Tuesday, July 08, 2003

What's So Freak About It?

One of the many things that piss me off is workplace accidents being labeled "freak" when, like the one in this article, they're actually well-known, preventable and often well-regulated hazards.
1 killed, 5 injured in freak electrical accident

REHOBOTH -- An accident on Baker Street yesterday afternoon involving electrical workers left one man dead and five others injured, one critically, police said.

Subcontractors for Massachusetts Electric were doing routine pole work at about 3:30 p.m. when the boom from a bucket truck came in contact with a high tension wire, sending 115,000 volts of electricity through the boom, Acting Chief Lt. James Trombetta said.
And it only gets worse:
Lineman from Connecticut second to die in Rehoboth accident

By Associated Press, 7/2/2003 14:03
REHOBOTH, Mass. (AP) A second electrical lineman injured after his crew's equipment contacted live power lines Monday has died.

Walter Shaw, 44, died Tuesday afternoon at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence where he had been taken when critically injured, hospital spokeswoman Polly Stiness said Wednesday. A woman answering the phone at the home of Walter Shaw, in Columbia, Conn., confirmed he was the man involved in the accident.

On Monday, Joshua Ladd of Belfast, Maine, died at Morton Hospital and Medical Center in Taunton.
Labeling something like this a "freak accident" implies that there was no way anyone could possibly have predicted it. And if you couldn't have predicted it, there's no way anyone could have done anything to prevent it. Instead of public anger that might have been stimulated by a more accurate headline like "Lack of Precautions Kills Two Workers," the public is left with the impression that "shit happens." Some people just don't have very good luck.

Six months down the line there will probably be an OSHA citation, but it probably won't make big headlines.

There was nothing at all "freak" about this electrocution. There are a number of OSHA publications about how to prevent electrocutions from overhead power lines: the lines can be de-energized or they can be shielded. If neither of these alternatives is possible, a designated spotter can monitor the job to make sure that nothing comes within ten feet of the energized line.

Try doing a Google search for "freak accident." Some of them will actually be freak e.g. A guy is walking down the street, minding his own business when a tree falls on him. But I'd wager that almost every single "freak accident" that occurs in a workplace was predictable and preventable.

I did such a search recently while doing research for an article I was writing. One of the many articles I came up with was about a "freak" confined space asphyxiation in a winery. Late in the article the writer noted that a similar incident had occurred a few years before. Two identical "freak" accidents? Pretty freaky.

Don't let the media or employers ever get away with dismissing a preventable workplace tragedy as "freak." Don't let them leave the impression that there was nothing that could have been done, or the worker's luck had just run out. What to do? Reporters need to be educated about how such tragedies can be prevented. And employers need to be challenged when they assert that no one could have forseen what happened. That's almost never the case and it certainly wasn't the case in the incident mentioned above. Don't let them get away with it.