You don’t expect to see a picture of a dead plumber drenched to the bone in muck in a newspaper, or on TV or the Web for that matter.

But there, running across four columns in the December 21, 2003, edition of the New York Times, was a photo of Patrick Walters, 22 years old, being hauled from a collapsed trench by two firefighters. Below were close-ups of his mother, who says she battles fantasies of revenge, and his father, who wants to move to Washington and lobby against OSHA until the day he dies, according to the article.

Details of Mr. Walters’ death by mud-packed suffocation near Cincinnati, Ohio, in July 2002 led off the first in a series of three articles on OSHA’s “culture of reluctance,” by reporter David Barstow, a damning study of how rarely employers are prosecuted for willful violations causing the death of an employee.

As we go to press, there has been little reaction to the Times’ investigation, even with the national front-page exposure. Emotions flared briefly on a few safety and health list-servs. Democrats took a couple of obligatory swipes at OSHA. Sen. Frank Lautenberg sent a threatening letter to OSHA chief John Henshaw. Long-shot presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards (D-NC), who might well be out of the race by the time you read this, vowed to create a “culture of enforcement” at OSHA if elected. The Times printed a short response from OSHA’s Henshaw, who defended his agency’s record saying “many cases do not reach the high burden of evidence for successful criminal prosecution.”

That’s about it.

The most stinging response I came across was from a self-described “bona fide working class person” in one of those lengthy, spewing Internet postings. He bemoaned “a family willing to let a newspaper show their son’s muddy body being pulled from the ground. Shame on them.”

Choking cloud

I say it took guts, which we need more of to break through the culture of reluctance that extends far beyond OSHA and sits like some choking toxic cloud over efforts to protect people while they work.

Justice Department attorneys are reluctant to prosecute workplace fatalities — it’s not worth their time, penalties are small potatoes.

Congress shirks from dealing with safety issues — the Occupational Safety and Health Act has gone virtually untouched in more than 30 years. Where are the votes in opening that can of worms?

Reporters are unenthused about tackling workplace safety, the Times’ wordy series a striking exception.

That’s because few readers have the appetite for such articles — the public shows scant interest in factory conditions, unless pollutants settle in their backyard.

Professional groups gingerly craft position statements on safety issues of the day, nervous over losing membership dollars from large companies and triggering flame wars by members on the Internet.

Corporations are unwilling to break ranks and present, say, the positive results of their ergonomics programs, fearful of rebuke from less progressive peers.

CEOs are averse to putting safety on the agenda; risk expert Peter Sandman can give you a list of 24 reasons why.

Associations drag their feet in pursuing ethics violations, as Dan Markiewicz points out in his column this month (p.15).

Safety managers think twice about blowing the whistle and sinking their careers. Employees hesitate to complain, fearing the same fate.

Shame on them? Shame on us.

Of course, some safety managers and employees take the risk. Some companies divulge safety problems to communities. You’ll find CEOs, politicians and reporters well-versed in workplace safety and health issues. But they are far fewer than the number of well-meaning safety and health advocates worn out by banging against the walls of reluctance for years.

Out of sight, out of mind

Even the jaded get a jolt when they come across a photo of a lifeless, mud-caked plumber, eyes closed, limbs outstretched, tee shirt clinging to the skin. Not what you expect leafing through the newspaper on a Sunday morning. After all, we work hard to put death out of sight, out of mind.

And we’re creative in how we go about it. Arguments over personal responsibility, free will, free markets depersonalize the life-and-death stakes. We’ll go to war over dense, idiotic regulations and clueless, nitpicking inspectors. Harangue one side or the other for being anti-employer, pro-union, leftist, ruthless, exploitative, guilt-ridden, etc. And so all the politics, red tape and legal technicalities serve to bury death and grieving under talk, talk, talk, the old lip service.

Then you see Patrick Walters’ sagging body on page 47 of the Times, and it cuts through all the words. It triggers a collective fear, and it’s fear that drives reluctance. Death in the workplace is a nightmarish experience for the victim’s family, friends, co-workers and employer. Who wants to face that? We pause, unsure how to react, doubtful that we can do anything about it. Then we turn the page.

And that’s when you, a reader of this safety and health magazine, say, “Not so fast”…

— Dave Johnson, Editor