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Unfortunately workplace accidents are all too common. Some are deadly, some are simple, some are just plain stupid, but in every case it could be argued that they are avoidable.

I’m not a big fan of workplace laws. I think common sense is far more important than some workplace inspector that has the benefit of hindsight. I’m not saying we don’t need workplace reforms, but not at the expense of common sense.

Our industry has many areas that are causes for concern when it comes to workplace trauma and common sense.

When installing signs, ladders are a prime example. Common sense should dictate that these are to be treated with respect.

The Queensland government Workplace Health and Safety web site makes these points;

A person using a ladder for access or permitted work must either: have three points of substantial contact with the ladder or a stable object, for example, standing on the ladder with two feet while holding a fascia board or timber stud, or prevent falls with a control measure, for example, a pole strap or use a fall-arrest harness system (not attached to the ladder).

The ladder must have a load rating of not less than 120kg and be: secured against movement at or near its top or bottom, for example, by tying or clamping, manufactured for industrial use, used only for the designed purpose, not more than 6.1 metres for a single ladder, not more than 9.2 metres for an extension ladder used for electrical work or 7.5 metres for other work, on a firm and stable surface, erected at an angle between 70° and 80° and extended at least 1 metre above a surface being accessed.

I’m sure you’d agree it is excellent advice, but we need to remember even following these suggestions to the letter, it is not fool proof. If common sense is not in the mix, no amount of advice will help.

In a study of ladder injuries between 1994 and 1997, researchers found that the mean age of patients was 52, predominantly male, and largely weekend warriors - about 78%.

Clearly common sense went out the window with these study ‘participants’. The study found that 43% were caused by something as basic as incorrect ladder placement causing instability. Other factors included over reaching, and unsafe handling.

Then we have electric power tools.

In an article ‘How to avoid common power tool accidents’, the author Jessica Brown quotes a report by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission where it was estimated that over 418,000 emergency room injuries were reported in 2001 for the United States alone. Over 93,000 of those injuries were from the circular saw. I’m prepared to hazard a guess that the ingredient of common sense was missing here too.

OK, so we don’t use power tools in our role as a sign maker. Perhaps we leave that up to the installers. Are we exempt from  injuries?

Well, No.

According to the American Bureau of Labour statistics, 250,000 injuries have been recorded at emergency centres from the humble box butter knife, often referred to as the ‘Stanley’ knife here in Australia. Of those injured, 111,000 people lost time from work due to the injuries sustained.

Safety campaigners, Safe Work Manitoba, believe that 2-3 workers per year will be injured sufficiently enough for amputation to be only viable medical treatment available.

So why do we see so many ‘incidents’ in the workplace?

Sometimes it is just a lack of thought - a brain freeze. We could be daydreaming, our mind could be thinking ahead instead of concentrating on the job at hand. Even though it is easy and simple to do, it can be dangerous, even deadly.

But, by far the most common reason for incidents and accidents at work is fatigue.

According to the ACTU, workers who suffer fatigue are more likely to experience difficulties in the workplace. They point out that the need for sleep is the second most powerful urge (after breathing) of the human body, and the impairment of 24 hours without sleep is similar to .1% blood alcohol level - a level twice that of our legal .05 limit.

A more alarming figure is that someone who has not slept properly in the last 24 hours is seven times more likely to have an accident.

The ACTU go on to advise that injury, stress and fatigue can be reduced with: Regular meal breaks, Adequate working hours, Sitting down whenever possible and regular time away from the job, even if just for a few minutes.

I know from personal experience what fatigue can do.

Being a small family business, long working hours can be a problem. Not too many years ago I had a contract for a TV station that had the deadline pushed forward to a time frame that stretched me to the limit. At the same time, my father was gravely ill, so I found my time being divided between hospital visits, supporting my mother, working and trying to be a father and husband to my own family.

The only thing I could do was work longer hours to fulfil my various obligations to my family and clients.

One evening, I was so fatigued after about 2 weeks of living on 4 or 5 hours sleep, in my rush to cut a heap of corflute, I missed the edge of the ruler and plunged the knife into my hand holding the ruler. The knife blade entered my hand above the thumb knuckle, cutting all the way under my skin to my middle finger knuckle.

2 Tendons, muscles and nerves were cut clean. I was rushed to emergency, 22 stitches, 3 days in hospital, 6 weeks in a brace, 8 weeks doing physio, and even now several years later I still suffer the consequences of that one miscalculation and error in judgement.

It would have been easier if I had just had regular sleep and made sure I was not putting myself at risk.

I wish I could say that I learned my lesson.

Its only when I look down in moments of contemplation that I see the scar, and I realise that I need to slow down again and start taking the rest breaks and so forth.

Each of us need to be aware that workplace trauma is ever present in our businesses.

All too often I see staff turning up for work at my colleagues shops, clearly exhausted from their party lifestyle. It would be foolish to dismiss our lifestyle as being a problem contributing to our safety. Drugs and excessive drinking also play a role in fatigue.

As employers and employees, displaying some common sense is as important as following the rules and regulations dictated to us in workplace reforms.

But, to be blunt, reforms mean nothing if it is not tempered with even the most basic common sense. It is up to each of us to show we have copious amounts of common sense, and that will bode well for us and our workmates whilst going about our daily grind.

Shane Drew