Road Rash: Business Travel and Injuries

by Phil La Duke
Plane crash
Last Saturday and the Saturday before that I made no posts to my blog. It was an unfortunate result of my having been away on business. This is not an excuse mind you; I had every intention of writing and posting using the infernal timer that has vexed me every time I’ve tried using it. In hindsight I’m glad I waited. This week I’d like to talk a bit about an area of safety that I think goes largely ignored: safety while travelling.
While safety professionals understand very well that a injury sustained while travelling for business is, in fact, a recordable injury and a recordable injury effects your overall Incident Rate and DART irrespective if it happened in a hotel room, a rental car, or an airport. How big a problem is it? In the U.S. the most lethal jobs are consistently sales positions and automobile accidents are the leading cause of accidental death among sales professionals and while other parts of the world the problem isn’t nearly as severe as the U.S., many of the basic hazards that confront business travelers are essentially the same.
Those who travel for whatever purpose are at heightened risk because they are constantly bombarded with unfamiliar stimuli. The subconscious mind takes in millions of bits of information (much more than that actually) and sorts according to whether or not the information is indicative of a threat. The subconscious does this by comparing the information with other information that it has stored in a sort of a database that one collects based on one’s life experience when the new data matches up with benign memories the brain decides that the new data is harmless and disregards it. When the brain detects danger it activates the fight: flight response and floods the body with adrenalin (or releases it in little drips depending on the degree of perceived threat) and well, I think we’ve all heard wild tales of the fantastic feats of strength caused by a good adrenalin rush so I won’t belabor the point here. But when the brain doesn’t quite know what to make of a piece of information it assumes it’s a threat, in much the same way we tell our children not to take candy from strangers (even when everyone knows that strangers have the best candy!) Are most strangers a threat? Certainly not (although the 24-hour news machine often creates the impression that there is a greater danger out there than there really is), but if we assume a stranger is kind and harmless and he or she turns out to have malicious intentions our child is left unprotected and likely victimized, but if the inverse is true and our child avoids contact with a benevolent stranger there is no harm done.
When we travel we are bombarded with a barrage of unknown and uncategorized data and our brains treat that data as potential threats. As the brain collects more and more information that we are in danger it raises the adrenalin drip and our bodies get stressed. Stress, in addition to creating long-term health problems also inhibits our decision making process and causes us to make more errors. (So basically we are making poor choices AND making more honest mistakes.) Add to this the disruption of sleep from which so many travelers suffer and the resultant rise in risky behavior, and you have a circumstance where injuries are all but certain; in hazard recognition terms the likelihood of an injury is greatly increased. Depending on the activity, this cocktail of poor choices, human error, and at risk behavior can be a deadly drink indeed.
Perhaps the most dangerous activity is driving, and again, this is skewed against the U.S. and Canada where fewer business travelers are employing professional drivers, using public transportation, or riding in taxis (although if you have been on anything like some of the truly harrowing cab rides of which I have been a party and you would join me in wondering why there aren’t more business travelers killed in cabs.) Business travelers routinely drive rented vehicles that are largely unfamiliar to them and do so on unfamiliar routes.
Data on injuries of business travelers is seldom accurately collected. Neither the safety professional nor the traveler him/herself is mindful of the need to record near misses, first aid cases, or even recordable—it’s not that they don’t think it’s important they typically don’t think of these incidents as work-related. Think about it: when you are travelling for business where exactly is the workplace? It’s in the airport parking lot, the airport, the plane, the car rental office, in the rental car, at the hotel, at the customer site or remote corporate location, the hotel lounge, the restaurants, and…well you get the picture. And when exactly is a business traveler “off the clock” and does that even make a difference?
Several weeks ago I was on the road and awoke from a deep sleep with the typical dry mouth one gets when living the sweet life that is business travel. I got up to get a drink of water and while returning to my bed in the dark caught the corner of a poorly placed credenza and tore a painful but not life threatening scratch across my soft white underbelly (my side actually but I thought the former sounded better.) I took pictures and sent them to the hotel manager who acted like I was pulling the cockroach in the salad grift from “Paper Moon”. In short, he either didn’t believe me or couldn’t have cared any less, he went so far as to tell me “we searched the room thoroughly and can’t find the piece of furniture in the photo”.
And really should we care? I think so. While my injury was minor it could have been much more severe and had it been I would have had a recordable incident. Had my scratch become infected that too would have been a recordable incident. But the real question is, would I have thought to report it, and if I were to report it, how well received would it have been by my organization. In my case, I work for an organization that takes these matters very seriously, but what about those business travelers who work for companies who preach “thou shalt report” with one breath and “thanks for spoiling the safety BINGO” with the next? I’m not picking on safety incentives here, because, let’s face it, it doesn’t matter where you work nobody is excited to hear about the latest recordable.
Until we find a place where we can welcome injury reporting as a source of important information on our process weaknesses and not a gig against the person injured (and even in the most enlightened workplaces there is still a lingering resentment that our safety record was ruined by one stupid accident.) we will not be able to get a real sense of the risk we face. Sadly, business travelers are least likely to report an injury and at significant risk of injury.

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