The One Minute Takeaway
Charges of manslaughter against a business owner for a worker fatality provides lessons on worker safety and business protections.
Work orders don’t always go as planned. That was the case for one Seattle-based construction company owner who was fined more than $51,000 and charged with second degree manslaughter after an employee was killed in a trench collapse that could have been avoided.
When Seattle-based Alki Construction was connecting a sewer line at a local home in 2016, the trench employees were working in collapsed. The worker, who was 7-ft. under, had only a single shore of protection - hardly the multi-point system that is required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). An investigation revealed that the owner had personally been directing workers at the site just before the collapse. OSHA determined that the death was more than just negligent - it was “willful.”
While a manslaughter indictment on a construction site may be uncommon, construction deaths aren’t. As many as 5,000 worker fatalities occur in the U.S. each year. More than 20 percent of them happen on construction sites.
How can you protect your workers and yourself?
As a construction business owner/operator, there are no-cost steps you can take to ensure construction site safety for your workers and management. Keep these four best practices top of mind:
1. Put a stop work authority system in place. Every construction site should have stop work authority. If a worker – no matter how junior – doesn’t feel safe, or witnesses unsafe practices, he can stop work at any time, returning to the task at hand after the issue has been resolved.
2. Train regularly. Consistent, ongoing construction site safety training should be a priority. Consider including both on-site toolbox talks to educate workers on how to safely do their job, and annual company-wide training on safety best practices and corporate policies and procedures.
3. Provide workers with the materials and tools they need. Without the proper tools to do the job and safety equipment to protect the workers doing it, construction site safety training is ineffective. Make sure your workers have what they need to succeed daily.
4. Know and exceed the law. OSHA regulations are a bare minimum. Companies with a good safety record continually exceed them. They go above and beyond what OSHA asks of them because they don’t want an employee to have to make a decision between doing what’s right for their safety and getting the job done.
Workplace fatalities are most often accidents, but can be the result of negligence at times. Most are not grounds for criminal indictment, like the Alki Construction case. When they are, no amount of business insurance can protect an owner or employee from criminal manslaughter charges.
In typical cases, a business’ first line of defense following an employee injury or death is a workers’ compensation policy. Required of employers in 49 states, workers’ compensation insurance protects employees – and shields employers – by covering the high costs of medical care, disability, rehabilitation and death benefits for those injured or killed in work-related accidents.
Again, criminal indictment aside, should a lawsuit allege you, other employees or leadership of failure to make the best decisions for employees, directors and officers (D&O) insurance is what you’ll need to safeguard your business and personal assets. Without it, you could be held personally liable for actions you take on behalf of the organization. D&O insurance covers defense costs and damages should you or any of your employees be named in a lawsuit, regulatory action or face allegations of misrepresentation or breach of fiduciary duties. Think of D&O insurance as corporate and personal asset protection for your principal decision makers.