When Experience Isn’t the Best Teacher


By Phil La Duke

It’s said that you can’t fight city hall, but that’s not right.  You CAN fight city hall, it’s just that if you do you will deal with people so proudly stupid and belligerently ignorant that any victory no matter how great will feel pyrrhic.  Such was the case in my recent dealings with the city of Allen Park, Michigan, when I made numerous complaints to the city about heavy construction vehicles speeding, running stop signs, and other serious violations.  I started my one-man campaign after watching an elderly pedestrian scramble for his life when a 20-ton vehicle blew a stop sign and turned right without looking and nearly striking a man whose only unsafe behavior was living in a city that doesn’t properly manage its contractors.

Before I continue, I have to apologize to some of the safety practitioners and policemen who I have called lazy dung heaps, sloths or worse for not doing their jobs. Although I have, I admit, a skewed view or workplace safety because people don’t tend to hire safety consultants because everything is going great.  I have seen too many safety people who aren’t doing their jobs and blaming it on leadership. I have said and will continue to contend that if you are unable to do your job because leaders won’t cooperate the ethical thing to do is to get out of that organization. And I have turned down work with organizations that I felt wasn’t serious about safety, or that just wanted to be “safe enough” to keep regulators from closing them down. While I don’t condone accepting a paycheck for not doing the job for which you’ve been paid, I now clearly understand how someone can, in frustration, surrender to the futility of fighting a battle he or she clearly will never win.

So back to city hall.  As I mentioned, I had issues with the safety (or lack thereof) of the drivers of heavy equipment on my second call with the mayor, I told him that I watched as a payloader gunned it down the street, blew through a stop sign, and when I confronted the driver he just said “so?!?!”  The mayor’s response was typical of a small town politician: “you gotta understand sometimes they HAVE to do that”. Hmmm… I was skeptical. For the record, I have never driven a payloader but I find it difficult to believe that you have to get a 3/4s of a block headstart to dump gravel into a dump truck. (Please if there are any drivers out there and I’m wrong set me straight).  Anyway, after three phone calls the head of (Doesn’t Produce Work) DPW set up a meeting between him, the contractors, and I.

I was ushered into a sort of a break room where everyone responsible for the crews was assembled.  It was a motley crew of people who weren’t burdened by a lot of career choices (bull semen collector at a breeding ranch, rodeo clown, Walmart greeter’s assistant, etc.) whose sole qualification seemed to be having a relative on the city council.  

I walked in loaded for bear.  I had researched the number of deaths associated with pedestrian and heavy equipment interaction, I researched the weight and stopping distance required for the exact makes and models of the vehicles they were using, I calculated the stopping distance for each of the vehicles, and I even found a study by the Department of Transportation (DOT) report loaded with safety statistics.  I printed each of them out (a total of over 50 pages). It was unnecessary. One of the “subcontractors” was an expert in all things save hygiene. “I don’t need to read that crap, I was a driver for 20 years.” It was then when it occurred to me that he may well be illiterate.

No matter what I said, this guy refuted it.  When I told him the stopping distance of one of the vehicles he scoffed and said, “it doesn’t take that much”  so I asked him how much time it DID take, to which he replied derisively, “I don’t know but it ain’t THAT much” he reiterated that he had been a driver for 20 years.  I told him in exasperation that this was PHYSICS but he just waved his hand like he was shooing away a fly. On and on it went with them constantly trying to turn the table on me by saying I shouldn’t have called the mayor, and I shouldn’t confront the drivers, and I shouldn’t…the man who drove for 20 years actually said, “we’re just the engineering firm, it’s not our responsibility for the contractor’s safety”. I told him that as the ‘host company” he had a joint responsibility for the safety of the workers with the contractor, he just said, “no I don’t” when I said OSHA would disagree, he got angry and said I that I was wrong.  The department head said I had no business calling OSHA, the mayor, or the police or anyone but him.

When Mr. Know It All smugly asked me what proof I had, I showed him the video I had taken with my phone demonstrating two drivers running a stop sign, he acknowledged that they had indeed done so.  

All of them howled that they can’t watch their guys every minute, and when I suggested that they wouldn’t have to if they were better at people management that set them off into another frothy rage.  They don’t need ME to tell THEM how to manage people.

So what did I learn:

  • No amount of pestering, nudging, cajoling, or pleading with this coterie of fools was going to change their behaviors.
  • You can’t introduce facts to someone so stupid as someone who believes that they know everything.
  • People who engage in high-risk behaviors but manage to avoid killing people will convince themselves that this behavior is safe and are likely to take even greater risks.
  • If a supervisor, manager, and department heads (so-called leaders) are indifferent or outright hostile to safety, so too will the workers.
  • When basic no-@#$%l, any-idiot-knows-you-have-to-do-that! rules are ignored with impunity those rules will be ignored with regularity
  • Apparently driving for 20 years makes one an expert in physics, employment law, safety, and everything except hygiene

Did I accomplish anything? Maybe; maybe not.  But I put them on notice that people are watching them, people are holding them accountable, people SEE what they are doing and don’t accept it.

I sincerely hope to God that these idiots don’t kill someone, and statistically, they probably won’t.  But if they do, I will be in court recounting in painstaking detail my meeting and what was said.  They won’t be able to plead ignorance or excuse their culpability in the death, and may God have mercy on their souls.