It’s every business owner’s worst nightmare. And for Joe Novak, a West Michigan business owner, there’s no waking up from the nightmare of being held responsible for the death of one of his employees.

Novak, president and owner of Black River Builders LLC in Sparta, Mich., has been charged with one count of Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Act Violation Causing Death. The charge comes after the death of Brian Tarachanowicz on July 2, 2012.

Tarachanowicz, 38, married and the father of two small children, worked for Black River Builders. He fell through a weak spot more than 26 feet to his death while removing an old roof deck at Federal-Mogul Corp. in Sparta. He was not wearing required safety equipment.

A MIOSHA investigation found employees working on the roof project were not wearing fall protection equipment even though a section of the old deck had been removed and they were exposed to a 26-foot drop. This was after Black River Builders was cited for a serious violation five years earlier for lack of fall protection gear. If convicted, Novak could spend a year in prison.

“In a competitive and time-driven industry, it is not acceptable to cut corners at the expense of worker safety," MIOSHA Director Martha Yoder said in a statement.

Now imagine you were that business owner and that headline was about you. Imagine every internet search of your name or company name bringing this story up on the first page, in front of your business associates, neighbors, wife, children. Could your business survive this? Could you survive a year in jail and a felony charge on your record? What would this do to your ability to get work, insurance, bonding or borrow money?

Nothing can be done to reverse what happened that day to Brian Tarachanowicz, to undo the tragic loss of a father, husband and valued employee. Nor can anything be done about the impact it had on his fellow employees that witnessed him fall to his death.

Determining Cause of Fatality

What we can do is learn from what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again. To understand how to avoid this we need to start by looking for the root cause. Here is what OSHA inspectors found in their investigation…

Workers were removing a roof deck at a manufacturing plant when the accident happened. An employee stepped through a weak piece of roof decking and fell 26 feet to his death. The state attorney general’s office says investigators found many problems. The employee that died and other workers were NOT wearing required protective equipment, and no inspections had been performed to detect hazards. The investigation showed a safety harness could have saved his life.

The big question is, was not wearing a safety harness the root cause of the accident? I don’t believe so. In fact, I think it goes a lot deeper than that.

For centuries, the Japanese have promoted kaizen, a philosophy of continuous improvement to all aspects of life. In recent decades, American business leaders have started to recognize the impact kaizen has had on Japanese business competitiveness, and countless U.S. managers have adopted aspects of these techniques to improve their own business processes. Now these principles can also be used in workplace accident investigations by asking five questions to get to the root cause of on-site accidents, such as the Sparta, Mich., tragedy. Here’s an example of how this works in this case:

  1. Why was the business owner charged with a felony? – Construction site safety violations caused an employee’s death.
  2. What was the cause of death? – Falling 26-feet on to a cement floor.
  3. Why did the employee fall? – He stepped through a weak piece of roof decking while failing to wear fall protection gear.
  4. Why was the decking weak? – It had just been cross cut and was not supported on one end, causing it to fail.
  5. Why wasn’t he wearing the required fall protection gear? – The company’s safety culture was to let employees decide whether they wanted to wear it or not.

Bang! There it is, right in the answer to question No. 5, clear as day: The company’s safety culture was to let the employee decide whether they wanted to wear fall protection or not.

According to OSHA, a strong safety culture can have the single greatest impact on accident reduction of any process, and should be a top priority for all managers and supervisors. OSHA also contends that in a strong safety culture, everyone feels responsible for safety and pursues it on a daily basis; employees go beyond "the call of duty" to identify unsafe conditions and behaviors, and intervene to correct them.

For instance, in a strong safety culture, any worker would feel comfortable walking up to the plant manager or CEO and reminding him or her to wear safety glasses. This type of behavior would not be perceived as forward or over-zealous, but would be valued by the organization and rewarded. Likewise, at a company with a strong safety culture, coworkers routinely look out for one another and point out unsafe behaviors to each other.

A company with a strong safety culture typically experiences few at-risk behaviors,  and consequently experiences low accident rates, low turn-over, low absenteeism and high productivity. They usually are companies that are extremely successful by excelling in all aspects of business and excellence.

Those opportunities to improve safety would have been missed if you stopped at, “An employee stepped through a weak piece of roof decking and fell 26 feet to his death.” But by asking “why” five times, you’ll get to the real root cause. And by doing so, you can improve the process rather than just focus on the person. The process generally is the problem, not the person.

It is understood that Brian Tarachanowicz wasn’t wearing fall protection gear. But you have to go beyond that to understand why he wasn’t wearing a simple device that may have saved his life. And the simple answer is he was never told he had to, that it was a steadfast company rule. And once you accept that, then you can start to work on the things you need to do to improve the process, such as implementing a hard-and-fast no-injury culture, a workplace philosophy firmly in place to help prevent injuries before they occur.

Management’s Role

As a business owner, you have to create an edict where management drives home the point to all its workers the importance of making sure every employee goes home at the end of the day. The challenge to control injuries on a job site is a high mountain to climb, but not one that is impossible to scale. And again, it all starts with creating a culture of zero tolerance for injuries.

The phrase “accidents happen” should no longer be part of your workplace syntax. Once it is removed, tragedies like what happen to Brian Tarachanowicz and Joe Novak, will be avoided. And you, as a respected business owner in your community, will never be the answer to a Google search that reads: On the job employee deaths.

Randy Boss is a certified risk architect at Ottawa Kent in Jenison, Mich. As a risk architect, he designs, builds and implements risk management and insurance plans for middle market companies in the areas of human resources, property/casualty and benefits. He has 35 years experience and has been at Ottawa Kent for 31 years. He is a lead instructor for the Institute of Benefit & Wellness Advisors, training agents how to bring risk management to benefits. Randy can be reached at rboss@ottawakent.com.