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Week of 3 April 2017: General liability and the cost of not caring

Email Jim at jthompson@taii.com

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Years ago, when I started this column, I decided one important thing to be done here was to beat the drum for safety. Well, we have, and we plan to continue doing so.

I am writing today, however, about general liability--caused by people or caused to people through exposures of various kinds. Some of these are safety matters, some are security matters. Others can arise out of employment law.

But first, a special note about safety. Employees and others often become confused and think that a safety emphasis is caring or emotionally based. This is not true with corporations, for as I have said before, a corporation is nothing but a pile of legal documents, it has no emotions. So, the over-arching safety emphasis has its genesis in cost savings--cold, impersonal cost savings. That does not mean, however, that we can or should or should be impersonal about watching out for the safety of our fellow workers and ourselves. It is an emotional and caring issue at the front lines of any job, and it is right that it be so.

My observation over the years, however, is that we notice a liability, whether it be safety, security or something else, only at the time it is an issue. Then over time, we forget it. Take, for instance, butane lighters. I remember back in the early 1980's, a couple of welders were making repairs in a vessel and, as one of them knelt, he inadvertently, due to the position of the lighter in his pocket, caused the lighter's lever to be depressed and to discharge butane gas. The next time he struck an arc with his welder, he and his co-worker were killed--there was enough butane in the vessel to cause a flash fire.

This incident did not happen at my mill, but I remember that at the time we made a big deal of it. We banned butane lighters, brought the incident up in safety meetings and generally gave it wide publicity. I suspect other mills did the same. But what has happened since then? Other than adding butane lighters to a long list of rules, has anyone discussed why butane lighters are dangerous in the last twenty years? How many serious issues like this are lost in the fine print in your mill?

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What other liabilities have you experienced, either locally, in your company, industry wide, or in related industries that were a big deal at the time and then dropped? Do you offer refreshers on these subjects?

I suggest that you dig up all the old liability incidents you can find and review them in your safety meetings. Make a contest of it--ask people to recall old incidents and the training that they invoked. Resolve to be prepared, to be up-to-date on the old stuff, with it fresh in your mind. You just might save your corporation a little money, too.

I don't think I need to say much else about safety this week, but this: think safety all the time.

Be safe and we will talk next week.

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