By James Sharpe
Last month, we summarized controversial views the star of the “Dirty Jobs” television show has made about workplace safety. The heart of Mike Rowe’s heresy is that corporate pronouncements stating safety trumps all else, as in the “Safety First!” slogan, are dishonest. In addition, complacency arises when safety professionals claim worker safety is their responsibility. That, in turn, brings on accidents. Rowe contends that safety is the worker’s sole responsibility.
There is a ring of truth to the actor’s claim about dishonesty. Most companies exist to make money or, in the case of non-profits or government agencies, to provide a service. It is quite possible safety does come first in some firms, but it is not likely to be the top priority in most. Shareholders demand a return on their investment. To be sure, a safe workplace contributes to the bottom line, but it’s not all that does. Rowe’s pitch for the Boy Scout motto of “Safety Always” makes more sense to me. I would just amend it by giving equal priority to health.
However, I don’t believe assigning responsibility for safety exclusively to the worker makes any more sense than assigning it solely to the worker’s employer. In fact, the lopsided accountability for safety assigned to mine operators by the Mine Act is one of the biggest beefs I have against the statute.
Having No Say
Individual workers generally have no say in the type of machinery that is purchased or how a process is set up. Those decisions fall to management. If management has no responsibility for safety (or health), then a cheaper, louder machine may be purchased or a process designed with no thought to ergonomics. The result could well be hearing loss and musculoskeletal injuries.
Some supervisors, indifferent or downright hostile to safety, have been known to demand work be done that could get people hurt unnecessarily. An employee, fearing termination, may comply even though the risk is self-evident. For that person, the unpleasant choices come down to the risk of personal injury or of financial hardship. We’ve all heard that (1) safety starts at the top, and (2) what gets measured gets done. If safety is not emphasized throughout an organization, accidents will be an inevitable byproduct.
To make a point, Rowe described an experience of once being in an open pit gold mine in Colorado. At one point, he walked far away from the shoot, sat down on a rock and began to eat a sandwich. Off came his hardhat and safety glasses. A safety officer confronted him. Rowe said he “tried to reason with her” but “[s]he could not allow common sense into the conversation.” Legal compliance, not safety, was her concern, he concluded.
But why, one wonders, wasn’t that reason enough to don his PPE? Was it because the company would be on the hook for any fine, not him? Besides, safety was an issue; a sudden breeze could have blown dust into his unprotected eye.
Rowe said he bases his decisions about safety on what people for whom he is working dictate and on his own common sense. “I often take a variety of safety precautions that seem prudent to me,” he said. Compliance with safety standards, considered under the law as merely a minimum level of protection, is not considered. Wow! As for common sense, a “Dirty Jobs” viewer once took him to task for working on a drill rig without protective eyewear. An accidental squirt in the eye from some hazardous process chemicals might sharpen his common sense, if not his eyesight.
Rowe’s “I’ll do it my way” posture is over the top. But he reaches stratospheric-level irreverence and insensitivity over his remarks concerning safety professionals. In describing the Colorado incident, he said the safety officer was “loud,” “literally wagged her finger,” “was a robot,” and “began to show signs of hysteria.”
She feared a MSHA fine and, as a consequence, her job, he said. “Her tantrum, of course, had nothing to do with a genuine concern for my well-being, and nothing at all to do with any attendant risk,” Rowe concluded.
In another instance, Rowe blasted Harry, another safety professional, who had written Rowe to give the actor a full-page lecture on safety. “Personally, I have found that most safety experts who staunchly defend the Safety First mantra are financially biased,” Rowe responded. “As ‘professionals,’ they are paid to comply, paid to obey, and paid to enforce whatever existing protocol happens to be on the books.”
If that’s what he thinks of safety pros, I’d hate to hear what he has to say about inspectors.
No one would argue that individual workers should not take personal responsibility for safety. But the job of safety is not theirs alone. Moreover, the bulk of safety officials I know are in the business because they genuinely want to keep people safe. To them, it’s a calling, a noble one at that. To denigrate an entire profession because their job is to help people work safely is completely without substance and reflects a startling ignorance. He owes them an apology.
Rowe has something worthwhile to say about safety, but his bias toward individualism and his harshness undercut his message. He’s a professional actor, not a safety professional. ‘Nuff said.
James Sharpe holds a master’s degree in environmental health sciences and is certified in the comprehensive practice of industrial hygiene, health and safety.