EDITORIAL COMMENTS: The blame game
October 1, 2007
The email from one of our readers was reacting to a piece I recently wrote about OSHA chief Ed Foulke stirring up the media and unions with his slide show, “Adults do the darnedest things.”
OSHA’s boss, with his informal and friendly style, doesn’t mind going “off message” on occasion, and early in his tenure he used these slides as openers to loosen up the crowd. One depicted an “overconfident character,” as Mr. Foulke described, who sat beneath a propped-up truck, “just waiting for trouble to come crashing down,” he said.
“Are most injuries caused by managers who view employees as fodder?” asked the reader, who identified himself as a 29-year safety professional. “Or are most caused by employees’ stupidity and/or defiance? We both know the answer to that!
“You did a disservice to Mr. Foulke, safety professionals and all the workers of America by your errant assessment. He strikes me as the John Wayne character… telling it like it is, while the AFL-CIO and the Washington Post are the usual villains, and you sir, their sycophant!”
Singed at the cuffs
I pushed back from my desk, shirt cuffs singed by the pro’s flames. This “whose fault is it?” is one touchy subject, I thought. Then another thought struck me. I left my office and went over to my son, absorbed in “Madden 2008” (such is the extent of my daily commute).
“Son,” I said, clearing my throat, “it’s time we talked.”
“This isn’t a… father-son thing, is it?” he asked, eyes fixed on the monitor.
“Well, it’s just time we talked about some things, the things you don’t talk about with friends, strangers, or even maybe family. Unless you want to be called a sycophant.”
“Pants of what? Things you don’t talk about…” his voiced trailed off, eyes locked on Vince Young.
“There are four specifically,” I said. “Politics, sex, religion, and what causes accidents.”
My son mumbled something. I leaned over. “What?”
“I thought whoever has the deepest pockets caused the accident,” he said. “We were talking about that when Rio fell off the ladder painting a lady’s house.”
I tried a comeback. “OK, about your friend Rio. Why did he fall?”
My son shrugged. His thumbs worked the X-Box 360 controller like mine never could. “I think he reached too far trying to paint the end of a gutter.”
“Ah, so why was he doing that?”
“I dunno. He said maybe the ladder wasn’t steady and maybe he was in a hurry ’cause the lady told him he had to be done by the end of the day.”
“So we have an unsafe act, maybe degradation of equipment, and a management issue,” I said, rubbing my chin thoughtfully, in full parental mode.
“What are you saying?” he sighed.
Back in 1931
“Well, an old boy named Heinrich way back in 1931 claimed something like 88 percent of all accidents are caused by the unsafe acts of people.”
“So that’s like 75 years ago. People still use that?”
“He had a domino theory of how accidents happen, starting with things like ancestry.”
“You mean Irish will have more accidents than Italians, or something like that? How’d he know that?”
“Beats me. He studied 75,000 accident reports. But you see, this is only one theory. There’s the multiple causation theory of accidents. The pure chance theory. The biased liability theory. There’s the accident proneness theory. You have the energy transfer theory. And then the symptoms versus causes theory.”
“Dad, all these theories. School doesn’t start ’til next week. It’s still summer.”
“I’m just trying to tell you, things aren’t black and white. So don’t go where things aren’t black and white.”
“So what’s black and white?”
“And what else?” My son’s thumbs had eased up on the X-Box controller, but John Madden’s droning electronic voice kept interrupting us.
“Not much. Rio falling off the ladder for example. Maybe no one ever showed him how to put up a ladder. Or how to paint. Maybe the ladder was cheap and he felt unsteady on it. Then his boss for the day, the lady, had him rushing to meet a deadline.”
“Well, Rio was over Clay’s house ’til midnight or something and slept in and got over to the lady’s late. He didn’t even want to do the job.”
“See what I mean? It’s complicated. Now we throw in extreme fatigue, slow mental reaction, poor attitude. There can be a lot of what they call immediate and contributing causes. Some people will tell you that there is no one root cause. One fellow says it’s all about hurrying, being tired, frustrated about something, or thinking you know it all. Another says you’ve got to reduce exposures at the working interface. Then others say if you ask “Why?” five or seven or eleven times, I forget the number, you’ll get to the bottom of it. Then again, I just got an email from a guy who said, “Sense is no longer common.”
“He said people do dumb things, plain and simple, no matter what, leave it at that. Reminds me of a book I’m reading called ‘Deep Survival.’ It’s about avalanches, mountain slides, people lost at sea or in the woods, and why some die and some live. The author says he’s read accident reports for 30 years and calls ’em ‘silent comedies.’ Now that’s a bit cold perhaps. He says people do the strangest things, get themselves into the most amazing predicaments.”
“What’s a ‘silent comedy’?” my son asked.
“Life before Beavis and Butthead, I can tell you that.”
“Are we done?”
“I think so.”
“You don’t have to worry, Dad. I’m not talking about this.”
“Accidents. I mean, they just happen, don’t they?”
“Ah… that’s a whole other conversation.”