I recently started a new job, and since I don’t know the surrounding neighborhood well yet, I’ve been taking different routes through it every morning on my way to the office. Yesterday, steps from the White House, I approached a small construction site, shuffling to escape the unmistakable roar of a jackhammer on concrete. But then something stopped me in my tracks. The morning sunlight shining brightly down on the workers revealed the swirling clouds of dust emanating from the trembling sidewalk.

My “worker safety” radar on full alert, I crossed the street to get a better look at what was going on. “Where is the water?” I muttered, knowing full-well no other passerby would be able to hear me. “Why aren’t they wetting this down?”

It was then that I looked up and noticed the “respiratory protection” afforded the gentleman manning the jackhammer: a bandana. Another nearby worker had his sweatshirt pulled up over his nose and mouth. Where are the respirators their employer is legally required to provide them?

Scenes like this are probably commonplace in the American landscape, and I’m certain that if I were to contact the construction company, they’d probably assure me that the workers had been provided masks to protect them from silica and other particles that we know could turn their lungs into cottage cheese. I also bet they’d chime in with something like “If they are not wearing them, that’s their choice.”

But I disagree. If those men are exercising their “choice” not to wear those masks, then that company has not done enough to educate them of the risks of inhaling that dust day after day. And for Pete’s sake, where is the water that could keep the majority of the dust from going airborne in the first place?!

Sick of running into these situations, one of my colleagues kept in her purse business-card sized information cards about silicosis, “wetting down” procedures, and respirators—ready to be handed out. That was her own small but significant way of saving the world, one construction worker at a time. But why do we need to save one construction worker at a time? Why can’t we save them all, en masse? Isn’t that why we have OSHA? Or am I just being naïve?

Comments

  1. #1 Erika
    March 26, 2008

    This reminds me of something I heard Atul Gawande say about American soldiers and body armor in Iraq. The army realized that soldiers who wore body armor were substantially more likely to survive a wound–but some very small percentage of soldiers would actually wear it. It’s hot, heavy, and just inconvenient. They “required” the soldiers to wear the armour, w/ some improviement, but not much.

    Finally they started making COs responsible for the soldiers’ refusal to wear the armor–and compliance shot up.

    Not only do the companies have to provide the masks, but someone needs to be made responsible for ensuring compliance.

  2. #2 Dave in Calif
    March 26, 2008

    Christina, You may actually be giving more credit to the employer of these guys – the employer may not care. Or, the guy on the jackhammer could be the employer of his helper and neither have a clue. Yes we need OSHA! I can assure you that these scenes are indeed commonplace in construction.