Spitting on Forest Fires


By Phil La Duke

My battle for the safety of my neighborhood continues.  One would think that my request that heavy equipment stop plowing through stop signs at 20+ mph adjacent to a popular park would be a no brainer, and in a way it is.  The people involved seem to have no brains at all. This has got my brain twisting and turning with questions. Why do otherwise reasonable people fail to see the risk endemic to this situation? Why do people defend their reckless behavior in an environment where there is most certainly not going to be any meaningful consequence? Beyond the questions it’s got me thinking about courage and cowardice.

I don’t ask for much from the readers of this blog, but I am going to ask you to indulge me a bit this week as I meander away from the edge of the topic of WORKER safety and into the world of safety as a whole.  

You see I met some friends at my local watering hole.  It’s a faux Irish bar with the only real irritants being the occasional Journey or country music song on the jukebox and me of course.  It’s a largely homogeneous crowd where everyone looks like they belong there. You might get the occasional stranger from the Elk’s lodge across the street, but for all intents and purposes you can tell who’s there for a drink and who is up to no good.

Into that mix, a couple of minutes apart walked two parties, an aging drug addict (believe me having an ex-wife who died of a drug overdose after a decades long downward spiral) accompanied by a young girl of about 11 or 12.  They sat at the bar looking like a turd in a punchbowl, and immediately caught my eye. The bar was crowded and the people who ordinarily would have quickly interceded were too busy to notice. About five minutes later, a man who looked like someone had sent down to central casting for a child molester came in and sat next to them.  The adults chatted in conspiratorial tones and the woman and child moved to a table near the door. The man kept manufacturing reasons to go to the door, each time stopping to chat briefly while looking around to see if a bouncer, or cop, or for all I know a rhinoceros. This went on for 10 minutes or so. I brought it to the the bar owners attention and she said she was monitoring the situation, but I knew she was just too busy to do much about it.  Soon the woman and child left. Moments later the man got up and followed and I was tight on his tail. When I went outside I saw the woman and the man negotiating something so I walked up and asked flat out if there needed to be some police involvement. “In what?!?!” The man screamed in alarm. I told him I would let them suss that out. Then I did something that I did often. I took his picture and those of his companions. The man nervously asked what I was going to do with that and I said, “well that depends on how all this turns out.” They quickly went their separate ways.

Was the safety of that young girl my responsibility? Did I do anything but forestall the inevitable? Should I left it to the police? I don’t know.  But I do know this: intervening isn’t easy, and most people won’t thank you, especially if you point out that what they are doing is wrong. But not intervening is cowardice, and I have always been too quick with my mouth and my fists. I’ve learned better ways, and that as one coworker once said of me (referring to the staggering amount of work that I am able to produce in such a short time) that I cannot hold people to the same standard I hold myself to.

Recently I met a safety leader and truly remarkable thinker who turned me on to the Hummingbird Effect but in a simplified form that could be applied to safety.  Now bear with me because I am creating this from memory as I can’t find the original text. Here is a link to a version https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A42Cp_RUJdQ

The crux of the the story is this:  The animals of the forest are awakened to a fire that was raging out of control and threatening to consume their home.  They all fled to safety and stood idly by as the only home they had know their whole life was engulfed in a fiery holocaust.  At some point they noticed that a hummingbird was flying from the lake and take a mouthful of water and flying to the fire and spitting the water onto the flames.  The other animals were incredulous and asked the hummingbird what it hoped to accomplish; that it’s efforts were too little and could not possible work. The exhausted hummingbird said, “I’m doing the best that I can.” The other animals, perhaps shamed at their own reluctance joined in the effort and ultimately extinguished the flames.

I thought back on this story as I contemplated the what ifs of my intervention both with the people in the bar and with the construction workers who are indignantly and unabashedly hostile to safety. I talked to my romantic vis-a-vis about it.  I was troubled that my efforts amounted to nothing, that like the opinion of other animals watching the hummingbird my efforts were futile, pointless, and even stupid. Keep in mind that my dad used to say to me, “you get no points for doing your best; I can get a baboon in here to try hard. What counts is results.” (My dad knew that without his prodding I would half-ass every task given me.) But what my romantic entanglement said to me, made me think better of things.  She said, “you did what was appropriate, you did enough. People like that (she was speaking of the people in the bar but might as well been talking about the construction ninnies) count on the fact that no one is watching; that no one will say something and once they recognize that someone is watching and that people WILL confront them things will change.”

I think maybe we ask too much of workers and people in general.  We throw all the world’s problems at them and tell them to fix them.  We create lofty ideals and visions of a Utopian safety culture and leave them helpless in the face of the enormity of the problem.  Maybe we had instead ask them to do just a little bit to make things safer. Maybe it’s as easy as asking them to consider the example they set to new workers and colleagues who respect them, Maybe we can just ask them to do what they can.