Ten Years Later and We Still Haven’t Changed.

by Phil La Duke

I couldn’t sleep last night.  Either to much Diet Dr. Pepper or not enough booze.  Either way I wrote the blog early so I figured why not publish it?

Last week I tweeted, “people don’t get hurt because they do stupid things, people get hurt because employer fail to protect them when they do stupid things”. I have been writing this (and another safety blog) for over 10 years and including articles in safety magazines I believe I have probably written close to a million words on the subject, this on top of working a full time job. What struck me is how little things have changed in safety over the last 10 years.  We safety professionals are still essentially clueless.

How clueless are we? Let me count the ways:

  1. We still insist that safety comes down to behavior (and yes I supposed if you view it broadly enough that’s true) but we still delude ourselves into thinking that we can somehow reprogram the human brain into doing anything meaningful about it. I still have to argue with colleagues who are enamored with snake oil celebrities who have churned out a bunch of quasi-scientific dreck that miraculously supports the same crap they have been selling for two decades.
  2. We love the culture of blame. I can’t even count how many safety people bemoan the fact that workers wouldn’t get hurt if “the idiots would just follow the rules!” I always suggest that they stop actively recruiting idiots and they tell me, that they don’t pay enough to get good people. I believe in bad people. People who rape, murder, and assault people for sport. Would those of you who have told me that you don’t pay enough to get “good people” have me believe that you have instead got some discount murderous thugs on the payroll? If so you got deeper systemic issues then safety. No, I suspect by “good people” they mean “smart people” from “good homes” and as we all know smart, well-educated workers are worth more to society than the baboons we have working for us, right? Wrong. I didn’t grow up poor—I had enough to eat, clothes on my back, a warm place to sleep, indoor plumbing, and while I had to pay for a portion of it a parochial school education. When you consider how MOST people on this planet live I was extremely wealthy. But as farmers in a family of nine, all of these things were never guaranteed to us. I grew up in a climate of incessant worry over how we would replace the washing machine or where the money for car repairs would come from. There was a feeling that at any moment all this could come crashing down and my life would spin off into anarchy. I had friends who couldn’t afford clothes that fit, or who went to school hungry. To paraphrase Ginsberg, I watched the greatest minds of my generation destroyed, not by madness, but by resignation and desperation. We worked because we needed to survive, not because we could buy a fancy car or the latest smart device. We weren’t college bound, not because we weren’t smart enough, but because most of us hated authority especially that wielded by self-important bookworms. I did go to college, because it was either that or the military and nobody, myself included saw me going into the service and not either being kicked out outright or moldering in a military prison. So I went to community college and dinked around yet another directionless kid set loose on society like a mental patient released from the hospital and put on a bus to the next nearest bus station. Eventually I hit the Detroit lottery: I got a Union job at General Motors working the line, I screwed for a living and I came home dirty and sore. It was as close to hell as I ever hope to see, but it was money. BIG money. I figured I could continue my education using GM’s tuition assistance plan but soon learned that humping an assembly line for 8 or 9 hours was unconducive with going to college at night. Safety in the plant was a political job given to brother’s-in-laws of the petty despots who ran the plants. In my case the management safety appointee was a hairdresser turned safety specialist. No training, no experience, no real brains, but MAN could he cut hair. After two and half years I was, along with 50,000 other workers, encouraged to explore other career opportunities. I wasn’t worried, I had five or six really good prospects. As they dried up one by one, and my wife left me to pursue a life of sex, drugs, and really awful music, I worked odd jobs, went back to school and eventually got a job that paid $19K a year. I took it because I was desperate and had a kid to care for. Throughout these jobs I took throughout that period, (adjunct delivery worker for a major shipping company, a demolition worker who tore out stores in malls so a new crop could be built, ) safety was nonexistent. For instance the boss in demolition told the workers to remove the drop ceiling by cutting all the wires supporting it. It naturally fell on those of us working below. If only we idiots would have followed the…wait a minute, WHAT rules. Despite being flat-assed broke if we wanted PPE we had to buy our own and injuries were common. I wasn’t alone. All over Detroit (and presumably elsewhere) desperate people took horribly unsafe jobs because we didn’t have a choice. Contrary to blowhards at the end of the bar, welfare isn’t easy to get unless you have completely destroyed yourself financially—lost your home, behind on all your bills, car’s been repossessed; at least it was when I tried desperately to get help.) I watched as childhood acquaintances died on the job—my brother’s best friend, a friend of a friend, the list goes on. What all us injured and killed imbeciles had in common was we listened to our bosses and did what we were told to do.
  3. We think we’re indispensable and whine because no one listens to us. Some of you just took offense and are knitting your brows in preparation for an angry missive reminding me that there are a lot of good hard working dedicated…safety professionals and how dare I…Save your breath. I know there are a lot of terrific safety people. I also know that there are a lot of useless mouth breathers with the IQs of a jar of peanut butter working in safety. If you think I am talking about you let me save you from expending any further thought on the matter. I AM TALKING ABOUT YOU. We whine because no one listens to us or respects us, but nobody listens to us or respect us because we say and do stupid things. We don’t partner with the population, we see ourselves as the thin red line between them and death and dismemberment; we expect a little gratitude a little respect. Safety is a thankless job, what were you expecting to get tips? In fact, most jobs are thankless jobs. We get paid to do our job and unless you want to get paid in compliments suck it up.
  4. We’re still looking for that magic bullet that will make our jobs easier, even simple. Safety will never be simple. The human brain is too complex and there is far too much variability in human behavior for our jobs to be easy and stress free. Last week I harped on about the impossibility of truly calculating probability an argument I am not going to have again. The conscious, deliberate choices that people make are difficult enough to predict, but add to that, behavioral drift, human error, uninformed decision making, and a host of other irrational factors and you have a mess that is impossible (for all practical purposes) to predict. The best we can hope for is to protect people from their mistakes and poor choices. Most of us have been injured at some point in our lives and most of those injuries were probably our own fault. We have to stop assuming it’s different for other people then it is for us.
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