Could your company manage an embarrassing workplace injury?

Every man is aware of his penis and scrotum from a very early age. Male genitals do not feature often in discussions about occupational health and safety (OHS) but there was a workplace incident in the United States around 1970 that gained considerable attention but not really from the OHS perspective.  I have always thought this incident would be a useful case study for discussing how this scenario would be managed today.

In 1991 the journal “Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality” Dr William A Morton Jr. wrote of an unusual medical case.  Basic a worker ripped open his scrotum while using a conveyor belt to masturbate.  He was so embarrassed about the incident, he stapled his scrotum back together and told no one of the incident.  I encourage readers to go to the full article at Snopes.com (some may find the details confronting), where Snopes verified the truth of the story, but the industrial crux of the incident is:

“Finding himself alone, he had begun the regular practice of masturbating by holding his penis against the canvas drive-belt of a large floor-based piece of running machinery. One day, as he approached orgasm, he lost his concentration and leaned too close to the belt. When his scrotum suddenly became caught between the pulley-wheel and the drive-belt, he was thrown into the air and landed a few feet away.”

So how could this incident have been prevented from an OHS perspective?  The most obvious is that conveyor belts and particularly their nip points are required to have guards fitted so that physical contact cannot be made.  In the past that may have been the extent of the OHS consideration but other details in the story lead to other options such as enforcing meal breaks, or shutting down machinery when not in use.

There are many elements to this type of incident that we could assume but I will focus on a couple.  How would you address the issue of a worker masturbating at work?  It is unlikely that it would come to the attention of the OHS people unless a physical injury occurred.  Would the increased attention to psychological issues in the workplace affect the discussions of the incident?  Is masturbation at work a psychological issue?  Would a workers’ compensation claim for such an injury be accepted?

The issue encourages discussion about what is and what is not acceptable, or tolerated, behaviour at work.  Sex during work activities became a popular topic in Australia some years ago when a women put in a workers’ compensation claim after being injured during sex while staying overnight in a hotel for work purpose.  Then there was a lot of discussion about whether the women was at work or not at work (the issue went to the High Court), but the incident, and the related claim, gained considerable media attention.

Any case study discussion could also extend to those who perform sex acts as part of their work.  Do sex workers claim workers compensation?  What type of injuries occur?  As I have consulted in the licenced brothel industry on OHS matters in the past, I can provide some information.  Yes workers compensation claims have been lodged and succeed for injuries related to sex work.  The injuries usually do not involve clients.  When one thinks about the work activity, one realises that clients are there to f*** not fight, and although many would consider this type of work unsavoury it is not inherently unsafe.  Of course, those sex workers outside of licenced brothels face different risks.

But this article is less about the incidents than how one would manage these incidents.  If insidious behaviour, such as sexual harassment, is as under-reported as recent data shows, what hope would there be for an injury involving genitals or other possibly embarrassing incident?  Our safety management systems and organisational cultures need to be at a level where workers would be prepared to report such incidents knowing that any follow-up would be undertaken seriously and afford them the dignity of any other injured or ill worker.

Having one’s scrotum ripped open while masturbating on a conveyor belt sounds ludicrous and, to many, funny, but this incident, and other embarrassing incidents, do occur.  Could your OHS and HR management systems manage such an event?

Kevin Jones

Categories culture, ethics, health, OHS, risk, safety, sex, workplace

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