EDITORIAL COMMENTS: Safety's seven blocks of granite
August 1, 2008
“The Seven Blocks of Granite” was the nickname for the famed 1936 and 1937 Fordham University football team’s offensive line, which included the legendary coach Vince Lombardi. They stood rock solid, impregnable.
A recent email from a long-time reader conjured the image of “The Seven Blocks of Granite.” “Take a look at the safety jobs listings online and note the experience levels requested â€” 1-5 years for the majority, maybe 10 years for an executive; rarely more. Some require only a high school degree.
“At present I’ve out-priced myself in the field. I’ve come to believe that safety will never be looked upon by the vast majority â€” 99+ percent of executives â€” as a truly legitimate expense.”
“Safety is a low-level concern for almost all companies,” said a personnel recruiter who I queried about the reader’s situation. “The few that value it highly are likely to promote from within.” He added that many, many baby boomers, reeling in the years, find themselves too pricey for the market, not just safety and health professionals.
Still, why do we persistently hear that most execs will never accept safety as a legit expense, or that safety is a low-level concern for almost all but the most public or progressive companies?
Which brings me back to safety’s immovable Seven Blocks of Granite, barriers that endure like the Great Wall of China.
1) Fatalism“Accidents will happen.” Seems we’ve never been able to shake this acceptance. Which is OK, there’s a reality to it, but it can also breed apathy.
“Accidents happen. There is no explanation as to why some things take place,” Rev. William Damroth told mourners at the funeral for a New York City crane operator who fell more than 23 stories to his death on May 30th, as reported in The New York Times.
“Workers have always done things that cause them pain while performing a duty or task at work. That’s why they call it work,” posted a commentator on the Charlotte Observer’s Web site in responses to a series of Observer articles on injuries in food processing plants.
2) Fear“The biggest fear in the industry is if you speak out about safety, then it stays with you and makes it difficult to get work,” said Michael, an experienced Australian rigger and scaffolder, to The Brisbane Times in an article about recent construction safety problems Down Under.
“Each of us needs to know that we are in charge of our own lives, and we must have the courage to say ‘no’ to an employer who demands more from us than we wish to give,” wrote a reader on The New York Times’ Web site responding to the recent series of fatal crane collapses in the city.
3) John Wayne & ElvisThese defining American icons of rugged individualism and male cool still have a hold on many attitudes about using PPE and following the rules. Imagine the Duke strapped in a fall protection harness. Picture Elvis with earmuffs over those hairy, huge ’70s sideburns.
4) OSHA“My concern with OSHA is that it is looked upon as the answer when it’s not,” said Dan Petersen, one of job safety’s preeminent experts, in an interview in Professional Safety magazine in 2007.
In an April 1997 meeting of OSHA’s national advisory committee in Washington, Petersen told the committee: “The problem is, so many managers are tied to accident numbers because OSHA requires them to be. You’re measuring stuff over which you have damn little control. What I’m saying is, many of the things OSHA requires fly in the face of what really improves a safety system.”
5) Profit first“Safety First” is a con job, and workers know it.
“The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits,” was the title of a column by Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, in The New York Times Magazine, September 13, 1970. “What does it mean to say that the corporate executive has a ‘social responsibility’ in his capacity as a businessman? If this statement is not pure rhetoric, it must mean that he is to act in some way that is not in the interest of his employers.”
Thirty-eight years later, in The Wall Street Journal, March 24, 2008, Jeffery Immelt, chairman and CEO of General Electric Co., was asked if he was pushing for a carbon dioxide emissions cap because he personally believes earth is heading for a crisis and he has a responsibility to deal with it. “I would say that I work for investors. I don’t believe in hobbies,” said Immelt.
6) Locked gates“Most workers, including miners, are killed or injured one at a time, and few except family and friends notice,” said AFL-CIO safety chief Peg Seminario at a Congressional hearing.
“Require employers to post the injuries and illness they cause,” said Gary Rosenblum, CIH, in a New York Times Web site posting. “The spotlight effect… will immediately and permanently cause top management to actually manage safety (ie. fund it properly and manage it with real safety professionals), and injuries and illnesses will be reduced.”
From the Louisville Courier-Journal earlier this year: “Linia Shearer was operating a 1,000-ton stamping machine when steel shattered, and a piece struck her on the left side of the neck. She died of her wounds. The Advocate News in Mount Sterling, where she died, carried a statement of condolence from the general manger of the company. We didn’t have a story about it.”
7) The GulfIn 2005, 5.4 million worksites had fewer than 20 employees, according to the U.S. government. Most do not have a public face, stockholders, or worries about reputations and brand integrity. They fly under OSHA’s radar.
With our economy based on millions of small businesses and a very elite core of corporate behemoths, it’s no surprise that a 2008 survey by ISHN found that less than half (49 percent) of readers said workplace safety is their full-time job. For 38 percent, safety is a responsibility tacked on in addition to being a business manager, business owner, engineer, purchasing agent, personnel director, quality manager, etc. That’s not to say they can’t do a good job protecting workers; it just makes it harder.
So how do you move the immovable? It can be done. The 1936 Fordham team finished 5-1-2 and lost a possible Rose Bowl Bid when they were upset by New York University at Yankee Stadium, 7-6, in the season’s final game.