Early Workplace Safety Experiences Shared

In May, I had the great honour to attend the US Launch of NAOSH Week in Washington DC with the folks from ASSE and OSHA.  For the past four years I have represented the CSSE at the US Launch as the CSSE Secretary and Chair of the Canadian NAOSH Week Committee.   I normally provide greetings from Canada to the guests at the Department of Labor and then have a second opportunity to tell a story during an event at the US Capitol Building. Here is the safety story (text of speech) I shared with the folks at the Capitol Building:

Thank you again for this wonderful opportunity to share the US Launch of NAOSH Week with you.  This is my fourth year as part of these celebrations and I’m always humbled by the commitment of the Safety Poster Contest entrants and their families.  You are truly the next generation of safety advocates and workplace leaders who will bring about much needed change so that all workers will return home at the end of the work day to their friends and families.

During this brief time that we have together, I’d like to share with you some of my first experiences in the world of work and workplace safety.  I’d like to take you back to my first real summer job when I was a younger man of only 20 years of age.

I had been going to school in Ottawa, our nations’ capital, and had made plans to stay in Ottawa versus going back to my hometown of Sarnia in Ontario.  I was going to sublet an apartment and work in the convenience store at the campus residence centre and was excited about spending the summer in the beautiful city of Ottawa.  Five dollars an hour was good pay compared to the same money sweating at the restaurant at home that I normally worked at.

While I was busy making these plans my father was too. You see my father worked at one of the large petrochemical plants in Sarnia’s Chemical Valley.  At one time the Chemical Valley was the largest collection of gasoline, rubber, plastics and specialty chemicals industries in Canada.  It was my father’s hope that I could get a summer job at his plant to make some real money for school.  So he had me put in an application.

It was John Lennon who said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making plans.”

My plans to stay in Ottawa were going to have to change.  I’d gotten that job at my father’s plant and I’d be making the huge wage of $11 per hour.  $11 dollars per hour…I liked the sound of that…just imagine….more money than I had ever made before.  I’d be able to pay for school and have money left over.  It really wasn’t a hard decision to make.  5 bucks vs. 11 bucks…easy.

So the school year was finished.  My dad drove to Ottawa, picked me up and drove me back home to Sarnia.  Time to start earning that money.

The new workplace was big, complex and like nothing I’d ever seen before.

I’d heard stories about it from my dad.  He’d tell me about his work and how safety was his number one priority.  He’d tell me about his responsibilities as a maintenance supervisor and his work on the plant fire team.  I even remember the story about the time he had to kick some contractors offsite for not following safety rules.  My dad was the first safety leader I knew and he’d become one due to the culture that was part of the plant.  All good stuff, but man was this place big…and serious.

The first few days was orientation….safety orientation.  Three days…we met the safety pros, the hygienists, and even got to learn how to put out real fires with fire extinguishers.  We also heard about how important safety was at the company. It was a real eye opener.

While the orientation was going on, we were also starting to get dribs and drabs of information about our jobs…what we’d be doing.  I was good to do anything…afterall what kind of hard stuff could they give me…I didn’t really have any skills…it would have to be something simple.  So…I’d be working at the Inspection Lab for the refinery side of the business, where they did quality checks on the different gasoline and chemical products.  OK…but what would I be doing there?

Later in the day…more details…it looked like I’d be a Truck Driver.  I know, you’re thinking, wow that’d be a nice job…driving around the plant picking up samples and dropping them off…no problem…well just one…I did have a drivers license but it was for a motorcycle….the only car, or truck, I’d ever driven had been in a video game…

So being a young man of little experience…what did I do…I said nothing and started to get more and more nervous as the orientation continued.

I was even starting to have scary thoughts and dreams of driving the truck and getting into accidents and hurting myself and others.  By the end of day 3 that was enough, I fessed up and told them I couldn’t drive but I would get my license as soon as I could.  They were a little miffed as my admission meant they needed to change their plans to accommodate me.  The crazy thing was they’d never asked on the application or before giving me the job if I could drive a truck.  Being my first real job I already thought that I wasn’t making a very good impression.

So to work…I ended up working in the Inspection Lab testing samples of gasoline and diesel fuel.  Not a bad job.  After about a month I finally did get my drivers licence so I could drive around the plant as the need arose.  Good thing as I was to be given a project that would take me all over.

So the summer passed…I’d been working for a few months and it was time to start the new project.  I was toured around by one of the staff techs, a nice fellow who took the time to show me around the plant and show me the ropes.  I liked working with him – he wasn’t mad at me like my regular supervisor was over the driving thing.  The new project was great.  In the afternoon, after I’d done my lab checks, I’d have to go to every place in the plant that had a sample point to stick a metal sample point identification tag to it.  It was great…I got to go all over…climb huge oil tanks…butane spheres…you name it I saw it.  I thought it was really cool…until I got to the big bunker oil tank…my problem was with the signs…they scared me.

The big bunker oil tank was huge.  You had to climb up a large winding metal staircase to get to the top where it was sampled from.  What did the signs say that got me all concerned?  Danger…H2S…could be fatal if inhaled.  Not only did the signs scare me but I was also starting to think back to one of the sessions from the safety orientation where they talked about the dangers of hydrogen sulfide…it smells like rotten eggs and in large amounts it would shut down your ability to smell it and then if concentrations got higher it would kill you.  This stuff is nasty and it is known for killing in groups.  Normally, the first person would go down and then someone would see that they were in need of help and they would go to help them and themselves be overcome.  I realized that before I went up those stairs I needed to talk to someone.  I went to see my supervisor.

So we had a chat – him and I.  I told him about the signs, the tank and my concerns about my safety.  He was good.  He listened.  Then he came up with a solution.  Here’s what we would do…the truck driver would come with me when I went to the tank the next time.

The driver would have a respirator to supply air ready and if I collapsed on the stairs he would put it on and come and get me.

It was now that I realized that being a truck driver was a good thing.  I also realized that I didn’t really like the plan that much.  I had a much better, safer solution.  That tank wasn’t going to get a sample tag.  I also realized that at the end of the day it was my life and I really didn’t like someone else making these important decisions for me.  I had to be responsible for myself.

It was a good job with some good lessons learned.  I’d gotten excited about safety and decided not to go back to University but instead to take the safety program at the local community college.  This is where I got my start.

I learned that even though we set high expectations on employers to exercise care, ultimately we are responsible for our own lives and need to make our own decisions about the risks that we accept.

Individually, we have the most to lose and the most to gain.  I also learned to speak up and ask the difficult question or say the difficult thing.  Sometimes things have to be hard before they can get any better.

The work that I do and that many in this room do is vitally important to our fellow workers and their families.  Businesses and other organizations have a duty of care to protect their people.  The efforts of the safety professional are the expression of that duty.  We save lives and make working conditions better so that we can all share in the dream of a prosperous life.

Thanks for listening and hopefully learning from my experiences.  I’ve really enjoyed sharing this day with you.  Please accept my thanks and the appreciation of the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering for this amazing NAOSH Week celebration.