One morning at a Nebraska meat-packing facility, a worker was operating a conveyor belt as part of his ordinary routine. But the worker got some loose clothing caught in some moving parts. The clothing wrapped around the gears, and tightened around the worker's neck. The worker asphyxiated to death as a result.

Not only did the company lose a valued employee - that's bad enough all by itself - but they had to pay a hefty $195,100 fine on top of that.

Specifically, investigators from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found two willful violations involving the fatal machinery:

  • Inadequate guard procedures and policies
  • Inadequate lockout/tagout procedures.

Additionally, OSHA investigators found nine serious violations in and around the plant, including these possibly contributory failures:

  • The company failed to train workers on protecting themselves from hazards associated with loose clothing around moving equipment.
  • The company failed to conduct periodic inspections of energy control procedures.
  • The company failed to properly train workers in energy control procedures.

Tragically, this isn't an isolated incident:

Kyle Wene was an employee working at a conveyor belt at Green 46 Recycling in Rochester, Wisconsin, in February of 2011. The conveyor belt machinery snagged on his loose clothing (it was cold in Wisconsin in February), and he was choked to death.

In a separate incident, Glen Pullins, 53, was working at Power Belt Machinery in Center, Colorado, was killed when machinery snagged his coat sleeve and pulled him into the gears by his arm. He was dead by the time other workers could free him.

More: A car wash employee in Massachusetts, Stephanie Carpus, was very nearly killed when she walked through the car washing facility to get change in February 2009. The spinning scrubber brush snagged her scarf and strangled her. Only an alert customer, John A. O'Leary of Southampton, who leapt from his car while the car was still in the wash facility, cut her free with a pocket knife, and performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on her saved her life.

In each case, the combination of powerful machinery and loose clothing proved deadly serious. Cold weather was also a factor in at least two of these three cases, but loose clothing can prove hazardous at any time.

Protect Your Workers - Protect Yourself

It's better to pay a fine than lose an employee. And it's better to proactively address the hazard and prevent an accident than to do either.

Here are some steps you can take to protect your workers and your company:

  • Write a written dress code, include it in your employee handbook, and ensure it's enforced.
  • Insist workers tuck in clothing and tie shoe or bootlaces, as appropriate. Bootlaces are strong, and they can get caught in wheels, axles and other machinery, or cause simple trip and fall accidents that are hazardous in and of themselves.
  • Consider imposing the use of overalls.
  • Consider issuing a workplace uniform, so that all workers are conforming to a safe standard, easily recognizable from a distance.
  • Insist that long hair be trimmed, tied or kept under a hat.
  • Prohibit the wearing of bracelets, necklaces and chains.
  • Provide training on power management and guard safety
  • Enforce the use of guards and lockout/tagout policies.
  • Remember, gold is an excellent conductor of electricity. A loose gold chain could possibly touch a live wire and complete a circuit - with your worker in the middle.
  • Empower all workers to halt work and notify supervisors if they identify a hazardous condition.
  • Schedule an extra training session when the weather turns cold.
  • Document your training effort in writing.

As always, management and executives should take an active role in monitoring workfloor conditions, and hold middle managers accountable to identify and correct safety hazards. Appoint a senior, experienced manager to direct your company's safety and OSHA compliance effort.

This shouldn't be sloughed off on a junior staffer, but entrusted to an experienced and respected member of the management team - one who is frequently out in work areas and who is seasoned enough to be proactive and command cooperation from other workers. If your shop is a union shop, this should be a joint effort between union and management representatives.