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Rethinking the “accidents will happen” mentality

Canadians have a vast lexicon of phrases they use to diminish accidents and their negative consequences. We acknowledge that “accidents will happen,” and remind ourselves that there’s “no use crying over spilled milk.” In fact, we’ve become so good at minimizing these seemingly random, unpredictable incidents that they now seem commonplace: we tend to view accidents as normal, everyday occurrences that everyone will inevitably experience at some point.

Despite its pervasiveness, this outlook is deeply flawed, and even dangerous. Decades of research by statisticians, public health researchers, and actuaries show that the events we consider “accidental” are, in fact, socially patterned. Recognizing these patterns makes for a more cautious culture where fewer people are subjected to pain, injury, and even death “accidentally.”

Indeed, one of the primary predictors of unexpected injury is place, so we begin by mapping out the various “hot spots” in which these incidents are most likely to occur:

1. At Home

Staircases, kitchens, and bathrooms see a disproportionate number of unexpected injuries and deaths, leading us to refer to these sites as constituents of “hazardous homes.”

2. At Play

One of Canada’s two national sports, hockey, is also a leading cause of head injury – perhaps understandably, as players fly across the ice at up to 50 kilometers per hour, trying to avoid the boards, goal posts, and each other.

3. At Work

A brief history of labour from the assembly line workers of the Industrial Revolution to the construction workers of today reveals the hazardous nature of many workplaces.

4. On the Road

We’ve long known that driving under the influence or amidst distractions increases one’s chances of crashing. We explore the sociological factors that often inspire such poor decisions, but also delve into collision-predicting structural issues, such as poor lighting, disrepair, construction, congestion, flawed road design, and a lack of reliable, affordable public transportation.

Image credit: Car accident by daveynin. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
Car accident by daveynin. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Accidents thus tend to cluster in these inherently dangerous spaces, but certain “types” of people are more likely to suffer their consequences than others. Homes, for instance, are particularly hazardous for the very young and the very old, as these groups spend the majority of their time here. Similarly, those fundamentally dangerous types of work – such as construction, firefighting, manufacturing, mining, and so on – tend to be performed by men, while women generally occupy safer clerical and secretarial positions.

But in addition to being exposed to physical threats more often, certain groups behave in riskier ways that predispose them to unexpected incidents. Children, for example, have yet to learn the pain associated with injury, and therefore rarely make efforts to avoid it. From the moment they are born, men and women are socialized to behave in different ways, with men more often engaging in risk-taking activities that are meant to signal their masculinity. We propose then that “accidents” are not accidental at all: they happen when certain kinds of people act in risky ways in hazardous places.

Despite all of these situational and demographic variables that reliably predict unexpected injuries, most continue to rely on the notion of “accident proneness” as an explanation for repeat injuries. Clearly, from what we have already discussed, certain groups of individuals sustain more injuries than others. But by labelling these people as “accident prone,” aren’t we merely just stating the facts – highlighting the number of mishaps they experience, as opposed to exploring the reasoning behind those incidents?

Ultimately, unexpected injuries and deaths pose a financially and emotionally costly problem for our society as a whole. These potentially devastating incidents are the results of our long-standing social structures: the culture of masculinity, the economics of profit-making, the politics of deregulation, and the cult of efficiency. Our society is programmed to generate accidents, and individual people suffer the consequences. Only by understanding their underlying causes can we work to reduce their occurrence.

Featured image credit: Emergency room entrance by M.O. Stevens. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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