By Phil LaDuke
I hate the Darwin Awards. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the Darwin Awards are “commemorate those who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it.” Effectively people post stories about people who died doing something stupid. I admit that in the past, I have read these posts and chuckled at the stupid people who died, I’m ashamed that I once felt that way, and anyone who knows me knows that it takes a lot. The Darwin Awards are popular among safety professionals. We like to look down our noses (like I once did) and think, “well yeah, stupid people die don’t they.”
But are the people stupid? Unlucky? How are they different from the rest of us?
I find something about the ubiquitous “funny safety photos” equally loathsome, and here to I admit to having laughed at how many people took stupid risks. But think for a moment about the context in which that photo was taken. Either the photo is staged, in which case it is kind of pointless and not at all funny, or someone, perhaps a safety professional happened upon the scene and instead of immediately correcting the situation, he or she instead took a picture. In these situations seconds count. Every instant of exposure increases the probability that there will be an accident and perhaps a fatality. Let us suppose you are on a jury for this safety professional who instead of correcting the situation decided to take picture for his collection of whacky photos. How would you find on the charge of negligence or depraved indifference? I’m not judging, I’m really not; I wish I could say that I never laughed at these photos or even circulated them, but as a safety professional I had ought to know better.
Dying is Scary
“It’s the same with men as with horses and dogs, nothing wants to die”—Tom Waits
None of us likes to think about dying. Some people will wince at the merest use of the word “die”. Accidents kill people of all ages and walks of life. It comforts us to think that the people who get killed deserve it in some way; they are fundamentally different than us. They were asking for it.
People Die In the Workplace Because they are Stupid
They easiest way to differentiate between ourselves and others is to think that we are smarter than the other person, but that probably isn’t true. Joseph T. Hallinan book, Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average make a strong argument that while most people believe they are “well above average” in terms of intelligence the fact remains that most of us aren’t. We all fall pretty close to the norm.
All Because Some Idiot Got Hurt and Sued
Whenever I tell people I work in worker safety the conversation seems to invariable come around to “aren’t we going a little crazy with safety?” When I say, no, I don’t think we have gone far enough in regulating safety, people usually counter with some version of “I don’t know, have you seen all the stupid stickers and warning labels they put on something because some idiot got hurt and sued?” First of all, most warning labels aren’t the result of a lawsuit; in fact, slapping a warning label on a hazard could conceivably be seen as knowing that a hazard exists and inadequately guarding against it. In the US there has been a shift in this kind of thinking. Take for example the sign, “Beware of Dog”. There was a time when these signs were common. Now many of them were either taken down or replaced with “Dog on Premises”. What’s the difference? The first sign clearly warns of a known hazard, i.e. come near my dog and it may harm you. The second sign warns of a potential hazard, i.e. come near my dog and it may or may not harm you; it’s a dog after all. One could argue that in posting the first sign you know of a hazard but are not adequately controlling it while the second one could be argued as a simple courtesy of letting one know you have a dog and that it may lick you, get its hair all over your clothes, or hump your leg—inconvenient and unpleasant to be sure, but not life threatening.
But then I digress. As disappointing as it is for the “the world is going to Hell in a hand basket crowd” warning labels are neither products nor symbols of an over litigious society, rather it is borne of safety practitioners and product engineers doing their jobs. They do a Failure Modes Effects Analysis (FMEA) and essentially after they’ve done everything they can think of to reduce the risk of injury or misuse they slap a label on the things that they can’t. The more remote or ridiculous the danger the more likely it is to get a sticker. We Have the Right to Expect a Safe Workplace
Despite all the warnings and engineering controls, people get hurt. Not just stupid people, but capable people like most of you and I. In many cases we get hurt because we assume situations are safe when they are not. Before you cluck your tongue and say, “well I certainly don’t take anything for granted when it comes to safety” consider this. If you have ever travelled (or even left your house) you have probably done many of the following things. Stupid things when it comes right down to it. Things that seem pretty risky and even reckless when you think about it:
- Eaten a meal prepared by a stranger, using ingredients purchased by strangers, from other strangers who bought them from still other strangers, served to you on dishes washed and manufactured by strangers, using utensils washed and manufactured by strangers, in a building designed, built, and inspected by strangers.
- Ridden in an airplane designed, built, maintained, and piloted by strangers.
- Slept in a hotel bed on sheets washed by strangers.
I could go on and on but I think enough of you get the point. We don’t pull the inspection records for elevators before getting in them. We don’t demand to see the building permits and blueprints before we enter buildings. If we did these things we would look like nuts. We assume things are safe because it is someone’s job to make SURE these things are safe. Is it so wrong for people in the workplace to assume the same; that the people charged with making sure a process is safe have behaved responsibly and done their jobs?