Even as workplace injuries decline, new threats to workplace safety are emerging. The recent crash of an Ethiopian Air 737 Max highlighted on emerging safety risk.
Safety experts attributed the crash to the 737 Max to using modern software to control machinery that was designed as long as 50 years ago. Experts believe that so-called control software works much better when it is designed together with the machinery it is meant to control.
But purchasing new machinery is expensive for business. (Or it cuts into returns for wealthy investors.) Control software is seen as a cost-saving hack.
In the case of the Ethiopian Air crash 157 crew members and passengers lost their lives. Thankfully not all accidents from using 2019 software to control 1969 machinery will be as fatal as the Ethiopian Air crash. But nonetheless accidents from industrial machinery can be gruesome and disabling even if they don’t make international news.
Obviously injuries caused by this slapdash industrial technology would be covered under workers’ compensation laws. But other laws would certainly come into play as well.
Workers who report problems with unsafe technology can bring whistleblower claims. Nebraska has broad protections for employees who report unsafe working conditions. A complaint about an unsafe working condition can be a report of a work injury in many circumstances. Employees reporting concerns over the design of technology may also have protections under federal law. The United States Senate has opened up an investigation of the 737 Max based on issues raised by a whistleblower. Complaints about machine design could be covered under the various whislteblower laws administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Employees bring a claim under the act have an easier evidentiary standard to meet than in other forms of retaliation cases.
Employees injured on the job by defective machinery can also bring a negligence case against the manufacturer of the equipment. This so-called third party case could be worth substantially more than a workers compensation claim. But in a case involving modern software controlling old machinery, there could be a dispute over who was at fault. Producers of older technology may also be able to defend negligence claims based on a statute of repose defense which can limit claims for injuries that have yet to happen.