He got his fingers caught; he’s in the ER.”

When I took that call early one morning, my cell phone was positioned between my hands while I was doing push-ups.

I received calls like that 24/7 during the three years I managed workers’ compensation claims for a family of companies across multiple states. I was the first person in their 65-year history to personally manage each injury claim and the first safety professional they had ever hired. 

I wasn’t new to workplace injuries; a decade with OSHA had prepared me for what can happen to workers on the job. Unofficially, some people in the organization called me the “worst-case scenario person,” a title I earned after involvement in numerous serious injury and fatality investigations.

I began receiving pictures of the hand injury via text. This wasn’t a bad day for the employee — it was a life-changing day — just like it is for every employee who doesn’t go home from work the same way they arrived.

The injured employee was in a small-town ER, one without a hand surgeon. He didn’t speak English. His wife and son, also co-workers, had left work to be with him.

Advocate needed

Based on my experience, I knew this man needed more than my filing his first report of injury with the insurance carrier; he and his family needed an advocate.

Soon, I was back on the phone with both operations and general managers. I updated them on the employee’s condition and told them he was being referred to a hand surgeon in a neighboring state. 

“How likely is it he will sue us?” they asked.

I countered, “You have three employees in labor roles away from work due to this —strongly consider paying them a full day’s wages.” 

 “But how likely is it he will sue us?”

“How did this happen and are any other employees at risk of having their fingers ripped off right now?” I asked.

“He shouldn’t have been wearing a glove,” they answered, “It wouldn’t have happened if he wouldn’t have been wearing a glove.” 

I had learned about victim-blaming statements in Psych 101 my freshman year of college, and 20 years in practice had taught me tragedy results in one of two responses: 

1. Employers who rise to the occasion, doing all they can to ensure something similar doesn’t happen to someone else on their watch.

2. Employers who fail to rise, blaming victims, dismissing potential root causes, and labeling the injured as incompetent or disposable. 

In this case, I was working with reaction No. 2, so I knew what was next. I wanted to roll out the cliché carpet for them to walk on while their words rang in my head like the teacher’s voice in Charlie Brown’s classroom.

It was pretty late when I finally got to the hospital. On the drive, I talked with the employee’s daughter, who spoke English. She told me her dad was out of surgery after a team of three surgeons finished work repairing his hand. I asked if I could join them to explain the workers’ compensation process, how wages were handled, what return-to-work meant, and how medical bills and prescriptions were paid — anything I could think of that would alleviate worry for basic needs. This was a family who only wanted to know when their patriarch would be able to return to work and how the bills would be paid.

Searching for answers

Days later, when I had time to go to the plant where he was hurt, I dug into that whole glove deal, looking for the root cause of the injury as I switched on my safety professional role. The plant had a safety person; I inserted myself regardless.

The machine in which the employee was caught had various sets of rollers. The maintenance manager shared that the water pressure was set too high for that machine and that a set of rollers needed replacement, so it wasn’t running efficiently, frequently jamming with product. Since the rollers jammed often, the guard normally covering them was left open so jams could be cleared quickly, with minimal delay. Also, the elevated water pressure and open enclosure guard resulted in water spraying on employees working around the machine, so a plastic tarp was placed as a shield.

On the day of the preventable incident, the plastic tarp got sucked in the rollers and jammed the machine. The four ungloved laborers who worked product on the other rollers of the machine didn’t know how to fix it. So the victim, who was a supervisor in that work area, came by to see if he could help. Because of his normal job function, he had to wear nitrile gloves. While wearing his gloves and using a knife, he cut the tarp free of the rollers. Once the jam cleared, the rollers engaged and pulled him in.

The gloves were irrelevant.

Wrong and insulting

Not long ago, I queried a safety group on LinkedIn, asking people to share safety clichés that have colored their careers. The response was staggering. Safety clichés and victim-blaming are things we all deal with professionally; each are wrong and insulting. 

Wrong, because it prevents progress, and insulting because in each breadth of every cliché, the value of a life or limb is trivialized and devalued, flushing any chance to realize a positive safety culture.

Let’s be brave and speak up as corporate leaders and safety professionals against these clichés.