Wednesday, May 05, 2004

What's 'Freak' Got To Do With It?

Those of you who read this Blog know that there are a few things that really irritate me. (Actually, there a more than a few, but...): trench collapses and stupid articles or headlines about how a "freak" accident killed a worker.

As far as I'm concerned, a "freak accident" is when you're sitting at your desk, minding your own business and a runaway satellite crashes through the roof over your head.

This, on the other hand, is not a "freak accident:"

Freak accident kills local steel worker

TRYMAINE D. LEE, Staff Writer 05/05/2004

A 47-year-old Trenton man was killed yesterday morning in a freak industrial accident at the Certified Steel processing facility in Hamilton.

According to police, Wayne Austin, a six-year employee of the company, received a fatal blow to the head when he was struck by a load of hanging steel.

"He was struck in the head by material being suspended by a crane," Certified Steel spokesman Bob Kramer confirmed yesterday.

The accident occurred at 10:42 a.m. in the "angle iron storage area."

Police said the steel, which was suspended by a crane operating through mobile tracks along the ceiling, killed Austin almost immediately.


The L-shaped pieces of steel that struck the laborer likely weighed "hundreds of pounds, possibly thousands," Kramer said.

Officials from Certified Steel said Austin was wearing the proper head gear at the time of the accident. But the sheer impact of the blow was tremendous, Kramer said.

"It was certainly enough to ... kill," he added.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "freak" as "a seemingly capricious (unpredictable) action or event."

So how capricious or unpredictable was this incident? I'm not too sure about the exact details, but it couldn't be too unpredictable if OSHA has two standards dealing with overhead cranes (Overhead and gantry cranes, 1910.179 and Crawler locomotive and truck cranes, 1910.180), both of which state "The employer shall require that the operator avoid carrying loads over people."

And generally, one thinks of "freak," as more or less unique -- as in, you've never heard of such a thing, and never will again.

In this case, however, according to the article,
The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics Web site indicates that in all of 2002 only four fabricated structural metal industry workers died as a result of being struck by objects at the workplace. Since 1996, 25 such workers have been killed, the site reports.
Certified Steel management may have been "freaked out," but that doesn't make this a "freak accident."
Accidents like this one are extremely rare," Kramer said, within a few hours of the fatal accident. "It has never happened before. Not to us."
In fact, most workplace fatalities have "never happened before" in any given workplace ... until they do. That's why we have OSHA standards -- to prevent the incidents that "never happened before" from ever happening the first time. This fatality may have been Certified's first, but the company was not exactly a virgin. Certified Steel has received a dozen OSHA citations over the past five years.

So what's the problem with labeling something like this a "freak accident?" Well, as I wrote in my incredibly inciteful article, "Acts of God, Acts of Man,"
Unfortunately, blaming a workplace fatality on God, freak occurrences, or a careless worker is a way of thinking that the media often falls into and that some employers encourage. After all, if a workplace fatality is unpredictable and unpreventable, then no great public outcry is warranted. If someone's inattentiveness or stupidity or laziness (or drug problem) or God's will led to the death, then it's a tragedy for the family and friends, but no real investigation is needed, no lessons are to be learned, no changes in the workplace are demanded, no new OSHA regulations are needed, no enforcement is appropriate and no wider social problems need to be addressed.

And employers often get away with blaming deaths and injuries on "freak" accidents and other "excuses" -- at least in the public eye. They are typically quoted about the "freak" accident in a short one-day story in the local newspaper and by the time experts are found (if anyone bothers) or the OSHA report comes out explaining the employer's failure to provide a safe workplace, the local media has often lost interest.
So what is to be done? As I suggested in a previous rant about this same subject,
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 cforeseenve 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.