By Phil La Duke
Note: Some of you might be wondering where I’ve been and why my blog post is late this week. In the last three weeks I have been working at break-neck speed with my clients conducting Just Culture training at a major heathcare provider (which bounced me around from John’s Hopkins (not my client for now) to greater metropolitan Los Angelos, Detroit, and Chicago. While I was able to write my blog posts, it made it tough to get them posted and promoted; sorry for that. Those of you who haven’t already done so (and are disappointed when you don’t see the latest post) really should subscribe. I don’t have any sponsors (I prefer to keep advertisers from meddling in editorial content) and I neither spam nor share subscriber information, so the only thing you risk is getting an email when there is something new on the blog.
If 16 U.S. children died at school every day there would be a revolution. People would rise in outrage, proverbial torches and pitchforks lit, nooses at the ready, tar a boil, feathers cocked and primed; someone would pay. If grizzly bears ate 16 Yellowstone Park campers every day, the call would go out to gun the furry bastards down; society would descend on the hairy marauders like PCP-crazed furies. If every day somewhere a bridge collapsed sending hapless vacationers tumbling to their death on a rocky canyon floor, there would be similar outrage. But in the time it takes me to write and post this sixteen people will have died on the job (in the U.S. alone.) and for most of us it really doesn’t make all that much of a difference. We read the account and think, “aw geez that’s a damned shame,” and maybe even whisper a prayer before we go about the business of living, stoic survivors of nature’s cruel ways.
A recent article by Dave Johnson in ISHN asked where the public outrage was regarding safety, or more accurately, the lack thereof. I’ve given the matter no small amount of thought and the conclusions I drew surprised me. I was born and raised in metro Detroit in an area both affectionately and derisively referred to as “Downriver” a stained, second-hand quilt of communities peopled by the hardened steel workers, automotive assemblers, and sundry rough and tumble brutes that feed the beast that is the automobile industry. We are the great unwashed, tough people in a tough town, where people where tee-shirts that say, “Detroit, where the weak are killed and eaten” and “welcome to Detroit, now go home”. We are the great unwashed you always hear about we’re proud of it. Don’t think you’re better than us until you can hump the line in the body shop for ten in heat that would kill a buttoned down Yuppie (yeah, we still call people that here…got a problem with that?) leaving only his uncalloused, girlie-smooth little hands in a puddle of goo on the shop floor.
People like us wear workplace injuries like badges of honor. Injuries at work are just our way of counting coup; we are the Great Plains warriors reborn, ghost dancing though the factory at time and a half. We tell war stories about the time we fell off a ladder and broke four bones or got burned down to the bone. We pour one out on the curb for our fallen comrades who we watched die fallen heroes of a war for survival. We don’t want to die, we don’t want to get hurt, but we are tough enough to take it.
A Legacy Of Death and Dismemberment
For my part, workplace injuries are my legacy. Both my grandfathers died on the job. My mother was 18 years old when she got the news. A state trooper stammered through the details of the accident that took away her father. The family mourned, of course, but not out of righteous indignation of, rather with the sort of quiet dignity one mourns the death of a soldier; a sadness tinged with a sense of pride borne of sacrifice. Details of my paternal grandfather are less clear. He was a farmer and stumbled while pushing a wheel barrel sending the handle deep into his innards. An incompetent doctor misjudged the seriousness of his injuries and the ensuing gangrene killed him. No one shut their fist at the sky and yelled “why?” after all the job that killed him had provided for a wife and eight children, his death was greeted with fatalist acceptance; is luck had run out.
Closer to me, my father died of mesothelioma after decades of breathing asbestos. He died less than a year after being diagnosed; in agony, struggling to breath but never complaining. When he finally went, he held the cold steel stare of the Angel of Death and waited until the angel blinked before passing over to the other side.
When my brother came home and told us that his best friend had been killed on the job he had helped him to get he didn’t cry. He didn’t go to pieces unable to deal with the fact that he was in a small measure responsible for the death of his friend. He didn’t play “if I could do it over again” games. He stood there and took it. That’s what we do, take it; we are life’s anvils.
For my part, I’ve lost count of the people I’ve lost. The childhood acquaintance and known associate who died after falling into a vat of acid, the co-workers electrocuted on the job, the brother-in-law who died this year after sucking poison into his lungs in a workplace that Guinness Book of World Records once proclaimed the dirtiest square mile on the planet. I couldn’t begin to count how many people I know who have lost fingers, broken bones, and shattered their bodies on the job. When you live where we live and do what we do you can judge us for our beliefs but be careful what you wish for; most of you can’t do what we do.
It’s not just Detroit: from the West Virginia coal mines to the avocado groves of California, to shrimpers in the gulf, to lumberman in Maine, we are everywhere. We would love to believe that we can have a clean, safe job that won’t kill us, but for most us that’s not real. Somewhere in the bowels of our souls we know that if we raise too much of a ruckus Wall Street will just move our jobs overseas, leaving us fighting and scrapping for jobs as bus boys and short order cooks. We would rather die making a living wage than work three shifts at crappy “service economy” jobs.
We never expected that our jobs would be easy, or safe, or clean. We watched, and continue to watch, a generation die horribly, but it’s the price we pay for a living wage. We roll the dice every day we go to work and sometimes it comes up craps; them’s the breaks and nobody mourns the man who knew the risks he took before they killed him. Casey Jones, John Henry, Big Bad John …ours is a pantheon of fallen workers who died plying their craft. Far from pity we celebrate these mythic figures; giants among men.
So where is our outrage? That’s reserved for those who are trying to take our jobs away. Whether it be a greedy human canker in the executive suite or a safety do-gooder who makes it more profitable for companies to spill the blood of third world foreigners than ours. Outrage is a luxury of the leisure class, we got work to do, even if that work will one day kill us.
Did you enjoy this? Hate it? Find it offensive or troubling? If so, I hope you will share it. The icons below will allow you to share this via Twitter, Facebook, posting it to LinkedIn Groups or individuals, and even email it to individuals. I maintain this and http://www.rockfordgreeneinternational.wordpress.com without direct compensation to promote Rockford Greene and my published work. I’d sure appreciate it if you would help to pass the word to your fellow aficionados and or detractors. Thanks in advance, Phil