Throughout my career, I’ve met some truly extraordinary people and exceptionally hard workers. As you might imagine, however, I’m not going to talk about them in this post. This one goes out to all the jackwagons who think they’re hot shit for getting the job done at all costs.

At one point in my career, I had safety oversight for 20 or so facilities scattered throughout a roughly 45 square mile mountain region. One of those facilities was a motor repair shop. They were extremely good at their work, most of the employees there having spent at least 25 years in their trade. The shop had every machining instrument you can imagine and could rebuild everything from a small electric motor to a giant gas turbine.

One Friday afternoon I received a call from one of the machinists. He was gravely concerned that he had been poisoned on the previous Friday. Alarm bells went off in my head as I probed deeper. This was the first I’d heard of any such incident. I got the 30,000 ft. rundown from him and let him know I’d be at their shop as soon as I could. He and his foreman arranged for a meeting in their break room… without their supervisor. We’ll call the supervisor Craig.

When I arrived, I was met by the entire crew, sans Craig. And they were PISSED. As it turned out, the previous Friday had been quite eventful.

Never A Dull Moment

One of the more common activities in the shop was the repair of motor stators. Once they were wound, they were dipped in a vat of epoxy and then baked in a large kiln overnight to cure. Typically only a half dozen or so were baked at a time. Since the operation was done overnight, no workers were exposed to the potential hazard of the epoxy off-gassing during the curing process.

There was a particularly nagging issue posed by this epoxy process. The epoxy was stored in a giant vat in the center of the shop. As the level in the vat dipped, employees would add drums of the epoxy into the already used material in the vat. Over time, this practice caused the epoxy to become unstable and no longer suitable for use. As a result, the vat was emptied about every six months and filled with new product. By regulation, the old material had to be disposed of by an abatement company at extreme cost to the company.

Craig, being the industrious supervisor he was, voraciously looked for ways to cut cost in his organization. The epoxy disposal was always a glaring line item on his books until one day when he had a stroke of genius (it may have just been an actual stroke, wait till you hear this stupidity).

You Can’t Make This S#!$ Up!

Using his infallible logic, Craig surmised that he could eliminate the entire cost of disposal. He had been trained over the years (mostly correctly) that chemicals such as paints or adhesives could be legally disposed of in the trash as long as they were consumed or completely cured and dry. In his mind, it made sense that his epoxy material could be treated the same way. The problem was that he had 100 gallons of it.

So he bought 100 empty one-gallon paint cans, filled them with the chemical, and proceeded to bake them. During normal operations, the maximum amount of material that would be cured would never exceed a gallon. Knowing this, Craig decided to take extra precautions and bake his 100 gallons during the day shift. “Just in case something went wrong.”

That statement was obviously meant for the protection of equipment, because something was certainly wrong with the whole scenario. As soon as heat touched the epoxy, thick noxious vapor began seeping from the kiln. The technician operating the kiln was the first to experience a headache, but the rest of the crew soon followed. Then came the nausea. None of them vomited (at least as far as I was told), but everyone wanted to… FOR THE NEXT EIGHT HOURS!

At one point, the kiln operator became worried that something was indeed “wrong” and cracked the doors open. Plumes of black chemical smoke rolled out and just about knocked him on his butt. He quickly shut it and then told another employee to open all the doors. But still they stayed. Diligently working on their assigned machines until their shift was up. Craig never admitted it, but I’ve always suspected he had threatened their jobs if they left that day (or reported anything fishy).

They Wouldn’t Take A Bullet For You, So…

During our investigation we never got a good, logical answer from any of the crew as to why they had stayed. They never even completely explained why it had taken a week to tell anyone. Except for the fact that one or two had become fearful of long-term health impacts related to the event, we may never have known. At one point, in my frustration I scolded the entire crew.

“Why the hell did you stay? You didn’t enlist in the army of (company x). Why would you be willing to die for them? If Craig had done that to me I would have waived at him with two middle fingers and walked straight to HR to report his ass.”

My questions were met with blank stares.

It never ceases to amaze me how many craptastic “leaders” there are out there. That almost goes without saying. I think what amazes me most, though, is that there are so many people who are willing to follow them off the cliff. In my mind, no job is worth keeping if someone is going to require me to risk my life for it. Being exposed to an unknown, or underestimated risk is one thing. Being asked to die for my company is an entirely different animal.

The Only Thing I know Is I Know Nothing

I understand that there are all kinds of external and internal factors influencing workers to keep their mouths shut and soldier on. Everyone has bills to pay, families to feed, and roofs to keep above their head. There are all kinds of heavy burdens which are exploited by unscrupulous supervisors and managers who want to maximize profits and keep production moving. It’s the ultimate fear tactic, and it’s pervasive. These cretins know that most people won’t stand up and say no and they get away with it time and again. So it continues.

We have to get better at weeding out bad actors and empowering people to speak up. In just the last few days that theme has been present in more than a few of my conversations with workers. One place to start is how we communicate. No matter your industry, pace often dictates that people are ill-informed of their rights, and their responsibilities. When you’re out and about at your place of business in the coming days, take things back to the basics. Too often we assume people know what we know without asking to verify.

So do just that. Ask them if they know what to do when a hazard crosses their path. Ask them if they’re comfortable talking to their supervisor about those things. You may learn that everything’s fine. But you’re more likely to find at least one thing worth fixing.

Hi. I’m Jason. I’m the author of the book A Practical Guide to the Safety Profession: The Relentless Pursuit from CRC Press. I’m excited to get to share it with you all and hope it will be as valuable a tool to you as it has been to me. There is no other safety book out there like it. That’s not me being arrogant and assuming you’ll love it. You might not. But at least we’ll be able to have a needed conversation about the change needed in the safety profession. It is available now! Email me at Jason@relentlesssafey.com

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