jeffery H. Warren, PhD, PE, CSP, is the chief engineer and CEO at Warren specializing in mechanical, machine design and safety. His deep expertise in machine design and safety analysis makes him a frequent presenter, trainer and expert witness. In addition to investigating more than 2000 claims involving property damage and injuries related to machinery and equipment since 1987, Jeff has an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of North Carolina as well as a Master of Science and a Doctorate in Mechanical Engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University — both with machine design emphasis.