A Guide to Understanding Workplace Death
After 18 years or writing about workplace safety, sometimes it seems like Groundhog Day — the movie, not the weather-predicting rodent.
One of the groundhoggiest themes I write about is the news media’s habit of terming workplace incidents “freak accidents.” I’ve been writing about so-called “freak accidents” since 2003 (See here and here.)
What are “freak accidents?” Well, Wiktionary defines a “freak accident” as “an incident, especially one that is harmful, occurring under highly unusual and unlikely circumstances.”
if it really is just a freak accident, you don’t really have to do much about it because it’s just one of those unavoidable things, right?
But for most reporters “freak accident” just means something that they’ve never heard of before.
I’ve seen articles describing a worker getting his head caught in a machine he was repairing termed a “freak accident.” That kind of incident is so unusual that 30 years ago the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a standard to prevent incidents like that.
I’ve seen electrical linemen getting electrocuted described as “freak accidents.”
Getting crushed by machinery or in a trench collapse or forklift incidents — I’ve seen them all described as “freak accidents,” despite the fact that they’re well-known and all-too-common causes of workplace death.
The latest contribution comes courtesy of miner advocate and attorney Tony Oppegard, writing about the death of 44-year-old Paul Springer, in an LCT Energy coal mine in Pennsylvania. The headline in the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat thundered:
Coroner: ‘Freak accident’ likely to blame for miner’s death
What was so unusual, unlikely or freakish about Springer’s death? Nothing, according to Oppegard: “There is no such thing as a “freak” roof or rib fall.
“I grew up in Somerset County, PA, where this underground mining fatality occurred. The coroner quoted in the story obviously doesn’t know much, if anything, about underground coal mining. He attempts to exonerate the coal company for not adequately supporting the mine roof (or rib) by calling the miner’s death a “freak accident”. When the federal and state mine investigators finish their investigation and issue their reports, I suspect that we will learn that the roof fall wasn’t a “freak” accident at all,” Oppegard wrote at his Facebook page.
Of course, if it really is just a freak accident, you don’t really have to do much about it because it’s just one of those unavoidable things, right? And then as a business owner there’s only one thing left to do.
Sure enough, after this preventable coal miner tragedy, Mark Tercek, the president of LCT Energy, said the company’s “thoughts and prayers” were with Springer’s family and friends during the difficult time.
Thoughts and prayers — but no commitment to investigate the death or correct the hazards that cause the fatality. Move along, nothing to see here.
Workplace fatalities fell in 2020, but that’s no surprise given the reduced activity during the first year of the pandemic. Still, almost 4,800 Americans died on the job.
Last year the number shot back up to more than 5,300, a number that would be smaller if we focused on continually improving safety standards and providing OSHA with a proper budget for inspecting workplaces instead of the cheap and meaningless “thoughts and prayers.”
In the hope of improving on this bad journalism, here’s a solution to address reporting on workplace deaths with competence and honesty:
A Guide for Reporters:
What Is — And Is Not — A Freak Accident?
Being a reporter is hard. So much news. So many deadlines. So little time to actually learn about the subject you’re writing about. And coroners, apparently, know even less.
So how do you tell what a freak accident is and what is not? Here are some hints:
Not a freak accident: Getting caught in machinery that has not been locked out.
Freak Accident: Getting hit by a meteor while working on a roof.
Not a freak accident: Getting electrocuted when your construction vehicle hits a power line.
Freak Accident: Getting shot by a stray bullet while working on a construction site.
Not a freak accident: Getting hit by lightning while working in the fields during a thunder storm.
Freak Accident: Getting crushed by a falling tree while delivering the mail.
Not a Freak Accident: Any cause of death or injury for which there’s an OSHA or MSHA standard.
I’m sure this isn’t the last post I’ll write on this subject. In the meantime, if you run across articles claiming that predictable and preventable workplace injuries or fatalities are “freak accidents,” don’t hesitate to educate the reporter and the news organization’s editors.