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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: Fighting the good fight

March 14, 2003
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Who wants to be known as a nag, a naysayer, a safety nazi? Not in John Wayne's America, land of the free and home of the brave. No wonder safety pros often are cast as outsiders, idealists, or worse yet, a non-strategic transactional service function, in the words of one consultant.

It takes a certain kind of guts to stand up for safety. This struck me a few weeks ago listening to a radio program dissect the concept of courage - who's got it, why some fight while others flee. Look at a safety pro's job description: You get to give the bad news to assorted managers, clients, employees, lawyers, insurers, regulators, unions, the public and the press. Good news makes you invisible - nothing has happened.

You wade into conflict - with risk-takers, slouches, the so-called accident-prone, maybe substance abusers, plus deal with stressed-out supervisors and preoccupied managers. You get to cite policies, enforce rules, exact discipline, conduct investigations, talk about behaviors, break up horseplay, point out dangers, lecture on good housekeeping, and maybe shut down the line and bring the place to a stand-still. And we wonder why many safety and health people feel out of the loop in organizations?

"I had a lot of fights with management, labor, and the government," recalls one safety vet. "I use to tell management, 'I don't get paid to blow sunshine in your face'." Or as another pro puts it: "My job is to create dissonance."

Great. Just what the boss ordered. And if you really succeed, you might just work yourself out of a job.

Or get fired for fighting the good fight. "You're stupid, not courageous," an industrial hygienist was told on his first job. Inspecting a food service operation, he beat back three youths armed with a broken glass bottle and scissors who were slamming the head of a female employee into the floor after she caught them stealing. "I received a certificate of appreciation from the county sheriff's office - and my employer gave me a written disciplinary notice stating I would be fired if I ever took similar actions," he said. Why? His employer could be sued if his actions harmed anyone while he was on the job.

Looking the other way

No doubt you've heard the loud wailing and gnashing of teeth these days over high-falutin' issues like accountability, transparency, ethical conduct and corporate responsibility. Basically, after the spate of scandals involving everyone from Martha Stewart to the U.S. Olympic Committee, trust levels are in the tank.

"What we've seen are examples of companies with a culture of, 'I don't see anything, I don't know anything'," the executive director of the Ethics Officer Association said in a news report. "People are not willing to speak up, people are willing to go along."

So now it's chic to blow the whistle. Time magazine put three whistletooters on its cover and named them "People of the Year" in 2002. Business Week heralds a new age of squealing on the boss. Companies are setting up toll-free ethics hotlines or Web sites where workers can anonymously sound off.

So? Safety and health pros are handed a whistle when they take the job. Have been all along. What they do with it is a matter of choice, and courage.

"The force of the paycheck crimps the nerve," says one. He recalls the "tremendous pressure" put on him and workers in one job "not to miss a day." When one employee suffered a severe ankle injury early in the day, "we got him back to work that afternoon sitting on a bench just inside the office door," says the safety pro. "He should have been at home. I'm quite certain he discouraged everyone who passed by. This went on for weeks. It was wrong and I knew it. I should have stood up to management but didn't. The record was so important."

Truth - and consequences

Can you blame him? Half the whistleblowers surveyed last year by the National Whistleblower Center (everyone gets their own "center" in this country) claim they were axed after speaking up. Almost one in five had raised red flags over health and safety concerns.

In June 2001, we ran a story by Clete Kijek, who took his complaints about extreme heat conditions in his workplace to OSHA after the company turned its back. "Whistleblowers are like lambs going to the slaughter," he wrote. "Think hard before you become a whistleblower. It will change your life forever."

Bringing back trust

In January, the World Economic Forum convened in the Swiss Alps to ask: "How can trust be restored to a world whose faith in itself has been shaken?" Don't ditch people who raise safety and health concerns, for one thing.

Is it possible? Some pros fortunately work for companies that value safety. "I have no issues," says one. But many pros would say, "Get real." Which is what should be said about the supposed sea change in corporate citizenship. Until many companies walk the PR talk, better to screw up your courage and hang on to your flak jacket.

- Dave Johnson, Editor

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