Off The Wall: The Origin of Safety Third

Hey Mike –

I saw a guy in the airport wearing one of your Safety Third masks. I wish I had had mine! Anyway, his name is Keith, and thanks to you, I made a new friend!


Lindsay Sander

PS – How did you come up Safety Third?

Hi Lindsay

It started fifteen years ago in The Dirty Jobs Mudroom – where I used to converse online with fans of Dirty Jobs. Somebody there asked me if I thought safety was really “first,” and I said, “of course not.” Specifically, I wrote this: “No company in the history of the world has ever put the business of safety before the business of making money, and no employee has ever reported to work for the primary purpose of being safe. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.” Someone then asked me, “If safety isn’t first, then what is?” To which I replied, “Safety is too important to rank, but that doesn’t mean its first. ‘Safety Always’ would be a more sensible slogan, but I guess if I had to rank it, I’d put the desire to be safe after ‘the need to make money,’ and ‘the willingness to assume risk.’ In other words, ‘Safety Third.’”

My comments triggered a lively debate about who was ultimately responsible for an employee’s safety, and the best way to prevent accidents and injuries on the job. It was such a good conversation, I pitched Discovery a special called “Safety Third,” and they bought it. In that special, I looked back on a few of my most hazardous adventures on Dirty Jobs and argued that the “Safety First” approach to accident prevention was both intellectually dishonest, and a dangerous bit of virtue-signaling that over time, leads to complacency. In my experience, complacency is the true cause of most accidents, and nothing fosters complacency faster than an employer who convinces his employee that his safety is the responsibility of the company. I also argued that “Safety First” depended a lot on mandatory protocols, and that being “in compliance,” did not necessarily mean you were “out of danger.” In short, I argued that the Safety First approach to occupational safety was counter-intuitive.

Well, the controversy surrounding the Safety Third special fostered a lot more conversation, along with numerous articles and editorials, a few dustups with my friends at OSHA, and LOTS of pushback from safety professionals who wanted me to know that my safety really was their “number one priority.” I called bullshit, courteously. I asked one safety pro at Dupont if he worked for free.

“Of course not,” he said.

“Well, there you go,” I replied. “Money is more important than Safety.”

I heard from another guy at big railroad that I was being glib and irresponsible. “Undermining safety,” he said, “is not a productive way to move the conversation forward.”

“Really?” I said. “What do you call this then? When’s the last time you had a conversation like this on a public forum in front of this many people? How is this a bad thing?”

He sputtered for a bit, then pivoted. “My job is to eliminate risk,” he said. “And my people are safer when we put their safety first. Not third.”

“Your people are safer,” I said, “when you tell ‘em the truth. And the truth is, your railroad doesn’t exist for the purpose of keeping your employees safe. It exists for the purpose of moving people around the country for profit. And nobody on earth – even a safety professional like you – has the ability to eliminate risk. You should tell ‘em that.”

I also heard from an executive at a major airline, who assured me that he took “Safety First” literally and made damn sure his customers knew it! “It’s on the back of every seat on every plane,” he said. ‘Your Safety is Our Top Priority.’ And it’s not just a slogan – we mean it!”

“Well then, if nothing is more important to you than your customers safety, why do you take their money and allow them to enter a pressurized aluminum tube and defy gravity while flying through the skies at 600 miles an hour?”

I don’t recall his exact response, but it was not consistent with the language of the friendly skies.

Over the years – in my circle of friends and co-workers – ‘Safety Third’ became a replacement for ‘Safety First’ – a more honest way for me and my crew to say, “Be Careful.” It was never, as some people assumed, a challenge to take unnecessary risks. I was just a reminder that NOBODY should ever claim to care more about your safety that you. In the end, no amount of compliance could replace the role of personal responsibility, and while employers had an important role to play in eliminating as much risk as possible from the jobsite, our safety was ultimately up to us. And that’s probably where it would have ended, but for the pandemic and the recent lockdowns.

Two years ago on this page, after listening to elected officials tell me that ‘nothing was more important to them that MY safety,’ I knew they were selling something else. When Andrew Cuomo said, “No measure, no matter how draconian, can be deemed too extreme if it saves a single life,” I knew he was lying, and I knew what was coming next. And sure enough, it came with a vengeance. Safety First! It never failed. Every time an elected official wanted to extend the lockdowns a little bit further or justify a new mandate or defend some new restriction, they reminded me that my safety was their priority. Between Safety First! and “Follow the Science!” I was once again awash in bromides and platitudes, usually leveled by elected hypocrites who ignored their own edicts.

What to do then, in the face of such charlatans and double-dealers? What to do when Gavin Newsom tells me that masks must be worn for my own good, but refuses to wear one himself? That was question that led me to put “Safety Third” on cloth masks and start selling them to raise money for work ethic scholarships. I sold the masks with complete transparency. I told people I didn’t personally believe that a cloth mask would do anything to prevent the spread of an airborne virus, even if my governor did. I told everyone my Safety Third mask would keep you in compliance – but NOT out of danger. “This is a mask,” I wrote, “for anyone who wants to follow the rules, without being confused with those rule-followers who support mandates, or hypocritical politicians, or the elevation of safety above all else.”

Well, the conversation was once again, lively. But this time, fifteen years after Safety Third was first uttered, it’s finally taken hold. So far, the mikeroweWORKS foundation has raised nearly half-a-million dollars selling these completely ineffective, mildly subversive face coverings. All of that money will be given away in the coming months to help train the next generation of skilled workers. And every day, to my enduring delight, somebody sends me a picture like this. Proof positive that I’m not alone in my belief that safety – while always important – is never really first. In fact, I’ve been invited to discuss the evolution of Safety Third later this month at the 2022 Southeastern Leadership Conference on Safety, Health, and Sustainability in Orlando. I only mention it here, because it’s open to the public, and the organizers – The Florida Chamber of Commerce – have purchased hundreds of my Safety Third masks for those in the audience. How cool is that? Hopefully, no one will wear them, except for the giant group selfie I plan to take at the end my speech. But they’ll make for a nice souvenir, so if you’re in the Orlando area at the end of the month, stop by and hear the story straight from the horse’s mouth. Or, you can still get one here, for posterity, while they last.

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