What ‘s Wrong With You People?

In my haste I had a typo or two and even an incomplete thought.  I did a quick edit just now, but I would hazard a guess that it’s  far from perfect…Phil

This week I joined two or three new groups on LinkedIn. That’s my fault. For whatever reason I seek out the company of people who post largely inane opinions and spend their time arguing with strangers. That’s not to diminish LinkedIn; I’ve met many really great people through the site, unfortunately I’ve also met some honest to dogs imbeciles. Recently I weighed in on whether or not a company should consider itself world-class (the author didn’t think it germane to the discussion to hint at precisely in “what” company should claim such an honor) if it fires its employees for things they do on their own time (as in while off work). The topic generated some minor buzz, largely centered around Chrysler workers caught by a local Fox news show should be fired for drinking on their lunch hour (nobody questioned how three autoworkers drinking on their lunch hour in a city with a population smaller than Columbus, Ohio with a murder rate of 40.1 per 100,000 residents rose to anything approaching news worthiness). I couldn’t bring myself to continue the argument—nobody seemed to much care about the pseudo topic—but it got me thinking: is any company so free of risk and so flush with resources that it can even consider doing this?

As far as the absurdity of trying to govern worker’s off-the-clock behavior, Henry Ford tried something similar when he hired private detectives to follow his workers to see if they were smoking, drinking, or otherwise doing something decidedly unFord-like. In the case of Ford, the effort hastened union organization and generally collapsed under the weight of its own complexity. Even given today’s sophisticated technology the cost of snooping on your workers far exceeds the financial benefits.  Add to that the fallout from workers when they find out they are working for a voyeuristic creep, and you end up in a no-win situation.  The argument was pointless and while safety professionals continue engage in pointless debate about which latest fade is way cool, people are dying.

This topic hits pretty close to me. My father died from mesothelioma. I watched him devolve from an energetic and active retiree to a shell who could barely move, much less breath. My father never blamed his employer, who he believed took every reasonable precaution to protect him. But he was incensed to learn that the asbestos manufacturers who provided materials to his employer knew and failed to disclose that information. I have a brother-in-law with days to live. He has lung cancer likely caused by working as a millwright at what was once reputedly listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the dirtiest square mile on Earth. One doctor initially thought it was caused by silica exposure, another by some other industrial exposure. I’m not privy to his exact medical records so I doubt I’ll ever know the truth.

I have a brother, who years ago was overcome by fumes and fell from a pallet that was raised using a forklift as a makeshift platform used to paint the ceiling. A task that not only was he instructed to do by his supervisor, but one that the mouth-breathing thick-witted brute of a supervisor stood by as it happened. The fall left him close-head injured with short and long-term memory loss that only through God’s grace did not cause him any long-term disability. I’ve lost friends to a horrific array of industrial accidents—two co-workers to electrocution, another who fell in an open vat of acid, I could go on, but at some point it becomes macabre. None of these people took frivolous risks, drank on their lunch breaks, or thumbed their noses at safety regulations. They were just guys looking to make a fair day’s wage and go home the same way they came to work.

Thank God the safety professionals around the world have the time and intellectual energy to argue about what sorts of unsafe behaviors workers engage in off the job. After all, doesn’t safe behavior off the jobs safe lives too? Isn’t that important too? Well…no. If I chose to mow the lawn barefoot and drunk as a monkey I am making my own choice. I assume the risks and face the consequences. (Let me state for the record that mowing the lawn barefoot while drunk (as a monkey or otherwise))  is foolhardy and should be discouraged but despite the recklessness of such actions I am in an environment controlled by me.  It is an inalienable human right to make a wage without the unmanaged risk of injury.  When we enter into an employer-employee relationship the employer has a more, financial, civic and legal obligation to do everything in their power to protect us.  And THAT is the issue of the allegedly drunken Chrysler workers (trusting Rupert Murdock to provide you the truth is like trusting Charles Manson to house sit). It’s not that tax payers bailed out Chrysler and now we somehow own not only the company but the workers as well, it’s that drinking during lunch and returning to work endangers multiple other workers who are working safely and minding their own businesses.  That Fox film crew could have raised the alarm, but instead chose to get the ratings; it’s practically depraved indifference.

Let me get to the crux of my issues.  When safety professionals sit around arguing about this pointless crap, people are dying. While people in ivory towers debate whether safety is the fault of unsafe behaviors or failed processes people are horribly maimed and deprived of their livelihoods. And while safety professionals sit around congratulating themselves for lower recordable injuries or for the neat new incentive program because injury reporting is driven underground or because “effective case management” has taken a recordable off the books, things don’t get any safer.

Through all of this there is an opportunity cost. For starters, we are losing the war in the court of public opinion. People around the world who are actively trying to convince the public that worker injuries are largely the fault of bad luck; careless, drunk, or stupid workers. Even then-President of the United States decried the people who exercised their legal rights to hold companies responsible for knowingly putting people in harms way as filing “frivolous lawsuits”.

As the economy worsens more and more people are prepared to trade job safety for jobs. In a world where there are 27 million slaves (more than ever before in the history of mankind) worker safety rights need to be protected. Despite the rapidly deteriorating opinion as to the importance of worker safety there is little attention paid to the problem at professional conferences. Peruse the abstracts offered at the majority of the expos and conferences and you will see plenty of talks on culture, on incentives pro and con, and a fair amount on regulation. But scare few speakers take on the most serious threat to worker safety faced today: the belief that safety as a profession is irrelevant. We safety professionals have to be more than theorists. We have to be more than money-grubbing snake-oil salesmen. We have to worry less about pointless minutia of or trade and work to raise awareness of the importance of safety professionals who know how to do their jobs, do them well, and make meaningful advances in the trade.

It’s time to wake up.


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