Friday, July 26, 2013

It's About Damned Time We Learned Something

Writing a blog can be a challenging task. The first question I asked myself was, "Why do people want to read my thoughts?" But, it quickly occurred to me that I never hesitate to offer my opinion (I'm sure to the displeasure of many) in conversation. I've never stopped to say, "Would you mind if I told you how I feel about it?" Nope, I pretty much just blurt it out.

Then I asked myself, "Well, why do I want to do this?" Of course, there's the simple answer which is that I'm a writer, but I knew there had to be more. There had to be a theme. There had to be a reason people would be coming back to read what I had written. There had to be information readers might not get elsewhere.

That led me to my career: occupational health and safety. Most people don't even know what that means. The ones that think they do believe that I walk around a jobsite telling people to put their safety glasses on and, while that does happen, it is one of the smallest aspects of my job.

Let's look at this on a broader scale. I am the Safety Director for a northern NJ property owner/manager and I, along with my business partner, own my own consulting firm (Signature Safety, LLC for which this blog is named). In these roles, I am ultimately responsible to make sure that the workforce - your husband or wife, your mother or father, your son or daughter, your best friend, your neighbor, come home in the same condition they came to work that day or, in fact, that they come home at all.

Overly dramatic?

Are you aware that 4,609 workers died on the job in 2011 (the most recent year for which there are statistics)? While that is the 3rd lowest number since they started keeping track in 1992, it still means that about 90 people per week in the United States, or 13 EACH DAY, are dying because they wanted to feed their family. The reasons for these fatalities vary (and I will get into them more specifically in future blogs), but I'm sure the reasons for most include improper training, failure to follow procedures, and hurrying to get things finished.

4,609 PEOPLE. Every year. More than 1.5x the number of people that died on 9/11 (not to compare the two, but to put the number in perspective). Mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, friends. They left for work that morning, maybe kissing their child on the cheek while they slept, maybe hugging their spouse, maybe saying, "See you at dinner!" They had plans to take the kids to the movies, to celebrate their anniversary, to go on a fishing trip with friends, to see a show in the city, to work some overtime to save for that vacation to Disney, to work on that classic car sitting in the garage, to read a book, or a million other things. They had plans to live.

And these aren't just policemen who knowingly put their lives on the line for us or construction workers walking the beams of a high-rise. These are also factory workers, farmers, warehouse personnel, drivers, mechanics, and countless other occupations. Day in and day out, people are risking their lives at their jobs. Sometimes it's because the employer doesn't care how something gets done as long as it gets done and the employee is either uneducated in his or her rights or the safe way to do the job, or is simply afraid he or she will be fired if they don't do it as asked. Other times, employees know exactly what needs to be done and choose not to because it takes too much time, or it's uncomfortable, or it doesn't look cool. More dangerous is the invincibility factor - that idea we have as children that nothing can hurt us. It seems to carry over into the workforce at an alarming rate.

I always discuss the invincibility factor when I give a training class. My question to the group is always, "How many of these people who died in a work-related fatality, thought, 'Not me. It can't happen to me.'?" The answer? Every single one. Think about it. If I knew I was going to die when I tried to work on that electrical system when it was live, if I knew I was going to die when I decided to walk out on that 40' high steel beam, if I knew I was going to die when I entered that tank, manhole, or silo without checking the air, would I have continued on? No. They may have known it was a possibility, but if they did, they thought it couldn't happen to them. They were quicker, faster, stronger, or smarter than other people who had died doing the same thing. They could outrun or outmaneuver the hazard itself.

Or, they simply were not aware at all. They had never received training. They didn't understand how the chemicals involved interacted with one another or the environment. They didn't understand that in the blink of an eye you've fallen 6' - too far for you to reach out and grab something to catch yourself. They didn't understand that the operator of that piece of equipment has a blind spot. They didn't understand that all it takes is for somebody to not inspect the rigging equipment or improperly rig a load for it to fall from the crane hook. They didn't understand that an out of level scaffold can collapse pretty easily. They didn't understand that their shirt was too loose to be worn around a certain piece of equipment. They didn't understand how to use a fire extinguisher. They didn't understand how drowsy driving affects your reaction time.

And on and on and on.

Sadly, most family members have NO IDEA the risk their husbands, wives, sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers take on at work. Many would be distraught to find out. Yet, many workers and many companies continue on with their unsafe practices long after somebody like Signature Safety, their insurance company or even OSHA come out and tell them what needs to be done to operate safely. They believe they know how to do it better than anybody else. Some of you may be reading this blog right now, thinking, "That damn Safety Guy. What does he know?"

At some point in their career, EVERY safety professional has heard, "Well, I've been doing this for 20 years!" The best response to that came from a Vice-President at one of the companies I first worked for, in response to the Project Manager who said it. His reply? "Then it's about damned time you learned something."

And that's what this blog is for. It's not to preach to the choir. Safety Professionals have this ingrained into their heads day in and day out. This is for the CEO who wasn't previously aware of what was required of his company or worse, wasn't aware of the risks his employees are taking daily. This is for the worker who doesn't know how to do something safely, or that he has every right to demand a safe working environment with NO repercussions. This is for the spouse and other family members who had no idea that one simple mistake could mean their loved one will never return home - that their children will grow up without a mother or father. This is because after more than 40 years of having an organization like OSHA, we are STILL KILLING more than 4600 people a year and it's "About damned time we learned something."

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