Putting Health In Health and Safety

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By Phil La Duke

I’m hearing a lot about putting “Health” in Health and Safety, and while many of the efforts are well intended many of those are misguided.  Yes, people need to exercise more. Yes, people need to eat right, and yes people need to make healthy life choices like quitting smoking and drinking less alcohol and stop abusing drugs. All those things are wonderful, but before we tackle these problems maybe we should consider tackling some of the illnesses caused by our processes before we go butting into people’s personal lives, that is, their lives and liberties outside of the workplace.

My dad died of mesiothema. He didn’t die because he was careless, or stupid, or ignore the safety protocols. In fact, he didn’t sue his employer over the vehement protestations of his lawyers. “They didn’t know it was dangerous, the manufacturers lied to them just like they hid the fact that asbestos would kill me from us.” my dad, a fiercely anti litigious man told me.

My uncle, my dad’s older brother died recently, he was 95 and he was a living testament to a life well lived. My brother made a off-hand comment that because my uncle was two years my dad’s senior we had every right to expect that our father could have just as easily lived to this ripe old age, but instead he died 20 years premature because of the malfeasance of the manufacturers of asbestos who didn’t care who they killed in pursuit of the almighty dollar.  These murderers will never be brought to justice; hell even George W. Bush called lawsuits against asbestos manufacturers “frivolous lawsuits”. I pray every day that Bush suffers half as much as my dad did in the last year of his life; if there is justice he will.

In situations like this—where someone you love is taken from you—there is a powerful drive to blame someone.  I have reconciled myself that it wasn’t my dad’s foreman, or plant manager, or safety supervisor to blame for this. In fact, while documents have been produced that proves that the manufacturers knew of the dangers who is to say that my father would have been spared his fate had they immediately warned anyone working with asbestos of its dangers? It may well have already been too late.

So this week I am not going to chew anyone out. I am not going to wag my finger in accusation at anyone, but I would like to talk about our need to do more to apply the same drive and discipline with which we apply to worker safety to preventing work-place illnesses or the by-products of injuries. We know about black lung, and mesiothema, and green lung, and silicosis (which claimed by brother-in-law), but now nano-technology is a growing concern.  The stuff that we are being exposed to today could be killing us, and it may take two decades to even know the extent of the danger.

I was researching the Industrial Hygiene industry last week and found that there is very little information out there in terms of the size of the industry, the forecasts for future market demand, or even many firms with more than a handful of workers.  The industry is by all appearances dominated by mom and pop shops and even the large EH&S consultancies tend to relegate industrial hygiene to a subset of their overall safety services. Trust me when I tell you, where there is demand there are large firms elbowing each other for position to meet those demands.

Fighting industrial diseases has to be taken seriously BEFORE people get sick and die.  Look at the opioid epidemic—while not considered an industrial disease it is certainly often the byproduct of injuries (many people were injured on the job, prescribed narcotics and became addicted, only to be cut off and turn to heroin to feed the addiction.)  That’s how my ex-father-in-law, a boilermaker by trade, found himself addicted to heroin. When he died there was no autopsy. We don’t know whether the mesiothema killed him, or the lung cancer, or the drugs, but we do know that an absolutely preventable cause set things in motion.

Addiction spread through his family like a cancer—my ex-wife succumbed to her heroin addiction and was left to die by a drug dealer and a half-wit who refused to call for help after she overdosed because they would be arrested for possession and she died on the stained carpet of a shabby hovel somewhere in Detroit, leaving two grieving daughters to try to make sense of her shattered life.  What about personal responsibility? I’m not cutting her any slack, she chose to use and was fighting demons known only to her. But were it not for the root cause of her father’s injury, which led to prescription opioid addiction, which led to his heroin addiction, which led to the availability of heroin, which led her down a dark spiral that would ultimately end her life.

What can we do? Well, this is going to sound odd coming from me, but we need to become more aware of the unintended outcomes of our actions.  

Sometimes injuries kill us in an instant before we even have a chance to know it’s coming, and sometimes they kill us slowly, decades after the initial incident.  I have talked about my friend and colleague, Bill Sagy who, some 40 years prior injured his back while working as a steelworker. There wasn’t much medical science could do for him (is injury was to a spinal vertebra)  so Bill was forced to live much of his life with pain and the limitations that went along with it (his back would go out a couple of times a year and he’d need some time off, and prolonged sitting caused him discomfort) but he dealt with it without complaining for decades until his doctor told him about a laparoscopic treatment that would make it possible for him to live pain free.  I was about to hire him to work with me on a big project and called and talked to him about his back. He told me he felt great and that he wished he had had this surgery years ago. The next day he developed a fever, his wife rushed him to the emergency room where he collapsed into unconsciousness and was spirited into Intensive Care. He never regained consciousness and died two days after I talked to him and he told me that he had not felt that good since before his injury. There was no autopsy; the doctors attributed his death to an infection of some sort.

None of these fatalities—not my dad, not my father-in-law, not my brother-in-law, nor my friend and colleague—will ever show up on any workplace fatality statistic but just as sure as I am writing this they all were killed by their jobs and in the case of each of them, collateral damage that cannot ever truly be measured or grasped.

I am proud to announce that Marriah Publications has published my second book, Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention.  This is all new material that cannot be found anywhere else. While homicide accounts for 10% of workplace fatalities this is a problem that can be easily prevented. Victims of domestic violence are disproportionately effected. Of women murdered in the workplace, 48% will be killed by a family member or domestic partner, while only 2% of men are killed this way.  I wrote this book at the request of my publisher, as there are a growing numbers of “experts” who are treating random mass shootings (where the goal is usually a high body count) the same as single shooter events in the workplace (which tend to target a specific individual.) The research I did was eye-opening for me as I expect it will be for you too.  This is one of the most powerful things I have ever written so I hope you will find it useful.

It can be purchased in hard cover or paper back at Amazon (US and Canada) or Barnes & Nobel (as it stands now B&N has accidentally listed the hardcover for less than the price of the paperback with free shipping so I would jump on this before they catch the mistake UPDATE: B&N caught the mistake before anyone bought it so I guess if you snooze you lose. It’s just as well because I would have been losing money hand over fist.)

Of course my first book is still for sale…

Did you like this post? If so you will probably like my book which can be ordered here I Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business or on Barnes & Nobel.com. Did you hate this post? Did it offend you deeply? Maybe you should organize a book burning (minimum of 150 books) but be sure you are only burning my book, I don’t want you to go to a used book store and buy a bunch of cheap books and stack mine on top.

The book is a compilation of blog posts, guest blogs, magazine article (from around the world) and new material. Much of it is hard to find unless you know where to look. A second and third book has already been green-lighted by the publisher (expect fewer reprints and more new material).

In all seriousness, I have been blogging for free (without sponsors or advertising) for over 11 years and I think I have earned a bit of revenue so buy the damned book.