A Worker's Worldview

May 13, 2008
Most occupational health and safety writing claims that management sets the safety culture. This arguably is true on a macro scale but can fall apart on a micro scale.

Another way of understanding culture is to look at it as how a person, social group or organization views the world as opposed to how the view is handed down from above. If an industrial hygienist (IH) does not consider the worker’s worldview, he or she might fail to fully evaluate and control an occupational exposure. A case study might best illustrate this claim.

My first experience with this involved a metal plater who kept peculiar shift hours. The plant’s occupational physician had alerted the IH section that the plater had subpar physical exam results and requested an investigation. The situation was explained to the plater and the assumption was he would be grateful to have the company looking out after his health. IH survey work and local exhaust system improvements eventually eliminated the occupational exposure that was causing the health issues, but getting there was more difficult than usual.

The plater was initially non-cooperative. This was puzzling in two ways. First, his health was demonstratively at stake. This made the absence of his engaging his union shop steward and/or union safety committee member odd. Second, his non-cooperation was Gandhi-like, absent of any belligerence or bellicosity. “Everything was fine, go away,” was the worker’s message. This made understanding the work process and obtaining representative exposure measurements problematical.

His peculiar work shift was the clue to his worldview. Of his own volition, he came to work extraordinarily early in the morning and left soon after the noon hour. Since his plating was not tied directly to daily production, his shift schedule was not an issue with management. Conversations with other mill hands indicated the problem might be he viewed me more as “the man” rather than the “white knight” looking out for his health. And my suspicion grew that he had a side business involving government-frowned upon daily bookkeeping that he felt might not be understood by a nice boy from suburbia.

Fortunately, we had an IH who matched the plater’s life experiences. He was able to obtain the cooperation needed to eliminate the occupational health hazard. The plater even started opening up to me afterwards.

Dave Ermer, CIH, QEP, CLSO, can be reached at [email protected].

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