Injury incident alerts: blaming worker is not a safety lesson

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) deserves credit for rapidly publicizing information about serious injury incidents and close call events. A brief recap and single photo make an easy lesson for a pre-shift safety meeting or toolbox talk. But MSHA needs to reject language in its safety alerts that blames workers for their injuries. It’s an easy trap to fall into, but it’s not effective for injury prevention.

This morning, an MSHA “Serious Incident Alert” landed in my inbox.  The lead sentences read:

“A miner was trying to determine why clay was not flowing properly by examining a chute that discharged into a screw conveyor. Instead of using a ladder to look inside, he stood on top of the metal screw conveyor cover his foot slipped and he fell approximately three feet to the grating floor hitting his head and suffered serious injuries.”

The phrase “instead of using a ladder” points blame directly on the miner. It dilutes the safety lesson because MSHA describes the incident as the worker’s fault. It reinforces the superficial approach to occupational safety which insists that workers are responsible for their injuries. More crudely, “if workers didn’t do dumb things, they wouldn’t get injured.”

I know this miner did not intend to suffer an injury. I can put myself in his shoes. He was focused on figuring out the problem. The clogged shut was probably slowing down the task at hand. He wanted to keep the process moving along. Getting a ladder would delay things. Where the heck is a ladder? We’ve all been there.

I’ve no doubt this seriously injured worker’s thoughts were well-intentioned. His is just the kind of stick-to-it-ness that employers define as a “good worker.” Until something goes wrong, and the “good worker” becomes the one that gets blamed for his injury.

We don’t need a government agency legitimizing a safety approach that blames workers. It misses the chance for a safety lesson to get to the root problem.