The Corner Cubicle: Our Readers Are the Real Subject-Matter Experts

June 5, 2014
The best way for me to become a true subject-matter expert is to listen to our readers and learn from our readers.

Call me an old soul, but I kind of miss the days when garbagemen weren't "waste-management specialists" and 15-year-old Subway employees weren't "sandwich artisans." Likewise, I'm uncomfortable with the notion that I'm a "subject-matter expert," a label that my employer has bestowed upon the editors here to make us look smart and important.

You – the readers – are the true subject-matter experts. I'm reminded of this whenever you take time out of your hectic schedules to let us know what you think about our content, in print and online.

With that in mind, I'd like to share an excerpt from an email exchange with a reader who contacted me about some wording that I used to introduce an online photo gallery ("Worker Safety [or Lack Thereof] in the Construction of Modern Engineering Marvels"). In the introduction, I compared the sacrifice that our fallen soldiers have made to the sacrifice that fallen laborers made in the construction of the bridges, dams, tunnels, roads and towers that are the foundation of our nation's infrastructure. 

The reader took exception to the comparison, asserting that many on-the-job fatalities and injuries, in his experience, have been the result of workers defying safety rules and behaving recklessly. These fallen workers aren't heroes, he said – they simply are people who made bad decisions and paid a steep price for their stupidity. (I'm paraphrasing here.)

When I responded to him, I emphasized that I didn't intend to diminish the contributions of the men and women who have died while fighting for our country. But I also asserted that we should never forget the contributions of our workers who have died senselessly, such as those who were involved in the construction of the Gauley Bridge Hawk's Nest Tunnel.

His response to my comments was so honest, enlightening and powerful that I feel compelled to share some excerpts with you:

"Having grown up in (and still being a part of) the construction industry, I've seen accidents, incidents and near-misses that have sent me home shaken and/or angry. I used to treat jobsite safety as a joke, or as a nuisance. The first time that I had to wear a full-body harness with two lanyards, I thought it was ridiculous. Climb a ladder with a fall-arrest device, tie off to the structure at the top of the ladder, disconnect from the device, walk three feet, tie off with the second lanyard, disconnect the first lanyard, walk three feet, etc.

However, after a couple of weeks, it becomes second nature.

"Some guys would fake it. They would hold the lanyard in their hand, alongside a pipe or cable, as they walked, so that it would look like they were tied off. If you have the lanyard in your hand, why not just fasten it? (Some of these same guys would ride around in the plant – where seatbelts were mandatory – with the seatbelt in their hand, down near the buckle so that it would look as if they were buckled up. Same thing: Why not just buckle the thing?) 

"There's a lot of peer pressure to not work safely. No one wants to be viewed as scared, chicken, less manly. And some of us just love our work. We want to work well and quickly. We compete to see who can get the most done in the least amount of time. We want to be the best. We want to ‘get 'er done!' 

"Some of the pressure may come from the top. Management needs the work done NOW. Owners, superintendents, general foremen, foremen and lead carpenters all may put on a show of having a safe worksite when it's convenient, or when being monitored. Often, though, it's, ‘Don't worry about that, we need to get it done now.' 

"The workers on a site also may put on a show. Everyone is in perfect compliance when the safety man is on the scene. Everyone may come to a screeching halt as he approaches, with everyone just milling around. Once he is out of sight, it's back to work as usual. It's like the kid who looks around the corner to see if Mom is nearby, then steals a cookie if the coast is clear. Unfortunately, a missing cookie is not the same as a missing limb.

"The best co-workers are those who remind you that you are not tied off, that your faceshield is not lowered, that you need hearing protection. The same can be said for safety personnel and management. Look for ways to help, not punish. Don't be like a small-town speed trap, just out for big numbers.

"Most of us have had a moment when we've ‘seen the light.' The first time that a lanyard keeps you from going over the edge, you're sure glad that you were trained to be tied off. The moment can be when you realize that because of safety shoes, you still have 10 toes. Or the brick chip that put a ding in your safety glasses could have blinded you. Or it even could be when a buddy reminds you to get out of the sun for a couple of minutes and drink some water so you don't get overheated.

"So again, Josh, thanks for what you do. Keep up the good work, and stay safe!"

This reader's brutally honest account of what really happens on some worksites underscores the monumental challenge that safety managers face in getting workers to buy into safety. But on a personal note, it also reminds me that our readers are our greatest resource, and that we are in this together.

There's only so much I can do and learn from my cubicle. The best way – perhaps the only way – for me to become a true subject-matter expert is to listen to our readers and learn from our readers. So ... thank you for what you do!

Send an e-mail with your thoughts to [email protected].

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