Category Archives: safety

Remembering Katrina, 10 Years Later

It’s difficult to fathom that it’s been 10 years since Katrina made landfall and wreaked havoc on New Orleans and the surrounding region.

Katrina heading toward the coastline on August 28.

Katrina heading toward the coastline on Aug. 28, 2005.

I’m sure you don’t need to be reminded of the devasting storm delivered to the region. But just in case, here’s a brief excerpt from the August 30, 2005 edition of the New York Times

“Hurricane Katrina pounded the Gulf Coast with devastating force at daybreak on Monday, sparing New Orleans the catastrophic hit that had been feared, but inundating parts of the city and heaping damage on neighboring Mississippi, where it killed dozens, ripped away roofs and left coastal roads impassable.

Officials said that, according to preliminary reports, there were at least 55 deaths, with 50 alone in Harrison County, Miss., which includes Gulfport and Biloxi. Emergency workers feared that they would find more dead among people who had been trapped in their homes and in collapsed buildings.

Jim Pollard, a spokesman for the Harrison County emergency operations center, said many of the dead were found in an apartment complex in Biloxi. Seven others were found in the Industrial Seaway.

Packing 145-mile-an-hour winds as it made landfall, the storm left more than a million people in three states without power and submerged highways even hundreds of miles from its center.The storm was potent enough to rank as one of the most punishing hurricanes ever to hit the United States. Insurance experts said that damage could exceed $9 billion, which would make it one of the costliest storms on record.”

As we all know, the toll turned out to be a lot worse than those (and other) initial estimates—and, as Gary Rivlin makes clear in his new book Katrina: After the Flood (the release of which was obviously timed for the 10th anniversary), the impact, in many ways, continues to be felt today.

Of course, as far as employers are concerned, Katrina’s 10th anniversary raises the ever-important question, “From an employee and operational standpoint, are we better prepared to respond when a natural disaster strikes than we were 10 years ago?”

I’m not really prepared to address that question in this particular post, but figured it might be as good a time as any to dust off an article we posted in 2011 on HREOnline titled “Being Prepared When Disaster Strikes.” Written by Ann D. Clark, CEO and founder of ACI Specialty Benefits, an EAP and leading provider of student-assistance programs, and wellness, concierge and work/life services, the piece offers employers a road map for navigating natural disasters such as Katrina.

“Too many businesses wait until crisis strikes to act,” Clark wrote in 2011. So as Erika approaches Florida and the nation and world remembers Katrina 10 years later, here are a few of the pointers featured in Clark’s article.

“The Vulnerability Audit”

Before creating a response plan, first take a vulnerability audit or risk assessment. Remember, the workplace can be directly affected through actual physical damage in the event of an earthquake, tornado, tsunami or other natural disaster, and can also be adversely affected by employees having family members or friends impacted by a traumatic event … .

Creating a Plan

An effective plan is one that is well-rounded and capable of responding to any incident, regardless of size, scope or complexity. Make sure the plan addresses up-to-date evacuation procedures, property-damage protection, systems back-up, communication and business contingency.

HR professionals should also consider consulting with first responders and employee-program-assistance providers to ensure the plan effectively covers major areas of concern.

When preparing for an immediate threat such as a natural disaster, safety comes first.

Disaster Training and Communication

The next major step in disaster preparedness is adequate training and communication to ensure the workforce has all the tools necessary to respond and recover in times of crisis.

HR professionals should start by having a meeting focused on disaster preparedness where all of the important information can be disseminated to the entire workforce. At these meetings, topics such as where the emergency supplies are located, where the office safe area can be found and how to respond to each kind of respective emergency can be covered.

Preparedness in Action

In Florida, companies are often threatened by hurricanes and have learned first-hand how preparedness works.

Ruth’s Chris Steak House learned the communication plan was one of the most important pieces of its disaster planning when Hurricane Katrina struck. Without phone lines, the management team was able to locate all but three of 370 employees in affected areas within a few days using text messaging.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the company’s disaster plan also includes pre-hurricane-season tree-trimming around restaurants, an outline of items for each store’s disaster-supply kit and step-by-step instructions on ways to secure the building and food supplies before evacuations.

Turning to Professional Resources

A major part of disaster preparedness is knowing where to turn for resources and support. One of those crisis-response resources is the employer’s employee-assistance program.

When the tragic 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, there were a variety of U.S.-based companies with employees and family members in Japan who needed to be evacuated immediately. Some of ACI Specialty Benefits’ clients turned to the EAP resources for prompt support in ensuring these employees and family members were taken care of. …

In critical situations, EAP services can be invaluable in providing prompt and professional support to address a wide range of business and personal needs, including the provision of on-site counseling support to management and staff.

Advice well worth remembering, I would think, especially as the coast of Florida braces for Tropical Storm Erika, which could possibly make landfall as a hurricane early next week.

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Restraining Orders as Legal Arsenal

When an email came my way recently, touting yet another approach to keeping employers safe from liability — restraining orders — I restraining order -- 473612428nearly discarded it, thinking it was surely common knowledge among HR leaders.

But something about the wording, and the invitation to interview a Los Angeles judge who thinks employers and their HR departments must not be privy to this technique, compelled me to look further. So I called him.

Herbert Dodell, Judge Pro Tempore for the Los Angeles Superior Court, thinks if employers really understood how much legal protection they’d be cloaking themselves in by filing restraining orders against potentially dangerous employees and ex-employees, more would be taking this approach. As it is, “maybe 5 percent to 10 percent are doing it today, tops,” he says. He goes on:

“Think about it, if there is an unruly employee or someone who is a credible threat of violence, the fact that [an employer] got a restraining order allows [that employer] to argue it did the prudent thing when confronted with a situation.

“If the employer doesn’t do it, and that employee shoots up the place, that employer will be faced with an argument that it didn’t do anything to protect the other employees or the work environment. In other words, it had notice and was negligent about doing something about it. It is no guarantee, but allows for an argument on liability issues.

“With the proliferation of lawsuits against employers for wrongful termination, discrimination, retaliation, you name it — all seeking damages, large and small — employers should be looking for ways to defend their actions and minimize damage claims. Restraining orders [can be] valuable tools in that regard.”

Dodell has a pretty good frame of reference for this. Not only has he heard hundreds of retraining-order cases in his judge’s robe, he also has experience as a transactional and trial lawyer, and mediator and arbitrator. So he’s represented people on both sides of these cases and decides them now, too.

Granted, he says, it won’t stop the violence (although it could deter it). “If someone has it in his or her mind to shoot up the place, he or she will shoot up the place,” he says. While such incidents were rare decades ago, he adds, they have been on the rise in recent years — perhaps the most recent being the February shooting at a Moorestown, N.J. security company that left one man dead and another injured.

Hard to say just how much they’re going up. Here‘s the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s word on that. But as a legal record of steps an employer takes, and as proof in a court of law that “the employers had some concerns and took action, that employer would be far more protected from liability than most are,” says Dodell.

“I’m convinced HR people and employers don’t understand how this works or far more would be doing it,” he says. (He’s not even sure enough risk managers know how effective and simple this is.)

Filing a restraining order, he says, is not a difficult procedure — “basically, a six-page form [that entails mostly] checking the boxes.” Judges like himself “don’t even come out of chambers for temporary restraining orders; then you have a hearing in 21 days; then, if it’s issued, it’s good for three years.”

The thing to remember, he says, is you don’t have to be right about a perceived threat. You simply need to present your concerns to the court in the form of a fact pattern — “this is what happened and this is what we think might happen.” If the judge concurs, you are, in essence, right, and you — and possibly your employees (if the order does serve to dissuade the violent behavior) are protected for three years.

These documents are not complicated and they’re not expensive, says Dodell, and they make a whole lot more sense than what he’s sadly seen far more often, “where companies simply transfer unruly employees to other departments” to the detriment — and sometimes injuries or murders — of other employees. What’s more, he adds:

“The terms of the restraining order can be ‘manuscripted’ for the court to approve.  I often tailor the relief to the need. In wrongful termination cases, it is invaluable to have a finding made by a judicial officer that there was a reason for the termination or conduct by the employer to refute arguments of discrimination, etc.

“In cases where an employee or former employee disrupts the operation of the business or causes damages such as a shooting at the place of business, the obtaining of a restraining order, before something happens, shows due diligence and goes directly against allegations of negligence. Insurance companies should love it when there is a restraining order in place.  It can then be shown that a neutral judicial officer found a sufficient basis, by the applicable standard, that the employee or former employee was unstable and that the employer sought to do something about it.”

So there you have it: When in doubt (or concern), file those restraining orders.

I don’t usually take over someone else’s soapbox here, but thought I’d err on the side of safety.

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Second Stand-Down for Safety is Set

Citing even more compelling reasons this year than last for getting the construction-safety message out, the U.S. Department of 465986031 -- constructionLabor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has announced it will be holding its second annual National Fall Safety Stand-Down in May.

“With the economy on the rebound and housing starts on the rise, now is the time for all of us to renew our commitment to sending workers home safe every night,” says Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez.

According to OSHA, falls are still the leading cause of death in the construction industry, as hundreds of workers die each year and thousands more suffer catastrophic, debilitating injuries. Yet, lack of proper fall protection remains the most frequently cited violation by the agency.

Building on last year’s widespread participation in the one-week event, which Staff Writer Mark McGraw wrote about in this blog post,  OSHA decided to expand it from one week to two weeks, now scheduled for May 4 through 15. During that time, the agency notes in its release, “employers and workers will pause during their workday for topic talks, demonstrations and training on how to use safety harnesses, guard rails and other means to protect workers from falls.” It adds:

“Underscoring the importance of this effort, industry and business leaders, including universities, labor organizations, and community and faith-based groups, have already begun scheduling 2015 stand-downs in all 50 states and around the world.”

The stand-down initiative is part of OSHA’s fall prevention campaign, launched three years ago with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, NIOSH’s National Occupational Research Agenda and The Center for Construction Research and Training, according to the announcement on Feb. 18. It cites numerous other partners for this year’s event as well.

“Given the tremendous response we’ve received, it’s clear that this is an important issue to a great number of people across this nation,” says Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels.

In the added words of NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard, “no child should lose a parent, no wife should lose a husband and no worker should lose [his or her] life in a preventable fall.”

I plan to follow this and perhaps report on this year’s participation to get an idea of just how committed the business community is to improving safety, and reducing these injuries and deaths. Stay tuned.

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Marijuana Acceptance Marches On

It’s still highly unlikely that any employer will ever have to allow an employee to work while he or she is stoned, whether there’s a safety 146967521 - smoking dopeor security risk or not, but the chips seem to keep falling away from those sturdy walls that made marijuana unacceptable, illegal and disallowed for years.

The latest indication that pot is going mainstream comes in this Illinois Appellate Court ruling (found on the Canna Law Blog site) affirming a Circuit Court’s ruling that just because a worker was fired for violating his employer’s drug-and-alcohol-free workplace policy doesn’t mean he can’t collect unemployment benefits.

Seems this maintenance worker for the Jefferson County Housing Authority fessed up to his employer — just before a random mandatory drug screening — that he might not pass because he had smoked pot several weeks earlier while on vacation. He was fired, even though his tests results were negative, and was turned down for unemployment benefits because of the nature of his termination.

The Housing Authority’s policy prohibits employees from being under the influence of any controlled substance “while in the course of employment.” Both the Circuit Court and Appellate Court agreed “course of employment” was interpreted too broadly by the Illinois Department of Employment Security to include off-duty hours.

“Among the reasons the Circuit Court found the agency’s interpretation unreasonable,” the blog states, “was the fact that marijuana is now legal in some states and the fact that it unreasonably restricted off-duty time while serving no legitimate public purpose.”

Yes, indeed, marijuana is absolutely now legal in some states, as this news analysis and this blog post by me indicate. But it’s more than going legal, as I also indicate. It’s becoming big business. Make that a huge industry.

Just this month, news releases came across my screen announcing a Cannabis Career Institute opening in San Diego as well as three others in Florida, Illinois and Nevada, all designed, as the releases state, to teach “ganjapreneurs how to succeed in the marijuana industry as the green rush continues.”

Attorneys and experts I’ve talked to assure me employers will always have the legal right — and responsibility — to keep their workplaces safe and drug-free. I just wonder how all this nudging from the “cannabusiness” community and the courts is going to impact how those employers sleep at night.


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New Year Brings New Reporting Requirements

IND_023Throughout this past year, we’ve told you about some of the steps the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been taking in its effort to improve workplace safety.

In June, for example, OSHA’s National Fall Safety Stand-Down saw thousands of employers join the organization in taking a timeout during the work day to focus on outlining the dangers of falls and improving fall-prevention efforts.

More recently, OSHA wrote a letter reminding some of the largest U.S. retailers of the potential hazards that accompany Black Friday sales events, and offering recommendations for keeping employees and consumers safe during the post-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy.

The organization’s latest step does more than offer recommendations, and takes effect in a matter of days.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2015, employers under the federal jurisdiction of OSHA will be required to report all work-related fatalities to the organization within eight hours, and must report all inpatient hospitalizations, amputations and losses of an eye within 24 hours of learning of the incident. In the past, employers were obligated to inform OSHA of all workplace fatalities and instances in which three or more workers were hospitalized as a result of the same event.

As Assistant Secretary of Labor and OSHA head David Michaels notes in a recent blog, employers will have three reporting options: calling or visiting their nearest area office during normal business hours, calling the 24-hour OSHA hotline at 800.321.OSHA or reporting online.

OSHA has also made available a handful of resources designed to detail the new requirements and what they mean for employers, including a dedicated web page, a list of FAQs, a fact sheet and a YouTube video.

“It is important to remember that these updated reporting requirements are not simply paperwork, but have a life-saving purpose,” wrote Michaels in the aforementioned blog. “They will help employers and workers prevent future injuries by identifying and eliminating the most serious workplace hazards.”

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Workplace Injuries and Illnesses Trend Down

Some positive news coming out of the Bureau of Labor Statistics this morning: Nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses have continued their decline. (The BLS report comes on the heels of a September 163118519report revealing preliminary data that shows a statistically significant decline in fatal work-related injuries. )

According to the BLS, slightly more than 3 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses were reported by private-industry employers in 2013, resulting in an incidence rate of 3.3 cases per 100 equivalent full-time workers. This compares to 3.4 cases per 100 equivalent full-time workers in 2012.

Of course, it would be better if these numbers were even lower, but it’s nonetheless encouraging to see them heading in the right direction.

The rate reported by the BLS for 2013 continues a pattern of declines that, with the exception of 2012, occurred annually for the last 11 years.

So where are these decreases occurring? Compared to 2012, the BLS reports lower numbers in manufacturing, retail and utilities. It’s also worth noting that injuries and illnesses among state and local government workers remain significantly higher than the private-industry rates, with 5.2 cases per 100 full-time workers in 2013. For 2012, the BLS reported 5.6 cases per 100 full-time workers.

In case you missed it, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued final rules in September that revised the reporting to OSHA of workplace incidents. Currently, the regulations require employers to report work-related fatalities and in-patient hospitalizations of three or more employees within eight hours of the event. The final rule, which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2015, retains that requirement, but amends the regulation to require employers to report all work-related in-patient hospitalizations, as well as amputations and losses of an eye, to OSHA within 24 hours of the event.

OSHA also modified the list of industries partially exempt from requirements to keep records of work-related injuries and illnesses due to relatively low occupational injury and illness rates.

As might be expected, the new OSHA rule generated some pushback from business groups when it was announced in September.

In a story appearing on The Hill, Joe Trauger, vice president of human resources at the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington, took issue with the reporting of this information online and “called the rule ‘very, very troubling’ and ‘alarming.’  ” He noted that the “information could be taken out of context and used to ‘mischaracterize’ a company.”

Trauger told The Hill

“When OSHA publicizes this information online, it doesn’t provide the full picture of what occurred in the workplace. It could have occurred in the workplace but doesn’t have anything to do with the workplace.”

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Eliminating Silos in Health and Safety

Few of us need to be sold on the merits of greater collaboration. But if there were any doubts about what it’s able to bring to the areas of health and safety, Dr. Casey Chosewood put them to rest yesterday morning during his opening keynote speech at the National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference® in Las Vegas.


Dr. Casey Chosewood, speaking at the National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference on Wednesday.

“Too many organizations today still have silos [that] are unconnected,” said Chosewood, chief medical officer and director of the Office for Total Worker Health Coordination and Research at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (part of the Centers for Disease Control). “But that has to change. We have to put everything under one umbrella and take a more integrated approach.”

Remarkable things can happen when each of the components talk to one another, align their goals, understand the financial challenges of others and work on finding solutions, Chosewood told the packed room of attendees.

Of course, in the world of business, the elimination of silos, as a concept, comes up a lot. But it seems to be an especially powerful idea when it’s applied to safety and health.

Early in his talk, Chosewood took a few minutes to touch on the Ebola outbreak, which is also the subject of Carol Harnett’s Benefits Column posted earlier this week.

“I’m frequently asked if the CDC has a handle on the problem,” Chosewood said, “and that’s a fair question.”

As of today, he explained, there have been eight cases of Ebola in the United States, compared to 14,000 known cases in West Africa (a figure he believes is probably closer to between 20,000 and 28,000).

Chosewood said the CDC believes the risk of Ebola here in the United States remains very low, though he added that doesn’t negate the seriousness of the disease and the need to put “more resources on the ground in West Africa” to address it.

Returning to the focus of his talk, Chosewood said people would be mistaken were they to think they could separate work and home as far as health and well-being are concerned. “You can’t leave what happens at home on the kitchen table [just as] you can’t leave what happens at work on your desk. You shuttle them back and forth.”

Chosewood cited the example of a person who works in a factory who is exposed to lead and then brings it home to an unsuspecting child on the surface of his or her clothing. “Risks don’t just stay in one place,” he said.

During his talk, Chosewood also touched on the importance of changing the culture of the organization. Quoting Sir Michael Marmot (a professor at the University College London), he said it’s “unreasonable to expect people to change their behavior when the social, cultural and physical environments around them fully conspire against them.”

Chosewood shared a close-to-home illustration of the kinds of steps that can be taken.

When the CDC ran out of places to park and needed to build a new parking garage, Chosewood (then in charge of safety and health there) said he intentionally proposed picking a site that required workers to walk 15 minutes. While the move initially made him quite unpopular and existing employees complained about the distance, he said, new hires haven’t complained at all.

In addressing health and safety issues, he said, employers need to be willing to take “short-term heat” for “long-term gain.”

Chosewood said next on the Center’s to-do list will be to slow down the elevators so impatient workers will take the stairs. (I wasn’t sure if he was serious or kidding.)

According to Chosewood, there are three kinds of companies: bad, good and the best. Bad companies, he said, don’t do anything to keep their workers healthy and safe; good companies keep them protected from injury and illness; and the best do what’s needed to ensure their workers go home more healthy at the end of the day.

Employers that fall in this “best” category, he said, will enjoy more engagement, greater productivity and lower injury risk.

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Protecting Black Friday Workers

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration wrote to the nation’s largest retailers this week reminding them about the potential hazards presented by the upcoming Black Friday sales events and offering recommendations on how to keep their employees safe during the shopping blitz, according to The Hill.

The agency is recommending the nation’s largest retailers take precautions via a crowd-management plan on Black Friday (and other busy shopping days) to protect workers from being trampled by customers:

“During the hectic shopping season, retail workers should not be put at risk of injury of death,” says David Michaels, assistant labor secretary. “OSHA urges retailers to take the time to adopt a crowd-management plan and follow a few simple guidelines to prevent unnecessary harm to retail employees.”

The Black Friday safety measures, the Hill reports, come in response to dangerous workplace hazards at retail stores that have increased in recent years as customers push and shove through packed crowds to shop for Christmas gifts.

According to OSHA, one retailer worker was even trampled to death by customers who were rushing through the store in 2008.

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More Perils of Shift Work Revealed

A new report in the journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine finds shift work may not just have negative effects on workers’ sleep patterns or social life, but also on their cognitive abilities.

According to CNN, researchers from the University of Swansea in the United Kingdom and the University of Toulouse in France followed approximately 3,000 employed and retired workers in southern France — some of whom had never worked shifts, while others had worked them for years — over the course of a decade. They found that shift work was associated with impaired cognition, and the impairment was worse in those who had done it for longer.

The impact was particularly marked in those who had worked abnormal hours for more than 10 years — with a loss in intellectual abilities equivalent to the brain having aged 6.5 years, CNN reports.

The researchers say that shift work, “like chronic jet lag, is known to disrupt workers’ normal circadian rhythms and social life, and to be associated with increased health problems (eg, ulcers, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, breast cancer, reproductive difficulties) and with acute effects on safety and productivity.”

There was one (very weak) bright spot in the findings, though:  Workers were able to regain their cognitive abilities after leaving shift work behind, but it took at least five years to do so.

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Sniffling While You Work

For the first time in five years, the number of employees who said they go to work with the flu has dropped to 60 percent, after four straight years of increases, according to the fifth annual Flu Season Survey from Staples.

The 60-percent figure marks a drop from last year, and yet many employees still feel they can’t take a sick day, according to the office-supply retailer. Indeed, despite 88 percent of managers encouraging sick employees to stay at home, 40 percent of workers feel there is too much going on at work to stay away, and 31 percent show up sick because they think their boss appreciates it.

The Staples survey finds there are a number of factors that have contributed to the drop in employees going to work sick, including:

• Sick employees coming into work are now considered worse for office productivity than a security breach;

• Presenteeism recognized as a bigger problem than absenteeism;

• Employees are taking charge of their own health and wellness; and

• Recent virus outbreaks are affecting behavior.

“While we are encouraged that for the first time in five years the number of sick employees coming into work has dropped, 60 percent is still a significant number,” said Chris Correnti, vice president of Staples Facility Solutions at Staples Advantage, the business-to-business division of Staples.

“Clearly there is still much work to be done. Recent outbreaks such as Enterovirus in the U.S. underscore the importance of fostering a culture of workplace wellness. ”

Meanwhile, last year was one of the worst flu seasons on record, reports outplacement consultancy Challenger, Christmas & Gray, with more than two-thirds of states reporting that the flu outbreak had reached “severe” levels, says CEO John Challenger.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that, on average, seasonal flu outbreaks cost the nation’s economy $10.4 billion in direct costs of hospitalizations and outpatient visits.  That does not include the indirect costs related to lost productivity and absenteeism.   Online resource,, cites one study estimating that each flu season 111 million workdays are lost to flu-related absenteeism, which amounts to about $7 billion annually in lost productivity.

“New York alone saw more than 15,000 reported cases in the first month of the season, compared to fewer than 5,000 in the entire previous season.  These outbreaks and the resulting workplace absenteeism can have a significant impact on a company’s bottom line; particularly in smaller companies where illness can spread quickly and incapacitate large portions of a workforce,” Challenger adds.

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