In a just few weeks, on January 29, the family of Robert Fitch, 51, will mark the one year anniversary of his fatal fall at an Archer Daniels Midland grain-milling plant in Lincoln, NE.  His daughter, sister, neice and other relatives have dedicated themselves to changing policies to protect workers who use the same unguarded manlift that was responsible for Mr. Fitch’s death.

The Lincoln (NE) Journal Star’s Art Hovey writing in “Grieving family seeks workplace safety,” relays this one family’s struggle, but also captures the sentiments of many family member victims of work-related deaths. 

“We don’t want this to occur to any other family”

Hovey explains how Mr. Fitch’s neice, Tonya Ford, testified before State of Nebraska lawmakers about her uncle’s 70 foot fall, making the case that agricultural operations should no longer be excluded from the State’s  Conveyance and Safety Act, and exempt from OSHA regulations for manlift if the device was in place prior to 1974.  As far as OSHA’s investigation of Mr. Fitch’s death, the reporter spoke to OSHA’s Omaha office which indicated that ADM was initially fined $12,500.  The penalty was reduced to $2,500 when the “company promised to replace the manlift with a different device.” 

[I tried to identify for myself the violations and penalties assessed using OSHA’s on-line establishment search database.  I wasted 30 minutes searching and never found an entry for the accident investigationIf someone has the “Inspection Nr” please send it to me.]

Tonya Ford began serving last year as secretary to United Support & Memorial for Workplace Families, the support and advocacy group for family members who’ve lost loved ones from work-related hazards.  The Lincoln (NE) Journal Star’s Art Hovey obviously checked out the USMWF’s website, noting the

“…slide show of images of workers killed in accidents across the United States. Coal mines. Lumber yards. Construction sites. Crushings. Suffocations. Long falls.  Eventually a picture of a smiling Bobby Fitch pops up, along with this tribute from his niece, Tonya Ford:  ‘In loving memory of my Uncle Bobby.'”

The on-line comments responding to “Grieving family seeks workplace safety,” remind me that “blame-the-worker” and “every man for himself” mentalities are alive and well.

One respondent says:

“If this man had been operating this equipment for 30 years, he should have known the safety issues and been on the company to make it safer – despite the law.  Legislation cannot save everyone – there has to be some personal responsibility.”

Another says:

“Instead of trying to use the government to make things safe for everyone, something they fail at time and again, use your experience to make workers aware that they are responsible for their own safety instead on relying on incompetent osha.  Break the dependancy and we will all be better off.”

Both commenters fail to acknowledge that Robert Fitch was using an old, dangerously designed manlift that is still allowed.  Just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s safe.   As a commenter with a different point of view notes:

“I’m 52 and worked a lot of jobs, regardless of what you think a lot of these places don’t give an option.  He may have known better but when you’re trying to feed your family and have that much time invested in a company, you’re still required to do what you’re told.”

Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH is with the Dept of Environmental and Occupational Health at the George Washington University School of Public Health & Health Services.  She volunteers time to United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities.

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