Yesterday I got another poison pen letter (as seen above) from an article I posted on my atavistic webpage Workersafetynet. The article in question proffered a simple idea, that when it comes to safety, nobody, myself included, has all the answers. The points I was trying to make was that because nobody has all the answers we have to keep looking and challenging the status quo. This sentiment should surprise no one; in one form or another I’ve been saying this for over 20 years. But this particular dullard did what most mouth breathers do, that is, attack me because my blogs are full of opinions and lack research studies and academic sources. He went on to speak for all safety professionals by telling me that he doubts that anyone likes or respects me, apparently in the ardent hope that such a revelation would trouble me deeply. Feel free to use the link to drop him a line, or better yet his boss, I’m sure he be delighted to hear from you.
In another, unrelated event a LinkedIN group member took me to task about my post on worker fatalities, but more specifically how I disrespected him. It got me thinking about respect and it’s role in safety. In both cases the individuals came at me disrespectfully and in both cases I lit them up. I was raised that you get respect by showing respect. More accurately I was raised that a lack of respect got you beaten within an inch of your life, unless you beat the other person senseless first. No I didn’t grow up on the mean streets of Detroit, at least not until I was a teen, but long before that I lived on a farm that was slowly decaying under the steady encroachment of “city folks” who fled the suburbs for the bucolic life of farm country where they immediately built ridiculous facades of what they imagined farm houses looked like, respite with barn-shaped mailboxes and flower beds decorated with half buried wagon wheels and worked to enact local ordinances to effectively turn their new homes into what they were just so desperate to flee. Because we were out in the sticks there wasn’t much supervision and fights were common. My mother was a housewife long before “stay at home moms” were chic and had little patience for playing referee to her seven children. We had two standing rules: don’t come home crying and tattling (snitches end up in ditches as my younger brother likes to say) and you don’t start fights but you damned well better finish them.
Since the nearest neighbor with kids was a family of my distant cousins who had nine kids, of which seven were boys, fighting was a fairly regular occurrence. When I say fighting I am not talking about shoving matches, rather a literal knockdown drag out fight that weren’t over until the victor tired of inflicting pain and injury. We were tiny brutes (and I was one of the smallest); vicious and sadistic primates punching and biting our way to our appropriate station within the troop. I was knocked unconscious when I was hit in the head with a baseball bat on two separate occasions and my two front teeth were shattered in the aftermath of a fight with another cousin. I was a little guy with a big mouth and low flashpoint; fighting was never something I enjoyed, but I disliked it less than being pushed around or bullied. This went on until high school where I was faced entering an environment where I knew I just couldn’t compete physically and trying was likely to bust me up good. So I decided I would be funny. I always thought I had a quick wit and lively sense of humor, but then who doesn’t? I set out to be able to talk my way out of the most tense situations and quickly transferred to a co-ed school where my odds of survival would be significantly increased. I learned to respect people who earned it. I learned that what makes you tough isn’t how much you can dish out but how much you can take without going down; to keep throwing punches for as long as you can push through the burning of your biceps and stand the taste of blood in your mouth. At around age 17 I got into a fight where I pummeled a rival who was much larger than me. They filed charges but nothing stuck, but it was enough for me to realize physical violence was no longer be dismissed as “boys will be boys” shenanigans; if I kept it up I would end up in prison. What does all of this have to do with safety? Not much, it’s just a glimpse into how I became who I became. The idea that one has to give respect to get respect was literally beat into me, and that lesson has stayed with me and has, I believe, a profound opportunity for us to apply this to worker safety.
Safety practitioners tend toward the Rodney Dangerfields of the work world; bemoaning the lack of respect workers and leaders show them. Now some of you just took offense to that. You will send me whiny comments to the effect that “ not all safety people are like that”. I didn’t say all or even most safety professionals, but I know a lot of us have felt disrespected at one time or another. Earning the respect of the organization is essential to our success in safety. People may rightfully say, that they don’t have to be liked to be effective in safety, but I will argue until I can’t physically utter another word before I concede that one can be effective if the people in the organization don’t respect them.
Respect is earned; hear that a lot, but what does it mean and how does it happen? It begins by believing with every fiber of your being that you are no better than the people you are charged with protecting. I have heard safety practitioners refer to the frontline workers as “shop monkeys” or “factory rats”; hardly respectful ways to VIEW a person, never mind describe them to a virtual stranger. Sometimes the disrespect is more subtle. I have been asked to dumb down safety training “because the hourlies just won’t get it” I was fired from one company after giving a speech on how to connect personal and business values to safety. Management praised the speech but the top dog decided it was way too high-brow for the simple-minded workers. I was eventually replaced by a guy who used arc flash to burn stuffed squirrels (I wish I was making this up).
I was also told that I could not be friends with the “great unwashed” and be effective as a safety professional. I disregarded that directive and soon had workers pointing out hazards and asking for my advice. This didn’t happen over night, nor was it easy. I would introduce myself and get eye rolls and smart aleck comments about safety. I would always make the point that I was there to have their back, not be on their back and since I didn’t know how to do their jobs I would be asking a lot of questions. Watching those guys work convinced me that I couldn’t do what they could do and it would be the height of arrogance to assume that they were somehow of less value to the world than me or anyone else.
One particularly belligerent worker loudly announced my arrival with “okay everybody the safety guy is here everybody follow the rules”. Later he asked me if I was “making sure everyone was following the rules”. I looked him in the eye and assertively told him that I was there to help him and his colleagues make informed decisions about their jobs and that I wasn’t his boss or his mother, but would like to help him make the kinds of decisions that might just save his life or the life of another. I told him, I will never save your life, but I will do my utmost to help you to save your own. His whole demeanor changed and he looked me square in the eye and said, “you’re different than most safety people, thanks for having our backs.”
If you think you’re better than the people you work with you are being disrespectful to them.
That’s not to say you can gain the respect of everyone. I get a lot of mail from people looking to take offense. I have learned to accept most of it without firing back, because in general people who ask “what makes you such an expert?” are really pissed off that they aren’t. Experts aren’t necessarily people with alphabet soup at the beginning or end of their names; credentials are relatively easy to get—hell I’m a reverend and a shaman thanks to spending three minutes on a website—but they aren’t anything to be summarily dismissed either. Worker experience too doesn’t mean much if you’ve done a substandard job your whole career; no matter the craft someone is the worst at it. Here again, you can’t just dismiss work experience as valueless; some of the most talented and dedicated safety professionals came up through the ranks.
The people who howl the loudest that “just because he has letters after his name doesn’t mean that he knows more about safety” are typically insecure crybabies who really want validation that they are good enough despite their lack of credentials. Similarly those who belittle “uneducated buffoons who were put into safety because they couldn’t do anything else” are simply looking for respect for the considerable learning and investment in time and money that they made.
The irony of me writing a post about respect is not lost on me. I have been poking and prodding the safety community for more than two decades, and haven’t been all that respectful in many of my posts, discussions, and comments, but all I can say is if you want my respect, earn it.