Safety is a matter of corporate ethics and responsibility

July 7, 2006
There are numerous technologically advanced products in the plant that increase the safety of our workers. Editor in Chief Paul Studebaker laments the times when patents restrict the use of life-saving technology in his monthly column.

As I write this, a crew of four young men is re-siding my house. It’s a modest little box, but two stories tall atop a walkout basement, so significant portions of the outside walls are more than 20 ft. high. The carpenters are working on planks about 18 in. wide, suspended between pump jacks with no railings. All they have to steady themselves is the side of the house, so depending on when their luck runs out, they’ll be digging their nails into old hardboard siding, sheathing, plastic house wrap or new cement board (the color is called “clay beige”).

The young men are intelligent and experienced adults, so I respect their decision to work without fall protection. But I also appreciate that no one else is making that decision for them by restricting their access to safety equipment — if they choose to use fall protection, effective gear that meets government standards is readily available at competitive prices.

Each dewy dawn, they plug a web of compressors, saws and extension cords into several 120-V electric outlets I installed around the outside of the house. The ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) instantly trip as current finds unintended paths through the damp and back to the power lines. As cords and equipment warm and dry, the GFCIs stay in their set positions. Maybe they saved a life — who knows? But I do know we can buy them for less than 20 bucks apiece, anywhere, in a choice of brands, configurations and colors.

As we carry out our daily activities, we rely on common sense, expert advice and good equipment to minimize risk. When I ride a motorcycle, I can wear a helmet that meets rigorous standards for transmitted g-forces, penetration and retention regardless of what company’s name is on it or where in the world it was made. From the composition of its outer shell to its EPS foam energy-absorbing liner to the buckle on its strap, the helmet has many patented features, made available from multiple manufacturers through licensing.

We enjoy the benefits of patented safety equipment every day, such as life jackets, vehicle anti-lock brake and stability controls, and air bags. Fortunately, most of these technologies were invented and patented by third-party companies and research institutions that are eager to license them to multiple manufacturers. You don’t have to compromise on air bags if you buy a Ford instead of a Chevy, or do without anti-lock brakes if you chose vice-versa.

When a company invents and patents a safety feature for its own products, it’s not unheard of for them to license it to competitors at no charge as a matter of corporate conscience and responsibility. Back in 1983, Clark patented a lift truck operator restraint system — essentially a seat with vertical wings and a seatbelt to keep operators with the truck in the event of a lateral turnover. The company made it standard equipment on internal combustion trucks, catalogued a retrofit for eligible trucks in the field, and offered the patent to other lift truck manufacturers, royalty-free.

Our cover story on lift truck safety includes descriptions of patented electronic stability systems designed to help prevent turnovers and falling loads. The lift truck company that offers them has studied the statistics on fatal turnover incidents before and after the technologies went to market, and finds that not only has the number of fatalities gone down, but none of them involved their trucks that were equipped with the sophisticated systems. Statistics indicate that this system is saving lives, so I asked the lift truck manufacturer’s representatives if they were allowing other vendors access to the patented technology. They told me, in essence, “No, that system is only available from us.” Near as I can tell from interviews of other companies’ representatives, it’s a true statement.

Safety is a touchy subject, and not many fork lift vendors were willing to talk about it at all, much less exactly what product safety improvements they have in the works. So I hope the extremely limited availability of life-saving stability controls is a temporary phenomenon, to be corrected momentarily when multiple manufacturers introduce systems under license, or, better yet, offer even more effective systems they’ve developed themselves.

If that doesn’t happen, I hope it isn’t because they can’t get around the patents.

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