I’ve been writing this blog, off and on, for over 18 years now, and sometimes it seems like Groundhog Day — the movie, not the weather-predicting rodent.

One of the groundhoggiest themes I write about it the media’s habit of terming workplace incidents as “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.”

But for most reporters who use the term, “freak accident,” it just means something that they’ve never heard of before.

For most reporters who use the term, “freak accident,” it just means something that they’ve never heard of before.

“Unusual?”  “Unlikely?” 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 OSHA issued a standard designed to prevent incidents like that.  I’ve seen electrical linemen getting electrocuted 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 last week. 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, writing in Facebook:

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…

And, of course if it’s 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.

[LCT Energy President Mark] Tercek 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.

Thoughts and prayers. But no commitment to investigate the death or correct the hazards that cause the fatality.

Move along, nothing to see here.

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 that I’ve used before:

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.

3 thoughts on “Freak Accidents and Bad Headlines”
  1. Another great column, Jordan. I hope you can find a way to get this in the hands of lots of reporters and editors. As you’ve been reporting for years, one of the worst and most repeated freak accident story is a trench cave.

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