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In the pursuit of eye safety

For most, eye safety is critical to a long and productive career. In 2005 alone, the British Columbia Association of Optometrists reported that the province witnessed 1,990 insurance claims from multiple industries resulting in both 18,910 work days lost and more than $6.4 million paid out in claims. These are sobering statistics considering the industry-wide acceptance of utilizing personal protective equipment — including safety eyeglasses — in the field.

Surprisingly, Canada lacks its own standards for emergency eyewash stations. For eye safety, Canadian industry follows the American National Standards Institute for emergency eyewash and shower equipment.  In addition to noting this standard, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety website states, “The first 10 to 15 seconds after exposure to a hazardous substance, especially a corrosive substance, are critical. Delaying treatment, even for a few seconds, may cause serious injury.”  Once an eye contamination has occurred, there is precious little time to rectify it without consequence.

What’s more astonishing, a contractor recently removed emergency eyewash stations from its facility where corrosive chemicals were used in the manufacturing of plastic parts. Perhaps an isolated case, but the company’s policy decision was predicated on the belief that all safety incidents, no matter the magnitude, must be reported to and recorded by the safety department: workers are prevented from attempting to fix, clean up or hide a safety infraction without notifying management.

Such thinking stems from a deep-seated fear that a worker could potentially sustain a (minor) corrosive chemical splash to the eye, and flush out the chemical at an eyewash station without management’s knowledge — a near-treasonous act in today’s safety culture. There is validity to this fear, as workers do not always report incidents out of fear of reprisal, ego, the loss of a safety bonus, or because it seemed like a minor issue at the time. Remember that a company could be held liable for any safety incident at its facility.

The fear of lawsuits is palpable across North American society; we have become so litigious that we have scaled the mountains of illogicality and descended into the land of absurdity. In 2003, two young adults attempted to sue the McDonald’s corporation for false advertising which, their lawyer claimed, led to his clients’ obesity and contributed to their overall declining health. The lawsuit named one of the world’s largest multinational corporations, but failed to list other eateries or the guardians who continuously allowed their children to dine at such an establishment. To mention nothing of the individual plaintiffs, would the parents not hold some responsibility for their children’s plight?

Earlier this year, a fluently bilingual man won a lawsuit against Air Canada and its contract carrier, Jazz, for $12,000 due to the abhorrent inconvenience he and his wife suffered when the flight attendant was unable to fill their request en Français for a preferred soft drink. The downtrodden, luckless couple was forced to order their pop in English. While disturbing, the most incorrigible fact remains the initial lawsuit was for more than a half million dollars, landing this case squarely in the realm of absurdity.

At what point did we replace — wholesale — the ideas of a strong work ethic and personal accountability with an intractable sense of privilege and entitlement? Perhaps if there was a safety incident on the Air Canada flight and the Soft Drink Duo could not be helped due to a language barrier, or if the infamous McDonald’s Twosome were sadistically forced to eat double cheeseburgers by a corporate executive, then legitimate grounds for a lawsuit might exist.

As a society, it is unclear how we reached this untenable point, or how we might re-inject some semblance of sensibility into the North American legal system. What is clear, however, is that negative, unintended consequences have stemmed from frivolous and near-baseless lawsuits based on captious reasoning or legal technicalities: they have spawned a hyper-sensitivity to all real or perceived threats that may or may not result in lawyers and lawsuits.

Like an individual citizen, a company has the right to protect its self-interests, and this includes the knowledge of safety incidents that place workers in harm’s way. A company can then take the appropriate steps to prevent history from repeating itself: such reasoning is for the betterment of the workforce. But at the crossroads of self-interest versus the greater communal interest, a company must balance the desire to protect its private welfare with what is ultimately best for the community (that is, the workforce). Every decision carries a cost.

In the aforementioned case of the disappearing eyewash stations, imagine the plastics worker frantically searching for safety personnel, her eyes and face burning, all in an effort to follow the rules and report the incident first.  How long would it take? At least thirty seconds, but maybe as long as two minutes? As the CCOHS and CNIB data suggest, the worker would probably sustain a serious eye injury and maybe even permanent vision loss.

Therefore, in its hyper-sensitivity to stave off potential lawsuits, the company removed the emergency eyewash stations to institute more stringent management oversight in the safety program. In reality, the company washed away reasonability and eroded personal safety. Similar to the Soft Drink Duo and the McDonald’s Twosome, the company placed more emphasis on self-interest than the greater communal interest: the fictitious employee with chemical in her eyes might be blind, but at least the company would no longer face the threat of a lawsuit because the incident was recorded. Oh, wait…

Rob Cleveland

Rob Cleveland is the Edmonton representative for the Christian Labour Association of Canada, a labour union representing 50,000 workers across a wide variety of sectors including construction, health-care, retail, service, transportation, mining and more.
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