Guest Opinions

OSHA director: Deaths on job can’t be accepted as cost of doing business

2 people die, a third is injured when Boise trench collapses

Two people died, and a third was rescued alive, after a 9-foot-deep trench collapsed near the corner of Hill Road Parkway and Gary Lane in Boise on May 3, 2016. Here's the scene after news of the incident broke.
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Two people died, and a third was rescued alive, after a 9-foot-deep trench collapsed near the corner of Hill Road Parkway and Gary Lane in Boise on May 3, 2016. Here's the scene after news of the incident broke.

For us at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the loss of one worker’s life is one too many. Workplace tragedies are devastating for the families and friends left behind. Their effects are long-term and far-reaching in our communities.

On Workers’ Memorial Day, we were reminded that every day, 13 American workers don’t make it back home at the end of their shift. That’s not a cold statistic but rather a fact of life for us here at OSHA. Our Boise office alone has investigated the deaths of 10 workers killed on the job in Idaho in the past 12 months. As recently as last week I watched as the bodies of two workers who had been installing a utility line were pulled out of a trench after it collapsed right here in Boise. Nobody should die for a paycheck.

Our investigation will determine exactly what happened in Boise and why it happened. But we already know this much: Workplace fatalities and injuries often prove to be avoidable and caused by a lapse in safety protocol. Trench deaths are no exception. We have known for centuries how to prevent workers from getting killed in trenches.

I will be reaching out to the families of those two workers killed. They were 36 and 26 years old, and one of them recently bought a home and was looking forward to the birth of his child.

In my 19 years at OSHA I’ve been witness to too many tragedies like this. Providing effective training and adequate tools is necessary. But there must also be real commitment at the highest levels of a workplace, and workers must be involved in a meaningful way. Last week’s National Safety Stand-Down highlights the critical need for a real culture of workplace safety. We can no longer accept outdated thinking and excuses; worker injuries, illnesses and deaths should never be accepted as simply the cost of doing business.

Workers are our most valuable resource. They make us who we are as a community. During the National Safety Stand-Down and long after, let’s make worker safety a part of the culture and commit to big ideas and forward thinking on workplace safety and health. As Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels has said, “When it comes to workplace fatalities and injuries, the only acceptable number is zero.”

David Kearns is OSHA’s area director in Boise.

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