"What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Harder

Industrial hygienist learns from his father's life at a German steel mill just how important it is to be an advocate for safety and health.

For most of my career in occupational health and safety (OHS), my motivations were shallow. When I was a child, I heard many stories from my father who was a New York City taxi driver. He talked about the dangers of violence and car accidents that he faced each night at work. Not surprisingly, all that did was convince me that I did not want to be a taxi driver.

When I graduated from college and entered the work force, I was a technologist whose skills and knowledge happened to be applicable to the protection of workers and the community. I practiced my craft with all the fanaticism of a true believer in the holiness of technology.

Fortunately for me, there was a redeeming quality to what I did: The application of my skills and knowledge helped to protect people. That was more an accident of the direction of my career, however, than a conscious decision on my part.

It was not until a truck ran over my motorcycle and me that I learned better. My experience in the hospital, nursing home and physical therapy profoundly changed my motivation to do my work. My roommates, many injured on the job, were my teachers.

Other OHS professionals have motivations with deeper roots. They practice the profession knowing that their lives have been moving in this direction "forever." One such person is Axel Bogdan, who was, I am proud to say, my master's student when he was at the University of Michigan. He is a senior industrial hygienist at 3M and provides support to facilities in Europe and the Middle East.

"Afternoon Naps and Menthol"

Axel cannot say that one event in his life caused him to enter the occupational health and safety field. "To say it in terms familiar to the profession, I think it was more the 'cumulative trauma' that made me see the world with eyes that differed quite a bit from family tradition. When I think back to my childhood and how it was influenced by my father's work, there are two events that come to mind right away: afternoon naps and menthol."

Axel's father, Kurt, worked for one of the big steelmakers in Germany for nearly 40 years. He started to work 10-hour shifts at an age when kids today still go to school. Germany needed every hand in rebuilding the country's economy after World War II. Lifting heavy steel parts manually, carrying huge welding gas cylinders up many stairs and using heavy hand tools: The result was back pain that became a chronic problem. Kurt's view was, "What doesn't kill you only makes you harder."

By the time Axel was born, his father's back required daily attention from his mother. "When dad came home, he prepared for his afternoon nap. This preparation included the gathering of at least four pillows to support his head, neck and legs, and the pain relief routine. My mother would use a smelly ointment ['The only stuff that helps me,' his father would say] to massage his back. When he got up after an hour, often times not having been able to sleep, he would say he felt much better. That's what he wanted us to believe.

"Part of the after-nap routine was the 4 o'clock tea. I would come from my room to take a break from homework [nd later from my university studies]. We all would gather around the living room table and have a pleasant, but shouted, conversation. 'Outsiders' -- like Stefanie, who would later be my wife -- would think our family was fighting about the last piece of cake, while all we were doing was having a good time. If you know the steel industry, you know it is a noisy place. No wonder every one of my father's colleagues I knew spoke with a rather loud voice."

Axel was told that the loud talking was a habit. "We have to raise our voices so we can talk to each other when we are in the plant."

"After awhile, you just get used to it," his father would say. The standard joke in these situations:

Mom: "Dad is talking to Hamborn [a plant about four miles away]."

Axel: "No problem, but why doesn't he use the phone?"

"At the time, I didn't know anything about noise-induced hearing loss," Axel said.

Others Suffered Worse Fates

While this struck Axel as funny, there were other incidents that were not amusing. A close co-worker of his father got his hand caught in a metal shear, amputating a couple of his fingers. "It so happened that I had to go to the same hospital for surgery where he was recovering," Axel said, "so I met him a couple of times in the hallways. We joked about how they fixed his hand by moving fingers around ['I needed a new thumb,' he would joke], but he never said a word about the accident itself."

Was it an "accident"? Faulty equipment? Human error? Axel said there were rumors that some people did things like that to themselves to collect insurance money. "This was a disturbing story I could neither accept nor understand."

Axel considered his father's co-worker to be a lucky person. Other workers at the same steel mill did not survive their accidents.

"There was the guy who fell into a batch of molten steel. After the flash, all that was left of him was a big smoke cloud -- no different from any other smoke cloud. The area was always smoky, which caused a lot of dust fallout in the community. We always had to wipe off the windowsills. Which mote of dust on which windowsill contained the remains of this unfortunate guy? The way I remember it, a sample of the steel batch was taken and buried instead of a corpse. It was not much of a consolation, and life went on for the survivors."

While we do not have reliable accident, injury, fatality or illness data from the immediate post-World War II years, we have accident data for West Germany starting in 1974. Assuming the data is accurate, the country had an incident rate of 73 accidents per 1 million hours worked in 1974. While those figures have steadily improved since then and are down to 19.6 for unified Germans as of 1999, it is "safe" to assume that it was much worse in the 1950s when Axel's father started working.

"The worst fatalities were the ones that involved Gicht gas, the carbon monoxide-rich gas that is generated during the process of iron ore reduction," Axel said. "Often times, maintenance crews would work around the furnace while it was still operating. Safety procedures were in place and enforced, and no incidents occurred for years. But when an 'accident happened,' was it chance or just bad luck? Normally, more than one person was involved. One incident killed a couple of people -- I don't remember the exact number -- some of them known to my dad personally.

"I was impressed when I heard that in case of fatalities, in addition to the company's safety and health department and the Gewerbeaufsichtsamt [the German equivalent of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration], police and the district attorney would show up onsite and investigate the scene."

Despite the workplace conditions, Axel said, most people retired happily from these jobs. "I remember that people in our neighborhood retired between ages 62 and 65. To me, they were 'older than dirt.' Some even looked like it. The sad side was that workers rarely lived to 70 years old. When somebody died at age 75, he didn't have any reason to complain.

"My dad took early retirement when he was 54 years old -- a deal cut between the steel industry and the German Labor Department. He is lucky enough to enjoy his retirement with his wife and his dog. A bad back, a busted knee and an ailing hip does not keep him from hour-long walks in the surrounding parks or fields. He is 62 now, and I wish him all the best for the future. Thank you for shaping my life!"

Axel has told us of the deep, meaningful roots to his practice of the profession of occupational health and safety. He says, "In sharing this little story, I want to thank my parents and grandparents for giving me the opportunity to break with traditions and become an advocate for safety and health."

A Lesson Learned?

How many other sons of steelworkers are out there? How many fathers are injured or killed on the job in the United States, Germany or other countries? How many sons and daughters are told the convenient story that "what doesn't kill you only makes you harder." Where does such a lie come from? Is this something told to children by parents resigned to their fate? Do irresponsible employers tell it to workers? Who actually believes such a statement? How many broken bodies can be laid at the feet of those who repeat this statement?

How much lost productivity accrues to businesses that believe this rather than proactively deploying programs aimed at prevention? The bottom line here is that good, profitable business and good worker protection programs are and must be congruent, and that this relationship must be measurable and predictable. We must not be in the business of "making the workers harder."

In the meantime, I am proud and happy that Axel's family experience led him to join us in our noble profession. I am also happy that Axel's father is alive to have the pleasure of seeing his son perform such intrinsically valuable work.

Contributing editor Steven P. Levine, Ph.D., CIH, is past president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. He is a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan.

This column is the opinion of Steven P. Levine and is not necessarily the opinion of AIHA nor its board of directors.

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