By Phil LaDuke
I have more than a couple of people question my motives in writing about safety. I have had more than a few criticize me for not being more polite, professional, or whatever euphemism for telling people what they want to hear you care to put to it. Despite having worked as a teamster delivering parcels, and an autoworker; building 1700 seats a day on a back-breaking assembly line, day-in-and day out working in demolition, tearing out stores in malls so another soulless retail outlet could try its luck in that space and having spent the past15 years consulting on safety in companies big and small that I don’t have standing to speak, that I am just some safety journalist, some academic, or some theorist who doesn’t know how the “real world works”. Many agree with what I have to say; just as many do not. That’s okay, it’s a free world. I scare a lot of people and scared people try to get other people not to listen. But safety isn’t just some academic exercise, some abstract that we can argue over brandies. Safety is personal. Workplace injuries or occupational illnesses have killed my father, both grandfather, my brother-in-law, a great uncle, my brother’s best friend, and many co-workers and acquaintances. I carry that with me every day. And yesterday the workplace claimed another one.
Yesterday I learned that another person close to me died as a result of injuries/illness inflicted upon him. My ex-father-in-law was found dead at his home; he was a month past his 69th birthday. Despite my acrimonious divorce from his daughter and bitter custody battle over his granddaughter, “Red” was always decent and even a friend to me. It’s not clear what killed Red. He had been on permanent disability for over 20 years. For the last 26 years we shared a bond deeper than marriage, the love of his two granddaughters.
Red was a boiler maker and as such worked around asbestos much of his career, and while that may well be what killed him that is only part of the story. 20 or so years ago read was working at a construction site when a supervisor dropped something (the details were always sketchy and my memory isn’t what it was, so I trust you will cut me just a bit of slack on the details) some said a tool, some said an angle iron, but what all agree on was that what was dropped was heavy and struck him with enough force to shatter on vertebrae and drive a second into a third. The doctors who examined him painted a bleak picture. If they did nothing he would soon die. If they did operate he would be in a body cast for a year after which he would probably never walk again. Red wasn’t one to take bad news lightly and when his buddy suggested he see a doctor who was experimenting with spinal surgery using cow bones, he quickly investigated. This doctor told him that if the surgery was successful he would be able to walk and live a fairly normal life, although he would have limitations. When the doctor told him that he would never be able to lift more than 50lbs, Red was characteristically nonplussed, “No lifting anything heavier than 50lbs? Doc, how am I supposed to take a piss?” That was who Red was.
The cow bone surgery was successful, but it left Red in excruciating pain that came and went, worsening over time. It wasn’t long before Red was hooked on painkillers, his physical limitations grew more and more debilitating and the pain more and more difficult to control; the life that Red once enjoyed essentially ended the day of his injury.
To all you BBS zealots out there: Red did nothing wrong. There wasn’t supposed to be anyone working above him and he was wearing the appropriate PPE (as determined by the company’s PPE risk assessment) the worker who dropped the object that would forever alter the course of Red’s life was, in fact, the site supervisor who was neither qualified nor allowed by the Union contract to be doing the work. So what good would it have done to have one of Red’s peers watch him work and provide feedback on his performance? None that’s what. And I can already see some of you smug bastards smiling that “aha, gotcha!” smile as they are about to say, “yes but supervisor behavior is still behavior” So what? If we only focus on the behaviors of the individuals and we ignore the larger context than it doesn’t matter whose behavior set things in motion. It becomes an intellectual exercise.
Red’s life went from bad to worse. His lawsuit against the parties involved went from a slam-dunk big money pay out to a far more modest settlement that was less than he would have earned in two years on the job. You see the site was a municipal project, funded by the government; one by one the plaintiffs were let off the hook. Payouts from Worker’s Compensation and medical social security (coupled with poor decisions and greedy third parties quick to step in and victimize a man with a lot ready cash that sapped Red of his settlement). Red lost his house and his life savings quickly dwindled. In the end his family is struggling to scrape together the $1500 for a basic cremation. There will be no fancy casket, no funeral procession, no memorial service; there just isn’t money.
Two years ago, Red was diagnosed with both lung cancer AND mesothelioma he declined treatment and was told that he had only months to live. And yet he did live, such as lying in bed whacked out of one’s head on pain medication can be described as living.
Red’s case is sad, of course, but the ramifications of his injuries go far deeper. His injury played a role in the deterioration and ultimate end of my marriage. It led to drug abuse not just by him but others around him. It created an epicenter of misery that sucked in so many people.
Red died on the job. Oh sure, he didn’t usher forth the death rattle on the dirty boards of a construction site, but his was a workplace fatality nonetheless. And all the arguing and squabbling between safety snake oil salesmen and safety theorists and those who would sell you this system or that failed Red, they failed my daughters, they failed all those who loved him; they failed me.
Just what any of us are supposed to do with this I’m not sure. It’s got me ready to quit safety. At the end of the day I’m just another guy who preaches safety to people who care more about arguing than they do about saving a single life. I’m tired of watching people die why smug safety practitioners’ brag about how injuries are down and fatalities are flat. I’m tired of the the inane arguments about safety versus system, and all the blah blah nonsense that passes for intellectual discourse in our field. But mostly I’m tired of grieving for people who did nothing more than go to work, a decision that ended up killing them.
The day after tomorrow I will take the podium at the National Safety Council, perhaps for the last time. For all the writing (published and blogs) I’ve done and all the speeches I’ve made I don’t seem to have made any difference, I don’t seem to have changed a single mind. I’ve stirred the pot but all the while knowing that eventually the pot will just settle back into its old pattern.
Footnote: There was a memorial service for Red last Friday. The remnants of his shattered family gathered for one last bewildered goodbye. I talked to his brother who told me that he too was forced to leave the boilermakers after 36 years. “I loved my job for 32 of the 36 years I worked it” he told me, and then while looking away he added, almost shamefully “until I hurt my back and after three years I just couldn’t do it anymore.” We also talked about his other brother who preceded Red in death by a couple of years; he died of lung cancer. Job related? At this point, who cares?