Call it "Foulke's flub." Last monthThe Washington Postcarried a story comparing OSHA chief Edwin Foulke to Jay Leno for remarks he made in two speeches earlier in May that riled union safety leaders. To their way of thinking, the OSHA boss poked insensitive and insulting fun at workers who take risks on the job.
Earth to Washington: Workers taking shortcuts on the job is not exactly news.
Still, the lesson here is be careful if you try to work a little humor into your next safety meeting or training class. What makes one person laugh makes another cry "foul."
SAFETY BLOOPERSPart of Foulke's speech was a slide show with five safety blooper photos you've probably seen floating around on the internet. Under the heading, "Adults do the darnedest things," Foulke showed a worker on a ladder leaning against power lines, a guy sitting beneath a propped up truck, one forklift lifting another forklift. You get the picture...
It's OK for safety pros to email these kinds of bloopers to each other; they do it all the time. It's even OK for safety magazines to run these "you gotta be kidding me" shots. Maybe you've tacked a couple on your safety bulletin board. After all, who hasn't gambled with their own safety - in their garage, on the roof of their house, driving a car, in the workplace, whatever. It's just that the cameras aren't rolling and 99.999 percent of us never end up on American's Funniest Home Videos or roasted in the papers or on blogs like the OSHA chief.
You see, in the epicenter of political correctness - Washington D.C. - this kind of grassroots humor can get an assistant secretary of labor a 23-paragraph story inThe Washington Post. That's right, the Post devoted 23 paragraphs to Foulke's flub.
(And newspaper people wonder why readership is declining...)
What the Post really relished was the OSHA newcomer's (two months into his job at the time) political fumble. How he landed in hot water with the unions for implying that worker behavior is to be blamed for accidents. The real story was about a political gaffe, not workers taking risks.
Note to Mr. Foulke: BST's Tom Krause can give you coaching pointers on how to make peace with labor safety leaders who cringe at every mention of the word "behavior."
Typical of D.C., all this was much ado about nothing. The new kid in town was trying for a few laughs and forgot to just stick with the stats and keep it bland. Nobody does bland better than the denizens of D.C. Many make careers of it down there.
TO BE OR NOT TO BE... BORINGOf course, every safety speaker knows that practically every safety topic is bland by nature, and you need a little cleverness or humor to keep your audience awake. But remember, being a stand-up comedian is one of the world's riskiest jobs. You can get killed by stony silence or jaded critics if your jokes fall flat or offend.
Know your audience. Ask OSHA boss Foulke. He'll tell you about the risky business of humor.
The tempest over the safety bloopers didn't completely tame the OSHA chief's sense of humor. In another speech last month, he closed with these comments:
"I have with me the TOP FIVE most unusual questions of 2005 (sent into OSHA). Let's take a look:
"#5: 'Does OSHA regulate song lists played over a store's stereo?'
- Let me tell you: Sometimes I wish we did!"
"#4: 'Does the word 'MUST' in OSHA standards mean I HAVE to do it?'
- The complicated, long-winded answer to that is... YES!"
"#3: 'For employee bathrooms, what kind of toilet seat does OSHA require?'
- [PAUSE] Go ahead, make up your own answer. I'll sit this one out! You have to believe me. I am not making these up!"
"#2: 'How do you go about using hazardous warning labels on products that are not hazardous?'
- Now, see, a question like that usually prompts a return question from OSHA: WHAT are you DOING?!!"
"And... OSHA's number-one question last year:
"#1: 'Instead of respirators, is it okay if workers just hold their breath?'
- My point is, no matter how dull or odd your question may be, if it has to do with workplace safety and health, please ask OSHA. We are your best resource for answers."
We suspect the Royal Society of Dull or Odd Questioners wasn't amused...