If You Want to Save Lives Be a Lifeguard

pexels-photo-114997.jpegby Phil La Duke

I’ve worked in safety to one extent or another for 30 years.  In fact, This June will mark my thirtieth year in a profession that isn’t all that much older than me.  And in that time I’ve met all kinds of safety professionals, from the useless goofballs that the organization felt obligated to keep (the plant manager’s brother-in-law), to the lazy, on-the-job retirees who sit in their offices and do nothing but produce carbon dioxide and occasionally methane, to the safety fanatics (usually someone who has been personally and viscerally effected by tragedy), to the know-it-all safety cops, to the flavor-of-the-month safety version of the helicopter parent.  And of course I’ve met many good, reasonable, intelligent, wise, and hardworking safety professionals (which makes things worse actually, knowing that so many people form an image of the safety guy (by the way “guy” is a gender neutral term—look it up) not from interactions with the many excellent safety guys, but by the water-headed, mouth-breathers of whom there are far too many.

But for me the most irritating safety guy to me has been the sanctimonious life-saver.

When I say that safety practitioners don’t save lives it creates such a hullabaloo that I have to wonder if these people are trying to convince me or themselves. The statement draws the pedantic boobs out of the woodwork (the least desirable boobs in my opinion) and I get the long rambling emails about how they saved someone’s life.  But it is, let’s face it steaming piles of bull excrement. Most safety people’s claims to have saved a life fall into one of two categories: the “I saw a person on the stairs and reminded them to use the handrail” life saving claim, or the “I save lives indirectly by reminding people to work safely” claim.

The first claim is crap, I have said it before and I will say it again, “reminding me not to die is not the same as saving my life”.  Now I myself have intervened many times and reminded people of a hazard, but safety is about probability, risk tolerance, and choices.  I remember I was working on a platform that was over 10 feet in the air and had no guard rails (the reason for that was a good one and the particular industry wasn’t bound by OSHA regulations for this particular scenario.  I was the assigned the highly cerebral role of human guard rail. I watched as a worker nose deep in his phone walked toward the edge. I bounded out like a ball boy at the U.S. open and stopped him before he walked off the edge.  He was grateful in a condescending way, thanking me and telling me that “I know you are only watching out for my safety.” I told him, that with all due respect I was looking out for my resume—if he died my resume wouldn’t be worth the construction paper and crayons it’s made of and frankly a good share of my resume is questionable as is.  He had a good laugh and I asked him to try to remain stationary and situationally aware when using his crack-pipe of a smartphone. He laughed again and went on his merry way. A short while later, I saw him intervene with a colleague. He saw me watching him and he yelled, “you see Phil? I’m looking out for your resume.” Now I could claim that I saved his life but that just isn’t true.  What I did was help him to make an informed decision so that he could make a safer choice. There are so many outcomes to that scenario and his death was far from certain. To be sure he definitely put himself at great risk, but my intervention did nothing to reduce that risk—HE made the decision to modify his behavior, but even had he chosen to ignore me and proceeded, there is no guarantee that he would have fallen off the platform—he may have self-corrected, someone else may have intervened, or he may have finished the business on his phone and put it away.  But let’s that but for my intervention he would have fallen off the platform. Here again there is no guarantee that he would have died, he certainly, might have died, he might have been severely injured, he might have fallen on debris below the platform and escaped unharmed, or with a relatively minor injury, or he might have fallen into a puddle of mud that cushioned his fall. So if I claim to have saved his life…well either I am either delusional or a liar or that all too common combination of the two.

The second position, that ““I save lives indirectly by reminding people to work safely” claim is equally dubious.  Sure some people will forget a key element of a safety element, but this position implies that were it not for the constant and ever-present vigilance of the safety guy people would be dropping dead right and left. To me this claim is a bit like me claiming that I reduce crime by not robbing liquor stores.  Certainly an argument can be made that if I were robbing liquor stores crime would go up, but the fact that crime statistics stay static cannot be reasonably attributed to my not robbing stores, and the neighborhood policeman cannot claim responsibility for the drop in crime because he stopped me while I was walking my dog and reminded me not to rob the liquor store or by praising me by catching me “doing something good” and giving me a free pizza for not robbing the liquor store. Years ago I read that it cost over $50K a year to keep a person in prison in Michigan and I considered writing to the Governor and promising to stay out of trouble for $35K a year.  I never followed up on it because that kind of letter tends to get you added scrutiny and that is something I have NEVER needed, plus I didn’t think the cheap SOBs would go for it, and let’s face it, staying out of trouble has never been my forte.

So we don’t save lives? So what? Where is the harm in some drooling half-wit walking around telling people he works in safety and by gully HE SAVES LIVES? Groucho Marx once said, In a telegram to the telegram to the Friar’s Club of Beverly Hills (to which he belonged), “Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member”. That’s the danger of incompetents (who may be the minority but they are an extremely vocal minority). If you could see some of the email I get from these cheese-and-sawdust filled vacuous dolts you would understand.  A group of colleagues and I were talking about the irritating tendency of strangers talking to us on a plane after a long and tough stint in the field. One of them piped up with, “I don’t have that problem, if someone wants to talk and I don’t, I just tell them that I work in safety and that shuts the conversation down.

So if you want to save lives become a nurse, or a doctor, or an EMT, or …hell waiters probably save more lives administering the Heimlich Maneuver than the average safety guy.