An Open Letter to Safety Professionals from the 4,690 Workers Who Died on the Job in the United States in 2010

St. John’s Cemetary, New Orleans

Note: I thought long and hard about writing what you are about to read.  Whenever I have taken issue with the self-congratulatory tone and self-righteous complacency that I see dangerously prevalent among safety professionals the ensuing storm of bile and abuse heaped on me has, at times, made me consider bagging it—stopping the blog, ending the speeches, and retiring from my gigs as a safety columnist.  But after more than a decade of decline the workplace death toll in the U.S. has risen.  In 2010, while some of you were jetting off to Brazil on your citizen diplomat boon-doggle an average of 13 workers died a day.  If you get offended by the truth; stop reading.  If you do read on, save us both time and aggravation and spare me your outraged venomous hate mail, I don’t want to hear it and all it does is convince me of the veracity of my message.  What follows is perhaps my magnum opus of provocative work. I dedicate it to my father who died of me, my brother-in-law who died of lung cancer after working for decades on Zug Island, once listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the dirtiest square mile on the planet Earth, my brother who suffered permanent memory loss after an industrial accident, my many friends who died in industrial accidents but most especially to those who have  taken such extraordinary measures to try attack and insult me in an effort to silence my message.

Dear Safety Guy:

I hope you are doing well and are enjoying this lovely weather with family and friends.  I don’t want to your harsh buzz or bust up the barbecue, but I died in the workplace this week and I want you to know that I am deeply disappointed in you.  You see, I trusted you and you failed me. And not just me, 12 other guys died along side me and 13 of us died yesterday, and another 13 tomorrow, in fact, every day; day in and day out.  4,690 of us in all…wait that’s not quite right another 50,000 or so died from illnesses caused by working waste deep in poisons or breathing in chemicals that would kill us slowly, horribly.

Some of us died because we did stupid things, some of us weren’t adequately trained, some of us under estimated the dangers we faced, and some of us over estimated our skills, but none of us expected to die. None of reported for work expecting to get killed. None of our lives were any less valuable than yours and before you get all self righteous it wasn’t my job not to die, it was YOUR job to make sure my job didn’t kill me.  But I DID die, and I doubt you will ever get a verbal warning.

As I write this I can see you squirm.  Does it make you uncomfortable for me to hold you accountable? Is it unfair that I blame you for something that I did that killed me?  After all, how—you ask—can I hold you accountable for my own stupidity? You didn’t tell me to do the things that I did to day that ultimately got me killed.  But it was your job to keep me alive.  I certainly didn’t do those things that I did because I wanted more butt time (as I’ve heard you describe to your colleagues at conferences or huddled around a coffee talking about how stupid we all are).  I screwed up, and that screw up got me killed.  Everyone makes mistakes, but nobody should have to die because of a mistake made at work. I counted on you to anticipate and correct the things that would kill me before I got hurt; where were you when I died?

I really liked the safety BINGO, and I sure loved the extra money when we got as a bonus for zero injury days.  Were you too stupid to know that these things created an environment where we were essentially bribed to stay quiet about injuries? Or did you just recklessly disregard the fact that you were creating incident statistics that lulled the decision makers into a false sense of security regarding our risk level? I knew what you were doing was wrong but I wasn’t about to turn the whole company against me and speak up.  Congratulations on having such a great safety record; how does my death look on your resume?

I can only imagine how disappointed you were to learn that worker fatalities in the U.S. has spiked—I think we all figured that when we sourced all that the really dangerous work out to the Third World that we were home free.  I feel kind of bad about it now—the after life is full Third World workers who bought it because their lives were thought to be so much cheaper than mine. It turns out they weren’t that much different from me.  They had families who loved them, wives and children who counted on them. All they wanted to do was go to work, make a buck, and come home safe. They had lives snatched away from them same as me; just cause we showed up for work.

I know that as you read this you are tempted to excuse yourself and tell yourself that my death isn’t your fault.  That management put profits before safety; that the Union shut down what you wanted to do; that you can’t protect people when they won’t listen to you, and all that other crap I’ve heard you say a thousand times.  Stop feeling sorry for yourself; you aren’t the victim here.  Before you blame management… the last time I checked most of you ARE management.  The same goes for leadership—isn’t that what you are supposed to be, a leader? If a juggler can’t do his job guess what? he drops a couple of balls;  no harm, no foul.  If YOU are incompetent, people DIE; I DIED. 4,695 other people died. If you can’t hack it, get out of the game.  Stop worrying about the condition of your 401K and retire or change careers; become a florist, that way the only thing at risk of dying because of your ineptitude is a dozen carnations.

Remember how much we all enjoyed your children’s safety poster contest? Now it just seems sad.  How about all those pictures of people doing unsafe things? Remember how we’d laugh about how stupid they were? somehow it’s just not that funny anymore. Did you really think you were making a difference with that crap?

Think I’m being too hard on you? Think you deserve some credit for doing your best? Screw you, I can get a baboon in here to do its best. Your best doesn’t measure up.  Your best gets people killed.  And I don’t believe for a second that you were doing your best when I died.  It’s not like you weren’t warned.  When people posted things on blogs or magazines that were critical of your profession you chose to get indignant and hammered out a “how dare you insult the hard working men and women of the august profession of worker health and safety blah blah blah”, you remember that don’t you? It was a hell of a lot easier to write an indignant email telling your peers to tell that guy to shut up than it was to consider for one microsecond that you might have to do something different.  And now even in the face of my death you are still too arrogant to consider that there might be a better way.

Was it the culture that killed me? Did you see all the signs that we were ripe for a fatality?  Did you storm around the office saying if someone doesn’t do something that someone was going to die? Did “you tell the bastards”?  Well if you continued to take a paycheck in a hopeless environment where leaders didn’t care about the safety of the workers I decry you as a craven and fool.

I know you see yourself as under appreciated and doing a thankless job.  Well I’m dead and thanks for nothing. You aren’t a hero; you don’t even deserve a footnote in my obituary.  You get no thanks because there is nothing you’ve done that deserves the smallest modicum of gratitude.

Before you wrap yourself in the blanket of “there was no way I could have prevented his death” there are plenty of people working for change and we NEED change.  These people work against impossible odds against people just like you. You have a decision: you can either be on the side of change or be part of the forces lined up against it.  You can either save lives or save your twisted sense of self righteousness; you choose, and for the first time in your life be prepared to live with the consequences of your choices; I doubt you have that in you.So what now? My role in this argument ends at the grave.  What will you do next? Between now and Monday, 26 more workers will die in the U.S. and ten times that worldwide.  Will it just be a statistic? Will it be a shame?  What will you differently in response to my death? Do you care even a little bit? Are you more concerned about saving lives or saving your own ass?


4,695 dead workers and counting


#2010-worker-fatalities, #safety, #worker-fatalities