SciencePunk

My Wisconsin Death Trip on Twitter

i-1d34d1a56d32f584dca9a041fdf64201-death.pngSome time back, I was researching a feature for Wired when I stumbled across the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. One of the responsibilities of this office is to monitor workplace fatalities. Each week, a roundup of deaths in the workplace are posted online. They make for compelling reading.

As Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis states on the site: “With every one of these fatalities, the lives of a worker’s family members were shattered and forever changed. We can’t forget that fact”. Yet the lists only hold the briefest of details. The company involved and its location are recorded, along with a brief description of the events surrounding the worker’s death. Nothing about the worker is included – we’ve no way of knowing their age, profession, or individual circumstances. The only thing we know about them is that they died working on the job. Each new entry is as inevitable as the click of a metronome and delivered with the same passion – as David Marsh said about his film Wisconsin Death Trip: “the real pathos [is] contained in a four line newspaper report that simultaneously records and dismisses the end of someone’s life”.

However, when you put them all together, a pattern begins to emerge. Construction workers fare worst. People fall from ladders, or are crushed by machinery. Farm workers fall into concrete pits or crash ATVs. Many simply collapse at work, as if completely exhausted of life. But these are interspersed with the unusual – a woman shot at work by a jealous husband, or the plain unlucky: a man who died of blood poisoning after a customer’s dog bit him. Others recount dreadful ends to lives – people fall into slurry pits and drown, their co-workers overcome by noxious fumes whilst trying to save them.

I wanted to build something that would bring out these stories to a wider audience, and it was clear that a microblogging site like Twitter offered the perfect vehicle. By connecting an account with an automated system, I could upload the records and have them sent out at regular intervals, like a church bell tolling on the hour, reminding us of the 5,000+ workers who died on site last year. Thus, DeathCountr was born.

I used Time2Tweet as it allowed me to upload batches of text in csv or txt format. The datasets were free to pull from the OSHA website. They needed a bit of tidying up. The dates weren’t stored properly, but ultimately I decided to strip them out anyway. I wanted the feed to be disorientating and unsettling, in order to undermine the sense that these deaths were closed cases, that they would never happen again. It’s a modern day Wisconsin Death Trip, the stories combine to give a reflection of present day America, where death at work is disproportionately heaped upon the poor and the unskilled, the manual laborers and the elderly. It’s about the unspoken contract of our society that tolerates rates of mortality in the most essential trades that we would never accept in its highest echelons. It’s also about the unfair, the unlucky, and the absurd ways in which you might experience your last ever day at work. I hope you find it interesting.

Comments

  1. #1 bioephemera
    March 24, 2010

    Weird Sb coincidence: I saw OIRA Director Cass Sunstein talk about the OSHA fatalities feed last month, which prompted me to write a post on it for Collective Imagination – which I posted this morning as well! I’ve just updated it to link to your post and Twitter feed.

  2. #2 JohnV
    March 24, 2010

    Some of these read like they’re out of horror movie scripts:

    Worker was troubleshooting a Makino, multi-axis, computer numerical controlled (CNC) machine; the machine activated and the worker’s head was impaled by the tooling spindle.

  3. #3 JohnTR
    March 24, 2010

    Man, some of those are pretty gruesome, yet I keep clicking through them. Its quite frightening how easily it seems these deaths could happen, like it was just any other work day.

  4. #4 rob
    March 24, 2010

    i read the one about the dog bite/blood poisoning.

    then i got to this one, that was in the news:

    “Worker, an animal trainer, was attacked by a killer whale in an aquarium’s exhibition tank.”

  5. #5 Frank the SciencePunk
    March 24, 2010

    There are also several deaths in Disneyworld – look out for the location recorded as “Buena Vista, FL”.

  6. #6 reef
    March 25, 2010

    Sobering reading; in each case I uncontrollably found myself formulating a little false hope that it was going to be a happy ending, particularly those that begin with: ‘big nasty piece of machinary’

  7. #7 Ian
    March 26, 2010

    Frank – is it fully automated now? If not it’d be a good exercise to make it that way! Let me know if you want any help. Ian.

  8. #8 Frank the SciencePunk
    March 26, 2010

    @Ian

    I did think of calling you earier… The first batch is automated, but there’s plenty more to add. Problem is datasets aren’t consistent, but I’m thinking of cleaning the lot up and releasing them for people to experiment with.

    I’m sure we could think up some fun projects, I’ll email you.