By Phil La Duke
Do you know how it feels to be injured on the job? Well I do. It’s unpleasant and I can’t say I recommend it. As many of you know, a couple of weeks ago I cut my hand in umpteen places when the neck of a bottle of wine shattered in my hand. They put me back together with glue and sutures and while everything is now healed I still don’t have complete use of my left index finger and my ability to pull or lift with my left hand is slightly compromised; I can’t really make a fist with my left hand without causing myself considerable pain. While this was not job-related my status as a safety blogger gave me a small taste of what it feels like to be on the business end of an injury investigation.
A scant 11 days later I was injured in an incident that has as yet to be determined as job-related or not. I was in my home office to a car rental company that was going to drop off a car early as I put on my shoes I inadvertently stepped on a small metal funnel that had fallen from a shelf and was, unbeknownst to me, lying next to my shoe. I stepped on it and it slashed a four-inch long half-inch deep gash in my foot. I went to urgent care and they did a predictably poor job of stitching me up (giving me six stitches instead of the nine or so that I probably need. I bled, but given that I had to drive two hours to Ohio to present a course on Incident Investigation (yes, I get the irony) I was unable to return to the doctor until it was too late to re-stitch the wound (or more accurately do it correctly), after a week during which four of the six stiches came untied and fell out and the urgent care doctor prescribing medicine to which I am deathly allergic. I reported the incident late—honestly believing that I didn’t need to because I didn’t think it would be deemed work related —and took some immediate flack for waiting.
Between well-meaning but thick-witted safety professionals whose incident investigation included the recommendation that I thoroughly inspect the wine bottle, cork, and corkscrew before opening a bottle of wine and even that I create a Safety Process Sheet for opening a bottle of wine.
When the foot incident came to light, things turned a bit twisted. I was grilled by multiple people about the injury, sure there were the cursory “are you okay?” but more than anything there was the ominous, “is this really a work related injury?” and “why can’t you be more careful?” hanging in the air above ever conversation. I felt a tinge of persecution. The conversation didn’t ever focus on how effective my treatment was, how my recovery was progressing, or even to any substantive degree how I was feeling. Even when questions were asked about these topics, I could always feel the unspoken, “is this a recordable? Is this a lost work day incident?”
But the worst of it was the question, “what could we have done to prevent this injury?” It always sounded like a good and reasonable question that showed that I cared about the injured party when I asked the questions, but now they seemed accusatory and pointless. I suppose understanding why the funnel was on a shelf above my shoes would be helpful (because my daughter puts things that she doesn’t know where I want them stored on this shelf and I put them in their proper place.) It would also be helpful to know why I had a tiny metal funnel in the first place (it came with a flask I was given as a gift—nice thought, but realistically travelling with a flask filled with alcohol will only get one arrested in most municipalities, so not the most practical gift. ) I liked the flask and keep it on display. The funnel I judged to be more practical and useful because I grow and process my own spices and this was the perfect size and shape for filling saltshakers with spices; that’s why I kept it. How the funnel fell from the shelf adjacent to my shoes is well…gravity.
So this is how it came to pass that I injured my foot. How could it have been prevented, from the perspective of the injured party seems accusatory. It could have been prevented had I put it away in the first place, so bam! I am responsible. I did it. It was my fault. What did we learn? Scarce little useful information. How can we protect others from this kind of injury? We can tell everyone about how stupid and irresponsible I was and lecture them on the importance of good housekeeping. We can trot me out (not naming me by name of course) as the simpleton who got injured twice and got 11 stitches in 11 days. Of course everyone will know it’s me, even though there were no witnesses, it’s not too tough to figure out that the guy with the limp is probably the guy with the cut foot.
I admit, my reaction to the investigation surprised me and struck me as strange. I hadn’t expected the feelings of persecution and defensiveness that I felt. My company acted appropriately and no differently than I would have acted if I had been conducting the investigation, and yet I still felt as if I was being blamed somehow while at the same time my pain and suffering was being marginalized in favor of administrative issues and case management. The only reason I am alive today is that I forgot to pick up my prescription at the meth lab of a urgent care facility (and then they called me and told me that it was essential that I return immediately to pick it up, which I did and then left in a huff after standing in line for 20 minutes for the inept pharmacist to service one person). I called my family doctor and spoke to a physician’s assistant who told me that had I used the ointment they prescribed it would have most likely killed me. I would have laid dead in my house probably eaten by my dogs undiscovered for two days leaving my company to worry over whether or not they had an on-the-job fatality on there hands.