An analysis of the most recent five-year history of accidents and injuries reported by the IDOL/ICA Safety Partnership members shows workers caused 20 percent of reported injuries by putting themselves (or some part of their body) in the direct pathway of oncoming harm, or the line of fire. While most of these accidents result in crushed fingers and hands or broken toes, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 17 percent of U.S. workplace fatalities are the result of line-of-fire accidents.
When we hear about accidents – such as the one where a worker crushed his hand in a tri-axle truck tailgate that was swinging shut – we might be tempted to ask, “What were they thinking?” Nobody wants to get hurt, and we design most jobs to eliminate the risk of injury. So, how do workers get into these line-of-fire situations?
They don’t believe they are placing themselves in real danger. Sometimes workers who place themselves in the line of fire are making a decision based on imperfect information. They either assume that something is true when it is not, or they assume something is not true when it is.
They believe the time of exposure is short enough that nothing can happen to them. How many line-of-fire injuries are the result of thinking, “I’m only going to be in there for a second?” It’s a big temptation to take a risk when you believe that your probability of injury is directly proportional to the length of time you will be exposed to the hazard. Too few workers truly comprehend the dangers that some line-of-fire hazards pose irrespective of the length of exposure. If a worker contacts a sufficiently energized piece of equipment, he will be electrocuted, even if he touches the equipment for one second.
Familiarity causes people to be too comfortable. For most of us, the longer we work around a hazard or place ourselves in the line of fire without negative consequences, the less we respect the hazard’s ability to harm us. We convince ourselves that an activity is safer than it is. We think we won’t get hurt as long as we’re careful. But, placing ourselves in the line of fire is anything but being careful.
It is important to think through a task and find ways to prevent putting yourself in the line of fire.