by Phil La Duke
When we hear about worker fatalities I imagine we picture a number of tragic but, let’s face it, predictable scenarios. Maybe someone took a short cut, maybe some won grew complacent, maybe…well we all have our presuppositions and our biases that help us to accept that while workplace deaths. Whatever preconceived notions about workplace fatalities that help us sleep better at night, and whatever it is that makes us believe that we and ours are better than that, immune to the carnage, protected because of who we are, nothing much prepares us for deaths like that of Martha Hochstetler. The 14 year-old girl died horribly after a portion of her clothing was caught in farm machinery while she was loading straw bales onto an elevator
I grew up on the ruins of a farm and can’t accurately tell you when I started working. My parents never paid me for the work (unless you count, food, shelter, medical treatment, cloths, dental care, and an education) but I did it all the same. Mostly I cared for chickens—cannibalistic brutes. You’ve heard of the pecking order? That’s based on chickens. If a chicken develops an open sore we’d have to put tar on it or the other chickens would slowly peck at it and eat it to death and then eat the dead body. I don’t even like the taste of chicken but I order it in restaurants just for the satisfaction of knowing that another one of those filthy little bastards is dead, but then I digress.
When I was about Martha’s age I took a job outside the home. The job violated damned near every child labor law on the books. I was a clean up boy for a nearby Dairy Queen. I know what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong; if you have a job with “boy” in the title it is NOT a power position. It doesn’t matter what adjective you put in front of “boy” it can never make the job seem important. I imagine that even “Super Boy” was a disappointment to his parents who had to think that if only the young Clark Kent had applied himself a little he could have scored a job as a dishwasher or a bus boy. I worked from March to October for three years, working from 11:00 p.m. until the work was done, typically around 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. It was a salaried position I made $35.00 a week, $28.28 after taxes. Even in the late 1970’s not much money. I worked completely unsupervised mopping floors, hauling boxes of stock in from the stock room, and running hot water and disinfectant through heavy machinery. Thinking back none of my duties were all that dangerous, at least nothing seemed so at the time. I got lucky; I never got hurt, but many of our other children aren’t so lucky.
My Godson worked for a fast food company where he was instructed by his late teenage manager to use hazardous chemicals in a confined space; he passed out and (I believe) struck his head. After being rushed to the hospital he was okay, but he was needlessly put in harm’s way.
I could go on and on, listing the litany of gore, the horrible ways my childhood friends and acquaintances died on the job before seeing their 20th birthdays, but after awhile it just seems pointlessly gratuitous, and seriously what’s the point. Barcardi killed a young man in the first hour, of the first day, of his first job and nobody cares. Before you puff up your chest in righteous indignation and say, “Well I care” I define caring as being motivated enough to DO something about it, and you won’t.
Our Children Are At Risk
Remember your first job? Remember how proud you felt when you got hired? Or if you’re a parent remember how proud you were when your child got his or her first job? Like me you probably never considered that there wasn’t even the most remote possibility that he or she would die there. That this thing of which you are so proud would lead to the greatest tragedy a parent can face. This is a serious problem. Politics have painted regulations on small businesses (that disproportionately hire children) as so onerous that the owner of a small business can’t be held to basic safety standards; it’s more important, apparently that small business stay afloat than it is for their teen employees to stay alive.
Jobs for Teenagers Are Important, But Are They Worth Dying For?
In a July 2014 article the Boston Globe https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2014/05/02/are-teen-jobs-becoming-luxury-good/PPRkJhscPXBOvvn4zcc8wK/story.html reported that studies show that adults who worked as teenagers (about 30% of the current adult workforce in the U.S.) tend to have better careers and make more money than those who didn’t work. But what good does it do to have a job as teenager if you don’t live long enough to have a job as an adult?
Everyone seems to be talking about changing the safety culture of the organization but few seem interested in how these dysfunctional cultures developed. Teens learn to either respect safety or develop contempt for it from there first jobs, and if they work for mom and pop shops who flout safety regulations and treat employees like cheap and disposable chattel these teens will grow into young adults who think that safety is a big joke. We could safe a lot of time and money if we just put some attention into the safety of small companies. If we made the effort to drive safety to these companies—not by throwing them off the bid list if they have poor safety records, but by proactively interceding and teaching these small companies the value of safety.
So what can YOU do? Personally, I have provided safety consulting pro bono to several small businesses and I encourage you to do the same. Some will rebuff your offer but you have to keep trying. If you aren’t prepared to volunteer your services—and let this serve as a call to all you safety practitioners and organizations that are quick to tout your commitment to safety to put your money where your mouth is. If these companies and you as individuals can’t see it in there hearts to do this for these small companies, to invest in tomorrow’s workforce by teaching them sound safety values than they must forever relinquish the moral high ground forever and admit your culpability in the deaths of people like Martha