In 1861, 15-year-old Al had already been working for the Grand Trunk Railroad in Port Huron, Mich. for three years. He had been working for the railroad ever since his mother pulled him from school because his teachers thought he was retarded. Al's life took a dramatic turn when he saw a station master's young son wander onto the tracks in front of a freight train. He ran onto the tracks and pulled the child from harm's way.

As a reward, the grateful father offered to teach Al how to use railroad telegraphy. Al was intrigued by this technology and he sought to improve upon it. This simple act of recognizing a hero helped propel Thomas Alva Edison to go on and become America's greatest and most famous inventor.

The worker-hero story is important but not often told. Some people and groups, such as OSHA, discourage the recognition of heroes because they don't want to encourage the "hero syndrome" in other workers. They don't want people to act foolishly and end up seriously injured or dead when trying to help someone else.

OSHA's views

For instance, in 1993 Kevin Gill, a construction worker in Idaho, was at a multi-employer construction site when he heard a worker from another company cry for help-he was trapped by a trench cave-in. Kevin jumped in to dig the employee out, acting quickly to save his life.

How do you think OSHA recognized Kevin's heroic actions? Kevin's employer was fined nearly $8,000 in penalties because Kevin did not shore up the trench or wear a hard hat during the rescue.

OSHA was highly criticized for its actions by Idaho Senator Dirk Hempthorne, who worked to overturn the citations and penalty and also proposed the Heroic Exemptions to Regulations Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. In response, OSHA issued a Policy on Employee Rescue Efforts (1903.14) on Dec. 27, 1994. This is the policy OSHA follows today. It exempts from citations employers of workers who voluntarily rescue people in imminent danger, provided the worker performed the rescue outside of his or her normal job duties, and did so voluntarily.

The policy does not cover employees assigned to rescue, first-aid, or emergency response activities. It also does not cover workers in operations where the likelihood of life-threatening accidents is foreseeable, such as confined spaces or trenches, hazardous waste, and construction over water.

As I said earlier, some people believe we shouldn't recognize heroism. They're afraid it will only encourage foolhardy attempts by others to try to become heroes. But I don't believe heroes are easily made. If we could count the times where a life was in imminent danger and compare it to the number of people who acted heroically, we'd likely find that there are very few heroes among us. This is why I encourage you to recognize a hero whenever possible.

One model for a hero awards program is sponsored by the Safety Council of Northwest Ohio. For more than 30 years the Safety Council of Northwest Ohio has hosted an annual Hero Awards Banquet. The council, in conjunction with the Buckeye Cable System, sponsors a gala televised event that is attended by more than 500 people. The banquet recognizes public service employees whose actions go beyond the call of duty, good Samaritans for lifesaving actions on behalf of another, and people who took heroic actions to save another person. Richard Fulton is president of the council and he can be reached at (419) 535-1400.

As employers and EHS pros responsible for the lives of employees, we must appreciate OSHA's concern about some employees acting recklessly when they attempt to save someone else. Instead of discouraging or ignoring heroic acts, we should work to ensure that all employees have the appropriate training and resources if heroic actions are ever necessary.