By Phil La Duke
Two weeks ago I wrote suggesting that we in the safety community might want to consider putting aside all the models, and complexity, and theoretical excrement in favor of a simple safety model based on sense. Not common sense, those of you who insist on believing in “common sense” had better stop reading this and start reading Risk Makes Sense Human Judgement by Dr. Robert Long (No, I don’t have a financial interest in the book; I just happen to think it’s a great work and an important addition to any safety practitioner’s toolbox) but sense, good judgment, simple things that yield powerful results.
This column drew a fair share of criticism and praise, as many of my articles do. I have a lot of people preference there comments with “I don’t always agree with Phil La Duke, but…” that’s good. If you find yourself agreeing with me—or anyone for that matter—you need to stop and ask yourself why you are agreeing so much and if you are truly questioning your beliefs; after all, if you never question what you believe you are a candidate for fanaticism, and what the world doesn’t need is another fanatic.
I appreciate comments; it takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there, particularly when, if you’ve read any of my responses, you know you face a good chance that I will be pretty snotty with my response. It’s telling that more people subscribe to the comments to my post than those who subscribe to the blog itself. Some take prurient interest in watching the comments and hoping that some hapless dim bulb will wander and post something that will put him in the buzz saw of my response; I won’t fault them for enjoying the responses, but you have to admit it’s a bit like being a fan of rat baiting (look it up). There are others who read both my blog and comments with the sole intent of becoming uptight and offending, waiting in judgment for me to step over some imaginary line. Oh well, I can’t start censoring myself because some uptight goofball get’s worried that I might write something upsetting. I digress.
One comment stood out. One reader said, putting aside all the context of the article, “given that 8 out of 10 accidents happen in the home, why aren’t we doing more to improve safety at home?” It’s definitely the kind of comment that would typically draw a venomous response. WE AREN’T PAID TO KEEP PEOPLE SAFE AT HOME. My first inclination was to fire off a “listen up half-wit” missive but then I got thinking. Where exactly is the line between an injury at home and an injury at work? Ostensibly it is a pretty easy question. You get hurt at work (even if you aren’t “on the clock”) and it’s a work injury, if you get hurt anywhere else; it’s not. I won’t go into the complexities here, I realize I have over simplified things and that the “it depends…” arguments are boiling up. I don’t care about those arguments for this discussion. What struck me was what about lifestyle contributors, leisure time activities that aggravate an injury, or pre-existing conditions that effectively make a worker either unfit for duty or more likely “marginally fit” for duty? What about “the straw that breaks the camel’s back” injuries? Should the employer be responsible for those injuries or should they be absolved? How much does the employer or workplace have to contribute to an injury before it is held culpable?
Take the case of Earl (names have been changed to abet the guilty) who lived most of his life morbidly obese. When Earl’s knee gave out in a work injury the doctors told him that he would have to lose a substantial amount of weight or he could not return to work. His injury was ruled a work injury and he was placed on full and permanent disability. Is it reasonable to believe that decades of strain placed on his knees weakened his joint and contributed to the injury? Might a thinner worker have been spared the injury? Maybe or maybe not, but isn’t it worth debating?
Mary Anne plays softball three nights a week in the spring and fall. She is a good player and competitive. She has come home with a sore shoulder more times than she can remember but has never had a serious injury. One day she tears her rotator cuff on the job, might we suspect that it happened playing sports and is either being fraudulently reported or perhaps happened some time ago and was not properly diagnosed? Should the employer be responsible for being the cause of her shoulder finally giving out?
Billy is constantly on his phone chatting, texting, and posting to a social network, and when he isn’t texting he is logging marathon gaming sessions on his state of the art gaming system. He also has a job that requires repetitive motion. Invariably Billy contracts carpel tunnel is it because of the job or is it because of his lifestyle?
Millions of people needlessly contract diabetes, which in turn slows healing and worsens many injuries. Should an employer bear the entire burden? Isn’t the worker at least somewhat culpable for not maintaining a fitness for work?
The debate get’s complicated and ugly. While it’s true that employees come into work and claim that they injured their backs on the job when they hurt them roofing on the weekend, but maybe the cumulative damage their backs suffered contributed to the injury they suffered while at home.
The hard fact of the matter is that a large amount of injuries are cumulative stress/trauma injuries, and these injuries might never had happened had the employer taken reasonable care to protect the worker. It may sound like I am a bleeding heart, but when it comes to worker injuries the law tends to view it as in for a penny in for a pound. The line is blurred to the point where now, any injury where the work performed can be demonstrated to have contributed to the injury the injury is owned by the employer. I won’t argue the fairness of this situation, and I hope the debate doesn’t center on it. Let’s assume we decided that case management should fight any claim where the worker’s lifestyle substantially contributed to the injury; this would choke are legal system with lawsuits, waste valuable resources, and generally establish a cottage industry of professionals who seek to assign blame.
The best defense against lifestyle injuries is to reduce or eliminate ergonomic issues, remove workplace hazards, and work toward the lowest possible risk.