By Phil La Duke
When someone dies in the workforce through no fault of his or her own it’s undeniably a tragedy. But in many people’s minds, line of fire injuries—those injuries that result when a worker places his or her body in the direct path of a serious hazard—the injured worker must bear at least some culpability for his or her injury. It’s especially easy to dismiss a line of fire injury as the worker’s “own damned fault”, but is it?
Before I continue I should disclose something about myself that could bias me on this topic: my grandfather died on the job from a line of fire injury. In the case of my grandfather, he was driving a tractor (he was a farmer in the 1950’s having left a lucrative career installing conveyor belts—a job that required extensive travel—so that he could spend more time at home with his family. He was struck by a speeding locomotive (witnesses said the train was going upward of 80 mph) at a poorly marked crossing. His view was at least partially obscured by overgrown bushes near the tracks and he was either legally deaf or close to it. He left behind a widow and four daughters (one of whom was developmentally disabled) who would eke out a hardscrabble living, financially and emotionally crippled by his death; a family laid waste by a single moment.
While there were many things that factored into my grandfather’s untimely demise, the fact remains that in the last moments of his life he made a decision to place himself in the line of fire. My grandfather isn’t alone; the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 17% of workplace fatalities (in the U.S.) are the result of line-of-fire injuries.
As you might expect, I spent a lot of time thinking about the circumstances of my grandfather’s death, I don’t attribute it to shaping my view of worker safety, but I suppose that’s inevitable. Sufficed to say line-of-fire injuries raise a lot of questions; questions, sadly, to which we will most likely never get satisfactory answers.
What were they thinking?
I have always believed in two simple truths about worker injuries: 1) nobody wants to get hurt and 2) the process isn’t designed to hurt them. If these things really are true then why would anybody ever knowingly put themselves in the line of fire? Simple:
- They don’t believe they are placing themselves in real danger. No one in his or her right mind (let’s face it: the primary role of our central nervous system is to keep us alive, and as long as that is functioning properly we generally aren’t looking to kill ourselves) expects to be killed when they place themselves in the line of fire. Too often workers who place themselves in the line of fire are making a decision based on imperfect information—they either assume that something is true when it is not, or they assume something is not true when it is. Take the case of my grandfather, we can only speculate, of course, but for the sake of argument let’s say that he knowingly and deliberately put himself in the line of fire and crossed the railroad tracks without looking or stopping long enough. Since there is no evidence that he was suicidal—by all accounts he was good-natured, popular, and happy in life—we can infer that he didn’t deliberately place himself in the line of fire thinking that he would most likely be killed—we can speculate that he believed that the likelihood that a train would approach unseen, in fact, undetected were infinitesimally small. Had he believed that there was a strong possibility that a train would strike him he never would have taken the chance.
- They believe the time of exposure is small enough to protect them. How many line of fire injuries are the result of “I’m only going to be in there for a second” thinking? It’s a big temptation to risk it when you believe that your probability of injury is directly proportionate to the length of exposure to the hazard. Unfortunately, probability doesn’t work that way and too few workers truly comprehend the dangers that some line of fire hazards pose irrespective of the length of exposure. If a worker makes contact with a piece of energized equipment of sufficient power he or she will be electrocuted even if he or she touches the equipment just for a second.
- Familiarity breeds content. For most of us, the longer we work around a hazard (or in this case the more we place ourselves in the line of fire) and suffer no negative consequences the less we respect a hazard’s ability to harm us. We teach ourselves that an activity is safer than it is; as we become more comfortable working around a hazard we convince ourselves that we will not get hurt “as long as we’re careful” when in fact, we are not.
- The job is too difficult to get done without placing workers in the line of fire. Much as we would love to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the injured worker, some jobs are so poorly designed or safety procedures are so onerous that no reasonable worker will work within process. In fact, I know of many companies that continue to have standard operating procedures that place the workers in the line of fire. These cases are the most troubling because in general workers believe that if they follow the standard operating procedures they will not be injured, even though some processes are grossly unprotected.
They aren’t thinking. Research has shown that the average worker makes 8 mistakes an hour (this number falls to around 5 for workers in “high consequence industries—healthcare, aviation, oil & gas, energy, etc.). These are human errors; unintended foul-ups. Five mistakes an hour, eight hours a shift, five shifts a week amounts to mistakes in the neighborhood of 10,400 mistakes in the course of a work year. Obviously this number is much higher for workers who work longer shifts, six- or seven-day workweeks or any number of a host of other factors that would extend the worker’s work year from the traditional 2,080 hours in a typical year. Inevitably, some of these mistakes will place the worker in the line of fire.
The incidence of human error increases when a person is sleep deprived, under stress, using drugs or alcohol or is otherwise preoccupied. Something as simple as bright lights can dramatically increase a person’s tendency to take risks.
Line of fire injuries may always remain an enigma and as one safety veteran once told me (after learning of the death of veteran worker caused by several line of fire violations). “I don’t know how to save worker’s from themselves.” I don’t know either, and in truth nobody really does. We try engineering controls and people remove guards and by-pass interlocks. We put administrative controls in place and workers ignore them, and we require PPE only to have worker’s grouse about wearing it. But one thing is certain, if workers continue to put themselves into the line of fire they will continue dying on the job.