Almost 20 years ago we ran on the front cover ofISHNa large, close-up photo of a young boy, hard hat tilted on his head, sitting on a construction pile in Beijing, China. That shot came to mind not long ago while I was skimming through a Blockbuster store, of all places. A dark-haired Bolivian boy with a blue hard hat perched on his head, about the same age as our Chinese cover boy, stared from the DVD case for the 2005 documentary film, “The Devil’s Miner.”

I can’t think of the Chinese boy’s face without also thinking of the letter that came from a reader (this was in the pre-email days) after we published the piece on workplace safety in China in 1989. I tacked it up on my bulletin board for awhile — a warning for venturing too far afield. “What are you doing writing about safety in China?” the reader protested. “I do not subscribe to your publication to read about other people’s problems. I want solutions to my own safety problems.”

The note was bulletin board material because it reflected a common attitude. Our annual White Paper reader surveys in the 1980s showed perhaps only one in ten readers was responsible for safety and health at an international work site, or was interested in at least learning more about international safety issues.

Stagnant attitudes

As we all know, the world has shrunk considerably in the past two decades — globalization, free trade, global terrorism, the China boom, the India boom, the Internet, Thomas Friedman’s book, “The World is Flat.” But I don’t believe attitudes have kept pace with multinational market strategies and communications technology. Here’s an off-the-wall example: A few months ago I heard a national radio sports talk show host riffing on the film, “Letters from Iwo Jima.” (Need we more proof February is the slowest sports month?) “Why do I care about that film?” he ranted. “It happened 60 years ago, and it happened to the Japanese. I want to see what happened to the Americans, not the Japanese.”

Lest you think this popular personality traffics only in sports trivia, Variety reported March 4, 2007, that “Letters” had worldwide box office sales of almost $55 million, with about $12 million coming from U.S. theatres. That BO is even worse than “Alpha Dog,” which grossed $15 million U.S. The Academy Award-winning “The Departed” raked in $131 million in U.S. sales and $278 million worldwide.

I can account for $20 of “Letters’” U.S. grosses. I bought tickets for my 19-year-old daughter and myself. Putting aside the fact that Kate has an unexplainable stomach for war violence, the envy of her brother and his friends, I said, “This movie should teach us something about Japanese culture, why they were willing to kill themselves before surrender.” Then launching into full parental lecture mode, I added, “You know, your world is going to be a lot smaller than mine. You’re going to be working with more people from around the world, living with more foreigners, teaching their kids, traveling to their countries, much more than I ever will. You should get to know these people.”

Worth watching

Anyone who plans on making a living as an environmental health and safety professional for the next 30 years, say, should spend 82 minutes and watch “The Devil’s Miner.” Watch two fatherless brothers, 14-year-old Basilio and 12-year-old Bernardino, chew coca leaves like they’re eating popcorn to stave off fatigue and squirm through tunnels too small for adults in “the devil’s mountain” to find scraps of silver. Safety gear? Other than lime green helmets and open-flame carbon lamps, I didn’t see any. No masks. No gloves. Silicosis is a killer. Most of these miners don’t live past their 40s.

By 2037, it will be a challenge to make any kind of ambitious living in the EHS business unless you have some kind of ties abroad, working as a consultant, for a multinational, a management systems auditor, who knows, maybe even some sort of global regulator or arbitrator. For years now U.S. companies have been building abroad, drilling abroad, manufacturing abroad, processing abroad, training employees and fixing safety problems around the world. Given the dizzying growth and overnight skylines of Shanghai and Dubai City, imagine how the pace of globalization and market integration will accelerate in the coming decades.

Films like “The Devil’s Miner,” or “Letters from Iwo Jima” for that matter, are primers showing us that behind cultures and customs, people — and what makes us human — are the same. You can be hiding in a cave on a tiny Pacific island or scrounging for silver 13,500 feet in the Andes. What makes you scared, what makes you take a risk, doesn’t change from one side of the world to the other. These are basics of human nature, and of course there are safety and health implications.

The Vargas brothers in Bolivia value their lives, they’re afraid of the Cerro Rico mountain — “the mountain that eats miners” — but child labor laws be damned, they need the $3 for a 12-hour workday to support themselves, their mother and sister, and to hopefully one day get out of the tunnels alive for good.

“Mining is dangerous but we need the money,” says mother Vargas.

“Their necessity obliges them to work,” says their supervisor.

Closer to home

You don’t have to go very far here in the states to find workers whose jobs scare them, jobs they know are dangerous; but they too take the risk for the money. It’s always the EHS pro’s job to reduce risks as much as possible, and understand the nature of risk taking. That won’t change. But where you’re doing it, and the workers you’re doing it with, well, it will help to broaden your horizons and curiosity a bit.

Heck, a year after “The Devil’s Miner” was made, Basilio Vargas had learned how to use the Internet and was emailing the filmmakers a continent away.