The weekly toll: death at work

January 22nd, 2007 by Julie Ferguson

Every other week, our blog neighbor Tammy at Confined Space compiles a list of news stories about workers who have lost their lives at work. We’ve linked to it before. Despite its length, it’s only a partial list at best- whatever manages to turn up in the search engines. The roster makes for some chilling reading. No matter how many times I’ve read these lists before, I am almost always jarred to see how many deaths occurred in my state – sometimes, just a town or two away. I am also struck by how pedestrian the circumstances sound – on a golf course, in a restaurant, at a market, on a farm. I guess it’s the human tendency to think these things occur in far away places, at different kinds of work sites.
There’s no doubt – some industries are infamous for their associated danger. The year starts off with three mining deaths, one in Colorado and two in West Virginia. And public servants like police and firefighters are often high on these lists, killed in the line of duty. This week’s list also seems particularly violent – from cab drivers and store clerks killed in robberies to managers of a strip club gunned down by a patron and a pastor shot on the steps of his church. There are vengeful killings too – a postal manager killed by a disgruntled worker, a newspaper ad rep chased down and shot by an estranged spouse.
But while this violence is striking, the quiet tragedy of the ordinary worker struck down on an ordinary day under ordinary circumstances is perhaps more jarring. It’s frustrating to read the list and see “the usual suspects” of highly preventable deaths occur again and again. I don’t think I’ve ever read one of these lists that doesn’t have a trench death or two or several falls from heights. And there are also the very gruesome accounts of workers pulled into a shredder, a worker pinned in machinery, and a worker yanked into an industrial drill after being ensnared by his clothing – terrible, sad stuff.
The toll on survivors
In story after story, the reports from co-workers are heart-wrenching – witnesses to the carnage, some after having frantically fought to save a colleague. It must be terrible to have to return to a job after having witnessed a beloved coworker die. It must be a heavy burden for coworkers and supervisors, and should they actually bear some negligence in the events, it could be soul crushing. Indeed, a year or two ago we noted the deaths of roofing workers on a construction site in Florida. There had been numerous safety violations, and in following up to see the criminal disposition, we learned the owner of the contracting company had taken his own life – no doubt, the horrible events played a role in his death, too. He and others paid a steep price for whatever corners were cut in shortchanging safety.
If you are reading Workers Comp Insider, it’s likely you have some vested interest in the workplace. Whatever it is that you do and whoever it is that you are, I encourage you to set aside a few minutes to read through this list. For those of us “in the industry,” preventing such everyday tragedies is the real reason we should be coming to work – the dollars and cents will follow. For those of us who are bosses or managers, it should remind us of the weight of our responsibilities. And for those of us who are workers (and aren’t we all?), it should serve as a reminder to buckle up, lock down, and be our own and our brother’s keeper. We can all do better.