It’s not safe working in America

The Atlantic’s photo survey of America at Work (or not) is doing the rounds. It’s a compelling set of pictures that showcases all that is right and wrong about the world and the US today, and I highly recommend having a look.

The survey is amazing, and sad.

My own impressions of the work being performed are coloured not only by my experiences as a business consultant, but primarily by working in sites with a safety first philosophy. At BHP Billiton, where I was a consultant on several sites, they have the concept of striving forever to have a safe and healthy work environment. They call it  Zero Harm, and the way to get there in essence is a matter of looking at each task and asking what could go wrong?

It’s simply good business to ask that question, and to also ask “how can we do this task better?” Better in this context means not just safer, but more effectively and to produce a better product.

Let’s survey the first few photos from the America at Work collection.

The very first one shows someone doing a task, but the task itself is ineffective. The worker is trying to steam a huge flag, and he is in a cherry picker and with a suport person (which is good). I would ask whether he needs secondary fall restraint (clipping on to the platform), whether they can find a bigger steamer and steamer head to improve the effectiveness and quality of the task, or whether the flag should just be taken down to be steamed.

The picture below shows a worker assembling a Ford Focus engine. She is wearing a large glove on her left hand, but does not appear to be wearing an appropriate glove on her right hand. No glove means a much higher chance of a hand injury (one of the more common injuries in many places), as well as lower ability to grip and apply force. I would ask her to stop the job and talk about this, amongst other things.

I would mention that is is god to see her wearing eye protection, and ask whether she has hearing protection.

I would ask her, and others, when they intend to make the move to high visibility clothing, as so many in industry have done.  I would also ask whether there are any hazards (anything mechanical that is moving) that would require her hair to be tied back so it is not caught.

Finally I would ask about the comfort of doing the task itself. She is standing in a strange way, with part of the jig in the way, and the task itself far enough away so that she has to lean in. Any embedded approach to continuous process improvement (TQM, TPM, ISO 9000 etc) should see this changed fairly quickly.

Next up is a clock worker is carrying a part. I would ask how heavy it is, and whether wearing gloves would improve things. He’d certainly find that this sort of work a lot easier and safer if he does so.

He is also wearing low visibility clothing, but without seeing the rest of the plant it is difficult to know how unsafe this is, beyond the basic idea that being seen is smart.

This worker has picked up a crocodile without gloves. I would ask her what could go wrong, for her and the crocodile.

The neat thing about this picture is that the worker is monitoring a growing crocodile populations which emerged from a nest  originally found in a plant’s cooling system.

The sight of over 100 police officers laid off is sad. I notice not just a variable level of fitness amongst these former officers, but also the variance in the types on police boot that they have lined up in front of them.

A fit police fore seems like an obvious step, and many have regular fitness testing, so I would ask about this.

I would also ask about their boot procurement process, using it as an example of how a little bit of control and deal making can save substantial money, and thus perhaps jobs.  It’s a pretty easy thing to settle on a standard couple of types of boots, make volume deals with suppliers and eliminate sweet-heart top of the range boots for those that game the system.

Moving on to food, I would encourage readers not to eat this white and startling yellow grated cheese – it contains 26% of your recommended daily saturated fat allowance in 1/4 of a cup.

It’s good to see the worker wearing eye protection, a hair net and white coat. I would ask whether she has hearing protection, but more importantly whether there is any sanitary protection between her and the cheese. If she coughs and splutters then that will get on the cheese – and what happens then?

I would also ask about the tidiness of the work area, which just seems a bit too messy for my liking for the food industry, although I am not at all an expert in the area.

The Occupy Wall St movement has sounded a chord across the US and the world. I would suggest to this protester that could do himself and the movement favors if he removed the nail polish from ‘that’ finger. He also seems to be wired like security guards, which is intimidating, while a little bit of hair grooming would make him more approachable.

The Boeing 787 is the first fibreglass airliner, and apparently offers a much more comfortable passenger experience. However this peak inside the fuselage of one is shocking to me. While there does seem to be some sort of overall design, the result is a complex spaghetti of plastic, pipes and connectors. No wonder the worker looks perplexed. I’d ask a lot of questions around maintainability.

I would also ask, in the very safety conscious aviation industry, whether and when they are moving to use high visibility clothing. I would ask this gentleman whether he needs a hard hat (those pipes above are very close), and whether there are any controls on objects like the torch and ladder. I would not like to think about spare torches or screws hanging around in that fuselage.

This next awful scene speaks for itself, and for a society that seems to be functioning in a compassionless manner. No doubt all of the people involved in this process feel like they are doing the right thing, but well before it comes to the stage of placing a baby on the lawn and locking the house up behind you something is seriously wrong.

I would ask from a health and safety perspective why the deputy taking the child and not the parents?  I would also ask where is the family going to stay tonight, whether the owner of the mortgge, if known, would do a deal and how they ever got the loan in the first place. I would ask the city how they are dealing with these situations, and I would ask politicians and voters whether they find this at all acceptable, and how to change it.

Next is the picture that motivated me to write this post. It’s an awful scene, worthy of the industrial revolution era, not of today.

There is no barrier between the worker and  molten metal, exposing the worker to fatal harm. While the worker is wearing two visors, they are both raised so that (s)he can see where they are walking. Dual protection is normal in smelter work, but seeing it compromised like this is shocking.

I would stop the work immediately and ask about these points.

I would also ask about the face mask, which looks like a dust mask only, and would therefore not provide any protection against nasty fumes. A  proper respirator is a lot more bulky and hot to wear, but will provide the necessary protection from toxic fumes.

I would escalate this as a great example of a task that should be redesigned so that it is safe, ideally placing the worker well out of harms way.  There should be a short term fix, perhaps involving more cost and staff,  and a longer term fix which solves the underlying problem.

And so on and on the photos went. Almost all of them raise serious questions beyond the obvious ones that the Atlantic wanted to show. There’s the person sewing boots but not wearing gloves or hearing protection, the woman serving food without wearing gloves, a man, and photographer, working in a confined space (raising many questions), and an unrestrained man working at heights building a solar panel farm.

Overall there is plenty of room for improvement in health and safety, and that, in my experience, is a clear sign that there is also huge scope for improvement in processes. Improve them both and costs go down, production goes up and, above all, everyone gets to go back to their family and friends in the same state that they went to work.

Published by Lance Wiggs


5 replies on “It’s not safe working in America”

  1. Good post. It’s pretty awful, particularly when you take into account the short and long term medical expenses once one is injured. On the other hand, for *real* workplace horror stories, it’s hard to beat the ship breaking industry…


  2. Hello Lance, here is a Kiwi Connection for you! Central to the BHP Billiton safety process is a piece of software called “Rincon” Supplied by thier safety consultant BST, Inc.

    Well Rincon was completely architected and mostly written by me. I’ve been the primary architect and developer for BST since 1999 (, and my first big project after I Immigrated to NZ (from the U.S.) was to update the BST software to be web based. Myself and 4 Kiwi’s worked on the system. I’m currently living in Napier. I was talking with BST and the Franchise holder for Aus / NZ for the BAPP Procss has just rolled out Rincon for usage at Methanex New Zealand.

    You’ve done a really good article here on describing the underlying principle of Behavioral Based Safety. Glad to see my work getting recognized. I passed on your blog entry to the folks at BST, they were happy to see an “outsiders” view

    Matthew C. Hintzen
    Red Jungle Ltd


    1. We didn’t use that software at any plant I was at – at least not to my knowledge. BHP Billiton is a huge organisation, and the CSGs and plants have a lot of different tools.

      There were several different pieces of software used for zero harm where I worked, including one to record and track hazards and incidents and their responses and some sort of EWRM thing.

      Regardless the software is a relatively minor part of a safety culture – the software being used at Kwinana Nickel Refinery was wretched, yet the GM won BHPB’s Chip Goodyear safety award. What he, his management team and the entire plant did was to use personal authentic leadership, drive major changes in systems and behaviour and over time the culture and health and safety results changed. They were 100% backed and lead by the leaders of the CSG (unit) and they in turn by the center. Meanwhile they started producing records in production – and yes, these things are absolutely linked.



  3. Now, I’m not American (Kiwi), but boy this post just reeks of anti-US sentiment and a certain level of a pedantic old man trying to find the smallest thing to pick apart what effectively an artistic expose of the positive scene that is a shortening unemployment situation, to turn it into a blog post titled “It’s not safe working in America”.

    So allow me to pick apart your post:

    1. Just because the steamer nozzle is not visibly ejecting steam, does not mean it isn’t working. The steam comes out the other end, my friend. That’s the whole point of the machine. And take flag down? Here is a photo of the same flag:–500×380.jpg. You show me how taking something like that down for cleaning, and then erecting it without getting it dirty again (in a bloody factory) works.

    2. This photo could be taken in a number of different contexts, however you use it to bemoan this person’s working conditions in a general sense. She may just have moved into that postion for the mere second it took to take the photo. And the fact that you think she should be wearing two gloves, and taken the original blog’s caption as gospel that she is currently working on an engine tells me you’ve never done anything remotely intricate with your hands. (she’s working on a front end/suspension)

    3. Seriously? That is a whole lot of assumptions right there. You assume it is heavy. You assume it is sharp. You assume gloves would be needed. I would hate to be your child, that’s for sure. And you use the fact that you can’t see the rest of the plant as reason that the worker should be wearing a hi-viz vest? If anything, the fact that you don’t know makes this statement just ridiculous and just padding up space when you realized you only had one two-line paragraph to complain about.

    4. This person is a Biologists. That is an expert in animals. This particular one is probably an expert in Crocs. Yet you sit at your PC, claiming to know more about these animals in that she should be wearing gloves for both her and the animal’s safety. Please elaborate, from your years of extensive experience.

    5. The OWS protester – So a hair cut, lack of nail polish and losing the ear piece would make him more “approachable”? You do understand that this statement makes you sound 70-80 years old, right? He’s probably a student. Those of the years you can let yourself go for a short period. And that ear piece I saw a few of in footage. It is most likely hooked up to a police scanner. I can already tell that there are several things you could do to make yourself more approachable to boot.

    6. Do you honestly think any commercial aircraft (or cruise liner) is any different to what you see in that image. I think the best idea here would be for you never to fly again. And the worker “looking perplexed” is a total POV. You make it seem like he has no idea what he is doing for shock value that would only convince a 5 year old.

    7. I’m glad this one was last. I used to be a furnace operator here in NZ. I melted steel and did exactly what the man in this picture does for a living. First, The ladel is horizontal. He’s not pouring. Second, one little drop of steel on a cold floor is enough to send sparks like that up. And they last about a second. Finally, he is clearly wearing a head mounted twin layer visor, tinted, that he will likely pull down just prior to pour and will cover head to neck. There is also an element of being able to see the ladel position clearly (for safety reasons), which is why he is also wearing safety glasses, probably clear or yellow. As for the position of the worker itself – why don’t you tell us how to redesign this system? This is how it’s done all over the world bar giant foundries that tap out several ton of steel each pour and let mechanics do the work. But the fact that you know so little about this process to see that this worker is as safe as he can be, leads be to believe you are simply not in a position to advise on a safe alternate solution. Having worked in this role, and based on your comments, I can categorically say that you have absolutely no business commenting on safety issues in this image.

    Which is the basic overall theme of this entire post actually. Next time, can you at least post a picture of you waving your fist at a group of teenagers? It’ll pretty much complete the vision I have in my head of you.

    It’ll be interesting to see if you possess the maturity to allow this comment to be published here. From experience, people who like pointing out the faults in others for no absolute reason at all, don’t like having their own faults pointed out in turn. They tend to suppress them.


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