Putting the “Health” in Health & Safety

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By Phil La Duke
Author
I Know My Shoes Are Untied Mind Your Own Business and Lone Gunman Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence

Last week I went to urgent care.  Nothing too serious, I had an infection in my elbow that suddenly started to spread rapidly. I’m on antibiotics and things are improving just as rapidly as they went south. It was an unexpected yet completely predictable medical breakdown.

I’ve been burning the candle at both ends for a while, and even though I am fully aware of the need to relax and slow things down I don’t seem able, or more accurately willing to do that. I wrote 100 articles for Authority magazine in just 50 days. During that same period I worked as a production safety consultant for two major motion pictures in 100° heat AND interviewed CEOs and Operations Executives in Europe (getting up at 5:00 a.m.) And my erstwhile wife finally took the plunge and moved in. (We had been maintaining separate residences for reasons that are none of your business) All this over and above maintaining a social life and all the minutiae of day-to-day life.

Many of you reading this may have been under the impression that I do nothing at all, or at least that what I do is easy. I routinely rise at 5:00 a.m. and work until 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. Interviewing CEOs seems easy but between schedule changes, no-shows, subject running 30 minutes late for a one-hour interview, and deciphering accents can be incredibly draining. Even more people say, “Oh that sounds like fun!” when I tell them that I am working on a movie set. I do enjoy it immensely, but it is like simultaneous operations every day all the time.  For those of you in the construction or upstream oil and gas business you know how risk rises exponentially when there is SiOps going on. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, simultaneous operations is when multiple operations are going on in the same space or in close proximity to one another. In film you have gaffers and grips erecting lighting or camera stands while electricians are stringing power above or below them, through painters and set decorators into that same mix along with scores of other people all working at an accelerated pace and you have a recipe for potential disasters.  

Not that these aren’t highly skilled individuals, but they are focused on the task at hand and it is difficult to focus on what you are doing and remain situationally aware.  I am there throughout the whole affair to provide them with information so that they can make informed decisions about their safety and the risks they take. 12-hour days are the norm, not counting commute, before and after which I am doing the interviews and grabbing a quick workout. Oh and writing.  119 since July and counting. And, regrettably, the odd (in so many ways) blog article.

I’m fortunate for a lot of reasons. My medical issue started on Thursday when I mistook what turned out to be a cluster of in-grown hairs for a pimple.  On Friday my elbow was red and swollen and I knew it wasn’t an ordinary pimple. I called my doctor, but he was out of the country and wouldn’t be back for two weeks.  I turned to home remedies which mostly worked. On Monday the tell-tale red streak up my arm told me that the infection was spreading. I went to the urgent care (formerly known as the emergency room) got an injection and a bottle of antibiotics, and I’m feeling much better. 

There are many workers who aren’t so lucky.  Admittedly, my illness was not work-related—or was it? After all, what part of my routine caused me to become fatigued because of work and what part was a conscious choice to do something other than decompress? It really doesn’t matter because the law doesn’t recognize fatigue as an industrial illness. But as I say I am lucky because I work for a company that provides adequate paid sick time, excellent medical coverage, and overall, takes pains to ensure the well-being of its workers. I was able to seek medical attention without having to worry about losing my job, depleting my savings, or having to decide between risking my life or paying an exorbitant medical bill. 

In a world where safety zealots feel completely within their rights to preach safety at home, where are the voices for adequate base-line healthcare? I’m not arguing for socialized medicine nor am I arguing against it.  That having been said, no one should have to worry about his or her job because of their health. If the Health and Safety function is really concerned with worker health how does this concern manifest itself?

Recently I did a speech for a VPPPA conference on worker fatigue and in this presentation I outlined the many MANY physical manifestations and illnesses caused by fatigue, and yet we continue working our people LITERALLY to death. Do you, yourself, put in long hours? If so, how is it viewed by your company? Are you viewed as a go-getter and a loyal “company man”, or are you viewed as someone who is potentially putting his or her life at risk? Before you answer, go to your company break-room and look at the food options for sale in the vending machines.  The food is typically poison. It is full of food-like substances that are high in calories, high in fat, and low in nutrients. I have argued that the vending machine operators offer the foods that they do because that’s what people buy. Those of you who love awareness campaigns try this: put a sign on the vending machine that says, “eating this food will lead to morbid obesity and a host of other medical problems.” It is not likely to do any good as long as there are no healthy alternatives. 

Years ago, when the faith-based healthcare system at which I worked was moving its headquarters it conducted a survey of the employees asking what amenities they wanted at the new headquarters.  One of the top items was a place where people could purchase healthy meals. At first the organization worried that they couldn’t afford to provide restaurant that provided healthy meals and wondered openly how many people would actually purchase said health alternatives.  

When the restaurant opened I was delighted to find that I could get healthy meals both prepared on-site but also in the vending machines.  In fact, I soon realized that the restaurant was filled with all kinds of things to promote health nutrition from signs on the walls telling potential buyers of the calorie count and other nutritional information about the food for sale in the vending machines to the placement of the less healthy foods such that people wouldn’t be tempted to impulse purchase poisonous crap because it was “quick”.  Just an aside, but people who are driving themselves to the brink are often the same people looking for something quick to eat at their workstations. The organization didn’t stop there either. There were exercise classes, Weight Watchers meetings, reflection rooms where people could go and pray, meditate, or just enjoy the solitude. Flu vaccines (required by law for anyone actually visiting a hospital) were provided for free. There were mother’s rooms where women could breastfeed (an important feature for an organization whose workforce was 87% women. A walking path through a beautiful natural setting.  Healthcare is a high stress environment and these measures were taken to prevent illness and injuries and it worked.

Actions like these are good business and create a less stressed and more healthy workforce, but it can be a hard-sell to business owners more concerned about profits than people.  It’s our job to fight for these things. We have to be the voice of reason here. Benefits get more and more meager and workers are paid less and have to work longer hours just to survive.  If that isn’t our job, I don’t know what is.

I am proud to announce the hard launch by Marriah Publishing of my second book, Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention.  This is all new material that cannot be found anywhere else. In light of all the talk and panic around gun violence, and the shamefully bad advice some “experts” are giving I hope some of you will read it and pass it along to your executives and HR leads (go ahead, expense it, they will be glad you did.)

It can be purchased in hardcover or paperback at Amazon or Barnes & Noble 

I should warn you, this isn’t a book that is pro- or anti-gun ownership rights.The book has extensive sections on spotting an unstable employee (some people’s lives will take a dark and desperate turn long after you have hired them but there are always signs), the types of work environments that tend to trigger these events, and I recently returned from Dublin, Ireland where I spoke on how companies can leverage technology to protect workers from workplace violence.  But all the books, and magazines, and speeches in the world won’t change a damned thing if you keep thinking that it can’t (or probably won’t) happen to you or someone you love. You can bet your life that we will see more similar shootings in the weeks or months as people who are currently at the brink of sanity see the news reports and think, “now’s the time”. WAKE UP, PEOPLE!!!! This book is pepper with the sarcasm, self-deprecating humor of the first book, but it also makes use of my extensive knowledge of violence prevention in the workforce (that I gained as head of training and OD for a global manufacturer.) 

Of course, my first book is still for sale, and you might rightly ask yourself, why on God’s green Earth would I read a book that contains previously released material? Simple, like the rain-forest and the polar bears my work is disappearing from the web very quickly.  All but a handful of my works for Facility Management Magazine is gone, and you can basically only go back 2 years on my blog (8 year’s worth of my work that ranges in quality from magnificent to mindless dreck.) And besides, about a third of the book is new material that cannot be found anywhere else. So buy it. It will teach you, entertain you, and make you want to read more it can be ordered here I Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business or on Barnes & Noble.com.