The blame game for the April 27 fatal collapse of a construction crane in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood began almost before the dust had settled at the accident site.
Within hours, experts were already calling out human error as a likely culprit in the tragedy, which killed two ironworkers disassembling the crane and two people in cars on the street below. “I think there’s a 99% chance that this is a human error cause and not a structural or mechanical failure by the machine,” a construction safety expert told CNN.
These kinds of statements — in essence, blaming the workers for their own deaths — are common following workplace accidents. They also grossly oversimplify the complex causes of on-the-job injuries and fatalities and the factors that contribute to them, most of which are beyond the control of any worker.
Individuals clearly bear some responsibility for workplace safety. But we know that the risk of injury or death on the job is largely determined by other factors, such as the availability of high-quality workplace training, workplace culture and other factors that are largely determined by the employer and organizational context of the work. They set the stage for how people work and create the foundation to prevent tragic consequences from any individual error.
A new concern for worker health and safety is the trend of outsourcing business functions to subcontractors. Currently, five companies are being investigated in connection with the crane collapse: the general contractor of the construction site, two subcontractors, the crane owner and the company that employs the crane operators.
This means at least five different businesses were operating at this single worksite, sharing responsibilities for work, workers, equipment and safety protocols related to the crane operation.
Complex, multi-employer worksites create opportunities for both confusion and diffusion of responsibilities, with serious implications for worker health and safety. Research shows subcontractors receive lower levels of supervision and training, and communication among these entities is often poor. Emerging evidence suggests that using subcontractors and outsourcing is associated with a higher risk of worker injuries, including in construction.
Across industries, employers are increasingly shifting work that was historically done in-house to third parties — a trend David Weil, former administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, calls “the fissuring of the workplace.” From janitors to tech workers to Uber drivers, it’s now common for workers to be employed by outside agencies or work independently.
Fissuring is especially common in the construction trades. The Center for Construction Research and Training recently reported that nearly 30% of workers in the construction industry have nonstandard work arrangements. Firms often “fissure” to cut labor costs or to buffer against legal liability — and it can have catastrophic consequences for worker health and safety. Self-employed workers, including independent contractors, die at nearly four times the rate of other workers. Since 2006, the death rate among the self-employed at work has grown by nearly 25%.
Laying the blame for workplace incidents only on workers ignores the responsibility of management and corporate entities to ensure health and safety. An organizational commitment to safety at all levels is the most effective way to prevent such incidents. Workplace health and safety programs must be designed with the knowledge that people are fallible and errors will happen. Adequate coordination and communication in multi-employer worksites will be critically important in the modern fissured economy.
All workplace injuries are preventable. We must think of workplace injuries and fatalities as a systemic failure across multiple organizational levels, or we will miss the opportunity to prevent them and ensure that every worker gets home safe at the end of the day.