We worked together for a couple of years, but I knew Heath mostly through his T-shirts.
I didn’t interact with him much — we worked at opposite ends of the factory most of the time, but based on those T-shirts, I knew he was a distance runner.
About a week after I quit that job, I heard Heath’s name on the radio news. He’d been killed on the job when a spring he was testing hopped out of the testing machine and hit him in the head and torso.
We worked together nearly 30 years ago at Pittsburgh Spring Inc., in the city’s Lawrenceville neighborhood. My end of the operation overlooked the Allegheny River.
The factory we worked manufactured industrial springs — for railroad cars, elevators, intercontinental ballistic missile systems. One of the tests involved putting the spring on a spindle and compressing it in a hydraulic machine.
While I don’t know the particulars, some of the coiled steel springs would, when compressed, contain thousands of pounds of potential energy. When that kind of potential energy is converted to kinetic energy, it couldn’t be anything but deadly.
So many of us routinely go off to work every day. Most of us come home.
Workers Memorial Day, April 28 each year we remember those who don’t. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Erie office marked the day with an observance of about 5,000 people who died at work in 2020.
Brendan Claybaugh, area director for OSHA’s Erie office, started his workday with phone calls to the families of Caleb Hultman and Michael Coleman, the two men who died on the job last year in the office’s territory, which covers 13 counties in northwestern Pennsylvania, including Mercer.
Their deaths were “eerily similar,” Claybaugh said, and not just in that both fell victims to falls while working on roofing projects.
“They were both in their 20s and had a lot of people they left behind,” he said. “They had full lives ahead of them.”
Hultman died in June last year; Coleman’s fatal fall occurred in November, but their deaths are still raw for those who cared about them.
“They’re still broken up about it,” Claybaugh said.
Falls are among the most common type of workplace deaths, joining electrocutions and “struck by” and “caught between” accidents.
Heath, my former co-worker, was killed in a “struck by” accident, albeit an unconventional one. “Struck by” incidents are more likely to be vehicle accidents.
For OSHA, this year’s Workers Memorial Day marks a milestone. The federal agency formally began operations April 28, 1971.
As part of its mission to promote workplace safety, OSHA studies workplace accidents, including fatalities, to determine how companies can avoid workplace tragedies. Claybaugh said preventing fatal falls, primarily through the use of fall protection harnesses, has been one of the agency’s great successes.
He cited one incident last year, when a ironworker in Erie tumbled from his perch, but was caught by his harness and was immediately rescued by co-workers.
That harness might have saved the ironworker’s life, but so did the worksite’s general manager, by strictly complying with OSHA regulations, including requiring use of fall protection harnesses for all work higher than 4 feet above the ground.
Claybaugh said that’s not nearly as excessive as it sounds — a higher percentage of falling deaths are on drops of less than 15 feet than from 76 to 100 feet. With 65% of an adult’s weight in the upper body, a worker is likely to land on the head, even in a short drop.
“You don’t have to be a person working on a skyscraper to suffer a fatal fall,” he said.
OSHA’s existence was a key factor in shifting the perception of workplace fatalities from unavoidable “Acts of God,” to preventable accidents. For the most part, it’s been successful.
When the government established OSHA, Claybaugh said the United States was losing an average of 38 workers per day — about 14,000 per year. A half-century later, the annual workplace death toll has decreased 64% to around 5,000 annually.
Claybaugh said that’s too many — 15 people a day.
“That’s still 15 people a day that aren’t coming home.”
ERIC POOLE is The Herald’s managing editor.