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Four times workplace safety systems failed with tragic results

I think we can all agree that the world is moving in the right direction in regards to Workplace Safety. In the last two weeks alone we’ve seen a handful of safety-positive decisions being made from the introduction of New Zealand’s new safety laws to increased ramifications for poor safety management across the board.

Strong safety systems are the backbone of any strong safety culture, but when these systems fail, they often fail in ways their designers couldn’t have even imagined…

Here are four times that workplace safety systems have failed this year with tragic results:

The Thai Bank Disaster

Bangkok Sunset #1” (CC BY 2.0) by Joe Le Merou. Source: []

In mid-march of 2016, a fire extinguisher system misfired in the headquarters of Siam Commercial Bank in Bangkok. Far from getting wet, this extinguisher system released the Pyrogen aerosol to reduce the oxygen in the room in order to starve any fire. This incident resulted in the deaths of eight workers and the serious injury of seven more.

The sad irony here was that the workers who tragically died in this incident were actually sent in to conduct maintenance on that very system. At some point, they accidentally set off the system depleting the room of oxygen.

It’s not often that a lack of safety protocols causes such disastrous results, but it’s likely that with more fail-safes in place this horrible event could have been averted.

The Amtrak Crash Disaster

IMG_8791” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by plattypus1. Source: []

In early-April, Joe Carter, a seasoned and highly respected railroad engineer, and his colleague Peter Adamovich were struck by a southbound train during routine track maintenance in Pennsylvania. The truly sad thing about this event was that it’s still not clear how it could have ever happened.

Allan Zarembski, a University of Delaware professor and director of the Railroad Engineering and Safety Program pointed out that “The safety procedures are in place to prevent exactly this.”

For the workers’ part, they appear to have followed the procedures to a tee, but it is likely that a communication breakdown resulted in both maintenances being scheduled for that section of track and that section of track not being shut down.

The truly sad irony about this is that after a similar incident in May 2015, a safety control was installed to automatically stop trains that may be danger of collision though the National Transportation Safety Board is yet to confirm whether this was running at the time.

Whether it was overconfidence in automatic systems or simply human error remains to be seen.

The Compressed Air Disaster

DSCF5578” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by joelogon. Source: []

In March, an incident was reported by Industry Update were a 49-year-old fumigator was killed whilst attempting to help another employee remove a wheel assembly on a tyre containing compressed air.
As the tyre was removed it exploded, throwing the worker 10-15 meters away, killing him on site.

The terrible thing with this incident is that it was not caused by lax safety standards. The issue was that the now-deceased worker wasn’t trained in how to use this equipment because it wasn’t his job. He’d just seen another worker having difficulty with the task so he stepped in to help.

The lesson to take from this was to ensure not only that workers are trained in their own jobs but also that they don’t step outside their own job without proper training.

The FIFO tragedy

mines” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by robynejay. Source: []

This one’s not just one event, but a very sad trend. Australian safety standards are known to be some of the best in the world. In the ‘Fly-in-fly-out’ workforce of Australian mines miners “sit through a million inductions before [they] are allowed on site. Physical safety is talked about every single day.” – Luke Baker, FIFO worker.

Because of this, the safety standards are actually quite high in Australian mines. The tragedy is that for every one workplace death in Australian mines, there are six suicides.

This horrible trend is bringing light a lack of discussion on mental health as a workplace issue. More often than not, far too high a percentage (usually 100%) of effort is placed into physical injury prevention while far too low a percentage (usually 0%) is put into mental health. Even in cases where support structures were put in place to help FIFO workers, many of them didn’t feel comfortable taking advantage of them.

Open discussion and the breaking of cultural taboos around mental health is really the safety tool that needs to be employed to reduce this trend.

So how do you stop these things from happening?

Regardless of how you look at it, the best safety tools are ones that adjust and improve over time. It could be said that due to human error, maybe it isn’t possible to have a perfect system; that’s not for me to say though. Regardless, if you build a strong safety culture in your business and you work to change the way your workers engage with health and safety issues, then that is the first step to creating a system that works and evolves.

Build a culture for your workers where it’s easy for them to raise safety issues and one in which they are encouraged or even rewarded for doing so, and what you’ll have created is a perfect system.

Or at least as close to perfect as you can get.

Keep safe out there.

By Christopher Notley-Smith at

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4 Comments on “Four times workplace safety systems failed with tragic results

  1. Apr 22, 2016 - 03:10 #

    What about the Pike mine tragedy in New Zealand or the many forestry deaths every year in beautiful New Zealand

    1. Apr 22, 2016 - 08:52 #

      Hi Wayne. Thanks for getting in touch. Believe me, I pained over this list for a while. In fact, the Pike mine tragedy was in the first draft of this article. In the end I decided to look at different types of disasters from this year only. Also, since the laws had only just changed in NZ I wanted to allow time for those laws to produce positive results before I reported on the situation; it didn’t seem fair otherwise.
      I’m actually planning a follow up on the Pike Mine tragedy and the new health and safety laws once some post-implementation reports are released by Worksafe New Zealand. We’re definitely keeping an eye on how things are going in beautiful New Zealand.

  2. Apr 23, 2016 - 16:49 #

    Hello. I have worked in the building construction sector for several decades. I have seen and witnessed the change. But it is not all down to the worker I see companies blatantly taking no regard for the safety of its employees. New Zealand still have a poor regard for safety in the workplace. I have worked on mine sites and understand the culture they have. It seems ridiculous but its in place for a reason. I digress since being back in NZ I am saddened by the attitudes of some employers to safety. Basically bullying the employee as the employer thinks the employee should do without question. If they do the employer makes the employees work life as difficult as possible till they resign then replace them with migrant Labour whom will do anything as it means they can stay in NZ. I myself am in this position as I will not do anything that id unsafe so an immigrant or trainee is sent to do the work. More needs to be done to change the employers attitudes

    1. Apr 26, 2016 - 10:14 #

      Hi David. Thanks for getting in touch. We’ve been watching the New Zealand situation very closely, especially since the new changes came in. Really, change like this takes time. The first step has taken place; changing the laws; but I have to agree that more has to be done to change attitudes. On social media there’s been a very vocal minority even within employees that isn’t helping either. Anything that can be done to make it easier to comply with the new laws will help; but really I think it’s just going to take time. Hopefully once a few follow-up reports come out in a year or two there’ll be some real data to support the decision behind the changes. Only time will tell. On the positive side, when you really look at it, it’s never been safer to go to work than it is today.