“Freak Accidents” — Neither Freakish, nor Accidental

Freak Accident: An incident, especially one that is harmful, occurring under highly unusual and unlikely circumstances. (Wiktionary)

toll fatalities freak accidentThis is another in an occasional series of posts about the stupidity and ignorance of labeling workplace fatalities “freak accidents.” Why are we opposed to seeing this phrase?

First, the phrase implies that this type of incident hardly ever happens and there is, therefore, not much you can do about it. In fact, the phrase “freak accident” is a double-whammy. Not only dies the word “freak” imply “rare,” but the word “accident,” defined as “an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury,” implies that the event was “unexpected.”

Rare and unexpected. Shit happens. Waddayagonnado?

For example:

Married father-of-three mechanic, 40, is crushed to death in freak accident doing maintenance on ‘magic carpet’ ski lift in Colorado

Clear Creek County, CO — A Colorado ski area employee was crushed to death while working on a snow-level lift just three days after celebrating Christmas with his wife and three children. Clear Creek County officials say 40-year-old Adam Lee got caught in the equipment at Loveland Ski Area and suffered crushing chest injuries last Thursday.  Erika Mackay Lee, Adam’s wife, has expressed frustration at the lack of answers about what happened to her husband.  ‘I asked that question five times and every single time I was told it was a freak accident,’ the widow tells The Denver Channel.  In the days since her husband’s death, Erika has learned some of the details from Adam’s co-workers. ‘He was under the magic carpet conveyor belt,’ Erika told CBS4. ‘And that’s supposed to have a lock-out system. But somebody came up and started it. And he was dragged under.’

Now, by virtue of the fact that I’ve spent my entire career in the field of occupational safety and health, and I compile a list of workers killed on the job every week, I’m somewhat of an expert in how people die on the job.  And I know from long experience that every week (or more) a worker is crushed to death in machinery that has not been “locked out.”

In fact, lockout incidents are so common and so deadly that OSHA has a standard to prevent them called “The control of hazardous energy (lockout/tagout)

How “freak” or “accidental” can a death be when it could have been prevented by complying with an OSHA standard?

And how “freak” or “accidental” can a death be when it could have been prevented by complying with an OSHA standard?

Why is it harmful to label predictable incidents “freak accidents?” As I wrote many years ago 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.

Just ask Erika Lee what message she thinks her husband’s employer was trying to send when they repeatedly told her that his death was just a “freak accident.”

Here are a couple of more examples of “freak accidents” that happen all the time:

Coroner identifies worker electrocuted in ‘freak accident’

GREENVILLE COUNTY, S.C. — The Greenville County coroner has identified the worker who was electrocuted Tuesday afternoon in what was described by a Highway Patrol trooper as a “freak accident.”Coroner Parks Evans said 48-year-old Marty Dale Whitmire, of Liberty, died around 2:30 p.m. when he was electrocuted while paving E. Mountain Creek Road near State Park Road. He said appears that a dump truck clipped a power line, while the paving process was taking place, causing the power pole to flex and crack causing the power lines to drop down and touch Whitmire’s body.

freak accident

There was nothing at all “freak” about this electrocution. Do a search of OSHA’s website for “overhead power lines” and you’ll get over 2200 hits telling you that there are limits to how close a worker is permitted to get to a live power line And  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 close the energized line.

Construction Worker Killed in Freak Accident Near Broadway Junction

BUSHWICK, NY  – A construction worker was crushed to death in a freak accident at a job site near Broadway Junction in Bushwick over the weekend, police confirmed. The accident took place around 3:00 pm on Saturday, March 10 at 1949 Broadway and Stewart Street. As a forklift was lifting a load of scaffolding pipes, the vehicle tipped over, crushing the 47-year old operator between the forklift and a flatbed truck, said police. Responders rushed to pull the tipped vehicle upright, and the victim was transported to Brooklyn University Medical Center, where he was pronounced deceased.

And

Man killed when truck falls on him at salvage yard

CLAYTON COUNTY, Ga. – Clayton County police are calling it a freak accident after a pickup truck landed on top of a salvage yard worker. The worker died at the scene in Ellenwood. Police told Channel 2’s Audrey Washington that Michael Hilley, 31, was pulling a part from underneath the pickup truck when something went wrong and the truck landed on top of him.  Investigator said Hilley was removing a part from the truck, which was being held up by a forklift, when the truck fell directly on top of him. Hilley was pronounced dead at the scene.

Again, lots of information on OSHA’s website about forklift (or “Powered Industrial Truck”) safety. OSHA estimates that 35,000 serious injuries and 62,000 non-serious injuries involving forklifts occur annually, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 96 U.S. workers were killed in incidents involving forklifts in 2015. Forty-two percent of forklift fatalities are caused by forklift driver being crushed by a lift truck that tips.

What Is — And Is Not — A Freak Accident?

So how do you tell what a freak accident is and what is not?

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: Dying 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

Freak Accident: Getting crushed by a falling tree while delivering mail.

You get the idea.

But what can you do about it? When you see an article in you local paper calling a common incident a “freak accident,” call or e-mail the reporter and tell him or her why the incident was not a freak accident, and suggest that s/he do just a bit of research and mention in the article how the incident could have been prevented and that there are relevant OSHA standards.  Reporters need to be educated about how such tragedies can be prevented. And employers need to be challenged when they imply that no one could have foreseen what happened.

And finally, on a more personal note:

‘Freak accident’ kills Prattville bicyclist

PRATTVILLE, AL — A 72-year-old Prattville man has died from injuries sustained in a “freak” bicycle accident. Alexander Alaskin, of Covered Bridge Parkway, was riding his bike Monday morning about 10:45 p.m., said Capt. David Fowler of the Prattville Police Department. He was riding through the parking lot of Prattville Baptist Hospital when he hit the curb on Gillespie Street and was thrown off.  Fowler said Alaskin wasn’t wearing a helmet.

I know from long, hard, painful (very painful), bloody experience that there is nothing “freak” about hitting something — a curb, a patch of wet leaves, a car door that suddenly opens in front of you, a rut in the bike path, a patch of gravel, an unsupervised child, an unobservant pedestrian, a car that stops suddenly in front of you — and flying off your bike.  Which is why they make bike helmets.

Freak Accident

2 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for your article about the “freak” “”accident”” in Greenville SC involving the electrocution that occurred on a paving job site.

    April 11 2017 is a day my family and I will NEVER forget. Marty was my like a brother to me. He was actually my Uncle (my fathers baby brother) but because he was only 8 years older than me we were very close when I was a child and as I became an adult we grew to be best friends. He used to tell everyone that he and I were brothers.

    Marty worked on my crew as a Pipefitter for 4+\- years and the company we were working for layed him off in November of 2016. That’s when he took the job at King Asphalt to keep busy until the layoff ended. He wasn’t experienced and he was a flag man for the first 4 months he worked there. Towards the end of March 2017 he was “promoted” to the job the position that he was working when he was tragically killed, not accidentally either. This happened in my opinion(I have 22 years in Industrial Pipefitting an OSHA30, and experience as Site Specific Safet Officer on a Federal Jobsite) due to Marty’s absence of proper training on the machine and lack of training for the foreman in the job. The power lines were lower than required by national code, the pole was not up to national codes, the spotter was out that day and no one filled his position and SCDOT inspector was sitting in his truck onsite because the road being
    paved was a State Road. The road has more overhead lines crossing the road than the average road in that particular area that the incident occurred, and no one notified the power company about safeguarding the power lines before work began. COMPLACENCY killed my “brother”.!!!! This could have been avoided if either the paving or power company or SCDOT would have fulfilled their
    obligations to provide a safe place to work.

    Another piece of information not reported was…….
    The foreman on the paving crew was Marty’s son. My cousin watched his Daddy as he was being electrocuted for 20+\- minutes until the power company arrived to shutdown the 7200 volt line that lay across Marty’s body. The power never tripped a fuse or transformer. It stayed live until the power company got onsite. NOT A ACCIDENT. A FAILURE TO PREVENT this from happening is what is so “FREAKY” and unbelievable.

    Please contact me when you can. I have a few questions and you might be able to help me answer them.

    Thanks again for everything you do!!!!!!!

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