“Freak Accidents” — Neither Freakish, nor Accidental

Jordan Barab

Jordan Barab Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor, OSHA

This is another in an occasional seriesof posts about the stupidity and ignorance of labeling workplace fatalities “freak accidents.” Why are we opposed to seeing this phrase?

First, the phrase implies that this type of incident hardly ever happens and there is, therefore, not much you can do about it. In fact, the phrase “freak accident” is a double-whammy. Not only dies the word “freak” imply “rare,” but the word “accident,” defined as “an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury,” implies that the event was “unexpected.”

Rare and unexpected. Shit happens. Waddayagonnado?

For example:

Married father-of-three mechanic, 40, is crushed to death in freak accident doing maintenance on ‘magic carpet’ ski lift in Colorado

Clear Creek County, CO — A Colorado ski area employee was crushed to death while working on a snow-level lift just three days after celebrating Christmas with his wife and three children. Clear Creek County officials say 40-year-old Adam Lee got caught in the equipment at Loveland Ski Area and suffered crushing chest injuries last Thursday.  Erika Mackay Lee, Adam’s wife, has expressed frustration at the lack of answers about what happened to her husband.  ‘I asked that question five times and every single time I was told it was a freak accident,’ the widow tells The Denver Channel.  In the days since her husband’s death, Erika has learned some of the details from Adam’s co-workers. ‘He was under the magic carpet conveyor belt,’ Erika told CBS4. ‘And that’s supposed to have a lock-out system. But somebody came up and started it. And he was dragged under.’

Now, by virtue of the fact that I’ve spent my entire career in the field of occupational safety and health, and I compile a list of workers killed on the job every week, I’m somewhat of an expert in how people die on the job.  And I know from long experience that every week (or more) a worker is crushed to death in machinery that has not been “locked out.”

In fact, lockout incidents are so common and so deadly that OSHA has a standard to prevent them called “The control of hazardous energy (lockout/tagout)

How “freak” or “accidental” can a death be when it could have been prevented by complying with an OSHA standard?

And how “freak” or “accidental” can a death be when it could have been prevented by complying with an OSHA standard?

Why is it harmful to label predictable incidents “freak accidents?” As I wrote many years ago in my incredibly inciteful article, “Acts of God, Acts of Man,”

Unfortunately, blaming a workplace fatality on God, freak occurrences, or a careless worker is a way of thinking that the media often falls into and that some employers encourage. After all, if a workplace fatality is unpredictable and unpreventable, then no great public outcry is warranted. If someone’s inattentiveness or stupidity or laziness (or drug problem) or God’s will led to the death, then it’s a tragedy for the family and friends, but no real investigation is needed, no lessons are to be learned, no changes in the workplace are demanded, no new OSHA regulations are needed, no enforcement is appropriate and no wider social problems need to be addressed.

And employers often get away with blaming deaths and injuries on “freak” accidents and other “excuses” — at least in the public eye. They are typically quoted about the “freak” accident in a short one-day story in the local newspaper and by the time experts are found (if anyone bothers) or the OSHA report comes out explaining the employer’s failure to provide a safe workplace, the local media has often lost interest.

Just ask Erika Lee what message she thinks her husband’s employer was trying to send when they repeatedly told her that his death was just a “freak accident.”

Here are a couple of more examples of “freak accidents” that happen all the time:

Coroner identifies worker electrocuted in ‘freak accident’

GREENVILLE COUNTY, S.C. — The Greenville County coroner has identified the worker who was electrocuted Tuesday afternoon in what was described by a Highway Patrol trooper as a “freak accident.”Coroner Parks Evans said 48-year-old Marty Dale Whitmire, of Liberty, died around 2:30 p.m. when he was electrocuted while paving E. Mountain Creek Road near State Park Road. He said appears that a dump truck clipped a power line, while the paving process was taking place, causing the power pole to flex and crack causing the power lines to drop down and touch Whitmire’s body.


There was nothing at all “freak” about this electrocution. Do a search of OSHA’s website for “overhead power lines” and you’ll get over 2200 hits telling you that there are limits to how close a worker is permitted to get to a live power line And  lines can be de-energized or they can be shielded. If neither of these alternatives is possible, a designated spotter can monitor the job to make sure that nothing comes close the energized line.

Construction Worker Killed in Freak Accident Near Broadway Junction

BUSHWICK, NY  – A construction worker was crushed to death in a freak accident at a job site near Broadway Junction in Bushwick over the weekend, police confirmed. The accident took place around 3:00 pm on Saturday, March 10 at 1949 Broadway and Stewart Street. As a forklift was lifting a load of scaffolding pipes, the vehicle tipped over, crushing the 47-year old operator between the forklift and a flatbed truck, said police. Responders rushed to pull the tipped vehicle upright, and the victim was transported to Brooklyn University Medical Center, where he was pronounced deceased.


Man killed when truck falls on him at salvage yard

CLAYTON COUNTY, Ga. – Clayton County police are calling it a freak accident after a pickup truck landed on top of a salvage yard worker. The worker died at the scene in Ellenwood. Police told Channel 2’s Audrey Washington that Michael Hilley, 31, was pulling a part from underneath the pickup truck when something went wrong and the truck landed on top of him.  Investigator said Hilley was removing a part from the truck, which was being held up by a forklift, when the truck fell directly on top of him. Hilley was pronounced dead at the scene.

Again, lots of information on OSHA’s website about forklift (or “Powered Industrial Truck”) safety. OSHA estimates that 35,000 serious injuries and 62,000 non-serious injuries involving forklifts occur annually, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 96 U.S. workers were killed in incidents involving forklifts in 2015. Forty-two percent of forklift fatalities are caused by forklift driver being crushed by a lift truck that tips.

What Is — And Is Not — A Freak Accident?

So how do you tell what a freak accident is and what is not?

Not a freak accident: Getting caught in machinery that has not been locked out

Freak Accident:  Getting hit by a meteor while working on a roof.

Not a freak accident: Dying when your construction vehicle hits a power line.

Freak Accident: Getting shot by a stray bullet while working on a construction site.

Not a freak accident: Getting hit by lightning while working in the fields

Freak Accident: Getting crushed by a falling tree while delivering mail.

You get the idea.

But what can you do about it? When you see an article in you local paper calling a common incident a “freak accident,” call or e-mail the reporter and tell him or her why the incident was not a freak accident, and suggest that s/he do just a bit of research and mention in the article how the incident could have been prevented and that there are relevant OSHA standards.  Reporters need to be educated about how such tragedies can be prevented. And employers need to be challenged when they imply that no one could have foreseen what happened.

And finally, on a more personal note:

‘Freak accident’ kills Prattville bicyclist

PRATTVILLE, AL — A 72-year-old Prattville man has died from injuries sustained in a “freak” bicycle accident. Alexander Alaskin, of Covered Bridge Parkway, was riding his bike Monday morning about 10:45 p.m., said Capt. David Fowler of the Prattville Police Department. He was riding through the parking lot of Prattville Baptist Hospital when he hit the curb on Gillespie Street and was thrown off.  Fowler said Alaskin wasn’t wearing a helmet.

I know from long, hard, painful (very painful), bloody experience that there is nothing “freak” about hitting something — a curb, a patch of wet leaves, a car door that suddenly opens in front of you, a rut in the bike path, a patch of gravel, an unsupervised child, an unobservant pedestrian, a car that stops suddenly in front of you — and flying off your bike.  Which is why they make bike helmets.


Reposted from Confined Space

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Get to Know AFL-CIO's Affiliates: National Association of Letter Carriers

From the AFL-CIO

Next up in our series that takes a deeper look at each of our affiliates is the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Name of Union: National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC)

Mission: To unite fraternally all city letter carriers employed by the U.S. Postal Service for their mutual benefit; to obtain and secure rights as employees of the USPS and to strive at all times to promote the safety and the welfare of every member; to strive for the constant improvement of the Postal Service; and for other purposes. NALC is a single-craft union and is the sole collective-bargaining agent for city letter carriers.

Current Leadership of Union: Fredric V. Rolando serves as president of NALC, after being sworn in as the union's 18th president in 2009. Rolando began his career as a letter carrier in 1978 in South Miami before moving to Sarasota in 1984. He was elected president of Branch 2148 in 1988 and served in that role until 1999. In the ensuing years, he worked in various roles for NALC before winning his election as a national officer in 2002, when he was elected director of city delivery. In 2006, he won election as executive vice president. Rolando was re-elected as NALC president in 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Brian Renfroe serves as executive vice president, Lew Drass as vice president, Nicole Rhine as secretary-treasurer, Paul Barner as assistant secretary-treasurer, Christopher Jackson as director of city delivery, Manuel L. Peralta Jr. as director of safety and health, Dan Toth as director of retired members, Stephanie Stewart as director of the Health Benefit Plan and James W. “Jim” Yates as director of life insurance.

Number of Members: 291,000 active and retired letter carriers.

Members Work As: City letter carriers.

Industries Represented: The United States Postal Service.

History: In 1794, the first letter carriers were appointed by Congress as the implementation of the new U.S. Constitution was being put into effect. By the time of the Civil War, free delivery of city mail was established and letter carriers successfully concluded a campaign for the eight-hour workday in 1888. The next year, letter carriers came together in Milwaukee and the National Association of Letter Carriers was formed.

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There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work