It was one of those routine mornings. Our subject (we’ll call him D.J.) kissed his wife good-bye and hurried off to work, never dreaming that he wouldn’t see her again. People investigating what happened to him had never seen anything like it before. He died at work in a most unusual way, by his own hand. As a matter of fact, work-related deaths from self-inflicted wounds are not just unusual, they’re rare. But that’s what happened in a southern Minnesota poultry-processing facility 20 years ago, and some of the mystery still remains in this incredible, but true story.
We can look at circumstances of this event and readily see that a violation of basic principles can impact our airline industry just as profoundly as the industry in which the incident occurred.
Work on the processing line when the accident happened was routine, proceeding smoothly at D.J.’s workstation where he removed heads from turkeys with an air-powered shear. Then, with no apparent warning, D.J. suddenly collapsed onto the work floor. Co-workers quickly were at his side to render assistance. Yet within a few minutes, he was dead. Why?
Investigators speculated that the one-hand power shear dropped down to D.J.’s side and behind his leg between cuts while still in his grasp–certainly not an uncommon event. In fact, workers could use this maneuver as a brief stretching and resting period when a break in the production line occurred. This time, evidently one of the ultra-sharp shear knives forcefully contacted the back of the worker’s leg, penetrating his uniform slacks and enough tissue to sever a major blood vessel.
It is possible the knife’s impact caused a sharp stinging sensation, enough to draw a reaction from the worker; perhaps even a brief checking of the back of his leg. In any case he kept on working, rather than thoroughly check out his mishap. That decision sealed his fate, because he bled to death right in front of dozens of workers who might have administered first aid to slow the bleeding sufficiently until either emergency medical assistance arrived or he was taken to it. Yet, before anyone could properly assess what to do, this case was terminal. Cause of death: traumatic blood loss through a single laceration, near and behind the knee.
Speculation about what happened to this employee continues to this day. Questions continue as well. Why didn’t he check the small wound? He probably did not want to interrupt the production line. Why didn’t someone notice the blood and offer to help? Blood on both employee uniforms and poultry processing floors is as common and expected as sawdust in a sawmill. And thus it goes, without resolution.
Studying sobering stories of incidents in the workplace is valuable if we learn from them. The lesson looming largest here is this: Size of the sliver, cut or other injury incurred should never be the driving reason whether workers seek first aid. No matter what the injury, counsel workers to report it and have it treated immediately. Untreated injuries can be likened to gambling. And now we know of someone who did gamble–with a “small cut”–and paid the ultimate price.
Reprinted with Permission, © 1994, National Safety Council, Air Transport Newsletter