“Decide to be safe” is not an answer to workplace hazards

Motivational speaker Kina Repp shares a dramatic story when she addresses audiences at occupational health and safety conferences. In 1990, Repp lost her arm in a piece of machinery when she was working at a seafood canning plant in Alaska. She was a college student trying to earn money for college tuition. It was Repp’s first day on the job—-only 40 minutes into her shift—-when the machine caught her arm. Repp not only lost her arm, her shoulder blade was torn off, she had a broken collarbone, a severe neck injury and a collapsed lung.

Repp was the keynote speaker at a recent conference organized by the State of Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Oregon OSHA) and its S&H Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP).  The Associated Press (AP) covered the event and reported:

“Another worker didn’t notice she was working on the underside of the belt and flipped the machine to high speed. Her left arm disappeared underneath a 24-inch-diameter roller in an instant. She held tight to a bar with her right arm until someone shut off the conveyor belt. Then she lost consciousness. ‘To this day, I wish I could forget the sound the machine made, the sound of my arm breaking, the sheer panic.’”

Setting aside the gruesomeness of her injuries, something else caught my attention in the AP story.

“‘I knew what I was doing was dangerous. I didn’t understand that machine. I gave away my safety that day. It was 100 percent preventable. It absolutely didn’t have to happen.'” She ticked off reasons why people have accidents at work. Fatigue. Complacency. Lack of training. Losing focus. Indifference. Attitude. Anger.”

It sounds like Kina Repp blames herself for the life-changing injury she sustained. That message—given at a safety conference—troubles me. The suggestion that workers are injured because they are “complacent,” “lose focus,” are “fatigued,” etc. leaves out the crux of workplace safety: fixing the hazards. Having a safety guard in place, or de-energizing equipment when it’s being repaired, will take care of the problem. Those fixes will protect workers’ lives—-whether or not workers are fatigued or lose focus.  Afterall, we’re not robots—many of us do get fatigued and we do lose focus. That’s not our fault. That’s because we’re human.

Repp’s experience is particularly interesting because she was only 40 minutes into her first day on the job. Forty minutes into the job, in one of the most hazardous industries in Alaska, and it’s her fault?  And it’s hard for me to believe that a college student eager for money was “indifferent” or “complacent.”  More likely, whatever training (if any) she received in those first 40 minutes had little to do with safety.  I cringed when I heard Repp say:

“I didn’t understand that machine,” and “No one knew how to turn off the machine.”

Repp’s wrong to blame herself for not understanding the machine—-apparently no one else did. A “you be safe out there” message won’t cut it when nobody even knows how to turn off a machine that can mangle a worker’s arm.

I realize the AP story did not cover her entire speech. I was curious what else she mentions in her safety speeches. Does she mention the responsibility of employers to ensure their workplaces are safe? When she addresses audiences with young workers, does she explain that there are certain tasks that workers under age 18 are prohibited from doing?

I checked out Kina Repp’s website and found several of her previous talks posted on YouTube. There’s no doubt she is inspiring and embraces life. She now has four children. She’s run 13 marathons and has a black belt in karate. Her family and friends are amazed at her determination (and success) at overcoming the physical challenges of having only one arm.

I don’t mean to diminish those accomplishments or her inspirational message. But the bulk of her safety message misses the mark. She places much too much emphasis on how workers are responsible for keeping themselves safe.

“I just feel so passionate about wanting for people to understand this is about you.  Making choices and making decisions to keep yourself safe. Repp holds up her prosthetic arm and says ‘this is what I traded my safety for that day.'”

She goes on:

“No matter your safety program, it all comes down to us. We make those minute-to-minute, second to second decisions, that dictate our personal safety. You are your last line of defense in safety. It boils down to you and the choices you make.”

The stage on which Kina Repp addressed the audience had a banner overhead. It was probably posted by the company hosting the event and likely referred to their record without a work-related injury. It read:

“5 million hours: Decide to be safe.”

A worker can decide all she wants to be safe, but if there are hazards that haven’t been addressed—-from poor ventilation and exposure to carcinogens, to disengaged safety devices on machines or blocked fire exits—she can be injured, made ill or killed by her job. Kina Repp should not blame herself. The finger pointing should not be directed at the victim, but at the employer who allowed the hazard to go unaddressed.

Comments

  1. #1 Bill Borwegen
    Silver Spring, MD
    June 21, 2014

    Wow. This is a truly disturbing story in how this injured worker minimizes the need to deal with reducing the hazard and instead blames herself for not being more careful. This is equavalent to teaching workers to walk around a hole in the floor instead of fixing the hole in the floor. I agree that behavior needs to be changed; but not the behavior of the hundreds of workers, but of the behavior of the one owner to reduce if not eliminate these hazardous conditions. No amount of training will make an inherently dangerous situation involving a piece of machinery, a process or lack of staffing sufficiently safer.

  2. #2 John Newquist
    Chicago
    June 21, 2014

    Excellent article. Several motivational speakers blame themselves for the incident. When the employer was responsible to guard the machine, train the employee, and prevent getting caught in nip points and points of operation.

  3. #3 Wally Reardon
    Pulaski, NY
    June 21, 2014

    I seem to spend a lot of my time arguing this point with other injured workers. Occaisionally, with surviving family members or especially surviving coworkers.

    Without a thought. I regularly blame myself for my injuries, when I explain them to others. For example, “I was young and dumb”. For me, self-blame is something that naturally comes out (hard-wired), when I try to talk about it. Maybe it’s humility, or at least an attempt to act or sound humble. I don’t like to let others blame themselves; yet, there I go. This article has me thinking about my personal responses even more. I’ll work on that more.

  4. #4 The Pump Handle
    June 21, 2014

    Wally,
    Don’t be hard on yourself. I agree that blaming oneself is sort of hardwired. Individualism and “pulling ourselves up from our bootstraps” is engrained in our society. Your dedication to improving safety conditions for workers at heights is helping change to conversation from blaming workers for being human to focusing on the hazards that injure and kill workers. I’m proud to know you.

  5. […] of this situation was written about by Celeste Monforton on 19 June 2014. Her article, ““Decide to be safe” is not an answer to workplace hazards” discusses a recent presentation by Kina Repp as the catalyst for analysing personal […]

  6. #6 Renata Musolino
    Melbourne, Australia
    June 23, 2014

    An excellent article by the ever-perceptive Celeste Monforton. We are continually trying to re-focus employer attention onto their duties under the law, and the hierarchy of control – start at the source of the risk: eliminate the hazard. Workers are, in fact, human, not machines (which break down in any case!). While information and training are crucial, no end of training will make up for lack of maintenance or proper guarding. Further, if a worker is fatigued – maybe the employer also needs to check out the systems of work, shift and break arrangements as well.

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