The Anatomy Of An Injury


By Phil La Duke

Let me kick off this week’s post by reminding you that I will be speaking at the National Safety Council with Mark Eitzman from Rockwell Automation in Atlanta on Wednesday, so those of you who are there and would like to say hi I would welcome that, and for all you who have threatened my the last couple of weeks bring it on, but expect now quarter to be asked or given.  That having been said, I wanted to explore the anatomy of an injury.  Reams of crap has been written about the causes and even environments that cause injuries and I’m not so sure that anyone has a complete picture of how hazards cause injuries.

I started this blog yesterday (Saturday) and well…life got in the way.  So I hastily scrawled some rough ideas down  and saved it as a draft so I could access without my home computer.  Then I jumped on a delayed flight, SERIOUSLY when did Delta completely give up on customer service?  They have an entire customer base that just shrugs at the myriad problems that Delta routinely expects people to tolerate.  I feel like an eight year old kid who took a ride with a skeazy pervert; you know as soon as the door closes that things aren’t going go well, but you’re trapped and you can’t get out and all you can do is pray that it won’t be as bad as it probably will be. It’s gotten so bad that complaining isn’t even worth it; the best I can hope for is that I will be discussing Delta in a psychiatrist’s office using dolls to recreate the experience.

But that’s not important right now.  While on the plane sitting waiting for everyone to get herded to their seats like the opening of a Khmer Rouge reeducation seminar I occupied my time reading Guns, Germs, and Steel a great book that explores the geographic and sociological factors that cause some civilizations to advance so much more rapidly than others. One paragraph struck me. When the author Jared Diamond explained the difference between “hard sciences” and “social sciences”  he pointed out that hard sciences (my term, not his)

“In chemistry and physics the acid test of on’e understanding of a system is whether or not  one can successfully predict its future behaviors.”

It occurs to me that we may have the whole argument over safety (process versus behavior, et el) all wrong.  Perhaps we are arguing our points to justify safety as a science.  We are horrible for conniving ways to prove that we are scientists.  We write paper and speciously researched paper and only publish studies that support our conclusions and quash any that challenge our world view.  So I say screw science.  We are all (at least most of us) capable of drawing from our insights and arguing the merits in a professional manner…Oh geez I can’t even write those words with a straight face.  I am with Diamond on this, and calling safety a science is like the ex-convict fry cook at Arby’s a chef.  Whatever helps you sleep Wikipidiots, whatever helps you sleep.

So any way, back to the subject at hand.  For years I have been teaching hazard recognition and breaking down the anatomy of an injury as:

Injury=Hazard+Interaction+Catalyst, and


It makes sense doesn’t it? Let’s take the case of injuries.

Hazards Are Benign

Hazards are everywhere and most aren’t doing anyone any sort of harm.  Lava spews from volcanoes, Great White Sharks stalk cold waters in search of prey, and none us are hurt by this.  We get all bug-eyed at the thought of an unguarded machine, or rusted out cat walks, and yet we are harmed by them.  In fact, hazards alone can’t harem us unless we interact with them.  As so we work tirelessly to find a way to make those interactions safer.  And people roll their eyes at us because they don’t see the hazard as any big deal.  After all, they do the job all the time and they don’t get hurt.  The same is true with the general population—they drive while boozed up, texting, and engaging in any number of other at risk behaviors that greatly increase the probability of an injury.  And yet they survive.  In fact, far more people escape injury in these cases than those who are injured or cause injury to another. And that’s because of catalysts.  For an injury to happen there has to be more than just a hazard and an interaction, there must also be something (or things) that set the event in motion. 

I was very happy with my anatomy of injuries until I realized that I had missed an element not only of the anatomy of injuries but of risk as well: Time To Decide.  I should probably talk about this as reaction time but I know how you all HATE reaction versus proactivity. With both risk and injury prevention we need to consider how much time does the person interacting with a hazard have to protect him/herself when suddenly face-to-face with an unexpected hazard.

We teach this in driver’s education—always allow sufficient stopping time so is it really all that odd to suggest that risk assessments and job design consider the time in which a worker has to make a life or death decision?  We can teach all the decision making skills and tools we want, but if we only have a microsecond to react there is not much value in it.

I hope to see you at the National Safety Conference.