Lesson from Olympic Luge Death: If You Know about a Safety Problem, You MUST Address It

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The most basic tenet of an OHS system is that you must protect workers from safety hazards in the workplace. Naturally, to address those hazards, you must know about them. That’s why you conduct inspections, encourage workers to notify you of safety problems, etc. But the key is that once a safety hazard has been brought to your attention, you must do something about it.

Officials Knew about Track Concerns a Year before Olympics

In last year’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver, luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died during a training run on the sliding track in Whistler. Officials from the International Luge Federation and the Vancouver 2010 organizing committee said their investigation “found no indication the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track,” blaming Kumaritashvili’s inexperience for the tragedy.

However, according to a recent article in the New York Times, in internal email, concerns that an athlete might be “badly injured or worse” on the games’ sliding track were raised about a year before the fatal crash—and the Games’ organizers knew about these concerns.

Emails Document Notice of Safety Concerns

At the time of the crash, John Furlong, the chief executive of the Vancouver Organizing Committee, said that the death was “not something I have prepared for or ever thought I needed to be prepared for.” He has continued to maintain that position, publicly at least.

But e-mails obtained by the CBC from the provincial coroner’s office show that in March 2009, Furlong and the head of the International Luge Federation, the sport’s governing body, were concerned about the potential dangers posed by record speeds being generated by athletes on the track. However, the e-mails show that the organizers concluded that no action was necessary.

Furlong’s e-mail came after he read a copy of a letter from the Federation to the track’s designer in which the governing body’s president expressed “great worry” that athletes would be unable to cope with any future track that exceeded Whistler’s “extremely high speeds.”

In an e-mail to four executives with the organizing committee, Furlong wrote that “imbedded in this note (cryptic as it may be) is a warning that the track is in their view too fast and someone could get badly hurt.”

Furlong continued, “An athlete gets badly injured or worse and I think the case could be made we were warned and did nothing.” After noting that he was unsure “where the exit sign or way out is on this,” Furlong concluded that “our legal guys should review at least.”

Tim Gayda, the committee’s vice president for sport, wrote in an email message, “There is nothing to do on our side,” but he noted that the Federation’s letter put “in writing concern about the speeds of the track if there ever was an incident.”

What Should Happen Now?

The luger’s death wasn’t a workplace safety incident. But what if it was?

For example, say an employer installed new equipment at a plant knowing that the machinery posed certain safety hazards but opting not to address them because doing so would slow down production. A worker then gets killed using this equipment. Can you imagine the response if emails similar to those exchanged by the Olympic committee members came to light showing that management knew about the safety problems but intentionally decided not to act? The company—and maybe a few executives—would most certainly face OHS charges, if not criminal negligence charges.

So what if anything should happen to the Olympic officials in light of these emails?