Use Your Head: Workplace Safety to Prevent Head Injuries
Whether you are an employer, supervisor or worker, if you work in a dangerous industry, injury prevention is important. It is a lot easier to prevent an accident from happening in the first place than it can be to make things right after the fact. The reality is that workplace injuries can be debilitating or even fatal.
One of the most serious injuries you can sustain at work is a blow to the head. Hardhats have been around for decades in an attempt to mitigate the damage when a worker’s head is struck by a falling object. There are many other workplace hazards to be aware of, however, and just wearing a hardhat is no guarantee of safety.
Head injuries are especially serious because of the possible long-term and cumulative effects. The publicity surrounding head injuries in sports is leading the conversation about better ways to protect the head at work, and this information applies to all jobs where head injury is possible.
Injury Prevention in the Workplace
Workplace injuries are on a steady decline since 2013 — good news for workers across all industries. Private industry statistics for 2015, however, show there were 2.9 million workplace injuries and illnesses reported, according to the Department of Labor. For every 100 full-time employees, three were hurt at work.
When examining the rate of injury for workers by industry type, some patterns emerge. Industry sectors that reported a decline in workplace injuries in 2015 include:
- Finance and insurance
- Accommodation and food service
- Transportation and warehousing
- Mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction
- Health care and social assistance
Another distinction that can be seen from workplace injury statistics is that the size of the company matters. In 2015, companies employing between 50 and 249 workers reported the highest rate of injuries. The lowest rate of injury occurred in companies with fewer than 10 employees. In the small companies, there were approximately 1.4 injuries for every 100 employees. The mid-sized companies reported an injury rate of 3.7 per 100 workers.
Service industries accounted for an overwhelming majority of the injuries reported in 2015. Industries where goods are produced were responsible for only about 25% of all workplace injuries in the private sector.
In the public sector, the rate of injury is much higher than in private industry. While injuries and illnesses happen on the job at a rate of 3.0 per 100 workers in private industry, that rate is 5.1 in the public sector. The breakdown between state government and local government is even more extreme, with state government reporting a 3.7 percent injury rate and local government 5.6.
While all workers need to be vigilant about following safe work practices, according to the statistics, those who work in mid-sized companies are more likely to be injured on the job. Local government workers, teachers, police, firefighters and others are at the greatest risk from workplace injuries.
Injury prevention is an important part of everyone’s job when at work. Knowing and following safety guidelines set out by the Department of Labor, Office of Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) is a good start. In addition, many industries and particular jobs have more specific safety practices that need to be understood and followed.
Injuries in Construction
Construction is a dangerous job that often involves heavy machinery, unforgiving materials and inclement weather conditions. Building a structure is inherently dangerous because you are on site before any railings or other safety measures are constructed.
In addition to heights, construction requires working with equipment that is big and loud. Even if you saw a crane boom moving toward you, it might be impossible to notify the operator to stop it in time. But all of the danger on construction sites does not just come from big equipment. All power tools can be dangerous if they are not used correctly or if they malfunction. A pneumatic nail gun shoots nails through two-by-fours — imagine the damage it could do if the nail missed the board.
According to OSHA, the most common construction safety violations are:
- Electrical systems design, general requirements
- Machinery and Machine Guarding
- Electrical wiring methods
- Powered industrial trucks
- Control of hazardous energy
- Respiratory protection
- Hazard communication standard
- Fall protection
Any one of these safety rule violations could result in injury or even death on the job. In 2014, one out of every five worker deaths was in the construction industry. Approximately, 17% of work injuries that resulted in death involved contractors. The four types of injuries that accounted for more than half of the fatalities in construction were:
- Being caught in or between something
- Getting hit by an object
Of these “fatal four,” falls were the most common. This is not a surprising statistic considering that ladder and scaffold violations are in the top ten most commonly reported. The next two in order of frequency were electrocution and getting hit by an object. Finally, approximately 4.3% of construction accident fatalities were due to being caught up in a piece of equipment or crushed between pieces of material, such as in a building collapse.
Because of an improvement in overall safety standards and a strengthening of regulations by OSHA, workplace fatalities are down to about 13 per day in 2014 from a high of 38 a day in 1970. The rate of worker injuries and illnesses has declined since 1972 from 10.9 to 3.0.
Head Injury at Work
Head injuries are assessed based on the Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS) which provides common criteria to compare the severity of head injuries based on symptoms. Trained medical personnel observe eye movement, verbal response and motor functions to assign a value on the GCS. Here is the scale they use:
- 1 = none
- 2 = sounds but no words
- 3 = incoherent words
- 4 = confused conversation
- 5 = normal
- 1 = eyes not open
- 2 = in response to acute pain
- 3 = in response to sound of a voice
- 4 = spontaneous
- 1 = none
- 2 = rigid posture with arms and legs straight, head and neck arched back
- 3 = abnormal posture with arms bent toward chest, fists clenched
- 4 = whole body pulls in away from pain
- 5 = moves affected extremities away from pain
- 6 = normal
Using the GCS can help generalize the effect of the injury on the brain. The lowest GCS score possible is 3, and that basically means the person is incapacitated. A GCS between 13 and 15 is considered a mild head injury. A GCS score of 9-12 is moderate, and anything less than 9 is severe. Even a mild head injury could result in permanent impairment. The more severe injuries often cause physical, cognitive or emotional functioning impairment that can last for years or even become permanent.
Head injuries that do not look too bad can actually develop over time into serious injuries. When the skin is not broken, and no blood is visible at the point of impact, you tend to think you are okay. It is possible, however, that there is significant damage to your brain. It could be swelling and bleeding inside your skull without you realizing it
The brain floats around inside the skull with a fluid barrier as a cushion. When something hits you on the head, your brain slams into the inside of your skull. If the impact is hard enough, there can be injury despite the fluid cushion. Injury to the brain can create swelling, and there is a limited amount of space inside your skull. When your brain pushes against the inside of your skull, vital functioning can be impaired.
It is important to have a head injury evaluated by a medical professional if you experience any of these symptoms:
- Cuts or abrasions
- Memory loss
Other indications that a head injury requires medical attention are if the patient is over 60 years old or taking blood thinning medications. It is difficult to make an objective decision about seeking treatment when you have suffered a head injury because of acute confusion or even shock. It is a good idea to have someone else make that call, and if you are not sure, seek a medical evaluation anyway.
Head Injury Prevention
There are two parts to protecting against head injury: identifying potential hazards and mitigating exposure. The possibility of sustaining a head injury exists in an environment where workers could be struck by falling objects. If those objects could possibly fall from a great height, the risk from even small objects is great.
Head injuries can also occur on a worksite with low clearance. Objects do not have to move for them to present a danger of head injury. A job site with low passages or hanging pipes and other hard objects is dangerous. Walking into a stationary overhead obstacle can cause a serious head injury.
Hard hats are the generally accepted protective gear required for workplaces where head injury is possible. Most hard hats are designed to protect against impact and penetration from falling objects. They may have the additional benefit of protecting from electrical shock or burns from contacting hot wires.
Ultimately, the responsibility for preventing head injuries falls to the workers. All of the protective gear and safety practices are useless unless each worker is aware of the risk and behaves in a way that mitigates that risk. Here are four things to keep in mind to prevent getting a head injury at work:
- Use Caution — Dangers are all around you at work, so you need to be cautious as you go about your daily tasks. Acting in a cautious manner means curbing your impulses and any desire you may have for extra risk-taking behaviors. Impulsive behavior can cause accidents. Instead, think through your actions before performing them. Do not rush through your job or take shortcuts. Be aware of any co-workers who have a tendency to try to spice things up at work. You may not be able to change their sensation-seeking behavior, but it is a good idea to steer clear of their antics.
- Increase Awareness — Avoiding an accident could be as simple as being aware of your surroundings. Pay attention to your environment and where the specific hazards are. On a construction site, for example, the environment is changing all the time as new materials are delivered and different crews show up to work. Always know what is going on around you, so you can react quickly if things go wrong.
- Follow Safety Rules — Every job has a set of rules and protocols to be followed by all workers. These rules are designed to keep the work environment as safe as possible. Following the rules will help you avoid injury, but it also makes your actions more predictable to your co-workers. When your co-workers know what to expect from you, and you from them, there are fewer chances for accidents.
- Stay Cool — Work can be stressful, especially when you work in a dangerous industry. There are deadlines and quotas you have to meet, and you work as part of a team to reach those goals. People do not always work well together, causing tempers to flare. Keeping your temper under control despite the work conditions is a good way to avoid unnecessary accidents. If you recognize someone else on the job who is out of control, avoid getting involved in the situation, if at all possible.
Long-Term Risks of Head Injuries in the Workplace
Similar to soft tissue injuries, head injuries can develop over time. What appears to be a minor head injury immediately following the incident may progress to show signs of physical or mental impairment later. It is not unusual for those impairments to last a long time or even be permanent.
While the symptoms of a head injury usually resolve in a couple weeks, some can last much longer. The most common lingering symptoms of a minor head injury include:
- “Just not right” feeling
- Lack of focus
Experiencing any of these symptoms for weeks after a head injury can have an impact on your life. You may not be able to perform your job properly or to the level of excellence you once could. Chronic and unexplained irritability can affect rapport with your boss and co-workers. In the extreme, it may jeopardize your job.
When symptoms like these continue without signs of improvement, your mood can be affected as well. With your ability to do your job impaired and your relationships strained at work and at home, your outlook can become bleak. At this stage, you might be vulnerable to addiction or depression, two very serious diseases.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), even mild head injuries can result in neurological and cognitive impairment. Another serious risk is repeated head injuries, like several over the course of months or years. The effects of these injuries, even if each is just mild, can compound. If the head injury is repeated within hours or days, the cumulative effect could be fatal.
Recovering fully from a head injury and taking precautions so it does not happen again are two important steps to a positive outcome. The CDC makes these recommendations for head injury recovery:
- Your reflexes may be slowed for some time after a head injury. Follow your doctor’s advice on when it is safe to drive again, ride your bike or do anything that requires balance and could put you in a dangerous situation. If you operate heavy machinery, wait for clearance from your doctor to get back to it. While your brain is recovering from injury and your reflexes are slowed, you are at greater risk for re-injury from these types of activities.
- Following a head injury, do not be in a hurry to get back to your daily activities. Take plenty of time to rest because this is when your body heals itself. It may not realize it, but healing requires energy. When you abstain from using your energy on daily activities, work or school, it can be channeled into the healing process. Pushing yourself back to work when you are not feeling quite right can impede or delay your recovery.
- Memory is one of the most common casualties of head injuries, and it can be frustrating. Instead of being stressed about your inability to remember things, support your brain so your memory can recover. Write things down to aid your memory. As you recover, over time, you will notice that you remember more. Writing it down gives you an easy reference in the meantime, and it reinforces your memory.
- Be careful with the drugs you take during your recovery. Follow your doctor’s orders exactly, and do not take any drugs your doctor does not tell you to take, either prescription or over-the-counter. Also, refrain from using alcohol until your doctor says it is safe to do so. While you are recovering from a head injury, you are especially susceptible to addiction and other side effects from all types of drugs.
- Protect your head during your recovery period. Take extra precautions to ensure you do not bump or jolt your head while it is healing. Do not put yourself in situations where you could get another head injury. At this stage, your head is especially delicate, and even a slight bump could have severe results.
- Take advantage of all the therapy your doctor can offer you. Physical therapy or even occupational therapy designed to help you re-learn certain skills you lost as a result of the injury are very important. Instead of waiting to see if your abilities come back, start working on re-learning them right away. This will speed the progress of your recovery and help you keep a good mental outlook.
What started as a little bump on the head could change your life forever. The full impact of your injury might not be known for several months or even years following the incident. It is important to get professional help when you are hurt at work. Be sure to follow medical advice for your recovery, and seek a legal opinion before agreeing to a settlement of any kind.
When in doubt, ask someone who knows. If you are not sure if the head injury you sustained while you were working is a result of negligence on the part of your employer, contact KBG Injury Law for free a consultation. We can answer all of your legal questions and assess your situation. Whether you have a personal injury claim or not, the consultation is free. If you are entitled to compensation for your injury, we can help you get what you deserve.