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EHS Today EditorinChief Sandy Smith

Sandy Says: Unlucky #13

I’m always torn when the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases the number of workplace fatalities. Every year, the number is lower, but never low enough.

Is the glass half-full or half-empty? For another year, occupational fatalities have declined, with 81 more workers returning home from work in 2011 than in 2010.  That's great news, right?

Divide the total number of work-related fatalities – 4,609 – by the number of days in 2011 – 365 – and you end up with 12.62. When we round up, that means that 13 people a day died as the result of work-related injuries.  Most of these incidents were preventable through engineering controls, safety management systems, training or personal protective equipment.

"Effective management systems help identify safety and health issues before they result in injury, and establish prevention strategies that can protect all workers including truck drivers, construction workers, farmers, office workers, loggers, pilots, roofers, ranchers, [commercial] fishermen and more," said Richard A. Pollock, CSP, president of the American Society of Safety Engineers. "Remember, these are 4,609 people who left for work in the morning and never returned home to their families."

My father worked in factories or machine shops my entire life. Although he was knowledgeable and perceived as a leader by his employers, he often made very bad choices related to workplace safety and received no repercussions from his bosses for doing so. I have many stories I could tell you, all of which end up with my father suffering some type of fairly horrific injury, but there is one story in particular that stands out.

My dad and his crew needed to lift a heavy piece of equipment so they could wedge something underneath it to make a quick repair. (This already sounds like a bad idea, right?) Rather than wait for the lift truck, my dad and several other guys planned to jump down on two-by-fours wedged beneath the machine from about 5 feet up on ladders. They were supposed to remain standing on the two-by-fours to keep the machine elevated.

They all jumped and the machine lifted but my dad was the only person who stayed on his two-by-four; the others jumped off. When the machine crashed back to the ground, the two-by-four acted like a seesaw, flinging my father more than 15 feet up into the air. His boots left marks on the ceiling and he landed face first. He was knocked unconscious, shattered his eye socket and cracked his skull open. It's a tribute to his hard head that he did not become one of the occupational fatality statistics for that year. He did, however miss nearly a month of work and suffered from migraines and eye issues for the remainder of his life.

As I said, this was one of many ill-advised and dangerous stunts my father pulled at work. If you had asked him, he would have said he did what needed to be done to get the job finished as quickly as possible. His employer would have said that he allowed my dad to behave in this reckless manner because his crew always had the best production numbers.

Had the employer recognized that safe production is good business, my father would have received appropriate retraining and counseling and, if he had continued to be reckless, would have been fired. Had his employer fired him after the two-by-four stunt, it would have prevented his near-electrocution a couple of years later.

But that's a story for another day.

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