Dying To Make a Living


Sarah Burke (Riccardo S Savi/Getty Images)

The sports world is reeling from the news of the death of Canadian skier Sarah Burke who died nine days after crashing during training t the bottom of the superpipe at the Park City Mountain resort in Utah. In this case, like so many others, many of on some level don’t see this as a workplace safety issue, and while acknowledging the tragedy openly question if the assumption of risk somehow eases the loss somehow. It’s odd how we can compartmentalize our thinking on worker safety. Sarah Burke died at work, just as surely as the tradesman who didn’t lock out, the construction worker who fell to his death, or the warehouse worker who is killed by falling stock. That Sarah Burke was working when she died is of little doubt, but should we have a different standard for professional athletes, and if we do, where is the line between workers who have a reasonable expectation to come home safe and those that we as a society decide have an assumption of risk to the degree that their deaths should not come as any big shock.

Certainly we expect football (both U.S. and the rest of the world) rugby, and hockey players to get injured. We deride some as “injury-prone” and others as wimps despite the shear physical nature of having 250 pounds of muscle blindsiding an unsuspecting player as it slams into him from behind. We expect and plan for injuries and meet career ending injuries with a sort of distracted indifference.

Fatalities are different. Sports fatalities stop and make us think. Not enough to do anything about it though. When Dale Earnhardt died at Daytona few, if any called for an end to the sport, and sport fans often complain when safety measures aimed at reducing fatalities are implemented. Fans love the fact that sports figures risk death every day; they celebrate sports figures as heroes. There is a certain absurdity in calling for safety measures for people, by nature of their chosen profession, risk death every day.

People may be outraged at the cruelty of bullfighting, but I’ve never heard of anyone demanding better protective equipment for matadors (toreadors either for that matter). Somewhere deep in the human psyche there is a bloodthirstiness that makes us believe that some people deserve to get hurt because they choose a high risk career. They deserve to die because they were stupid enough to take the job. There is a prurient fascination with deadly jobs and the people who willingly do them.

A quick scan of the cable television listings reveals a cottage industry of shows that celebrate jobs so dangerous that only the foolhardy and the brave would ever do them. Dirtiest Jobs, Ice Road Truckers, Deadliest Catch and scores more are testament to our fascination with jobs that are more likely to get you killed than pay a pension. Even if we don’t actively root for these people to die we are titillated and absorbed by the possibility that the workers will be injured or even die. Is our fascination with, and acceptance of, intrinsically dangerous jobs so wrong? What of the idiom, “it’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it?” It’s not like we watching gladiators hack each other to pieces in an arena after all.

But there is something wrong here. Why are we so disconnected with the misery of the people who risk death for our entertainment? Few of the people we watch on these programs were born with a silver spoon in their mouths and were it not for the artificially high paychecks (in some cases) few would take the risk associated with the jobs they do. And, and apart from a handful of athletes, few of these people retire in what most would describe as luxury, despite the higher wages.

The most deadly jobs still go uncelebrated. The profession with the most fatalities doesn’t have its own cheaply produced reality television show. Sales people routinely die on the job at a disproportionate rate, and most years the profession produces more fatalities than the second place contenders. Most of these deaths are in auto accidents, and as much as safety professionals have tried to reduce traffic fatalities of their workers none has figured out a good way to protect sales professionals from a sea of other drivers who are texting, programming GPS systems, reading and sending emails, and talking on the phone.

Employers ask too much of today’s sales professional and it is literally killing them. The ubiquitous nature of smart devices have created a sense of universal contact and the expectation that even the most banal email will elicit an immediate response. We can’t even allow a salesperson time to think in the car; we are paying them and expect them to earn their keep, even while driving.

Here is all that remains of the three vehicles involved in an accident on that fateful road.

Several years ago I was hired to implement a worker safety process for a manufacturer in a fairly remote part of Mexico. I traveled to this area 15 times in just over a year. I flew into Monterey, and traversed the most dangerous road in the world as I made my way up the mountain to Saltillo. (The road was rife with banditos, guerillas, treacherous curves and turns through rockslide areas, and hazards upon hazards). Once in town I still had plenty of treacherous travel to reach my workplace. Traffic in town was madness and the plant where I was employed was about 45 minutes out of town in a high mountain dessert. The last 30 minutes or so I was completely of the grid and any breakdown or accident would likely be fatal. Avoiding death was a full time job. When, at the end of my workday, I would reenter the grid, my phone would convulse in a flurry of buzzes, bells and alarms. I would have scores of emails, voicemails and text messages a 30-minute drive through murderous traffic and bosses and customers who wanted immediate responses. Stopping along side of the road was potentially fatal so I worked from the car. Was doing so stupid? (reading and answering a text in that environment goes beyond stupid or reckless) you bet and I did my best to resist the temptation. I usually spent a good hour at the hotel responding to trivial crap that never would have entered my life before a person was required to type up a memo and circulate it via inter company mail. So why did I risk my life for one week a month for 15 months? It was my job, and somebody had to do it. I just found out that the plant at which I worked just put on a third shift and is continuing the work in safety that I helped them build. Was it worth risking my life? Given that I was summarily dismissed by the greedy, pig-eyed jackals that made the real money of the sweat of my back, probably not. But considering the great work I was able to do there and the many injuries I prevented and lives I perhaps saved, it just might have been. So before you send out that email demanding someone’s immediate attention, think. Maybe what your asking can wait a day or so, and just maybe it’s not a life and death matter after all.


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