Complexities of Workplace Safety in the World of Sport – A Player Injury in the NFL

While having a nice Sunday of watching American football (and checking in on the first game of the World Cup of world football), I saw mentions of an incident that occurred a few weeks ago during an NFL Football game on October 17 and it didn’t strike me until now how this unfortunate safety incident perfectly demonstrates multiple aspects of workplace safety and the process/pitfalls that EHS practitioners deal with when trying to prevent worker injuries and ensure a safe working environment. Football is a sport, but that field and the surrounding stadium is a workplace for professional athletes.

I admit I have not read any of the legal filings and do not have first-hand knowledge outside of what was shown on TV and in the subsequent news articles; but information posted by CBS Colorado and sports outlets like ESPN indicate that an NFL Football player for the Denver Broncos, Aaron Patrick, was injured on a play during the October 17th game against the San Diego Chargers. He was attempting to make a tackle near the sideline and momentum carried him out of bounds – towards a group of TV reporters and cameramen. His foot got caught in a mat placed over the numerous cords and cables for the TV and camera equipment, causing him to land awkwardly and tear his ACL. This is a season-ending knee injury and requires surgery and extensive rehabilitation to get back into condition to play football again. Mr. Patrick is suing multiple entities including the NFL league, the owners of the stadium, and the TV broadcasting organization whose cameras may have been the ones involved in the incident.

I will not get into the legal, medical, or commercial situations here. I want to talk about a workplace safety incident [tackle out of bounds] resulting in a serious recordable injury [ACL tear], with multiple causal factors, one of which is actually a control for another safety risk [mat covering the cords].

Lets break that down further. A televised NFL game has a very significant amount of people, equipment, and movement in close proximity to all four boundaries of the field of play. This is not something easily seen on TV to casual viewers, but it becomes very apparent when you see a game live from the stands, as I had the opportunity to just last week in Philadelphia. Hazards and risks are everywhere on the sidelines, and not just for players; sometimes a player may come out of bounds uncontrollably and hit a coach or other staff. This is not unlike the production areas in a manufacturing plant; energized equipment, moving vehicles, chemicals, illness, noise, security risks, etc are all things that EHS professionals monitor and manage. Standards such as ISO 45001, management systems, and specific safety regulations all help to generate best practices in dealing with these workplace hazards.

Cords and cables on the ground are an obvious tripping hazard in any workplace that also creates a risk of damage to the equipment itself. It makes perfect sense to cover these up in areas where there is traffic and that is probably what happened here. A control was put in place to reduce the risk of injury due to tripping. That mat was the control. Whether risks posed by the mat were assessed is not known. Regardless, they caused an injury. It should be stated that all entities involved here such as the NFL and the teams obviously have player safety as a primary focus. As with most serious incidents, multiple factors and multiple failures converged in an unfortunate manner to break through all controls and create a problem.

You can bet that lessons learned come from this incident and corrective action will be taken such as using a different type of mat or positioning the equipment farther away from the sideline. Investigation and root-cause analysis to the degree necessary will be conducted, which is par for an incident resulting in an actual injury. Less severe events such as a “near miss” where no one was hurt or no damage was done may require less rigorous analysis efforts.

Incident investigation may also uncover some relevance to another safety process we call management of change, or lack thereof. Was the placement of a mat over the cords a standard procedure, or did someone make an unauthorized change and place a mat there? Was the correct type of mat used, or did someone make an unauthorized change and use something that was not fit for purpose? The news articles do mention that the type or quality of mats used may be part of the litigation. Were the cameras and staff in the correct position, or did someone make an unauthorized decision to move them all closer to the field to get a better shot? EHS professionals in all parts of the world in all industries have to address a similar line of questions albeit in different context.

This player injury during an NFL Football game illustrates the potential complexities that arise when trying to ensure a safe workplace and why it is so important to drive safety programs that are comprehensive and utilize systems that integrate safety with maintenance processes, HR, and operations to make sure important insight is not held within a silo and the right people get the information and act on it to prevent incidents and reduce risk.