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Solving a Safety Dilemma

There some safety situations where the only answer is to walk away.

You’re a project manager and the firm you work for contracted with a municipality to perform cable testing and repair for its many buildings, including City Hall, two police stations, and the courthouse. This is your project.

Many of the cables are underground and accessible via manholes. Some preliminary above-ground testing was performed, and there’s no doubt some cables are bad. The voltages include 5KV and 480V.

While conducting the risk assessment, your project engineer noted there’s about an inch of water at the bottom of several of the manholes. So you contacted the city engineer to arrange for a total shutdown to lockout/tagout all of the cables, not just a lockout/tagout of the cables that would be under test. This request was denied. The contract has a completion clause and it imposes a stiff penalty for not completing the work. What do you do now?

The crew would be moving energized cables around while standing in water, and the insulation on those cables is not known to be good; it’s even known, in some cases, to be bad. You have a moral obligation to walk away from this job unless an electrically safe work condition can be established.

Under contract law, contracts are voidable if certain tests are met. One of those tests is whether a condition of the contract is “unconscionable.” The condition noted certainly qualifies. So the city cannot enforce the contract and penalize your firm. The only loss to your firm is the loss of a job that would likely have resulted in loss of life.

Not only that, going forward with that condition would violate NFPA 70E in multiple ways. The NFPA 70E standard was developed at the request of OSHA, giving it more teeth than many people think it has.

Imagine going to court in a wrongful death suit filed by the families of your coworkers you sent into those manholes. How would you feel, looking across the courtroom at them? And the awards in those cases would dwarf the city’s completion penalty and probably put your company out of business.

Don’t ever let fear of losing a job cause you to risk losing lives. If a customer unreasonably insists on unsafe (and thus unconscionable) conditions, walk away.

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