Third Time’s the Charm…or so we believe

Soooo… an editorial appeared in the May issue of the Industrial Safety & Hygiene News (ISHN) Magazine. Needless to say, Mike wanted to further help clear the confusion about “Safety Third” and try to help people understand what he’s been saying all along.  Over here at mrW, we know how busy he is and were quite surprised to get his thoughtful reply to the editorial.  I mean, he’s traveling more than ever and people write stuff about him all the time without talking to him.  Anyway, we decided to post his reply first and then the editorial that sparked it.  Read it and decide for yourself – what do you think about safety on the job?:

Mike wrote Dave a letter in response to the editorial below. Here it is:

Hi Dave –

Mike Rowe here, Dirty Jobs, etc.

I’m writing to thank you for your article in May’s edition of ISHN, and for sharing with your readers a few of my comments on workplace safety. Over the years, I’ve learned that some Safety Professionals do not always welcome criticism, especially from a smart aleck TV Host. I don’t blame them. No one likes to be second-guessed by a wise guy who needs a bath and has no credentials. Thanks for keeping an open mind, and providing some context for my comments. Here’s some additional background that you’re welcome to share with your readers, if you think it would be of interest.

The comments you attributed to me first appeared in a blog called Safety Third, which I wrote for my website back in 2008. Safety Third told the stories of my various encounters with over-zealous Safety Officers. The first one I recall, involved a very cranky gentleman who demanded I wear a harness while working on a scaffold that was maybe four feet off the ground. When I pointed out that the safety line attached to the harness was longer than the distance between the ground and me, he said, “Don’t argue! Safety First!” Later that same week, a Safety Officer with The Department of Natural Resources interrupted our shoot to insist I put on a life jacket while installing a culvert in a run-off pond. The water in the pond was less than a foot deep. When I asked him to explain the need for a grown man to wear a life jacket in ten inches of water, he offered the same words of wisdom –“Safety First!”

I have never understood the point of ranking virtues and values in order of their importance. If Safety is First, what is Second? Or Fifth? Or Ninth? In the Boy Scouts, we used to say “Safety Always,” which made a lot more sense to me. Safety Third became my default reply whenever someone acted as though my Safety was theirresponsibility. On Dirty Jobs, I met many such people. And for a while, I actually believed them.

From 2004 to 2008, the Dirty Jobs crew visited more hazardous sites than any other crew in the history of television, from crab boats to coal mines the very tops of the tallest bridges, to crocodile infested swamps. During that time we sat through close to a hundred mandatory safety briefings. We all became intimately familiar with all the basic protocol – lock out tag out, confined space, fall hazards, respiratory precautions, PPE, the endless checklists, etc., etc. Through it all, trained professionals were on hand to remind us, (and our cameras) that our safety was their top priority.

For a while, it worked. We managed to deliver three seasons of Dirty Jobs with no accidents. Then things started to unravel. Stitches, broken bones, sprains, contusions, falls, a damaged eardrum, second and third degree burns, and many more near misses…it was weird. The job sites were no more dangerous than they’d always been, but the mishaps among my crew were skyrocketing. Then one day, a man was killed while we were shooting in a factory near Pittsburg. He was crushed by the door on a giant coke oven. In the break room, where I was told of the accident, a large banner said, “We Care About Your Safety!” That got me thinking about things like unintended consequences, and the dangers of confusing compliance with real safety.

I found a study on traffic accidents that claimed the most dangerous intersections were those with signs that told you when to walk and when to wait. Intersections with no such signs were statistically safer, apparently because people were more likely to look both ways before crossing the street if there was no blinking sign to tell them when it was safe to do so. According to the theory of Risk Compensation, people subconsciously maintain their own level of “risk equilibrium” by adjusting their behavior to reflect the changes in their surrounding environment. Thus, when the environment around us feels unsafe, we take fewer chances. And when that same environment feels safer, we take more chances. That got me wondering – if companies and Safety Professionals tell us over and over that our safety is their priority, wouldn’t that tend to make us feel safer? And wouldn’t that in turn, prompt us to take more risk, therefore making us…less safe?

I’m no expert, but I think that’s exactly what happened to my crew and me. Over time, we had become convinced that someone else was more committed to our wellbeing than we were. We became complacent. We were crossing the street because the sign told us it was safe to do so. But we weren’t looking both ways.

In 2009, Discovery agreed to air a one-hour special called Safety Third. On Safety Third, I talked candidly about mistakes we’d made on Dirty Jobs, and the unintended consequences of putting Safety First. I argued that many compulsory Safety programs discouraged personal responsibility in favor of Legal Compliance. I asked viewers to consider all the amazing progress that would have never occurred had Safety been valued above all else. (I also pointed out that if big companies really believed that Safety was First they would wrap their employees in bubble pack and send them home.) I concluded by saying that Safety Third was a lot more honest than Safety First, but ultimately, too important and too personal to be reduced to a platitude. But if we had to have one, my vote was for “Safety Always.”

Well, hell. I might as well have suggested that we replace steel-toed boots in favor of flip-flops. Or outlaw hardhats. I got a nasty letter from OSHA, and a flood of angry mail calling me a “bad role model.” NASA was pissed. So were several Labor Unions, and dozens of Fortune 500 companies who took exception to my “irreverent tone.” I even got a snippy letter from PETA, though I’m still not sure why.

Safety Third had ruffled a lot of feathers, but I was thrilled by the response. I answered all the angry mail, and went to speak personally to those organizations and companies who were most offended. For the most part, skeptics came to agree that the underlying concepts of Safety Third – common sense and personal responsibility – were still worth talking about, and conceded that any resulting conversation which might lead to heightened awareness would ultimately be a good thing. Your piece, Dave, is now a part of that conversation, and I’m grateful.

As for the rest of your article, there is one thing I need to address directly. While it’s true that I am “macho” far beyond the accepted definition, I am not as you suggest, “America’s number one blue-collar guy.” I have no “blue collar bona fides” to offer, and no permission to speak for anyone but me. It’s important to be clear about that, because my opinions are not necessarily those of Discovery, Ford, Caterpillar, Kimberly-Clark, Master Lock, Wolverine, VF Corporation/Lee, or anyone else with whom I may do business. In fact, I should thank all those companies for their patience with me, as many of my comments on this subject have been taken out of context, and have no doubt caused some internal discomfort.

The truth is Safety Third has caused me all sorts of headaches over the years, but I still think it’s a conversation worth having. Everyday, workers fall through the cracks of a one-size-fits-all safety policy. Complacency is the real enemy, and I’m pretty sure the way to eliminate it will not involve more rules and more soothing assurances that an individual’s safety is someone else’s priority. Workers need to understand that being “in compliance” is not the same as being “out of danger.” That’s not going to happen by repeating the same dogma that’s been out there for the last hundred years, and forcing people to watch thirty-year old safety films that would put a glass eye to sleep.

I realize that Safety Third sounds subversive and irreverent. It’s supposed to. But it’s not a call to completely dismantle accepted procedures and protocols. It’s an attempt to improve upon them, and generate a conversation around a topic that really does affect everyone; hopefully, a conversation that will lead to fewer injuries on the job. A few ruffled feathers seem a small price to pay.

Thanks again,
Mike Rowe

Mr. “Dirty Jobs” debunks some safety myths

By Dave Johnson
Is this any way for America’s number one blue-collar guy to talk:

“Of all the platitudes embraced in the workplace there is none more pervasive, erroneous, overused and dangerous than ‘Safety First!’”

“In the jobs I have seen thus far, I can tell you with certainty, that safety, while always a major consideration, is never the priority.” “Never. Never, ever. Not even once.”

“Making money is more important than safety — always.”

Calling out the emperor

Perhaps only macho Mike Rowe is man enough to call out the emperor for forgetting his clothes. Lots of people say this heretical stuff under their breath. Mike lowers the boom. It’s a dirty job but he’s used to it, having hosted the show, Dirty Jobs, on the Discovery Channel since 2005.

Seems Mike has been caught out of compliance, not wearing the proper safety gear, more than once on his show. (So have we on the magazine cover.) One viewer posted this comment on

“My husband works on the oil rigs as a well tester. We watched you folks do so without any eye protection! Are you crazy? Drilling a hole with no protective eyewear? Between him, a well tester, and me, a workers’ compensation lawyer, we’re cringing! Somebody could LOSE AN EYE! Seriously — Safety First fellas!”

Mike the non-conformist

Rowe’s response might make a safety pro cringe: “It is not the objective of “Dirty Jobs” to conform to any particular set of safety standards, other than those dictated by the people for who I happen to be working at the time. I take my cues from them.”

So Mr. Blue Collar is a non-conformist who plays follow the leader. He’d make for an interesting subject in a safety orientation session.

Mike comes in, grabs a chair, and tells you about his own safety orientation. (The following come from Mike’s own writings.) “Safety is important,” he says, “but not more important than getting the job done.” You know, many companies would hire him on the spot. “This guy gets it!”

Unmitigated nonsense

It’d be a good idea to hide your “Safety First” posters if Mike comes to your dirty job site. He calls the “Safety First” slogan “a load of unmitigated nonsense.”

We’ll let Mike elaborate: If an employer tells you safety is the most important thing, don’t believe it. That causes workers to become complacent and careless, he says.

Which is a problem, because in Mike’s world it’s every man for himself. No one has your back. You gotta suck up your own responsibility.

Back to the safety orientation session. You tell Mike all about your company’s emphasis on safety, how you want him and every other worker to go home at night safe and healthy. That this is a core cultural value.

I see Mike leaning back in his chair, grinning that friendly, slightly goofy grin, shaking his head, and breaking out laughing. After all, he has written that “When a business tells you that they are more concerned with your safety than anything else, beware. They are not being honest. They are hedging their own bets, and following the advice of lawyers hired to protect them from lawsuits arising from accidents.”

Let’s get real

I’ve never heard a public figure be so… blunt about safety. Thanks, Mike, you’re nobody’s role model but you cut through decades of safety BS. But be careful about blanket generalizations, buddy. Every business is lying about its safety intentions? I’ve talked with CEOs who sure aren’t lying when they say never again do they want to make a midnight phone call to the wife of a worker just killed in an accident.

Rowe says he wears safety belts and motorcycle helmets not because it’s the law, but because it seems like a reasonable precaution to him and “the only one responsible for my own safety is me.”

Go observe someone else

Here is where Mr. Blue Collar lets too many folks off easy. Senior leaders have no responsibility for his safety. Supervisors, forget ’em. Safety managers, you don’t have to worry about Mike Rowe, go train someone else. Just watch out because Mike might play fast and loose with safety laws if that what he sees people around him doing.

Don’t try to hook Mike up with a safety coach or mentor; I doubt the conversation will go far. And Mike is not your best subject for an observation and feedback session. You probably won’t like the feedback you get from him. And by all means, keep the “Brother’s Keeper” and “Actively Caring” stuff away from him.

Comments on Mike’s website replying to his post about safety are refreshingly politically incorrect. For instance:

“You very clearly pointed out that your employer (everyone’s employer) simply does not make our safety their priority. Thank you for that bit of truth-telling.”

“Safety is never the first priority and all these laws and rules and BS are intended to minimize statistically insignificant risk while ignoring major risk.”

“In business, business always comes first. An employer cares more about lawsuits and their workers’ comp rates than your safety. We always say: Safety Third.”

There is truth in some of what Mike Rowe has to say about safety. Thankfully Mike goes on to make some generalizations about attitudes toward safety that cross the line of reason and remind you that, yes, he’s not a model, he’s acting.

Original article on ISHN – HERE

3 thoughts on “Third Time’s the Charm…or so we believe

  1. It’s pretty sad when the man you are chastising can respond more intelligently and more professionally. You may not like what he has to say (due to your specific industry) but you can’t argue with the truth. The big boys in the corner office only care about lawsuits and the work comp rates. Especially considering they don’t even know the names of the guys in the mail room. Big business doesn’t care about your individual safety, they care about their pockets. Those cute little posters are a nice touch though…

  2. Honestly, the LAST thing I want the President of the company I work for is worrying about safety. If he’s worried about safety, it means he’s not running the business, in which case our company has larger problems than knowing if Joe Smith is wearing his 6′ safety harness when he’s 3′ off the ground or not. Honestly, these clowns in the safety departments and at OSHA are clueless when it comes to real safety. You want pretty window dressing? Yeah, they are your go to peeps. I admire their tenacity but man are their good intentions misguided.

  3. There was a town in England that removed all the traffic signals in town one night and just left people to deal with intersections and traffic on their own. They interviewed people before and after. Before, they all said they were pretty sure it would be pure chaos…..but afterwards they were each and every one completely amazed at the results. Routes that used to take 40 minutes were traveled in 15. There were *zero* accidents…..people became courteous and took turns. It was a very fascinating experiment with using *less* safety to ensure *more* safety. When people weren’t told what to do, they took the time to understand what they were doing and the consequences. And life was better…..

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