The bright lighting in my construction trailer is unfortunate: the floor is muddy, the walls are scarred. The smell of stale coffee and cigarettes overrides my perfume, as I listen to jackhammers and traffic outside the too-thin walls of my temporary office. But I’m on a mission.
I step outside into the crisp Fall air, adjusting my hard hat so the brim is even with the top of my glasses. My keys are jingling from my jeans pocket clip; my two-way radio gives a blast of static. Stepping around the muddy puddles, I survey the jobsite for problems. I scan slowly, for as safety engineer I am must the work if it seems too hazardous.
I look for danger; a frayed extension cord, a poisonous chemical stored in a drink container. Instead of the protruding nails in the jumble of wood scrap to my right, though, my heart is drawn to a late yellow snapdragon, peering through the rough crab grass in defiance of all that would banish beauty from the world. I resist the urge to pluck it. Instead, I jot down a note to have someone deal with the offending nails and move on.
I smell paint and hear a jabber like a market day in New Delhi, so I look up. The Punjabi painters are following the rules. These men are grateful to be working, but mystified by the strange custom in America so they follow safety routines without complaint.
The men from the Punjab are all here on green cards, and a few months ago a union caused a brief stir – complaining about this contractor’s use of non-union labor in a drama that I stayed away from. It came to nothing, and the painters are still here. Yesterday they offered me chippatti and curried lentils, which I turned down, and strong, sweet tea with goat’s milk and nutmeg – which I accepted. They know the Safety Lady wishes them well.
My freedom to work with them, for them, comes at a high price. Inattention on my part can cost someone their eyesight, their hearing, their life or limb. Poor documentation can cause a lawsuit. Bad pre-planning can hurt my client.
Construction safety, if done well, is one of the most boring of careers. Excitement means fire trucks, ambulances and police cars; so, boring can be good. Unfortunately, if you do your job well, the contractor often decides that the cost of caring is an unnecessary expense, and lays you off. One of the great challenges of the profession has been educating management that caring for one’s fellow man is profitable.
Until then, less-than-boring moments show contractors my value. Such as the oxygen-almost-used-to-recharge-a-fire-extinguisher debacle. The cutting torch operator who had been warned not to use his torch above the oxygen and acetylene bottles, but did – and caused a fire that melted three stories of steel. The two-by-four that snapped clear of a crane load and would have killed the man it hit – except for his hard hat.
When they get together socially Safety engineers play, “Can you top this?” with these stories. Workers learn best by hearing cautionary tales that tell them what’s in it for them when they work safely.
And what’s in it for me? Windswept dawns atop Manhattan’s skyline. Cutting torches creating showers of molten fireworks against a starry ocean sky. Turning a trash-strewn lot into a school that revitalized a neighborhood. But these are fringe benefits.
The real reward is the lives saved, the injuries avoided. This can be hard to measure. Rarely can you point to someone and say, “I saved this man’s life.” I savor the time a man fell into debris netting, but such clear-cut cases are rare.
As rare as a dew-covered snapdragon on a November morning.
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