Dying To Make a Living


Sarah Burke (Riccardo S Savi/Getty Images)

The sports world is reeling from the news of the death of Canadian skier Sarah Burke who died nine days after crashing during training t the bottom of the superpipe at the Park City Mountain resort in Utah. In this case, like so many others, many of on some level don’t see this as a workplace safety issue, and while acknowledging the tragedy openly question if the assumption of risk somehow eases the loss somehow. It’s odd how we can compartmentalize our thinking on worker safety. Sarah Burke died at work, just as surely as the tradesman who didn’t lock out, the construction worker who fell to his death, or the warehouse worker who is killed by falling stock. That Sarah Burke was working when she died is of little doubt, but should we have a different standard for professional athletes, and if we do, where is the line between workers who have a reasonable expectation to come home safe and those that we as a society decide have an assumption of risk to the degree that their deaths should not come as any big shock.

Certainly we expect football (both U.S. and the rest of the world) rugby, and hockey players to get injured. We deride some as “injury-prone” and others as wimps despite the shear physical nature of having 250 pounds of muscle blindsiding an unsuspecting player as it slams into him from behind. We expect and plan for injuries and meet career ending injuries with a sort of distracted indifference.

Fatalities are different. Sports fatalities stop and make us think. Not enough to do anything about it though. When Dale Earnhardt died at Daytona few, if any called for an end to the sport, and sport fans often complain when safety measures aimed at reducing fatalities are implemented. Fans love the fact that sports figures risk death every day; they celebrate sports figures as heroes. There is a certain absurdity in calling for safety measures for people, by nature of their chosen profession, risk death every day.

People may be outraged at the cruelty of bullfighting, but I’ve never heard of anyone demanding better protective equipment for matadors (toreadors either for that matter). Somewhere deep in the human psyche there is a bloodthirstiness that makes us believe that some people deserve to get hurt because they choose a high risk career. They deserve to die because they were stupid enough to take the job. There is a prurient fascination with deadly jobs and the people who willingly do them.

A quick scan of the cable television listings reveals a cottage industry of shows that celebrate jobs so dangerous that only the foolhardy and the brave would ever do them. Dirtiest Jobs, Ice Road Truckers, Deadliest Catch and scores more are testament to our fascination with jobs that are more likely to get you killed than pay a pension. Even if we don’t actively root for these people to die we are titillated and absorbed by the possibility that the workers will be injured or even die. Is our fascination with, and acceptance of, intrinsically dangerous jobs so wrong? What of the idiom, “it’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it?” It’s not like we watching gladiators hack each other to pieces in an arena after all.

But there is something wrong here. Why are we so disconnected with the misery of the people who risk death for our entertainment? Few of the people we watch on these programs were born with a silver spoon in their mouths and were it not for the artificially high paychecks (in some cases) few would take the risk associated with the jobs they do. And, and apart from a handful of athletes, few of these people retire in what most would describe as luxury, despite the higher wages.

The most deadly jobs still go uncelebrated. The profession with the most fatalities doesn’t have its own cheaply produced reality television show. Sales people routinely die on the job at a disproportionate rate, and most years the profession produces more fatalities than the second place contenders. Most of these deaths are in auto accidents, and as much as safety professionals have tried to reduce traffic fatalities of their workers none has figured out a good way to protect sales professionals from a sea of other drivers who are texting, programming GPS systems, reading and sending emails, and talking on the phone.

Employers ask too much of today’s sales professional and it is literally killing them. The ubiquitous nature of smart devices have created a sense of universal contact and the expectation that even the most banal email will elicit an immediate response. We can’t even allow a salesperson time to think in the car; we are paying them and expect them to earn their keep, even while driving.

Here is all that remains of the three vehicles involved in an accident on that fateful road.

Several years ago I was hired to implement a worker safety process for a manufacturer in a fairly remote part of Mexico. I traveled to this area 15 times in just over a year. I flew into Monterey, and traversed the most dangerous road in the world as I made my way up the mountain to Saltillo. (The road was rife with banditos, guerillas, treacherous curves and turns through rockslide areas, and hazards upon hazards). Once in town I still had plenty of treacherous travel to reach my workplace. Traffic in town was madness and the plant where I was employed was about 45 minutes out of town in a high mountain dessert. The last 30 minutes or so I was completely of the grid and any breakdown or accident would likely be fatal. Avoiding death was a full time job. When, at the end of my workday, I would reenter the grid, my phone would convulse in a flurry of buzzes, bells and alarms. I would have scores of emails, voicemails and text messages a 30-minute drive through murderous traffic and bosses and customers who wanted immediate responses. Stopping along side of the road was potentially fatal so I worked from the car. Was doing so stupid? (reading and answering a text in that environment goes beyond stupid or reckless) you bet and I did my best to resist the temptation. I usually spent a good hour at the hotel responding to trivial crap that never would have entered my life before a person was required to type up a memo and circulate it via inter company mail. So why did I risk my life for one week a month for 15 months? It was my job, and somebody had to do it. I just found out that the plant at which I worked just put on a third shift and is continuing the work in safety that I helped them build. Was it worth risking my life? Given that I was summarily dismissed by the greedy, pig-eyed jackals that made the real money of the sweat of my back, probably not. But considering the great work I was able to do there and the many injuries I prevented and lives I perhaps saved, it just might have been. So before you send out that email demanding someone’s immediate attention, think. Maybe what your asking can wait a day or so, and just maybe it’s not a life and death matter after all.


#bloodthirstiness-dirtiest-jobs, #bullfighting, #dale-earnhardt, #daytona, #deadliest-catch, #ice-road-truckers, #most-deadly-jobs, #phil-la-duke, #phil-laduke, #philip-la-duke, #philip-laduke, #rockford-greene-international, #safety, #sarah-burke, #superpipe, #texting, #texting-while-driving, #traffic-fatalities, #worker-safety, #workplace-fatalities

Standing Up for Safety

Four Burros in the Back of a Pick Up Truck

According to researcher, Benjamin Skinner in an interview with, Terrence McNally host of Free Forum on KPFK 90.7FM, Los Angeles and WBA I99.5FM, New York there are more slaves today then every before in human history.  Skinner spent four years undercover in the world of illegal slavery researching his book: A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face with Modern-Day Slavery.

Modern day slavery is more than a social ill, it’s an epidemic that should scare safety professionals. Experts estimate that before the global recession that there were 27 million people. Author, Kevin Bales’s, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy defines slaves as “those forced to work, held through fraud, under threat of violence, for no pay beyond subsistence.”

It may seem like a leap to equate issues in safety with human trafficking, but I am not being melodramatic.  Workers in highly industrialized countries have long felt the pressure from employers who threaten to move jobs overseas if the workers do not comply with demands for cheaper labor.  Little by little corporations have chipped away at worker safety by creating a climate of fear.

In some cases companies are more overt, they shut down operations in the U.S., Europe, or Australia and move production to countries that either turn a blind eye toward safety and environmental violations or lack even the most basic worker and environmental protections.  In other cases, companies move jobs to overseas suppliers who have criminal safety records.

The post recession world is even uglier.  Politicians increasingly describe safety regulations as “job killing” or some other euphemism for a threat to job security.  Workers are increasingly told that they can either have a job or they can work safely, but they can’t have both. How different is that from slavery? Quite a bit, actually,  I won’t cheapen the atrocity that is slavery by equating it to corporate bullies who continue to chip away at worker and environmental protection by telling us to toughen up. But I will say that it is on the same continuum and part of the overall trend toward diminishing the importance of workplace safety.

Even in the most mature industrial countries the law encourages us to shift blame to the workers or other companies. Government regulations encourage us I have worked with several companies who have had worker fatalities that “didn’t count” because the workers were contractors and therefore, “not our recordable”.  When did human life get so cheap that we as safety professionals started to see the loss of life as somehow less horrific because the worker—a person who we saw day in and day out, swapped stories over coffee, and save for some legal designation, was our coworker in all the ways that count—wasn’t on our payroll?

It’s easy to blame governments, after all they are the ones who made the laws and fail to enforce them, but realistically, how can governments regulate a moving target?  Furthermore governments lack the resources to be fully effective; they simply can’t be everywhere so they tend to respond only complaints and complaints aren’t coming from the worst offenders. Off course, governments have allowed assaults on worker safety to effectively go unanswered. In the rush to compete one municipality sells out the community and workers just to lure business in only to have it leave for a better deal.

It’s even easier to blame corporations; the nameless, faceless evil empires that we all love to hate.  Mitt Romney drew criticisms for his political faux pas of saying that corporations are people too.  A dumb thing to say, granted, but was he that far off? I own shares of a mutual fund that own stock in corporations. I don’t even no what stocks I indirectly own let alone their safety or human rights records, and forget the supply chain they could be butchering people and I would never know. I’m not proud of it, but for all I know I could own stock in a company that uses slave labor. Corporations will argue, rightfully, that they have a responsibility to there shareholders to make as much money as they are able.  Many will argue that they don’t or can’t know the particulars of each of their suppliers in a multi-tiered supply chain.

Safety professionals bear no small amount of accountability for the problem.  The “my hands are tied because…” spiel is getting old. We prorogate ineffectual, complex, and cutesy safety fads, and whine when we aren’t taken seriously.

If you think this is a third world problem, think again. Witness the North Carolina pork processing plant that preyed on immigrants (complaints about working conditions were met with threats of visits from the department of Immigration Naturalization Services (INS).  The plant didn’t get more than regional attention even after it illegally confined a worker in an in-plant jail cell (the company alleged that the woman was suspected of stealing pork). The company was fined. An attempt to organize the plant failed, and things presumably went back to the way they had been.  Slavery? no, but how far from it? And this is not happening in some third-world back alley it’s happening here; we own this.

As long as we continue to allow companies to shop for areas of the world that will allow them to use up workers and throw them away afterwards this issue will not go away; in fact it will grow and eventually it will grow so big that companies won’t need safety professionals. I’ve sounded the alarm before.  Safety professionals need to be on the forefront of this issue—slaves or human chattel—do we really need another Triangle Shirtwaist Fire to pull us back into the game?

#human-trafficking, #phil-la-duke, #phil-laduke, #philip-la-duke, #philip-laduke, #rockford-greene-international, #safety, #slavery, #worker-safety

Stop Me Before I Blog Again (2011 in review)

WordPress provides a pretty slick report that summarizes a blogger’s activity for the year, and I just figured out how to publish it.  I found it pretty interesting and thought I would share it.  But I also wanted to take a moment and acknowledge each of you and your role in my success (I won’t mention those of you who impede my success and are generally an anchor around the neck of my career; you know who you are.  All I will say is keep it up and see what that buys you.

Beyond the Blog

2011 began with me starting a major, long-term engagement with one of the world’s largest healthcare systems AND  kicking off  a project where, through Rockford Greene International, I ran the safety department for a small and struggling Tier-One automobile parts supplier. While I mentioned neither in my blogs (Rockford Greene International closely guards its client list to abet the guilty) both greatly shaped the content of my blogs, articles, and deranged emails to sundry politicos.  I also was engaged by a European luxury automobile manufacturing to do some executive coaching and process redesign, also through a Rockford Greene customer.

The bulk of my time,  however, was spent writing.  I had around 15 or 16 peer-reviewed articles published, wrote weekly (and sometimes weakly) posts to both www.philladuke.wordpress.com and www.rockfordgreeneinternational.wordpress.com all and all I produced somewhere in the neighborhood of 125,000 words in print last year; much of it right here.

This blog (and the Rockford Greene blog) continues to be shared by the ESHQ Elite managers once a quarter which drew many of you to the site.  For those of you who aren’t members of the LinkedIn group I would recommend you consider joining it; it is a terrific community. By mid summer, the blog had really taken off and now draws a steady audience (so much so that I sweat the Sunday deadline).

I spoke at the Michigan Safety Conference in Lansing, MI, in April and at the National Safety Council in October.  I submitted 2 abstracts for the ASSE show in June (which I covered as a reporter for Facility Safety Management magazine) but had both turned down.  That really irritated me, because two members of the selection committee specifically asked me to submit those.  After that experience and getting both abstracts rejected for this year, I have decided that ASSE doesn’t deserve me as a speaker, and I will not be speaking there again anytime in the foreseeable future. Unless they pay.  Most of other speeches I made to private companies who pay me to address their national or international safety meetings.  I am in the process of filling out speaking abstracts for conferences in Europe and at the National Safety Council, so if you are interested in hearing me speak, watch these pages.

I completed my certification in Just Culture, which amuses me since I have 5 works on the subject already published, but it was something a client required and what am I if not a sport.

In October, ISHN leaked a list of the Power 101, its list of the most powerful and influential people working in Safety today.  They quickly realized their error and pulled the list.  (It has since been republished and yes I am still on it.) I was interviewed by S+H Magazine, but that didn’t see print until 2012 so I don’t know if it is worth mentioning.

This year I am hoping to publish my first book, Selling Safety In Tough Times.  I have a proposal, but haven’t started looking for a publisher.  If anyone out there knows of a good literary agent, send them my way. I also have a submission (a late one—didn’t see the call for papers until the day it was due) for an OSHA journal.

I am hoping to get more speaking engagements and, of course, consulting gigs.  Will work for money.

But anyway, again thank you for your readership, your rancor, your interest and your community.




The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,200 times in 2011. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.


#fabricating-metalworking, #ishn, #phil-la-duke, #phil-laduke, #philip-la-duke, #philip-laduke, #rockford-greene-international, #wordpress

What Can Traffic Fatalities Teach Us About Worker Safety?

Last week in metropolitan Detroit two stranded drivers were killed in two separate and unrelated incidents. Both cases can teach us much about worker safety, and indeed the nature of safety in general. In the first incident, an experienced fire-fighter was struck and killed as he changed a tire on a busy interstate highway during rush hour in the pre-dawn hours of a bleak Michigan winter day. A day later, another man was killed after he was stranded because his automobile was disabled. The two stories are important illustrations that some of our most cherished truisms in safety are bunk.

Let’s take a look at the facts of the first incident. A man decides to change a tire in the dark. As he gets out of the car to assess the situation maybe he notices that he is closer to traffic than he would like, maybe he doesn’t. In either case, he decides against repositioning the care. Not far away, another driver heads to work, she left a bit early and isn’t in a particular hurry so she decides to stay in the right hand lane. While the day is dark, unseasonably warm weather has made driving conditions unusually good—no ice, good visibility, she is paying attention, well as much as one can when one makes the routine daily commute. She’s careful by nature, she makes it a point not to text or talk on the phone while driving. She isn’t going particularly fast, but she is keeping up with traffic, like most drivers she drifts a bit in the lane, but she’s not swerving. Back at our first driver, he’s ticked off, this isn’t the way he wanted to start his day, and the tire isn’t just flat, it’s ruined. He hadn’t planned on the $150 or so expense of replacing a tire, especially with the holiday bills coming in. He didn’t need this and he’s getting more and more ticked off. A car whizzes by and his heart quickens, “that was close” he thinks, and he realizes that he’s in trouble, but the car is up on the jack and there is scarce little time to move the car, besides that would take more time. As the second driver negotiates the heavy traffic she notices too late the man crouched in her lane. A moment later the man lay dead run over by three motorists.

Less than 24 hours later, on a different patch of the same freeway, a small business owner’s car gives out and strands him, he struggles to get it off the road, he puts on the flashers, and mindful of yesterday’s tragedy makes sure the car is well out of traffic and completely on the shoulder. It’s 4:00 a.m.; he picks up his cell phone; “damn, it’s dead”. “Looks like there’s no choice but to walk to the nearest gas station and get help” he thinks. Reluctantly he gets out and starts walking to the closest exit. Meanwhile a postal truck swerves to miss one of Michigan’s ubiquitous potholes and strikes the pedestrian, killing him instantly. Are these so different from workplace fatalities? I don’t think so. In fact, I think there are some important lessons that challenge conventional thinking regarding workplace injuries.

Lesson 1: Many injuries, if not most, are a collection of hazards that only cause injuries when there is a catalyst. I call it Hazard Stack, and explore this idea a bit more in this week’s www.rockfordgreeneinternational.wordpress.com post.

Think of all the elements, that had to be present for the firefighter to be killed. He had to be too close to the road, traffic had to be heavy, a driver had to fail to notice that he was in harms way, and more. None of these elements alone caused his death, and the elements collectively did not cause his death, until there was some catalyst. Sadly we will likely never know what the catalyst was that caused this accident.

Lesson 2: Reminding People to Act More Safely is Ineffective in Keeping People Safe. The first case shut down traffic for 3 hours or more, in fact, all of northwest metro Detroit was disrupted. This was big news and was at the forefront of drivers’ minds for weeks. Despite this chilling reminder, an almost identical incident happened in less than 24 hours. I would be stunned to learn that either driver in the second incident hadn’t heard about the first incident, and yet this heightened awareness failed to prevent the second incident. Similarly, it is unlikely that warning signs or some sort of reward for not walking on the shoulder of a busy interstate highway would be effective.

Lesson 3: The Human Drive Toward Expediency Trumps The Need to Act Safely. Too often we see workplace fatalities that would have been prevented had the individual spent a little more time or suffered a small bit of inconvenience. But we need to understand that humans are hardwired to take risks—hell, getting out of bed in the morning carries with it at least some risk. But the need for expediency, to accomplish a task as simply, quickly, and easily is far stronger than our drive for self-preservation, at least to a point that is. Too often workplaces are configured so workers are forced to choose between expediency and safety. While employers generally want people to work safely, many times the message—produce efficiently and quickly—over shadows the message to work safe. Sometimes it may seem that employers encourage at risk behavior, but in general, employers do not want employees taking reckless chances. But we do take chances nonetheless. It real terms we don’t care what our employers are telling us to do, we want to get the job done as efficiently and expeditiously as possible.

Lesson 4: It’s Easy to Get So Absorbed In The Moment That We Lose Sight of the Big Picture. Consider our cast of characters, the Fireman, the Driver who struck him, the Postal Worker, and the Business Owner. All components of a large and complex system we call traffic. Each one is fairly absorbed in situation at hand, and the specific tasks associated with their activities (changing a tire, walking for help, driving to work, and driving as part of the normal workday.) Because each was so absorbed in each one’s individual task each has lost sight of the global process. Here again, this illustrates the lack of effectiveness of reminding people to work safely. It’s fair to say that none our cast believed that they were acting in a way that would result in a fatality, because if they had such awareness, one would expect them to have taken measures to change the environment. Walk on the grass along side the shoulder, reposition the car before attempting to change a tire, or move from the right lane to the center. We can’t be sure that all four didn’t see the situation as life threatening and decided to recklessly endanger themselves or others, but we can’t default to that thinking either. Safety is about managing both the big picture and the details.

Lesson 5: Accidents Happen More Frequently As The Risk Threshold Is Approached. Safety isn’t about not getting injured. Many people behave unsafely every day and aren’t injured, nor do they cause others to be injured; they’re lucky. Safety is about the probability that someone will be injured. As hazards become more numerous the risk rises until the probability that someone will be injured is all but certain, Because this is probability and not cause and effect, no work environment can ever be pronounced completely and irrefutably safe.

Lesson 6: While Training Is Important, Merely Knowing the Risk is Insufficient For Keeping People Safe. I have a lot of respect for firefighters and I use them as examples of how more people should work safely. For examples I have trained nurses who will complain that they often have to engage in high-risk activities because a patient’s life is at stake. I tell them how glad I am that firefighters don’t act that way. I point out that firefighters don’t rush into burning buildings to safe a person without first donning their protective equipment. It’s not because firefighters care less about saving people than nurses do, it’s because firefighters understand that dead firefighters can’t safe people. I am sure that the unfortunate firefighter who died that fateful day had far more safety training and awareness than the average motorist. This training and awareness did not save his life, however. I’m not arguing against training and awareness, but let’s not bank on these things alone saving lives in the workplace. Accidental fatalities are tragic whether they happen on the highway or in the workplace.

As I think about these most recent tragedies I am reminded of how similar they probably are to the kinds of injuries that happen in the workplace. Let’s learn from these cases and try to ensure that we apply these lessons in the workplace.

#behaviour-based-safety, #geometric-design-and-tolerancing, #hazard-management, #hazard-stacking, #just-culture, #loss-prevention, #phil-la-duke, #phil-laduke, #philip-la-duke, #philip-laduke, #process-safety, #risk, #risk-management, #rockford-greene-international, #safety, #what-can-highway-fatalities-teach-us-about-worker-safety, #worker-safety

It Aint Easy Being a Blogger

There was an announcement that went out that gave a corrupted link (damn technology to hell) for the Rockford Greene International blog.  It is http://wp.me/p10ADX-a2

Just discovering Phil La Duke’s Blog?

Happy New Year! Welcome to my blog.  I hope if you don’t enjoy it that it will at least get you thinking and talking about the top trends of worker safety.

I’d very much encourage you to subscribe to this blog and www.rockfordgreeneinternational.wordpress.com or RockfordGreeneI or Philladuke on Twitter.  Why? Well… I do my best to post each week Sunday at noon for this blog and Sunday at 12:01 a.m. for Rockford Greene.  But it doesn’t always work that way.

Subscribing, or following my Twitter feeds allows you to get immediate notification of my posts so you don’t come to the site expecting new content and finding only disappointment instead.  I don’t send spam or junk emails out to subscribers so you won’t get a lot of superfluous crap.

As always thanks for reading and stay safe.