Monday, July 20, 2015

Cases Remind us of Safety

I spend a fair amount of my life striving to understand workers' compensation. Despite the effort, I am constantly learning new things and finding perspective. Three recent stories caught my attention in late April 2015, and a fourth in July.

The first reminds us of the "going and coming rule" in a decision from Mississippi. On April 30, 2015 WorkCompCentral reported Woman Injured by 400 Pound Hog Gets Comp Benefits. The headline grabbed my attention. The woman was a passenger in a car that struck a wild hog in Mississippi, leading to significant injuries. The Mississippi appellate court affirmed the Mississippi Commission determination that the travel involved was incidental to the work. We do not have a significant wild hog population in Florida, but deer are periodically spotted along our highways. 

Another case about the same time had the headline Texas Nurse Dies after Falling from Hoist on Medical Helicopter, as reported by Fox News. The nurse was rescuing a hiker from a trail. She was inexplicably detached from the helicopter, fell and died at the scene. The matter remains under investigation. Some occupations present significant danger no matter how careful you might be. 

Then there was the case reported the last week of April regarding charges to be filed against Bumble Bee Tuna. NBC reported Bumble Bee Foods, Two Managers Charged in Death of Worker Cooked with Tuna. The story says that Mr. Melena, a maintenance worker, was repairing a 35 foot oven on October 11, 2012. Co-workers "mistakenly believed Melena was in the bathroom, filled the pressure cooker with 12,000 pounds of canned tuna and it was turned on." Co-workers searched for him, but he was found two hours later when the cooker was "turned off and opened."

In California more recently, an unfortunate man had a fall which resulted in a near fatal encounter with a meat grinder. CNN reported that he was "one blade swipe away from a fatal injury. The "machine's blades came around and broke his arm and came around again and broke his arm a little further up," according to Fire Chief Neal Berryman. He predicted that "the man's head or neck would have been hit next" had coworkers not responded to his screams and stopped the machine. 

Four unrelated stories from three jurisdictions; their only commonality might be that they involved work-related injuries. But the four came together in my head for a different reason. These stories made me think about the role that safety plays in our everyday lives. Accidents are that, unexpected and unintended. When they happen there can be profound effects on people's lives. To some extent, we are all dependent upon others for our safety, but ultimately we are also responsible for our own. 

The woman injured in Mississippi had travelled from Mississippi to Alabama to investigate a bingo operation there. The employer conceded that travel was a significant part of her job. However, she left Alabama "around 4 a.m." and was riding home with her sister driving "in a rainstorm" when the vehicle struck a "400-pound hog." 

The Mississippi Court held that these facts did not mean the worker's accident was not compensable. But, that does not mean that the choices were good. A gentleman I know who mentors high school kids stresses to them the simple fact that "nothing good happens after midnight." Not a bad adage. You tend to see animals near the highway at night. You I often see major accidents in rain.

The second story points out that sometimes it is not about choices. Some people work in industries where there is every expectation that their work will be in dangerous situations. The helicopter nurse cannot choose time or manner of travel like the Mississippi casino worker could. The nurse has to go when there is urgency, where there is urgency, and can only mitigate danger through attention to the method of her efforts. 

Though not yet reported to be a workers' compensation case as far as I can tell, this will in likelihood be a compensable accident. Of course, that is if her employer, STAR Flight, is a subscriber to workers' compensation in Texas. In Texas participation in workers' compensation is voluntary for employers. It may be of interest enough that one might ask when hired if workers' compensation is part of a job. Even in states with mandatory coverage, there may be statutory exemptions and exceptions. 

The third case is just as tragic. I wish it were the first case in which I have heard of someone killed in an industrial machine, but unfortunately this has happened before. We tend to think of an oven as that little device in our kitchen, but industrial facilities use tools that are larger and more complex than we typically envision. Repair and maintenance can require climbing inside the devices, where there are moving parts or other hazards. 

Because of the hazards that machines and the energy that drives them can present, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has procedures called "lock out tag out." These recognize the hazards and require that the energy source is interrupted before maintenance work is performed. The energy is locked, and the maintenance worker has the key. The power cannot be turned back on without the maintenance worker's participation. If the oven had been properly locked-out, it could not have been turned on because the maintenance worker's key would have been in his pocket.

The Fourth case ads a little to our review of safety. There is always a chance for a coworker to play a positive role. In the meat grinder case, attentive coworkers heard the commotion, reacted rapidly and saved a man's life. Investigation will no doubt address ways that accident could have been prevented to begin with. Prevention is critical to be sure. But having coworkers who are safety-focused and ready to appropriately respond has a critical value as well. 

These cases help us to remember that there is a risk of accident in any job. It can present in a facility in which we work, at a destination to which we travel, and in the course of our travel itself. There are likely risks that we can minimize through choices like when to travel (and perhaps how fast we travel) and risks that we can perhaps minimize by following regulations or rules in place for our safety. We may be called upon, regardless of what might be "best practices" to put ourselves in situations that are dangerous despite our best efforts. 

In the end, the fact is that accidents happen, and will likely happen despite best efforts. Our best efforts should include knowledge of and compliance with safety regulations and safety equipment requirements. We should keep an eye on maintenance of our equipment and our own safety devices. Knowing that accidents will nonetheless happen, we are obligated to remain vigilant for the safety of ourselves and our co-workers. It is important to be reminded of that periodically. 


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