Are you or your employees at risk for a workplace injury? Many people think that injuries can’t happen to them, especially if they have never seen or experienced one on the job. But injuries happen when you least expect them. Stories about workplace incidents can be a powerful way to learn how to prevent them.
Listen to this interview on the WorkSAFE Podcast, or read the show notes below. Be sure to check out this episode’s bonus clip near the end of the article.
At Missouri Employers Mutual, Safety and Risk Trainer Mark Woodward helps people prevent and prepare for the unexpected through safety training. Mark began his career as an emergency medical technician (EMT) on an ambulance and serves as a volunteer firefighter. He started at MEM in 2007 and has been providing safety training and services for the past 12 years. “What’s interesting about that background is it really helps me provide better safety messages to customers,” Mark said when asked about his diverse experience. “Because I’m not only in the prevention side of safety, but I’m also on the response side of it as well.”
Despite a 20-year background as an EMT and plenty of experience as a volunteer firefighter, there is a lot that Mark is still trying to learn. “One of the things I look at is just things that have went wrong in my garage or my house. I think about times I’ve cut myself or tripped over something or broken something. Why did that happen? I reflect on those things. I’m a very imperfect individual. I’m not above anybody.”
Mark is a natural storyteller, but he admitted that the safety stories he shares aren’t the kind you brag about. He tells them with the hope that those listening can learn what to do to stay safe – and what not to do.
Missing fingers, missing future: preparing for trauma on the job
When it comes to handling hazardous machinery and equipment, a quick slip-up can alter the course of your entire life. Mark vividly remembered helping a young man who suffered a devastating and life-changing injury.
Mark had been on shift as an EMT that day, parked in front of a hospital emergency room. He was filling out a few reports in the front seat of his ambulance when a pickup truck pulled up beside him. He first thought that the driver shouldn’t be parked there; after all, a nearby sign clearly said ambulances only. As he hopped out of the truck to tell the driver to move, he noticed something wrong.
The trucker’s driver, a teenager, sat with his left hand wrapped tightly in a towel. He was conscious and alert, but he also seemed afraid.
“What happened to your hand?”
“I cut off three fingers with a table saw.”
“Where are your fingers?”
“They’re in the towel with my hand.”
Although severely injured, he’d managed to drive himself to the hospital. Mark learned that the young man was only 19 years old. He’d been helping a friend with a project when he’d gotten his hand caught in the table saw they were using. His parents didn’t know that he was injured. And now he was missing three of his fingers.
What could have prevented that situation?
The young man had been attending community college to be mechanic. And he’d only been using the saw to help a friend! But the impact of the injury was painfully clear. “How are you going to be a mechanic missing three fingers of a hand?” Mark pointed out. “You can’t pull a wrench now.”
Every year, there are more than 40,000 saw-related injuries. The cost of a simple mistake is high; deep cuts or amputated fingers are among the worst. Mark reflected on of all the precautions the man could’ve taken to operate the saw safely. Setting the blade depth correctly or watching hands while you work are easy safety adjustments. You should also replace outdated equipment that doesn’t have any safety measures. Don’t wait for a serious injury to be a wake-up call.
How can I prepare for a sudden trauma scenario?
Even when you take steps to be safe, accidents can still happen on the job. Many workplaces aren’t prepared for severe incidents like amputations. If a traumatic injury happens in your workplace, you don’t have to be an expert to help. Mark recommends elevating the injured extremity and controlling the bleeding with direct pressure.
Being prepared is also a way to minimize the immediate impact of an injury. Have a well-stocked first aid kit on hand. Mark recommends adding items that may help you treat common injuries in your industry. “For example, if you’re a tree trimmer and you know that at any moment, someone could receive a nasty chain saw injury, you’re probably going to need to have more gauze and tourniquet-type dressings in your first aid kit.”
If you travel frequently, keep a first aid kit in your car. Mark still carries a jump bag, the stocked bags carried by first responders to help patients when an ambulance is still far behind. He was even gifted an AED that he carries everywhere, even to his safety training.
Seat belts save lives: staying safe on the road
One of the most common response calls for an ambulance is an MVA, or motor vehicle accident. As we travel to and from our workplaces and homes every day, staying safe on the roads is everyone’s concern. One of the most effective ways to prevent a life-changing crash is to wear your seat belt – a free safety device already installed in your car. However, while Mark was traveling along Interstate 70 one day, he discovered not everyone takes advantage of them.
The call came while he was driving down the highway. A single vehicle crash: a car flipped in the median, its driver ejected. Mark was in his own truck, and although he wasn’t working he was the closest person to the scene. He stopped near the incident with his jump bag in hand. The car was in surprising condition. Although most of the glass had been shattered, the body of the car was intact.
The driver was a 24-year-old college student. Witnesses said it looked as if she was drowsy at the wheel. She had severe cuts and an airway filled with blood. And she hadn’t been wearing her seat belt. Responders opened her airway, gave her oxygen and airlifted her to a trauma center. The team there saved her life.
What could have prevented that situation?
Although the driver recovered, Mark reflected on how the situation could have been different if she’d worn her seat belt. “Yeah, she’s alive and moving. She’s a productive member of society. But why did she have to go through that? Why are we not wearing seat belts?” Since the structure of her vehicle was intact, Mark noted, her injuries would have been far less traumatic. The ambulance crew would’ve checked her out, and perhaps she could’ve walked out of the hospital that same afternoon. Instead, she endured extensive rehabilitation and incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses.
How can I make sure my employees are safe on the road?
Wearing a seat belt is a simple and important way to stay safe on the road. Not only do they help protect you from being ejected from the car, they also help you stay in control of the vehicle in the event of a crash. Require your employees to wear seat belts, and enforce a seat belt policy. If you manage a company fleet, develop a fleet safety program to make sure your all of your drivers are prepared. Educate your employees on best practices for driving, including:
- Always wearing a seat belt
- Controlling driving speed
- Avoiding distracted driving
- Avoiding impaired driving
- Performing regular vehicle maintenance
Does Mark remember the accidents where a seat belt saved the life of a driver? “Oddly enough, in thinking about it, those are the ones that are harder to remember because we didn’t do anything.” Even crashes that look devastating can have life-changing outcomes when drivers are wearing their seat belt.
Mark recalled the nerves that accompany getting to the scene of a wreck to see destroyed vehicles – and the relief when their drivers were wearing seat belts. “When you’re pulling up in a pumper truck and you’re thinking, ‘This is going to be bad. This is bad. And the ambulance is still ten minutes behind me.’ And you get out and there they are standing there, standing out there having a cigarette. Shaking, because they just went through a nasty wreck. But they’re not hurt.”
Claims management: every injury matters
When an on-the-job injury seems simple or unimportant, employers can often make the mistake of overlooking it. Even if you think an employee can “walk it off” or “rub some dirt on it,” every injury matters. Report all injuries that happen at your workplace – it can save lives. It can also prevent minor injuries from developing into something much more serious (and potentially becoming a much more expensive claim). Only a healthcare professional can determine if your employee is okay or needs further treatment.
Proactive claim prevention
Taking steps to make sure your employees know how to work safely can prevent on-the-job injuries and claims. Having a plan in place is the most important step a business owner can take before an injury occurs. “We don’t expect small businesses in Missouri to be complete and perfect total safety experts. I get that,” Mark said. “But we just need a few things. Some basic policies, inspect your equipment, remove the junk stuff, watch how your employees are working.”
Equip your workplace with safety gear and ensure that your employees are using it. Set safety policies and enforce them. Mark gave an example of a common violation: “An employee’s not wearing safety glasses when they should be. Are we documenting anything?” Corrective action and enforcement should follow.
Out of sight, out of mind: the hidden dangers of electricity
One of the most memorable incidents Mark has ever come across was caused by a hidden danger: electricity. Although it occurred years ago, Mark can easily remember the day he received the call while working as an EMT.
The 911 dispatcher didn’t have much information; an employee was down at a nearby quarry. Mark knew that quarry workers faced a lot of hazards. This incident could be serious. After placing a call to the dispatcher on his cell phone, the caller wouldn’t say what had happened – only that they urgently needed help. Mark called for the fire department to assist them. An aircraft would wait on standby.
A truck took them deep into the quarry, passing equipment and other work sites. The injured worker was at the very bottom of the quarry. Employees there were using a crane when its cable touched a nearby power line. With his hands on the conveyor belt, the worker was electrocuted by 7200 volts of electricity.
When Mark and the other first responders got to him, he had burns on his hands and feet. Someone was doing CPR, attempting to revive their unresponsive colleague. The team pulled out an AED hoping to shock his heart back into a normal rhythm, but they made a grisly discovery. The electricity had entered his hands and exited through his feet. It had caused all the organs in his chest to burst.
With no hope of reviving him, responders pronounced the man dead in the back of the ambulance. The damage to his body was so significant that there was no reason to bring him into the emergency room. There was nothing doctors could do for him.
What could have prevented that situation?
Employees in the quarry worked in this space every day. The power line hung above them, a seemingly obvious danger compared to lines buried beneath the ground. Why didn’t someone say something? Why didn’t they shut down the power line on the day they would be working near it?
The answer? No one took the time to do it. Pressure to get the job done can cause some employees to cut corners on safety or speed through essential safeguards. Simply taking the time to be aware of your surroundings can keep you and your employees safe.
Mark emphasized the need to slow down in light of the horrific consequences that can come from rushing. While first responders and healthcare professionals can provide life-saving care, not every injury can be fixed. “These forces, these traumatic forces, really do damage and the human body can’t handle this stuff,” Mark said. “And we don’t have the science to bring them back.”
How can I work safely around electricity?
Practice electrical safety to reduce the risk of electrical shock. Always assume that any electrical wires are live and energized. Never touch any fallen lines; call your local utility company and allow professionals to assess the situation and make necessary repairs. If you’ll be working at heights or using long machinery or equipment, survey the area for electrical lines. Keep a ten-foot buffer between those lines and all work activity.
Practice basic electrical equipment safety, such as:
- Never operating electrical equipment while standing in water
- Inspecting the condition of all electrical equipment or cords before working in damp areas
- Having an electrician inspect any electrical equipment that has gotten wet before using it
Never allow employees to attempt to repair electrical cords or equipment without being qualified and authorized. This includes hand and power tools. Implement safety rules for municipal employees who work frequently with community utilities.
Downed and dangerous: avoid shock from power lines
We’ve all seen downed power lines across the road, or damaged electrical equipment after a storm with high winds. Often, passersby are in such a hurry that they run over lines with their cars or swerve around them. Mark emphasized that if you see downed power lines, you should report them by calling 911.
It’s difficult to know whether a downed line is still energized or dead. If a line is in contact with your vehicle, you should stay in it and advise others not to approach. Call 911 and explain the situation. Electrical co-ops and city providers will quickly send linemen to shut down the line. They can tell you when it’s safe to exit your car.
Mark explained that while rubber tires have insulating properties, they’re not foolproof. Sometimes, a downed line sends so much voltage through a vehicle that the energy arcs, catching a tire on fire. If your vehicle catches fire, you have no choice but to exit. In this scenario, you should jump from the vehicle – do not touch the car and the ground at the same time. When you land, shuffle your feet without lifting them from the ground until you are about 100 feet away from the vehicle.
These are best practices for an unsafe situation, but the best scenario is to avoid the situation in the first place. After a strong storm causes damage such as downed power lines, stay off the road unless you must travel. Give utility professionals time to clean up any damage and make the roads safe for vehicles.
Agricultural equipment poses severe injury risk
In the Midwest, devastating injuries from agricultural equipment are too common. Mark explained that injuries often result from lack of safety training and awareness of the equipment’s risks. “When crops are going in, it’s all hands on deck. People work all hours – through the weekend, the middle of the night. It’s small crews and family members.”
Two common causes of agriculture-related injuries are hydraulic equipment and augers in grain bins. In one case, Mark responded to a call from a farmer who accidentally injected his hand with hydraulic fluid while taking apart machinery to repair it. Hydraulic fluid causes clots and severe infections; the man would need several hand surgeries to repair the damage.
“We see a ton of auger injuries with grain bins,” Mark commented. “That’s a big problem with our insureds that do farming.” The electric motor of an auger is so powerful that if it catches a worker’s clothing, it can pull the person into the machinery, crushing bones. Mark reflected on a call to a farm where a young man had been pulled into an auger all the way up to his hips. Emergency responders couldn’t remove him or cut into the auger. The bones in at least one leg were fractured every eight inches. Eventually, they flew a surgeon in to perform a field amputation on the man’s leg.
Improve safety training in agriculture
The questions in Mark’s mind are: Why was that worker walking so close to the auger while it was still on? Why didn’t the first man release the machine’s hydraulic energy before trying to repair it? Anyone working around such powerful equipment needs training and education. They need to understand proximity – if you’re closer than two feet to an auger, it can pull you in.
A lockout/tagout program helps protect workers from a machine’s unexpected activation or release of energy. While it might add a few extra steps to a job, this type of process is crucial to consistently preventing injuries in an agriculture setting.
Farm equipment is also commonly missing standard safety features like guards, shields and safety kill switches. These features are installed on dangerous equipment for a reason and should never be removed.
Slow down to prevent life-changing injuries
Mark has seen everything that can happen when safety isn’t a priority. He always shares safety stories to remind people that it only takes a moment for something to go wrong. “I think about all the times that we get in a hurry and we take things for granted. We’re trying to do too much, or we’re distracted, or we’re not feeling good that day, or we’re biting off more than we can chew. And then something goes wrong.”
Each of these safety stories had life-changing consequences for everyone involved. But by taking the time to prepare yourself and your workplace, you can minimize the chance of injuries. Visit our free safety resource library, or read more safety stories on our blog.