Let us step back and reflect on the sweat, blood and tears that built this great nation. Think about the men and women that gave their lives. Labor Day is the day for us to remember these great workers. We should celebrate their lives, accomplishments, learn from their mistakes and hold them in great regard every day of the year.

Slow progress

In the late 1960s we had about 20,000 workers killed on the job every year. This was too many, and Congress came up with OSHA. OSHA was, and still is, a great idea. It took another 20 years to get the numbers down to 10,000 deaths, and it has taken another 25 years to get down to an average of 5,000 deaths per year. Yes the numbers are going down slowly, but going down is the only way.

A huge effort

Any one of those 5,000 workers will tell you Congress’s OSHA plan is still not working.
That’s because they do not see the man hours spent behind the scenes working on safety plans, safety training and the huge effort that goes on daily by many great safety folks to try and make a safer workplace.

To be a safety person is a double-edged sword. You care about the workers but you can feel alone. You have to make tough decisions about safety and at times it really is a thankless job -- no one seems to listen or care. Sometimes having a safety and health leader almost seems pointless. Until you see all your workers alive and well; then you know the job is worth it.

Night to remember

I remember 26 years ago when I opened that body bag in the morgue the night my son Pat was killed on the job. All I could think of was where was OSHA? Where was the company safety guy? Did anyone care for my son that day?

When I found out the safety guy and company did not care about him, and OSHA had issues with this company many, many times and did nothing, I knew I had to do something in a positive way. I had to help. I had to fix the problem.

My studies led me to find out OSHA, a paper tiger, was not doing the job Congress wanted it to do. I had to find a way to change workplace safety. I started traveling, teaching, doing safety workshops and talking to anyone that would listen, year after year, meeting after meeting anywhere, anyone.

After 26 years, I believe I will never see the true end of workplace disasters. I have learned what needs to happen, though. OSHA needs to do more to lead and champion workplace safety. It needs to stand its ground and not back down when enforcement has the violators dead to right. The agency needs to educate more and use its resources better. 

Safety professionals need to up their game, too. There can always be more leadership and oversight of safety in the workplace and most of all, making sure the employee takes responsibility for his or her safety.

Owning safety

I have preached for years that personal responsibility is the key to workplace safety. Let me say it again, Personal Responsibility. I hear employees say, “The safety man is taking care of my safety.” He is to a certain extent, but it is the employee’s ultimate responsibility to make sure he is safe at work -- no one else. He or she is the one who is going to suffer the loss of limb, the painful blast to the body, the loss of life.

To all the safety and health professionals reading this, I believe until we get employees to take responsibility for their own safety, we will still see staggering numbers of injuries and deaths on the job. Twenty-six years of sweating over and studying the issues have led me to this belief. I deeply believe this is true.

Let’s take a step back this Labor Day – and every day -- to reflect on how we can bring the injury and death rates down. How we can make work safer ourselves. How the responsibility is on all of us.

After 70 years on this earth, I have learned the meaning of life: Leave this place better than we found it. Let’s make it happen.