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Christmas Eve has filled its quota

December 25, 2009

It’s Christmas morning, the giving and receiving of gifts is done, I am now surveying all the bad news from around the world. It’s not THAT bad; the Pope was pushed down but seems OK. That’s good; not just because it’s Christmas, but because any day with a shortage of bad news is always welcome.

Here in Toronto, we are the exception, oddly; four men were killed Christmas Eve when their scaffolding collapsed, and a fifth has life-threatening injuries. It has been featured prominently on,,, and CBC news. The Globe and CBC stories each have more than 100 reader comments.

It’s not hard to understand the reaction. It’s Christmas, and four people died while the rest of us are getting together with our families. The articles and comments all emphasize the point that it’s a terrible thing to happen on Christmas – which is undeniably true. It’s also a terrible thing to happen on any other day.

In Canada, a little over a thousand people are killed on the job every year (PDF) (NWISP table, Number of Fatalities, by Jurisdiction, 1993 – 2008). Of course, you can’t die at work if you’re not there; the average Canadian works 230 days per year which works out to somewhere between 4-5 deaths per year (these include occupational deaths, like inhaling asbestos for 30 years, in addition to the sudden accidents).

Most workplace deaths don’t make it on to the front pages of major news websites. Exceptions may be made when multiple people are killed or it’s an unusual type of death or it’s Christmas. But exceptions are troubling; we don’t have to wait for the 2009 stats to be released to put this accident in context. Workplace fatalities have been consistent for several years now; 4-5 die on the job every work day, and now Christmas Eve has filled its quota.

Articles will later be written saying “Here are the numbers” and editorials will later be written saying “This is too many” and columns will be written saying “This is what we should do” but it’s all spread out and disengaged from the incidents and victims, and nothing seems to stick.

“Christmas Eve fills its quota” may sound insensitive, but that’s the way it is. People die all the time on the job, but if the only ones we hear about in the media are rare and exceptional events… then it’s inevitable that the public will think that workplace fatalities, as a rule, are rare and exceptional events.

Which apparently is something we need to deal with, because workplace fatalities are much higher than they were 15 years ago. We don’t need to treat four deaths on Christmas Eve as a tragedy, and the 1,038 others as a statistic; we have unprecedented tools at our disposal for making connections – faces to statistics to solutions. We’re just not very good at using those tools and making those connections at this point, and things tend not to get done.

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