By James Sharpe
Mike Rowe has dared to disturb the dogma that safety should be the first consideration in the industrial workplace. The feud between the star of the “Dirty Jobs” show on the Discovery Channel and safety professionals dates at least to 2008. The latest row came recently from an editorial in a safety publication, which accused Rowe of being “nobody’s safety model.”
“Safety First!” as a slogan annoyed Rowe so much he once convinced Discovery to air a one-hour special irreverently called “Safety Third.” During that show, which he said sparked a flood of angry mail from the likes of OSHA, NASA, labor unions and Fortune 500 companies, he spelled out his views. He has been defending them ever since.
Dirty jobs are often dangerous jobs, too. But Rowe said during the show’s first three seasons, not a single member of his production crew was hurt. Then the roof fell in. Stitches, broken bones, sprains, bruises, falls, burns and a lot of near misses. His mind-altering experience came when someone was crushed to death by a huge door during a factory shoot. In the break room, Rowe spied a banner proclaiming “We Care About Your Safety!” That got him thinking and looking into the safety literature.
Rowe chides those who consider safety a value. Not that he would disagree. It’s just that there are other values too: cost, productivity, quality, etc. Valuing safety at the top, as in “Safety First!,” grates on Rowe because he believes safety is too important to be reduced to a platitude. But, if that is how it has to be, he would prefer the Boy Scout motto “Safety Always” instead.
In his view, it is also dishonest. He considers Safety Third, which Rowe appears to have invented out of rebellion, to be more truthful. “When a business tells you they are more concerned with your safety than anything else, beware. They are not being honest,” he said. “They are hedging their own bets and following the advice of lawyers hired to protect them from lawsuits arising from accidents.”
Companies hire people to do a job. “In the history of commerce, no one has been hired for the express purpose of not getting injured,” he told a fierce critic recently. Safety may be critical and a symptom of a happy existence or a successful job, he added, “[b]ut it is not the goal of the existence or the purpose of the work.”
During the Discovery special, Rowe asked his viewers to consider how much less advanced of a civilization we would be had safety been supreme. Would we be flying today if safety had trumped the Wright Brothers’ desire to go airborne?
Rowe attributed the rash of “Dirty Jobs” accidents to complacency. Before each job, he and his crew had to undergo safety training, including what Rowe referred to as instruction on “rote procedures and mindless protocols.” Professionals were involved who offered assurances that the crew’s safety was their responsibility. The complacency this produced led the crew to let its guard down, and that’s when the accidents started, he theorized.
Rowe’s research told him that the level of workers’ risk-taking is based on their perception of risk. If workers deem the risk to be high, they are more vigilant; low, and they become less careful. If safety professionals say workers’ safety is their responsibility, then the workers, feeling safe, are apt to take more risks, he reasoned.
Therefore, Rowe has come to the conclusion that all the false assurances, safety programs, rote methods and “mindless protocols” are mostly about legal compliance.
They also have the very serious unintended consequence of eroding workers’ sense that safety works best when employees use common sense and take personal responsibility for what they do or don’t do. He does not advocate elimination of the established ways of doing things safely, only that they be improved.
“OSHA alone cannot make us safe, because real safety is not about following the rules, or wearing the proper gear, or sitting through all the mandatory meetings. Sure, those things are important,” he said.
“But real safety starts with a true understanding that no one on the planet can make your survival a priority but you. ‘Safety Third’ simply means that ultimately, I am in charge of me. No one else.”
We’ll give you our take on Rowe’s opinions next month.