Despite Magnificent Evolution, YOUR Safety Cannot be Your Employer’s Top Priority

From the MRW Water Cooler:

Q: Mike,

Years ago this country’s workers were deliberately kept in the dark about the dangers of their work and to stand up against employers or to question the practices would risk them being fired.

Personal responsibility is obviously important and when we feel it is the company’s fault we look for justice. We are a country of litigation – the need to have consequences for unduly risk and lack of safety concerns is important so history does not repeat itself.

How do you feel about the evolution of safety practices? – J

Safety in American workplaces has evolved magnificently from the days past. The question is – where does the evolution stop?

A few generations ago, it was “Safety Tenth.” The issue wasn’t even on the table – it was squarely on the back of the worker. Of course, the country was being built in a very specific way back then. The Industrial Revolution was driving changes on every societal level, and businesses were seen as engines of opportunity. Job Safety was not a big deal, in part because there were so few jobs. Conditions in general had been so previously wretched – unemployment and want had been so high they couldn’t even be charted. In other words, we had bigger problems as a society, and people were so grateful to have a job they were happy to assume real risk.

As the country prospered though, we decided that Safety Tenth was a bad idea. It didn’t distribute the Risk fairly between employer and employee, so we began to push corporations to make workplaces safer – very sensible. The forces that drove that evolution (labor unions, government regulations, massive court settlements,) were successful, and massive improvements were made in a relatively short period of time. Now, our expectations are altogether different. We’ve gone from holding the employee entirely accountable, to holding the company entirely accountable. We look for and expect an ever-increasing form of “justice” when lapses occur. We no longer compensate for Risk – we mitigate it. We manage it. And we do all we can to eliminate it. We’ve gone from Safety Tenth, to Safety First! And we are, in my humble opinion, out of balance once again.

I believe we might disagree on the “obvious” part of personal responsibility. Corporations have assumed most of the responsibility for the worker, because insurance companies will underwrite the risk, and our government demands it. The “obviousness” of personal responsibility is what I fear has gone missing.

Safety has evolved through, so have ethics, and how many times does a mine have to cave in before people realize it’s a damn dangerous business? I’d say once should do it.

The “we” I’m referring to are not the activists OR the business owners, but the vast majority of people who supported the changes and deemed them worthwhile. Society supported the evolution.

Businesses spend north of One Billion dollars every week to insure, train, and comply with a long list of regulations that simply didn’t exist before. How can it be couched that is “no kind of accountability?” Should they spend more? Should the list be longer? Reasonable people might disagree. Safety has improved at a breath-taking pace. Could it be better? Sure. But it’s come a long way, baby.

To me, justice occurs when people suffer the consequences of their actions and decisions. You break the law, you go to jail, you do a bad job, you get fired, you default on your car payment, and you lose your car. You run GM into the ground, you go bankrupt. You invest in GM and you lose your money. Justice means understanding and accepting the consequences of your actions. It is simply in our nature to want someone else to pay for our mistakes. Today, we have many policies and regulations that encourage that desire – far more than existed at any time in history.

“Safety Third” however, is not political; it’s just a reaction – my reaction – to the circumstances that exist in the world that I know. Nothing more. At base, it’s merely a reminder that no amount of combined compliance, assurance, training, drug-testing, or mandatory regulation can guarantee your safety, and nothing can ever hope to replace an individuals ability to exercise common sense and personal responsibility.

What drives people crazy is the apparent contradiction that exists in the following statement – “Compulsory programs are responsible for saving lives AND creating complacency.” The idea of incorporating the Safety Third message into an existing program, is to point out the inherent flaw in the belief that Safety can be made “first” by anyone other than the worker himself. It’s to get workers to understand that their employers – regardless of their very best intentions – are not in business for the purpose of keeping you safe. Therefore, YOUR safety cannot be their TOP priority. I would like to see companies admit that, without guilt or apology. Because I believe it would ultimately make for a safer working environment.


4 thoughts on “Despite Magnificent Evolution, YOUR Safety Cannot be Your Employer’s Top Priority

  1. Our views on justice are the same. I think the result of the bailouts will cause business to take more risk. Why not, if you make a mistake someone else will pay for it. Which of course is the same thinking regarding employees and safety being the responsibility of the employer.

    I don’t agree that it’s human nature to want someone else to pay for your mistakes. I think human nature is just the opposite. Once someone else pays for your mistakes, they own you. Maybe that is worth the price to someone who just bought your dignity.

  2. I read this blog one week after being injured on the job. I work with animals and I have been trained on how to properly handle and restrain them so we are both kept out of harms way. So much for that! I got bitten on the throat by a dog. When it comes right down to it I think the only job training that can prevent workplace injuries would be training to predict the future. Animals are unpredictable, the dog that bit me had never been aggressive before and I had handled him many times. I take full responsibility for my injury but I don’t necessarily believe I could have prevented it. At the end of the day you clean up the blood, slap on a band aid (or two or three) and get back to work.

  3. A bravo! Somehow I learned that stove burners were hot, blades were sharp, jumping instead of climbing out of trees hurt a lot more. When I found myself in a volunteer fire department I realized this was not a smart move, but an opportune one of ultimate responsibility – watch your a**, the ceiling, the floors, be sure you have water and air, and good people with you.

    I climb radio towers, part of my hobby to help communicate in time of need. No one is on that steel with me but 30# of web and clips and my 160# of hope-my-brain-works-right – it all has to – I’m coming down on my own power, packing my own gear, driving myself home!

    Yes, I expect my employers will provide obvious safety, and respect it when problems are pointed out, and risk stops until we figure it out, but no one should leave home telling their spouse “be sure to get a good lawyer to soak the company if I get stupid and hurt myself…” – leave the house with “I’ll do the best *I* can to come home!” How much time and productivity has been wasted by workers calling the shop steward over to assess a slippery floor or object left in their path versus cleaning it up and moving on?

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