Freak accident

16-year old Michael Schuls did NOT die in a “freak accident” in a sawmill on June 29.

The cause of his death was all too common:

“That’s caused by entanglement in a machine,” Florence County Coroner Jeff Rickaby previously said, as reported by The Messenger. Surveillance footage of the tragic incident shows Schuls, who had been working alone, stepping onto a conveyor belt to unjam the machine. He had not pressed a safety button that automatically shuts down the machine before doing so. About 17 minutes later, a coworker found him stuck inside.

Trying to repair or unjam a machine when it’s still running is colloquially referred to as a “lockout-tagout” accident.  That’s because OSHA’s “Control of hazardous energy” standard requires employers to shut down a machine before repairing it, and to lock it out (using an actual lock) so that it can’t be turned back on when an employee has a limb, head or other body part exposed to hazardous machinery. If locking it out is not possible, a tag can be used.

Readers of the Weekly Toll will not that almost every week a worker is killed from being trapped in a machine while trying to repair it without shutting it off and locking it out.

Freak accidents are very rare in the workplace.  Wiktionary defines a “freak accident” as “An incident, especially one that is harmful, occurring under highly unusual and unlikely circumstances.”

The vast majority of workplace injuries and deaths are from common causes, most of which are in violation of OSHA standards.

The word “freak” implies something very unlikely that almost never happens. A lockout-tagout death is not that. Even the word “accident” is wrong. An “accident” is something unexpected and unintended. But if you don’t lock out dangerous machinery, you can expect someone to get hurt.

The problem here is is not just misleading headlines. The real problem is that if something is considered a “freak accident,” it implies that it was just a crazy, unpredictable thing that no one could ever have prevented. And therefore, nothing to be done.

Like a asteroid hitting a construction worker on the head.

Readers of Confined Space know that this is not the first — or even tenth or 20th — time I’ve criticized reporters, headline writers, company and government officials for using the phrase “freak accident.”

And I’ve offered guidance to reporters for what is — and what is not — a freak accident.

One easy guideline to go by:  if there an OSHA standard covering the cause of the “freak accident,” then it’s not a “freak accident.”

An effective and enforced lockout-tagout program would have prevented Schuls’ death.

But there was another problem…

Child Labor

The real tragedy here is not journalistic malpractice, but the illegal and immoral killing of a 16-year-old child in a workplace where he shouldn’t have been working.

The U.S. Department of Labor obtained a federal consent order and judgment against sawmill operator Florence Hardwoods LLC following the death of Schuls.

The order requires the Florence County company to place labels and signage to prevent children under age 18 from using dangerous equipment and entering the company’s sawmill and planer buildings. The company has agreed not to hire anyone under the age of 16 and if the company hires anyone between the ages of 16 and 18 in the future, the company must strictly comply with the requirements for apprentices or student learners and inform the department before hiring them.

They also used their “hot goods” authority to stop the company from selling any products produced with illegal labor.

During its investigation, the division also alerted two of the sawmill’s customers that they possessed goods subject to the hot goods provision. Both customers agreed voluntarily to refrain from shipping or delivering for shipment in interstate commerce the hot goods they received until the legal matter was resolved.

Florence Hardwoods agreed to pay $190,696 in civil money penalties. An OSHA investigation into the death continues and will likely result in additional penalties.

Schuls’ death is just one tragic example of a recent sharp rise in child labor in this country and efforts in some states to make it easier for children to work dangerous jobs. In fiscal year 2022, Wage and Hour Division investigators identified child labor violations in 835 cases and assessed employers with more than $4.3 million in penalties.


2 thoughts on “16-Year Old’s Death was NOT a “Freak Accident””
  1. What really gets me about this one is the description of the work being that “He had not pressed a safety button that automatically shuts down the machine before [stepping on the conveyor belt to unjam the machine]”. I know the company probably tried to lean on the alternative means exception that says “Note: Exception to paragraph (a)(2)(ii): Minor tool changes and adjustments, and other minor servicing activities, which take place during normal production operations, are not covered by this standard if they are routine, repetitive, and integral to the use of the equipment for production, provided that the work is performed using alternative measures which provide effective protection.” What is essentially described as an E-Stop would not be an acceptable alternative measure that provides effective protection. What’s so frustrating about this (other than the fact that he shouldn’t have even been doing the work in the first place due to his age) is that a 16-year-old kid lost his life in part because nobody looked at that system and thought to put one of the most common and basic types of interlocks in place and instead said “they’ve got an e-stop that’s good enough”. Awful.

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