A Safety Self Examination
Here’s an interesting idea: Call your corporate safety director into your office Monday morning and inform him that for the next 30 days he will no longer be a safety director, but rather whatever trades person you happen to decide that day. He will become a common laborer and assigned to daily job-site tasks – menial, repetitive, straining, dangerous, ugly, smelly, endless, thankless jobs — whenever available. The former safety director should hold a rank that answers, but does not command. No foreman or supervisor positions, please. He is to report to you 30 minutes early every day so that you can select the next destination. As a matter of fact, tell him that pay will also be commensurate with duties as laborer, truck driver, tradesperson, etc. This is a very important feature, as the amount on the paycheck always bears directly on the worker’s work attitude, quality of performance, and productivity. If, at the end of the month, he wishes to make extra credit and a possible bonus check, ask him to submit 20 daily logs in which he has recorded his own personal safe and unsafe work practices in starkly honest detail.
Back in the DitchDoes this sound a little preposterous? After training 4,500 workers in nine states in OSHA and MSHA regulations for the past five years, auditing and inspecting numerous contractors, writing specific safety and health programs, and at the ripe old age of 55, this is exactly what I have done. A friend of mine recently mentioned that he desperately needed some “meat” (an affectionate term for day labor) on all of his jobs. Like so many contractors, he had taken on more than he could comfortably handle, dividing his larger crews into two-man teams and spreading them around to satisfy his customers. Productivity and morale were in the dumpster.
He needed some help right now and thought I might know of someone. So, I packed some jeans and extra socks, sprayed some Lysol on my ratty old tool belt and in four hours was standing on his doorstep with my lunchbox and bottle of Advil. When he stopped laughing at the site of an ancient, “husky,” mouth-breathing geezer at his desk, he told me to be at the job site with coffee and fat-pills (donuts) for the crew in 30 minutes. He told me what he was paying for “meat” as I drove away, and the thought of driving home again crossed my mind. That was six weeks ago.
Every night after 10 to 14 hours of degrading and exhausting work (which I would have described as light-duty three decades ago) I would drag myself back to my boss’s guestroom. If I didn’t pass out in the shower, I would fall asleep during dinner. There was always another hour or two of paperwork, studying prints and specs, or working up material take-offs and labor allocations for the next day. But before falling asleep, I managed to keep a diary of my accomplishments. Most of my remarks pertained to the job-site safety and how I either contributed to it or diminished it. I was brutally honest (cheap day labor will do that to you). I divided my actions every day into risky and not-so risky categories.
At first glance, while I was trying to fit into a crew of strangers, there really didn’t seem to be much real safety going on. All of my expectations were false. I expected my years of training and experience in the safety field would over-ride my contractor experience and I would become THE annoying safe worker on the site. Not true. I expected I had forgotten many of the tricks of the trade over the years. Not true, although many of the new ones surprised me. I expected there would be an initial period of adjustment and then I would be giving toolbox safety talks each morning. Not true. I expected to be practicing my years of first-aid training on the site, never even realizing it would be on myself. I don’t know about you, but what I like about waking up each morning isn’t the challenge of the unknown, but the fact that you’re given new feathers every day. At the rate I got plucked, I needed them.
The Results Are InNot that I am proud of these results, but I think I had better do this on a regular basis as long as I plan on teaching safety to a room full of guys in flannel shirts and worn-out boots. When I suggest that they spend two hours setting up a compliant fall-protection system on a roof gable 40-feet above the backfill in order to perform an hour’s work, I better remember what it felt like to be a day late and a dollar short.
While safety does eventually pay back, it is often in a currency that we ignore in the working world. The time, effort and money spent erecting lifelines, anchors and donning harnesses is often too hard to justify when just last week, we were up on a ridge without any protection and everyone survived. Unsafe work practices are great at saving time and money until they give up against the inevitable house odds. The word on most sites is: “This is construction, accidents are going to happen.” They certainly will when we accept that our unadjusted behaviors will lead us there.
Well, how did I score on my own safe work behavior exam? Keep in mind that I am scoring based on recalled incidents within the last six weeks. I suspect that in my perpetual exhaustion, I many have repeatedly conducted myself either safely or unsafely and never noticed my behavior. I have listed both my safe (OSHA-compliant) and unsafe (OSHA violated) work behaviors and the number of times I noticed each incident or behavior. Many of the items in the unsafe category may not have been violations, but a matter of degree based on my own value judgements.
ConclusionI evaluate trainees in my classes by means of a written, multiple-choice exam and a “hands-on” performance and evaluation. The written exam score must be 70 percent to pass and the qualitative performance is evaluated on how well each trainee handles his or her work tasks and site conditions while remaining compliant with the standards. In light of these criteria and my unscientific incident assessments, my job performance wouldn’t get me a passing grade in my own class. In addition, if I was self-employed with my knowledge of the standards, many of my OSHA violations would have been deemed “willful” and sustain a possible multiplier of 10 times the standard penalty.
It is important to note that, knowing my inclination toward safety, my employer never asked me to perform any task without thinking about the safest way to do it. The time it would take was never an issue. He would often call us together to discuss the practical, quality and safety issues to a job, sincerely weighing our input. Anytime there was risk that I considered unnecessary under any circumstances, I was always offered another task without criticism or penalty. He was very insistent on good housekeeping on the job, not only because of the stupid accidents it prevents, but also for the professional appearance of his job sites.
In several cases, where the conditions or acts were immediately dangerous to life or health, I stopped work and we did not proceed until everyone was satisfied that the condition was corrected. Many times, we determined we could reduce but not totally eliminate a particular hazard. This was often just what we needed to proceed with caution and watch out for each other until the risk was passed. The buddy system is an inexpensive and practical method of reducing injury rates in construction. Assigning everyone on the crew another crewmember whose life and safety are their personal responsibility is an awesome obligation. Although non-PC marriage jokes are plentiful, I have never seen a worker take this assignment lightly.
While I only lost five pounds and a lot of sleep in six weeks, I am better for the experience. I learned a lot of new jokes and made some new friends. I enjoy working with my hands, but realize that at my age “smarter not harder” was a worthy goal. I re-learned that I am naturally lazy and will take the shortest route to the end when it is presented. I must remain consistently vigilant for job site hazards and cautiously determine what I am going to do about them. A paycheck is always welcome, but being in a hurry to get it can become painful and regrettable. I was reminded that the best way to practice construction safety is to take small bites, but to do it every day. All of my best intentions to work safely pale in comparison to the opportunities on site to be injured or worse.
Before I headed home and back to my job as a safety instructor, I sat down with my friend and thanked him for the opportunity to work with him. “By the way,” I added, “you might consider taking a month off and becoming a safety instructor to see how it feels.” He laughed and replied, “I wouldn’t last one paycheck carrying that much weight.”