You Can’t Manage Safety With Chaos

You Can’t Manage Safety With Chaos

Shameless plug time: This is a topic I harped on for pages in my book. If you like these posts (or even if you don’t but you’re willing to consider a different opinion), I think you’ll enjoy it. A Practical Guide to the Safety Profession: The Relentless Pursuit is available at Amazon (affiliate link), Barnes & Noble, CRC Press, and tons of other obscure websites I’ve never heard of (don’t get a virus).

My son is a master the False Dilemma

“Dad, can I play on my tablet before dinner?”

“No, you need to finish your homework.”

“So you’re saying I can’t watch TV before bed?” He responds.

I imagine part of his questioning is a clever ploy to get me to commit to the latter activity. But on the surface, at least, those two topics have nothing do do with one another. One certainly doesn’t guarantee the other. He might also know that his homework will take much longer than he told me it would, but I digress. Here’s another good one.

“AJ, you need to clean your room before you go to your friend’s house.”

“What?” he asks somewhat hysterically. “You mean we’re not getting ice cream tonight?”

Safety arguments are often the same

The argument that I’m alluding to, of course, is that safety performance can be measured by rates. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.

As you can tell, I’ve kicked this dead horse several times, but it keeps resurrecting itself like an undead zombie pony. Ponies are evil. This one needs to be dispatched for good. Not just because it’s wrong, but because it’s harmful. Harmful you ask? Yes, for two reasons:

Pick up the pieces and move on

Too often we get caught up in creating “corrective actions” based on events in order to prevent something from ever happening again. While that is often a prudent measure, it’s easy to get over zealous in that activity. No one can guarantee that something will never happen again. There are too many variables. Going overboard can lead to sitting around waiting for the next bad thing to happen before you do something. That’s equivalent to playing whack-a-mole blindfolded.

When something happens correct what’s reasonable, but then go and seek out the things in your environment that are going to fail. Fix them before they do. In the absence of action that actively eliminates hazards before they harm, we’re just begging for chaos.

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Is Your Safety Motivation From Four-Letter Words?

More specifically, the “O” word…

Don’t be this guy’s backside.

For some, this might seem like preaching to the choir. Others have made a safety career out of fear mongering through the threat of legal action from OSHA. Since that statement alone is likely to garner some hate, let me just say this: If someone’s best argument for why safety should be done is because “OSHA says so,” they probably don’t have a very good grasp on what makes people tick.

It shouldn’t even need to be said, but unfortunately the zealots are still out there in droves. Every day I here something along the lines of this or that “is required by law.” That statement is about as obvious and unnecessary as me stating that I would be taller if my legs were longer.

Of course we have to comply with the law. No one is arguing that. What I’m driving at, however, is that using that reasoning to influence people is just plain ineffective. People need to know why beyond compliance. As in, how will this keep me alive and out of the hospital?

I get it. It’s easy to forget our own humanity and get wrapped up in rules and regulations. Just make sure you bring yourself back to reality once and a while and remind yourself that there is really only one four-letter-word that should matter when talking safety: LIFE.

Believe it or not, safety existed before OSHA

If you’ve never read up on the construction of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and it’s lead engineer Joseph Strauss, it’s worth the time. The project had some low points for sure (11 fatalities), but it was also revolutionary in many ways. The point is that they did safety because it was the right thing to do, not because the government told them to. Check out the clip below to see what I mean:

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Are You Looking For Safety In The Right Places?

Or are you getting distracted?

This sentiment isn’t too far off from “concerns” I’ve heard

I was recently invited to do a podcast with John Chapman on his Blue Collar Voices show. Check it out if you haven’t yet. It was a great conversation. John caught me off guard at one point, though, when he asked me if my experience and training made me constantly notice all of the hazards around me.

I had to think about my answer for a minute, because in some respects I suppose those of us in this field do notice more than the average person (not always though). But fixating on every hazard out there can easily lead to an existence of fear and irrationality. So what I told John is that I try to prioritize my observations and find the big things. That’s not to say we should ignore issues on our work sites, only that some deserve more attention than others.

Getting wrapped up in the trivial is what drives arbitrary rules, unjustified expenses, and encourages weakness in the name of preventing strains. It’s something I imagine every safety professional has tripped up on now and again. If for no other reason than genuinely trying to help someone.

Because safety is… emotional

How many times have you had a safety concern brought to your attention that just sounded scary? Or, even worse, how often has a fellow safety professional (maybe a superior) elevated a minor issue to a place of prominence when far greater issues exist? We should be prioritizing those issues instead. Sometimes that just means educating people on the differences between hazards and risks. When we don’t do a good job at that, workers roll their eyes at our “safety” programs.

And I can’t really blame them.

Craig strikes again!

A couple weeks ago I posted about a villainous construction superintendent who nearly created a riot in the site parking lot. He actually did a lot of things that put safety on perpetual rewind. Another of those episodes was his initiative to eliminate tripping.

At it’s core, the objective was actually a good one, but the correction was not commensurate with the risk. The issue was simple. Someone had stepped over (instead of ducking under) caution tape and tripped, resulting in a first aid injury. The fix was overkill. From that day forward, the mandate became that all temporary caution tape installations were to have a top and middle “rail,” and an entry gate.

Some would certainly agree that his “solution” solved the problem. I would argue that a little bit of personal responsibility and accountability would have done the same. What we ended up with was a whole lot of waste, extra work, and snide comments. I wonder what might have been missed while everyone was distracted by the fancy plastic barriers.

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I Failed A Hearing Test And Got A Brain Scan

Military hearing tests are not much different than civilian ones… except…

Time moves slower when you’re locked inside a dark metal box. In my estimation I was in that hearing booth for at least 30 minutes before ripping off my headphones and busting out. It actually wasn’t completely dark, but I take hearing tests with my eyes closed and try not to move. I’ve had mild hearing loss since experiencing a rash of ear infections as a kid. They culminated in three surgeries and, as one of my doctors put it, scar tissue that “looks like Freddy Kruger’s face.” The test is always stressful for me. This one would not end.

I looked around the room as my eyes adjusted and spotted the technician running my test. She looked startled, but appeared to know why I was out. During the test I kept hearing a strange, staticy “click click” sound followed by tones I had already heard and mashed my little red button to acknowledge.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“You’re failing sir,” She replied.

“Ok, and?” I waited for a moment but she stayed silent. “Why isn’t it ending then?” She looked at me and blushed a little then cleared her throat.

“I’ve been restarting it. I need you to pass or you’ll have to see the doctor.”

“So, write that down that I failed and let me go see the doctor.” I said. Terror entered her eyes. She was about to object when I stopped her. “I’ll tell him I i insisted.”

She reluctantly complied, printed out my failed test, and told me to wait in the corner for the doctor.

Turns out my brain looks like everyone else’s… mostly

The “doctor” met me in a small, windowless room full of filing cabinets. He was a US Air Force officer, but he was clearly from somewhere else. I didn’t notice as he looked over my paperwork but then he spoke to me in a thick accent. I couldn’t place it, mainly because I was distracted by the fact that he only had three front teeth.

“Basically I do not want to do the paper works. They are a pain in my ass.” No exaggeration, that’s what he told me. “You come back tomorrow. You’ll pass.”

I most certainly did not pass. In fact, I rode my motorcycle to work just to make sure nothing was too quiet before the redo. My second test was identical, though: a 30 dB shift in my left ear only. That was alarming to every other doctor except Major Care-Less. I didn’t know it at the time but unilateral shifts that severe are really uncommon unless you have some known trauma… or a brain tumor. Hence the brain scan.

That showed nothing except a mild Chiari Malformation (my brain tissue extends into my spinal canal) . It doesn’t actually affect me any way, but I choose to believe it’s there because my brain was just too big to fit into a normal skull. In any case, no one could figure out what had caused my sudden hearing loss.

Then the light-bulb moment struck

Shortly after all of the tests and evaluations came up empty, I was reassigned from missile maintenance to the munitions safety and training office. As I was finishing packing up one day, I heard an all-too-familiar pop from behind the shop. Someone had just released the pressure on the storage tank of our mobile high-pressure compressor. It was something I’d done hundreds of times myself. The closest thing I can compare it to is a shotgun blast, followed by the high pitched hiss of compressed air.

The sound echoed through my skull and made my left ear throb despite the fact that I was inside. Then it hit me. I knew exactly what had caused my hearing loss. The compressor.

I replayed all of the times I had gone out to release the pressure on that unit in slow-motion. When all the tool kits were open and people were working in the shop it was easy to grab some ear plugs and a pair of ear muffs (both were required for that operation) and run to the back pad to release the air. But that’s not what typically happened.

Typically we would only run it for half a day and then turn off the engine. Inevitably we would forget the tank was still pressurized until all of the tools and supplies were inventoried and locked up for the day. No one wanted to sign anything back out at that point, so we (or at least I) had a habit of running to the pad and plugging our ears with our fingers. That meant one hand had to dislodge to pull the pin. I always used my left.

Protect yo selfs

I don’t usually get too technical in these posts, but you can’t grow your hearing back. Here are a few things to consider about hearing protection:

  • The goal for using hearing protection is to attenuate noise levels to a safe level. For example, if a worker is exposed to 95 dB, their hearing protector needs to provide either 5 dB (to meet the OSHA PEL) or 10 dB (to meet the NIOSH PEL) of protection.
  • The “best” hearing protection is the model you wear correctly and consistently.
    • Individual fit testing can aid in determining this for users.
    • An easy test for ear canal inserts is to cup your hand over your ear. If there is no change in sound when doing so, the protector is most likely inserted properly.
  • Noise Reduction Ratings (NRR) found on hearing protectors are determined in a laboratory setting. Actual noise reduction depends on how it is used (see first bullet).
  • “Double” hearing protection through the use of ear canal inserts and the addition of ear muffs does not provide “double” the attenuation.
    • When both types are worn properly, the addition of muffs only adds about 5 dB of protection (for more information see

Here’s the other thing

I have no excuse for plugging my ears with my fingers. I knew it was wrong. Procedures aren’t exactly negotiable in the military (as long as you didn’t get caught). I even knew that it hurt. But understanding risk isn’t always intuitive. I had no idea that a few seconds every day could cause permanent damage. Now that I know, it’s easy to say my actions were dumb. That goes for any stupid action by anyone, really.

But next time you start down that path just take a moment and consider how many times you’ve knowingly taken a risk, lost on that bet, and then thought “well that was dumb.” Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know.

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Don’t Pass On The Right

It happens every night

On my way home from work, getting to my neighborhood requires turning left from a main highway. Every night as I signal my turn, pull to the middle of the lane, and slow down, the car behind me rushes past on the right. It’s a maneuver that saves maybe 0.02 seconds of commute time (we live in a small town, so “traffic” isn’t really a hindrance).

Every time it happens, I fight the urge to veer back into the middle of the road to thwart the impatient driver behind me. I’ve been hit from behind before, though, and I don’t want to go back to physical rehab for something stupid. So, I stay put and sigh at the ignorance.

What does safe actually mean?

I asked that question a few weeks ago and was met with the expected response: “going home the same way you came to work.” It’s the stock, standard answer I expected. My response? I Pulled out my phone.

Recently, my wife signed me up for one of those “snapshot” apps that monitors your driving to better determine what your auto insurance rate should be.

That shit is annoying by the way.

But, it served a pretty good purpose on the day of my class. In response to my student’s answer, I read him my stats.

“I looked at my phone three times, accelerated from a stop too fast twice, and braked too hard once,” I said. “But I made it to work without an accident. Was I driving safe?”

His blank stare answered my question

Obviously, I have some improvement to make as a driver. Likewise, our workers have opportunities to improve every day. It’s up to us to help them identify those issues and teach them how to get better. Outcomes don’t necessarily define our performance. That is a hard thing to come to grips with in today’s results-driven society.

But remember, just because you’re lucky today doesn’t mean you’re good for tomorrow.

So next time you consider passing on the right, imagine what would happen if the driver in front realized they had signaled the wrong turn and swerved back into the lane. Would your ability to adjust to that change indicate skill, or just dumb luck? I think that’s something worth considering.

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The Safety Elite

If the safety profession were a gym it would be Planet Fitness

On a serious note, most of us have no excuse.

That’s mean. Planet Fitness isn’t that bad…

OK, now that I’ve turned away anyone who can’t take a joke let me get to the point. But please excuse me if I lose my train of thought while I indulge in pizza and Tootsie Rolls (seriously, Planet Fitness gives those out… and bagels).

Anyway… those of you who aren’t gym rats might be curious where I’m going here. This post isn’t just a jab at planet fitness (but do Google it if you want some laughs). Believe it or not I actually have a safety point to make.

The elite focus the goal

I’ve had the privilege of training with some of the worlds best bodybuilders. I’m not even close to that league, but surprisingly, some monsters are incredibly inviting. The lessons I learned from that group could fill countless posts. Topics like mental toughness, perseverance, and drive are embodied by that type of athlete. But one thing relates more than most: unrelenting drive.

Every one of those men and women I’ve had the honor of working with has embodied the same type of laser focus. And none of them ever walked into the gym thinking about what they didn’t want. They all fixate on what they are going to achieve.

The point is simple

No successful person ever achieved their status by dwelling on the things they don’t want. For athletes, that means that the fear of being too slow, or too fat, or too weak is never the prime motivator. The end goal is. And their work is reflective of that.

Why is it then, that in the safety profession we are so stuck on what we don’t want? Injuries, “bad” rates, inattention, etc. You get my point (hopefully).

How much more successful would we be if we spent all our time on energy working to get the results we desire? I think that’s something worth considering.

Tomorrow (August 28th) is the day! My book A Practical Guide to the Safety Profession: The Relentless Pursuit is finally available for purchase. It’s been almost a year in the making and I can say without a doubt that it was born of extreme focus. I hope you’ll experience it with me.

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Safety Isn’t Defined By What It Isn’t

This is red, right?

My daughter is either a comic genius or an evil mastermind

“AJ, do you want the last cherry sour,” my daughter held up the small, shiny red sphere.

“That’s nice, Em,” I said. She sneered as her brother took the ball and popped it in his mouth. He bit down and surprise washed across his face. His surprise then turned to disgust as he let the “candy” fall out of his mouth.

“It’s a Babybel wrapper!” My daughter (only four at the time) laughed maniacally as my son tried to scrape the red wax off his tongue. I smiled in disbelief and more than just a little pride. I was even a little disappointed that I hadn’t thought of it an put her up to it. Thankfully my son laughed along with the joke.

Appearance Isn’t everything

This week I had the opportunity to be a part of a podcast with a couple other safety professionals (more on that soon). One part of our conversation centered on teaching leaders the value of action. The problem is that “safety” in industry is so rooted in measuring outcomes. Even organizations and safety professionals who are making serious strides in injury prevention are hindered by the age old belief that a good injury rate equals good performance. While rates and accident totals have their place, they certainly don’t mean that all is well. I’m not going to kick that dead horse too much. I’ve already written about it in several posts:

Despite the misinterpretation of a few, none of those posts are advocacy for neglect or belief that injuries are OK. The point is that stating one thing (the absence of accidents) does not necessarily mean another (good safety performance). But there’s another danger in relying on old school safety measurement.

It encourages lack of responsibility

Stick with me on this.

If an organization values low numbers over the actions required to actually get them, the role of a safety professional becomes… fuzzy. Consider how often the “safety guy” (or girl) becomes the only person who can put a Band-Aid on someone when they get a paper cut. I’m exaggerating or course (unfortunately I have to spell that out). But anyone who’s been put in that position knows the frustration.

We become number pacifiers instead of resources that help solve problems before they contribute to injury. When that happens, injured employees become a safety problem rather than a person. When safety is no longer about a person, its easy to pass the buck.

If you’re in a safety role consider that the next time a leader sends someone to your office because their back is sore without figuring out why. Give the employee the care they need by all means, but then ask that leader why he or she didn’t have the time to deal with it.

Many times something may sound like a safety problem on the surface. But remember, sometimes things that look like candy are just a ball of wax.

As always, thanks for reading. If you have a topic or idea that you would like me to discuss, send me a note at I look forward to hearing from you.

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Teach Limitations

We take too much for granted…

I’ve got a couple posts in the wings that I think are pretty impactful. In the interest of making sure I give them the attention they deserve I’m going to hold back. But this topic is no less important.

It’s something I routinely emphasize when training a new group of employees. Especially those who don’t have a ton of experience (i.e. young people… this week was my birthday and i’m still bitter about no longer being able to claim I’m “young”). In order to set it up, let me generalize a little:

You take a job at an industrial site. When you show up on your first day, you’re handed a hard hat, safety glasses, safety-toed shoes, gloves and some hearing protection. You’re told to wear them every time you’re in the work area. It’s part of the uniform.

First off, the provision is commendable

Believe it or not, there are plenty of companies that couldn’t give two shits about the safety of their employees. Even in today’s uber-legal, risk adverse culture I’ve observed more organizations than I would have imagined could exist who require their people to fend for themselves and buy their own protective gear. That’s not the issue I’m addressing in this post.

Most companies do a fair job at providing what their employees need. The thing almost no one does is teach about limitations. PPE, as most safety professionals know, is the “last line of defense.” We know it, but sometimes we assume others do as well.

Unfortunately, inexperienced workers don’t have that prerequisite knowledge. The mere act of handing them a helmet and goggles can easily insinuate that protection is guaranteed.

Never assume the simple things are understood

I’m going to keep this simple and to the point. Teach your people that PPE has limitations. It’s not designed to keep you from getting injured. It’s designed to minimize consequences. You’ll still be burned from an arc flash if you’re wearing arc-rated PPE. You’ll still crick your neck if you jam your head into a pipe while wearing a hard hat. You might get chemicals in your eyes if you’re wearing goggles. Hopefully, the damage won’t mean loosing your eyesight or your life, though. People need to understand those limitations in no uncertain terms. It will help them respect the hazards they’re interacting with.

If you don’t already, consider PPE training from this perspective: it’s required because there’s a risk that can’t be removed from the work environment. When your people know that they’re much more likely to use it correctly and consistently. They’ll also understand that the hazard is still very real and very dangerous.

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Workers Keep Dying, Safety Keeps Chasing Band-Aids

I’m just going to come right out say it. This subject straight pisses me off. When we go around talking about how awesome our companies are at safety because we’ve got low incident rates it equates to pissing on the grave of every worker who has died at our facilities. There is no correlation and the games we play to get “good” are just disgusting. Interpreting the grey areas in CFR 1904 to justify leaving it off your 300 log IS NOT safety.

If you think I’m wrong, just do some research about the “excellent” injury rates and safety programs of giant companies that have experienced multiple deaths when offshore rigs explode, or have massive chemical releases/explosions that poison whole towns. The point is that anyone can boast good numbers. Very few can say they’ve provided their workers a workplace that won’t kill them.

Stop looking in the wrong places

If you’re willing to accept the idea that our main goal is to prevent death and catastrophic injury this should be an easy logical leap: Trying to reduce risk to the point where no one is injured is ridiculous. Life itself is a risk of injury and a guarantee of death (I’ve said that many times, but the safety zealots won’t buy it). The only reason for an organization to set a goal of “zero injuries” is to look good on paper, thus becoming more competitive and beefing up bonuses. It’s much less glamorous, and a much harder endeavor to focus on the things that kill.

So, we don’t. We nit-pick every bump and scrape that required more than an OTC dose of Advil. Then we chastise managers and supervisors because they can’t find any way to prevent those things from happening again. The sad part about it is that for all the time we waste trying to find the “root cause” for why Billy’s finger started hurting, we loose valuable time that could be devoted to making sure his partner doesn’t get crushed by the faulty machine he operates.

Here’s a newsflash. You can’t prevent every injury. Neither can those leaders who you accuse of not giving a shit about safety. If you want to eliminate risk in your facility, recommend shutting it down as the corrective action next time someone gets cut and needs stitches. That’s the only way to guarantee it never happens again.

It’s time to get off the pedestal

Safety professionals (leaders in general, actually) are prone to superiority complexes. We get so good at analyzing things after they happen that we start believing that knowledge can translate into real time. “If only our workers paid more attention.” Maybe if we spent more time working along side them, feeling what they feel, seeing what they see, and reacting to what they experience we’d have a better perspective. Until we realize that our view of the world is different and start trying to figure out how other people see it, workers will keep dying. We’ll be safe in our plush office chairs, though. So I guess in the end it doesn’t really matter.

It’s time to put some pragmatism into this profession. That’s exactly why I wrote A Practical Guide to the Safety Profession: The Relentless Pursuit. If you’re reading this thinking I haven’t offered a meaningful solution to our problems, well… buy the book. I’m not going to give everything away for free. Either way, let’s work together and start making a difference in the lives of the workers we’re supposed to support. They might not thank you for it, but at least you’ll be able to sleep at night knowing you did something that mattered.

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Built-In is Better than Value OR Priority

This isn’t my real house, I’m using it as a stand-in just in case I ever get internet stalkers.

My house was built in 1994. That means, aside from having very mature trees in the yard, everything inside is beige, gold, and scattered with built-ins. As far as the fixtures go, we have some updating to do. But the built-ins are pretty useful, even if they’re a little old. The first one we used when we moved in was the kitchen table (for pizza on move-in day when all of the dishes were still packed).

Among some of the other built-ins are an elegant shelf above the fireplace and a large inset bookshelf in the middle of the living room. The latter is the only bookshelf I’ve ever had that doesn’t feel like a nuisance. I’m proud enough of it that I actually dug my collection of Stephen King and Richard Laymon novels out of their garage boxes to put them on display. But I’m not writing this post just to brag about my 90s furniture. I’m sure it comes as no shock that they were the inspiration for a safety profession parallel. Well them along with some online keyboard warriors.

Que the beating of the drums…

I started this blog with a pretty forward statement about how tired the safety profession is. It’s rife with the same mantras, the same awareness campaigns, the same forceful compliance mindset that doesn’t stop people from getting killed at work. One need not look far into the corners of the internet to see examples of it. My least favorite is the timeless debate between the statement that safety is a “value” vs. the idea that it is a “priority.”

Most people who engage in this useless battle of semantics tend to side with the “value” side of the argument. That’s what’s trendy these days. As with any good debate, each side has it’s highs and lows.

Proponents of safety being a “priority” will argue that safety isn’t important to an organization if it’s not willing to put it on that pedestal. Detractors argue that “priorities” can be changed and shuffled at will. I won’t go too much deeper than that, we’ve all heard it a million times.

Conversely, the other side argues that if safety is a “value” it can’t be changed or swayed by outside influences. Detractors, in this case, make the assertion that just because something is valued it isn’t necessarily useful. Much like the piece of home-made woodburning art I gave my wife one valentines day.

We’ve pulled safety out long enough. Time to put it back in

If you haven’t written this post off for safety heresy yet, I applaud you. So many just choose to take their ball and go home when someone says something anti-establishment. When you think about it, though, it makes a whole lot of sense to drop the whole tired debate. In the end, it’s just a whole lot of words that don’t really move any organization forward. When we start talking about how much we “value” safety or that it’s our number 1 “priority,” you can actually hear people’s eyes rolling back into their skulls if you listen closely. People don’t want slogans and eloquent philosophies spewed at them, they want tools they can use.

The biggest problem with the value vs. priority debate is a little more obscure than you might think, though. It isn’t that we waste too much time arguing about it, or that one is more right than the other. It’s that both perpetuate the idea that safety is some separate, added extra that people have to do before getting to the real work they should be doing. In reality, safety should be built-in. It’s not number one, it’s step 3, and step 7, and step 12… A built in, intrinsic part of of the work that makes our businesses run.

We don’t need debates, we need action

Anyone that strives to make worker’s lives safer knows we have a long road ahead. It’s a road with no end for that matter. If we’re going to make the journey easier we can start by changing the way we define what safety is. We should make it a “part” of every job our people do, not some philosophical mumbo jumbo.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about that “valuable” piece of art I gave my wife, it’s not doing much. But it is chilling on the built-in shelf above the fireplace. It also gets priority whenever the kids are told to dust up there.

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