What Can Traffic Fatalities Teach Us About Worker Safety?

Last week in metropolitan Detroit two stranded drivers were killed in two separate and unrelated incidents. Both cases can teach us much about worker safety, and indeed the nature of safety in general. In the first incident, an experienced fire-fighter was struck and killed as he changed a tire on a busy interstate highway during rush hour in the pre-dawn hours of a bleak Michigan winter day. A day later, another man was killed after he was stranded because his automobile was disabled. The two stories are important illustrations that some of our most cherished truisms in safety are bunk.

Let’s take a look at the facts of the first incident. A man decides to change a tire in the dark. As he gets out of the car to assess the situation maybe he notices that he is closer to traffic than he would like, maybe he doesn’t. In either case, he decides against repositioning the care. Not far away, another driver heads to work, she left a bit early and isn’t in a particular hurry so she decides to stay in the right hand lane. While the day is dark, unseasonably warm weather has made driving conditions unusually good—no ice, good visibility, she is paying attention, well as much as one can when one makes the routine daily commute. She’s careful by nature, she makes it a point not to text or talk on the phone while driving. She isn’t going particularly fast, but she is keeping up with traffic, like most drivers she drifts a bit in the lane, but she’s not swerving. Back at our first driver, he’s ticked off, this isn’t the way he wanted to start his day, and the tire isn’t just flat, it’s ruined. He hadn’t planned on the $150 or so expense of replacing a tire, especially with the holiday bills coming in. He didn’t need this and he’s getting more and more ticked off. A car whizzes by and his heart quickens, “that was close” he thinks, and he realizes that he’s in trouble, but the car is up on the jack and there is scarce little time to move the car, besides that would take more time. As the second driver negotiates the heavy traffic she notices too late the man crouched in her lane. A moment later the man lay dead run over by three motorists.

Less than 24 hours later, on a different patch of the same freeway, a small business owner’s car gives out and strands him, he struggles to get it off the road, he puts on the flashers, and mindful of yesterday’s tragedy makes sure the car is well out of traffic and completely on the shoulder. It’s 4:00 a.m.; he picks up his cell phone; “damn, it’s dead”. “Looks like there’s no choice but to walk to the nearest gas station and get help” he thinks. Reluctantly he gets out and starts walking to the closest exit. Meanwhile a postal truck swerves to miss one of Michigan’s ubiquitous potholes and strikes the pedestrian, killing him instantly. Are these so different from workplace fatalities? I don’t think so. In fact, I think there are some important lessons that challenge conventional thinking regarding workplace injuries.

Lesson 1: Many injuries, if not most, are a collection of hazards that only cause injuries when there is a catalyst. I call it Hazard Stack, and explore this idea a bit more in this week’s www.rockfordgreeneinternational.wordpress.com post.

Think of all the elements, that had to be present for the firefighter to be killed. He had to be too close to the road, traffic had to be heavy, a driver had to fail to notice that he was in harms way, and more. None of these elements alone caused his death, and the elements collectively did not cause his death, until there was some catalyst. Sadly we will likely never know what the catalyst was that caused this accident.

Lesson 2: Reminding People to Act More Safely is Ineffective in Keeping People Safe. The first case shut down traffic for 3 hours or more, in fact, all of northwest metro Detroit was disrupted. This was big news and was at the forefront of drivers’ minds for weeks. Despite this chilling reminder, an almost identical incident happened in less than 24 hours. I would be stunned to learn that either driver in the second incident hadn’t heard about the first incident, and yet this heightened awareness failed to prevent the second incident. Similarly, it is unlikely that warning signs or some sort of reward for not walking on the shoulder of a busy interstate highway would be effective.

Lesson 3: The Human Drive Toward Expediency Trumps The Need to Act Safely. Too often we see workplace fatalities that would have been prevented had the individual spent a little more time or suffered a small bit of inconvenience. But we need to understand that humans are hardwired to take risks—hell, getting out of bed in the morning carries with it at least some risk. But the need for expediency, to accomplish a task as simply, quickly, and easily is far stronger than our drive for self-preservation, at least to a point that is. Too often workplaces are configured so workers are forced to choose between expediency and safety. While employers generally want people to work safely, many times the message—produce efficiently and quickly—over shadows the message to work safe. Sometimes it may seem that employers encourage at risk behavior, but in general, employers do not want employees taking reckless chances. But we do take chances nonetheless. It real terms we don’t care what our employers are telling us to do, we want to get the job done as efficiently and expeditiously as possible.

Lesson 4: It’s Easy to Get So Absorbed In The Moment That We Lose Sight of the Big Picture. Consider our cast of characters, the Fireman, the Driver who struck him, the Postal Worker, and the Business Owner. All components of a large and complex system we call traffic. Each one is fairly absorbed in situation at hand, and the specific tasks associated with their activities (changing a tire, walking for help, driving to work, and driving as part of the normal workday.) Because each was so absorbed in each one’s individual task each has lost sight of the global process. Here again, this illustrates the lack of effectiveness of reminding people to work safely. It’s fair to say that none our cast believed that they were acting in a way that would result in a fatality, because if they had such awareness, one would expect them to have taken measures to change the environment. Walk on the grass along side the shoulder, reposition the car before attempting to change a tire, or move from the right lane to the center. We can’t be sure that all four didn’t see the situation as life threatening and decided to recklessly endanger themselves or others, but we can’t default to that thinking either. Safety is about managing both the big picture and the details.

Lesson 5: Accidents Happen More Frequently As The Risk Threshold Is Approached. Safety isn’t about not getting injured. Many people behave unsafely every day and aren’t injured, nor do they cause others to be injured; they’re lucky. Safety is about the probability that someone will be injured. As hazards become more numerous the risk rises until the probability that someone will be injured is all but certain, Because this is probability and not cause and effect, no work environment can ever be pronounced completely and irrefutably safe.

Lesson 6: While Training Is Important, Merely Knowing the Risk is Insufficient For Keeping People Safe. I have a lot of respect for firefighters and I use them as examples of how more people should work safely. For examples I have trained nurses who will complain that they often have to engage in high-risk activities because a patient’s life is at stake. I tell them how glad I am that firefighters don’t act that way. I point out that firefighters don’t rush into burning buildings to safe a person without first donning their protective equipment. It’s not because firefighters care less about saving people than nurses do, it’s because firefighters understand that dead firefighters can’t safe people. I am sure that the unfortunate firefighter who died that fateful day had far more safety training and awareness than the average motorist. This training and awareness did not save his life, however. I’m not arguing against training and awareness, but let’s not bank on these things alone saving lives in the workplace. Accidental fatalities are tragic whether they happen on the highway or in the workplace.

As I think about these most recent tragedies I am reminded of how similar they probably are to the kinds of injuries that happen in the workplace. Let’s learn from these cases and try to ensure that we apply these lessons in the workplace.


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