Jobsite Safety: When the Cause of the Incident Is Not the Cause of Death
Over and over again, we see that a combination of information, training and planning, along with oversight to ensure that people are using their resources properly, saves lives.
Post hoc ergo propter hoc (“After this, therefore because of this”)
In January 2015, a man assembling structures for the Super Bowl in the parking lots outside University of Phoenix Stadium fell about 30 feet to his death. Particularly since this is my own community, as well as our industry, I have spent a lot of time considering the causes of this tragedy.
Reportedly he had a medical condition, lost consciousness while he was working on the structure, and fell to the pavement. Obviously, the initial problem was whatever condition caused the loss of consciousness. But that doesn’t seem to me to be the reason he died.
People working at heights are trained and required to use fall protection devices precisely to prevent severe injury or death even if one slips or otherwise loses their footing. Evidently, he was not, or perhaps the fall protection he was provided did not work properly. Perhaps a supervisor should have seen something but did not. Doubtless, the workplace safety investigators are sorting through these questions. What seems reasonable to conclude even now, though, is that properly working safety equipment might have prevented what should have been an unremarkable injury from turning into an untimely death.
From a legal standpoint, this sad story illustrates the difference between an initial or indirect cause of something, versus its ultimate or proximate cause. Lay people tend to focus on the former because that’s what they see, but for liability purposes the latter is more important.
Until Ryan “Scrappy” Lipman’s death, I had been thinking about this distinction in the context of the Event Safety Alliance’s next event, the Severe Weather Summit. ESA was born in the aftermath of another causation disaster, the 2011 Indiana State Fair outdoor roof collapse. At the time, then-Governor Mitch Daniels said that the wind was an “act of G-d” that no one could have foreseen, suggesting that the resulting deaths, injuries and property damage were all simply a tragic accident that was no one’s fault.
First, reasonable people disagreed whether high winds in that part of the country on that day were reasonably foreseeable. More to the point, however, is whether the thing that set events in motion was really the cause of anyone’s injury or death. In Indiana, as with last week, I think not.
We know that the Indianapolis area experienced significant wind gusts and that issues with the construction of that stage roof system caused it to blow over. Those were the direct causes of property damage, to be sure. In order to identify the proximate cause(s) of seven deaths and 58 injuries, however, one must understand why those people were in harm’s way at that time. Just as the rigger’s blackout should have caused no more than a workplace injury, wind in Indiana should have caused no more than property damage and lost ticket revenue.
Over and over again, we see that a combination of information, training and planning, along with oversight to ensure that people are using their resources properly, saves lives. As for this latest loss of life, we extend our heartfelt condolences to Scrappy Lipman’s family and hope that his memory will inspire each of us to reconsider the importance of safety as we go about our own jobs.