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The Last Laugh

By Randy Logsdon

The intro sequence for the 1960s sitcom classic The Dick Van Dyke Show depicted Rob Petrie tripping his way into his living room to the amusement of his family, friends and coworkers. Slips, trips and falls have served to bring laughter from routines performed by the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Wile E. Coyote and many others. It’s a staple of the home video programs broadcast on television. If falling is so funny then working in the aggregates industry must be one of the most humorous occupations on the planet.

Preliminary data from MSHA reveals that in the first three quarters of 2010, 21 percent of the reported injuries from stone, sand and gravel were a result of slip, trip and fall (STF) incidents. The same data shows that 25 percent of the non-fatal days lost (NFDL) incidents over the same period were from slips, trips and falls. I suspect that little humor was found in any one of the 372 STF incidents recorded through September of 2010 or the 563 recorded in 2009.

Humor in Misfortune
I don’t know what profound psychological flaw drives us to find humor in someone’s misfortune. Perhaps it’s because, despite our better understanding, we expect the person to get up unharmed except for a bruised ego. Perhaps at some level, we can separate fantasy from real life. Still, even those of us who have first-hand experience with the very real consequences of falling find humor in Oliver Hardy falling through a trap door.

I don’t expect to solve that dilemma in this column. However, it may serve us well to consider that our collective attitude toward falls. Understanding the potential disabilities that can result from a fall (even at ground level), one might still harbor a somewhat cavalier attitude concerning the risk. So, what are the real risks of falling? How often does one fall and get up uninjured vs. minor injury vs. severe injury vs. can’t get up?  

The MSHA data will not help us with this because it represents only the most severe of injuries. We can, however, use MSHA STF data to help define the risk as compared with other mechanisms of injury. The fact that in the first three quarters of 2010, 21 percent of all reported injuries were caused by slips, trips and falls should raise concern immediately. Add the fact that slips, trips and falls is but one of 21 categories elevates the concern. (Only “handling materials” reports a higher percentage of incidents at 33 percent.) We don’t know how many STF injuries were unreported or how many incidents did not result in injuries.

We do know how to prevent slips, trips and falls. While humans are unique in the fact that they walk, run and work on two feet rather than four, we are also at a disadvantage in that we have a relatively higher center of gravity and a less stable base than other mammals. We have learned to maintain this precarious balance until something unexpected happens – a slip, trip or fall hazard. The precautions required to prevent falling are not new. There is nothing funny about a slip, trip or fall. Only the potential for embarrassment, pain, disability and possibly death. Let’s take control and remain upright.

  • Maintain stairways and walkways clear of stumbling hazards such as cables, hoses, discarded parts, tools or spilled material (housekeeping).
  • Use handrails on stairways and three-point contact  on ladders.
  • Contain and/or clean up spilled lubricants, water, mud and other slippery substances.
  • Take action to remove or compensate for the effects  of weather (wind, snow, rain, etc.)
  • Maintain effective lighting systems.
  • Make effective use of fall-prevention or fall-arrest equipment.
  • Ensure that work platforms, portable ladders and other devices used for personnel elevation are secure.
  • Construct elevated structures with materials that  provide good traction.
  • Employ material handling procedures that avoid  awkward positions maintain a good line of sight of walking surfaces.
  • Use safety footwear designed to support the ankles and provide good traction for condition.
  • Consider walking, climbing, descending – moving from one place to another as another critical part  of the job – a part that deserves safety consideration.

Just for the record, in the later seasons of The Dick Van Dyke Show, the intro was modified slightly. Rob Petrie recognizes the stumbling hazard in his living room and artfully steers around it. It’s my opinion, but I think the gag is just as funny.

Randy K. Logsdon, CMSP, is manager of safety for Intrepid Potash New Mexico operations. He has practiced safety on both the coal and metal/non-metal side of mining for more than 30 years. Randy is a Certified Mine Safety Professional. ­­­He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..