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‘Dirty Jobs’ host responds to ISHN editorial

Mike Rowe says Safety Third is "a conversation worth having'

June 25, 2012
KEYWORDS dirty / discovery / jobs / rowe / safety
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Mike RoweNote: This letter by the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” host Mike Rowe is in response to a May issue editorial written by ISHN Chief Editor Dave Johnson about Rowe’s comments on workplace safety. Click here to read Johnson’s piece.  

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 their responsibility. 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, 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 individuals 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

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Safety Manager

June 25, 2012
Great discussion that really makes you think. I can give an example that supports the safety overkill approach that some companies employ. We were cited for not having a guard on one of our machines. For 25+ years employees have seen this machine and get the message "my hands should not be anywhere near this machine when in operation". Well it happened, a 19 year old kid didn't get that message, got hurt, and we were fined. When discussing the fines with OSHA we were told "you need to protect your employees from themselves". What does that mean?... I asked. "You need to guard this machine so that if you had an amployee that WANTED to get hurt on that machine, they couldn't because guards and interlocks wouldn't allow it". Problem is this machine cannot be 100% guarded 100% of the time, it has to eject the work piece. So unless you have a shop where there is no possible way to committ suicide, you are citable by OSHA for any and all injuries because even if they don't have a standard, they still have the GDC. Sorry, I have to go train my drivers now so they understand driving on the wrong side of the road is a bad idea.

Retired from a Dangerous occupation-in one piece

William Witt
June 28, 2012
Great insight Mike, and as a former Scout that was taught the same things you were. It helped keep me safe in my career with the Railroad-over 30 years injury-accident free. Keep up the great work Mike- When Mike speaks--you best listen.

safety consultant, President

Bruce Ayrton
June 28, 2012
I thank you for sharing this letter from Mike as it does put some safety ideas into persepective. I also read Jason's comments and once again cringed at OSHA mind set. They are all about not being realistic but more interested in issuing fines for non compliance for all of their rules. In most cases, the OSHA compliance officer is hector the inspector mentality. They come in look at OSHA logs, do an inspection, and issue citations. In many cases, clients that I work with for insurance carriers are intmidated by OSHA and do not look at them as an organization that may help. In far too many instances, I am looked at in the same light until I sit down and talk to people and explain what I see as problems and tell them the losses they are encountering are costing them $ and in many cases are not covereb by insurance just a drain on their profits. This gets management attention way better then citing OSHA incidence rates. OSHA to me is about things and does little to nothing to deal with the primary control fo workplace safety - management, and then the human factor. Sometimes we "safety professionals" also lose sight of the big picture and just say do it - much like Mike has said in his letter. There may be no rhyme or reason but, you need to do this, or wear this, or whatever. Very enlightening and I will use some examples with clients

Rex Butler
June 28, 2012
This is a brilliant and honest response. When I read the editorial, I was left with the impression that Rowe didn't really regard safety very highly, but reading his response, I see that he actually gets it and deals with the same frustration those of us in the field have dealt with for years and year. I'm serious, this letter strikes a serious chord and does a great job of revealing the lack of honesty in compliance-based safety.

EHS Manager

Barry Mccoy
June 28, 2012
"Safety Always" says it best. One of the problems I have to confront weekly is someones misinterpretation of a policy or regulation. These people rarely weigh what they are saying. Mikes fall Protection example is right on. Wearing the fall protection would make him look good as he hit the ground. Complacency IS the biggest problem the safety professional faces. It is our job to provide the training and a safe workplace to allow the employee to do his hazard assessment and act in a responsible manner. Thanks for the perspective Mike.

Safety Coordinator

June 28, 2012
I think Mike Rowe has hit the nail on the head. While it is the job of a Safety Officer to provide procedures, policies, equipment,etc. that are supposed to make the job more safe - it is ultimately the responsibility of the individual to use that knowledge, equipment and to do the job safely. I vote for Mike!

Safety and Quality Control Manager

June 28, 2012
Nothing frustrates me more than ding something "just because." I not only agree with the principles of "safety third," but those two words are something that I myself have said for years. I never knew Mike Rowe thought along the same terms as myself in that respect, and it's good to hear. When we take away all the personal responsibility and make it a mandate to protect everyone from everything, the end result is going to be inattentiveness and laziness. During my weekly meetings I always firmly stress that individual responsibility is the most important factor in a safe workplace. "Safety Always" might just be my new favorite way to approach it. (Everyone just laughed at me when I would say "safety third fellas!" but I wan't necessarily joking...)


June 28, 2012
Smart guy, that Mike. I wish a lot of my clients gave as much thought to safety as Mike has.


June 28, 2012
Smart guy, that Mike! I wish more of my cleints gave as much thought to safety as Mike has.

President, Safety Manager, OSHA Outreach Trainer

Pete Michaud
June 28, 2012
I have always liked Mike Rowe. Now I admire him even more. I will remember this article and use his ideas in the future.

Peter Knopp
June 29, 2012
Interesting…………………. The debate is really about is “Safety a Priority or Value?” Basically Mike Row sums this up when he says “Safety Always”, which really means safety is a value. Expanding this there are lots of anecdotal evidence that safety incidents increased after safety precautions were improved. There appears limited empirical data to support this except in isolated incidents. But it is what it is. And it is a “Truth” that people switch off or change their actions based on the environment. A perfect application of the “Experiences -> Beliefs -> Actions -> Results” hierarchy I agree that employers have a duty of care and that people have a responsibility for their own safety. The problem is when people believe safety is solely someone else’s responsibility (the employer, the government etc.) not their own. Unfortunately we can easily be sucked in to the outdated theories of Heinrich if we aren’t careful, which is where some employers go because it’s easier to single out one factor as a cause rather that admit safety is a complex issue and is significantly influenced by culture on all levels.

Safety Professional; CSP

Anthony Carter
July 8, 2012
Now Mike's talking! Safety ALWAYS is good. I also believe Safety EQUAL. It has to have the same business approach as profit, engineering, budgeting, scheduling, quality, etc. When you can't take safety "out" of the process, it has begun to become a value. Mike explained it well and as a safety professional, I'll use his thoughts and "plagairize" when appropriate.

Jack Gooden
July 20, 2012
Well said throughout. As a Project Safety Manager, I'm going to start using a moto I'd forgotten about (The one the Boy Scouts use), "Safety ALWAYS". Yes my company has its "Safety By Choice" mindset, but this will be an addition that I'll use on the project I'm currently on.

President / CEO Safety Consulting Solutions

Bubba Essary
October 17, 2012
I am glad to see some of Mike's reasons and explanations to his thought pattern. I do agree that mere compliance does NOT mean out of danger. Safety for our workers is an ever-changing evolving program. The biggest issue I see on a variety of heavy industrial construction site is the lack of personal responsibility & accountability for one's own actions with regards to their own personal safety. This is a conversation worth having at all levels of management and with our workers.


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