Mincing words

Bill Wilson / July 15, 2008

One word to die by.

That is all I needed. Cause of death: electrocution.

When my wife told me how a local FOX news station described what happened to a pair of workers when they made a fatal maneuver operating an aerial lift around power lines, my nose crinkled in disgust.

“Why did they have to be that descriptive?” I moaned out of my pillow.

These days the media has mastered the practice of soaking the verbal brush they paint with and splattering it across the viewing audience for that “oohs-and-aahs” effect. Keep a tarp right by the couch, because it flies often and without warning.

Instead of launching high-flying adjectives or twisting, turning adverbs to describe the state of the unfortunates’ remains, I could have benefited more from accounts leading to the deadly breach. Why did two workers attempting to paint a bridge roam off-course? Maybe the operator was locked into surveying the task ahead. Maybe there was a momentary lapse in depth perception.

When I attended the Crane & Hoist Conference last December in Las Vegas, I was able to sit in on a session addressing safety and power lines. It was not long before the audience flipped the podium around. Concerns never crested, they just kept rising. After a while it was clear that there just was not enough industry sandbagging going on.

Constant words to live by. That is what every worker needs tucked under the hard hat. In late June I had the opportunity to visit the I-35W bridge construction site up in Minneapolis. As many as 600 workers sweat for that job on a daily basis. Walking the southbound portion of the span, clusters of them were splotched all over the place. Cable was being pulled in for post-tensioning, sections prepped for positioning, old road being demolished once and for all. The bridge is wide enough to land a Boeing 777, and it is being snapped together in just 10 months. So far there has not been a single serious safety issue. Why? Because the prime contractor conducts safety briefings every single day. Miss a class and there are safety posters hitting you in the face (softly, of course) as you approach the jobsite.

Aerial lift operators do the ups and downs necessary for a certificate, and then in most cases are left to roam the skies alone. Everybody needs a refresher course. Do you know how many times an editor refers back to the Associated Press Stylebook? Let’s put it this way, if it were stripped from us after journalism school, we all would be jolted to our deaths.

The ANSI standard that deals with aerial lift safety is non-enforceable. Contractors cannot lose a job they just won because someone is swaying dangerously. Rental equipment dealers cannot lose a business because they just dropped the piece of equipment off and promptly checked out. Sure, they can be sued into oblivion and watched and financially whacked by OSHA, but the courts could ultimately make the blow feel like it is coming from a Wiffle bat instead of an aluminum one. Workers can only lose a finger, lose a limb or, much worse, lose a life.

There is no everyday accountability. Eagle Painting, which dispensed the two workers who were electrocuted, has been cited before for workplace safety violations. Back in 2005 an employee suffered a fatal fall while working on a bridge in Kentucky. That person is gone forever, but Eagle Painting is still alive and well. Why? One word: injustice.

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