THE FUTURE OF SAFETY
By Phil La Duke
A RESURGENCE IN UNIONS
If there is a class war brewing, the workplace will be ground zero and the rallying cry will be safety. Irrespective of how one feels about organized labor, it is tough to argue with the union organizers when they use safety as a plank in their platforms. As society grows increasingly confrontational with corporations and governments, look for organized labor to fill the vacuum and capitalize on resurgence of radicalism to swell their ranks to unprecedented levels.
Today’s unions have their roots in the Great Depression – a time when banks were despised, governments were seen as protecting companies at the worker’s expense, and radicalism was rising. It is impossible to predict whether today’s unions will be the same unions of the future, but it is fair to say that the unions of the future will look very different than they do today. What this means from a safety prospective is that companies that disregard the safety of their workforce should expect to be targets of aggressive – and largely successful – union drives.
A GALVANIZING CATASTROPHIC EVENT
The wild card in this mix is the mega-disaster that changes everyone’s view of the world. The world looked different after the Triangle Shirt fire. The world looked different on September 12, 2001. Each of these tragedies broadcast how a singular event can change the world in a profound way.
The conditions are ripe for a singular event that, in its horrific magnitude, will change safety forever. People are tired of picking up the tab for corporate-depraved indifference, and the immediacy of unvetted information – bloggers, tweets, Facebook posts, and who knows what technology will exist a decade or two from now – can and will continue to add an emotional element to already incendiary situations.
We are literally sitting on the precipice of another catastrophe. This is not just a factor of time, although probability suggests we are due. Nor is it solely a factor of outside agitation. Safety as an industry is a victim of its own success. A generation of workers has come to age on shop floors where fatalities are exceedingly rare (relative to the factories of only 50 years ago). The backlash against safety caused by the global success of safety efforts has made it easy for greedy industrials and opportunistic politicians to brand safety as over-protective, costly, and – the mother of all bugaboos – “job killing”.
In other words, there is a prevailing belief that business will universally protect its workers without regulation. There is also the increasing view that safety is a right, and that a reasonable person can put in a day’s work without being maimed. Couple these two factors together with a rise in public sentiment that values liberty above life and the proverbial recipe for disaster is complete.
Many of today’s workers view safety as a nuisance and the days of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle seem very remote indeed. Public opinion all too often tends to support the view that the cost of precaution is too high and the need for such measures are unwarranted, unwelcome, and unnecessary. Conditions are ripe for a truly historic and horrific workplace disaster that forever changes the view of workforce safety.
But how this event will manifest is anyone’s guess. Will it galvanize the great unwashed in favor of safety? Or will the media blame unaccountable workers for their own demise?
So as the ancient Chinese blessing/curse adjoins, we will most certainly live in interesting times . . . interesting and dangerous. Ultimately, safety as a profession owns its own success and likewise, if it doesn’t take care, its own failure.
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About the Author: Phil La Duke is a partner in the Performance Assurance Practice at ERM: Environmental Resources Management, 3352 128th Avenue, Holland, MI 49424, 313-244-2525, www.erm.com. You can also follow Phil and reach him on his blogs at www.philladuke.wordpress.com.