Freak Accident


Michael Dorgan
Fox News
Somewhere in New York

Dear Mr. Dorgan:

I am writing about an article you wrote entitled “Freak accident kills Long Island worker fixing septic system.” The article described the death of a worker, Lauro Pacheco, who was buried alive in a trench collapse while installing cesspool rings in Suffolk County, New York.

According to your article,

The victim entered the hole to level a cesspool ring when excavated dirt collapsed on him and buried him alive, police said.
Emergency crews from several towns worked to dig the worker free but could not save him in time.
He was eventually removed from the hole by Emergency Service Section officers about five hours later and pronounced dead, police said.

First, getting killed in a trench collapse is not a “freak accident.”  If you look up the definition of “freak,” you will find “a very unusual and unexpected event or situation.” And Wiktionary defines “freak accident” as “An incident, especially one that is harmful, occurring under highly unusual and unlikely circumstances.”

Even the word “accident” is not accurate in this case. An “accident” is something unexpected and unintended. But if you allow workers to go down into deep, unprotected trenches, you can expect someone to get hurt.

Trench collapses are unfortunately not unusual, unexpected or unlikely.  In 2022, 39 people died while working in trenches or excavations, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). 

Trench collapses are unfortunately not unusual, unexpected or unlikely.  In 2022, 39 people died while working in trenches or excavations, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

In fact, trench collapses are so usual, expected and likely that OSHA has had a trenching and excavation standard for over 40 years that sets out required measure for employers to take to prevent trench collapses. First and foremost, the walls of trenches that are more than 5 feet deep must be shored or a trench box must be used to prevent the trench from collapsing. There are other requirements, like a feasible means (like ladders)  for workers to quickly exist a trench. It should go without saying that any hazard for which there is an OSHA standard is not “unusual” or “unexpected.”

The truth is that “freak accidents” are very rare in the workplace.  The vast majority of workplace injuries and deaths are from common causes, most of which are in violation of OSHA standards.

Now, I apologize if this is the result of a headline writer who did not consult with you about the text of the headline. (Journalists often complain to me about their headline writers.) If that is the case, please pass this along to the headline writers as well as any editors or managers who have responsibility for headlines or content.

To assist you all in these efforts, I have created a handy “Guide for Reporters: What Is — And Is Not — A Freak Accident?” I hope it will be helpful.

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: Getting buried alive in a trench collapse.

Freak Accident: Getting hit by a car that crashes into your restaurant while you’re waiting tables

Not a Freak Accident: Any cause of death or injury for which there’s an OSHA or MSHA standard.

I’m not nitpicking. This is not just a matter of editorial accuracy.  The choice of words is important — even a matter of life and death. Because if something is considered a “freak accident,” it implies that it was just a crazy, unpredictable thing that no one could ever have prevented. Like an Act of God.

And if it couldn’t have been prevented, there is nothing to be done. That is not true in the case of trench collapses. Lots can be done to prevent workers from getting killed in trench collapses.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.


Jordan Barab



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