“Brothers Concerned About Scaffold, Relative Says,” ran the headline in The New York Times on December 9, 2007. Two days before, the brothers fell from the sky, plunging 47 stories along with their scaffold from the roof of a sleek, black glass Manhattan apartment tower. One was killed instantly, cut in half by a wooden fence in an alley below. The other was hospitalized, critically injured, as we went to press.

Less than two hours before window-washers Edgar and Alcides Moreno went to work that Friday morning, they talked to a brother-in-law by phone, saying they were concerned about a mechanical problem with the scaffold. The brothers told of at least three problems last year with the 16-foot aluminum scaffold, tethered at each end by motorized cables to a beamlike track anchored on the roof. In the summer, the scaffold had been put out of commission for repairs. In June, though, New York City’s Department of Labor had inspected the scaffold and found cables, harnesses, controls and other safety equipment to be working properly.

“Don’t take the chances”

“It’s cold, don’t go to work, don’t take chances with that scaffolding,” the brother-in-law, himself a window-washer, told the brothers, according to The New York Times.

But their boss had assured them the scaffold was fixed and told them to come to work. Earlier in the week the scaffold had been used without incident. So the brothers took an elevator 500 feet to the roof of the skyscraper about 10 a.m. Friday morning. Within minutes Edgar, 30, was dead and Alcides, 37, was hanging onto life, authorities at a loss to explain how he survived.

City, state and federal investigators told The Times that neither worker was wearing a harness, as required on all window-washing jobs. But it was unclear if the men had been negligent, or dragged over the roof’s parapet before they had a chance to don their harnesses by out-of-control, unraveling cables as the scaffold plunged.

Alcides immigrated to the United States 12 years ago and Edgar followed about a decade ago, according to news reports. Both had worked at the dangerous job of window washing facades of high-rise buildings since their arrivals. Alcides is the father of three children; Edgar often sent money to his wife living in Ecuador, with plans to bring her to this country. They hailed from a town in southern Ecuador, and shared a ranch house in Linden, N.J. A longtime friend of the brothers told The Times in an e-mail message from Ecuador that Alcides was a citizen and Edgar was a legal resident who had applied for citizenship.

The Times article concluded by quoting another brother-in-law: If Edgar and Alcides were ever worried about the dangers of their job, they never mentioned it, he said. “They talked about the views, and they took pictures from up there.”

No automatons here

This story does not involve what psychologists call “cognitive conceit,” or naïve self-confidence. The brothers’ phone call that Friday morning directly expressed concern about the safety of the equipment. Both men were experienced window-washers for at least a decade, so this is not about rookie mistakes and lack of awareness. Were they over-confident that morning, “habituated” to the risks, as psychologists say, and somehow operating on auto-pilot? But the brothers knew the scaffold had had repeated problems. “They took every precaution when they worked,” said the brother-in-law.

But why then did they ignore his advice that morning to just skip the day, and avoid the cold and taking a chance? It’s a reoccurring mystery in many workplaces, one of those unpredictables that keep safety and health managers up at night. Why do people who know they are at risk do the things that sometimes lead to fatal consequences and, in this case, fatherless children and a widow in a faraway country?

“Extraordinary men”

Between 1961 and 1964, author Gay Talese followed a group of workers constructing the vast Verrazano-Narrows bridge spanning the Hudson River between Staten Island and Brooklyn. His reporting led to the book, “The Bridge,” published by Harper & Row. He called the men who worked the steel beams and cables six hundred feet above the river “extraordinary.” He quotes a physician who had just stitched up a bridgeman hit in the face by a six-inch steel bolt dropped from a catwalk 100 feet up. “These are the most interesting men I’ve ever met,” he said. “They’re strong, they can stand all kinds of pain, they are full of pride, and they live it up.” Facing down risks on the job, on a daily basis, that most people would never think of taking on, is a source of pride, no doubt. So is strength and withstanding pain. Ah, it’s the damn macho behavior, more than one safety person would, and has, said many a time.

A tangled web of factors

But of course it’s not merely machismo at work here. There’s competition among supervisors, the need to impress the boss. Talese describes it: “The pusher… drives his gang to be the best, the fastest, because he knows that all along the bridge other pushers are doing the same thing.” Company officials kept records: they knew which gang “lifted the most steel, drove the most rivets, spun the most cable. If the pusher is ambitious, wants to get promoted someday to a better job on the bridge, pushing is the only way.”

Pride. Self-esteem. Competition. Greed. Ambition. Machismo. Peer, supervisory and management pressure. Many pieces go into the puzzle of why people do what they do. And by all means, factor in money. Feed the family, support relatives, taste some success. Hold onto that job. There always aren’t a lot of alternatives. Talese writes that when the bridge construction superintendent would leave his shack to strut across the span two or three times a day, workers seemed to freeze. “The men are all heads down at work, the punks seemed petrified.”

No retreat

Ulysses S. Grant, who dodged many a bullet and brushes with death in the Mexican War of 1846-1848, and surely never one lacking in raw physical courage, wrote in his personal memoirs, “I never believe I ever would have the courage to fight a (gentlemen’s) duel… No doubt a majority of the duels fought have been for want of moral courage on the part of those engaged to decline.”

It seems easy to say, “Don’t go up there today.” “Don’t chance it.” “Why don’t you get a desk job or something safer?” But as Grant observed, saying it and doing it are quite different. He talks about one evening in East Texas during the Mexican War when he and a comrade “heard the most unearthly howling of wolves, directly in our front. The prairie grass was tall, and we could not see the beasts.” Confronting the danger, Grant’s comrade moved toward the noise. “I followed in his trail, lacking the moral courage to turn back…”

Grant is a giant of American history, of course, one of the country’s legendary generals. If he’s ambivalent about backing away, playing it safe in the face of danger — physical courage pushing him one way, moral courage the other — what does that say about the rest of us? Is it any wonder safety and health pros are confounded by the mysteries of human nature?

Not long ago, a 57-year-old man working on a scaffold in Texas died from injuries when the scaffold collapsed and an I-beam struck him in the head, according to the Athens Daily Review. “He was just a really happy-go-lucky guy,” his wife told the paper.

Prideful, determined, independent, happy-go-lucky guys — that’s their nature. Sometimes terrible fates befall them. You can train and try to harness all the various personality types, but we’ll never control, nor completely comprehend, human nature — of employees, supervisors and executives.

For all the angst and confusion and possible terrible consequences this can cause, would we really want to put a strait-jacket on human nature and predict with boring certainty what happy-go-lucky, live-for-today humans will do? — Dave Johnson, Editor