There’s no question that a dump truck that ran over and killed a worker at a construction site had a working back-up alarm on the day of the fatality. But OSHA questioned whether the alarm was loud enough for the worker to hear it. Now, a judge has weighed in.
On July 16, 2013, a dump truck owned and operated by Lammon Brothers was delivering fresh concrete to a highway repaving project in the Columbus, OH, area. The truck ran over and killed an employee of the project’s general contractor who was walking when he was struck.
The truck was equipped with a reverse signal alarm, and the alarm was sounding at the time of the fatality.
OSHA issued one serious violation of the construction standard which says:
“No employer shall use any motor vehicle equipment having an obstructed view to the rear unless (i) the vehicle has a reverse signal alarm audible above the surrounding noise level or (ii) the vehicle is back up only when an observer signals that it is safe to do so.”
There was no observer signaling the truck when the employee was struck and killed. But since the standard says “or,” having the alarm would be sufficient to satisfy the requirement.
However, OSHA said the alarm was not “louder than the ambient noise.” In other words, OSHA said workers probably couldn’t hear the alarm above the surrounding construction and highway noise.
Lammon Brothers appealed the OSHA citation. The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission heard an appeal.
Among the facts of the case established by the OSHRC judge:
- By the time of the fatality, Lammon Brothers had been delivering concrete to the project for over a year
- Workers were instructed to stay away from the traffic and walk alongside a concrete barrier
- However, from time to time, it was necessary for some workers to walk across the area where the truck struck the worker
- Fifteen trucks were delivering concrete on July 16, 2013
- “With the near constant procession of delivery dump trucks and other heavy equipment at the worksite, the sound of reverse signal alarms was ubiquitous during construction operations”
- The truck struck the employee about 213 feet from where it had started to move
- The worker who was killed was a manager with the general contracting company who had been involved in developing the traffic control plan for the worksite – it’s believed the manager knew the trucks were required to back up to get to the paving crew
- When the truck struck him, the manager was believed to have been walking toward the paving crew to bring a trowel to workers
- The alarm’s manufacturer said it would emit a sound at 97dB, and
- On the morning of the fatality, the driver of the truck had conducted a pre-trip inspection and had verified that the reverse alarm was working.
The OSHA inspector took four impulse sound measurements of the truck’s reverse alarm on the day the worker was killed:
- 92dB measured with the inspector standing at the rear bumper of the truck
- 85dB 10 feet from the bumper
- 80dB 20 feet from the bumper, and
- 76dB 30 feet from the bumper.
The inspector didn’t believe the alarm could be heard above the ambient noise at the construction site caused by operating and idling equipment, and highway traffic. He visited the site again to take more sound measurements.
OSHA said the alarm wasn’t audible above the surrounding noise level because 76% of the measured decibel levels were equal to or greater than the decibel levels for the alarm.
But the OSHRC judge wasn’t convinced, noting that the tests performed by the inspector were “impulse” measurements. The inspector didn’t continuously measure and document the sound level for a period of time.
The judge also lamented the lack of science information in the case. “Scientific or technical information … was not presented in evidence. The absence of any such evidence render it impossible to make a finding.”
Some reference material supplied by OSHA itself noted that “a sound source may be distinguishable from the ambient noise even if that ambient noise has the same or an even higher decibel level.”
On top of that, workers interviewed at the construction site said, after a period of working around the trucks, the backup alarms just blended into the background. One worker said “you get immune to” the sound of the alarms. Another said, “I think you get complacent” regarding the alarms.
In fact, just these types of comments were observed by OSHA in 2012 when it issued a request for information on preventing backover injuries and fatalities – potential rulemaking the agency has yet to complete.
The judge said OSHA couldn’t prove if the alarm was audible or not. Therefore, the judge threw out the citation against Lammon Brothers.
Do you think more studies are needed about protecting workers from being struck by trucks and large equipment backing up at work sites? Does OSHA need to revise its standard? If so, how would you change it? Let us know in the comments.
(Secretary of Labor v. Lammon Brothers LLC, OSHRC Docket No. 13-2028, 7/21/15)