Idea Nine: Safety and Equity

It was an early summer morning when a start-up engineer began his morning shift at a commercial office building. His job was to start all of the building equipment, the fans and the chilled water equipment to cool the office suites in the building. Upon arrival, the engineer put on all of the building fans and then went down to the basement to a place called the Chiller Room. This is where the machine is. This is where the cooling comes from. This is where the pumps are that circulate water through a chiller system to remove the heat from the water and return to the coils in the fan units to remove the heat and the humidity from the air that blows across the coils. To put it simply; this is how air conditioning works. The idea is to remove the heat and humidity from a room and place it somewhere that is unobjectionable.

One morning, it was clear that one of the fans had tripped. The fan systems are large and responsible for cooling an entire section of the building. The voltage on the unit was 480 volts, which, as you can imagine is an “Ouch!” if you get caught. The fan went down and the engineer moved quickly to bring the fan back on line. However, there was a problem. A fuse blew. The engineer moved quickly to find a new fuse and while going to replace the fuse. Unfortunately, something went wrong. There was an arc and a flash and the engineer was blasted across the room: Hit by 480 volts. 

Now before I get to my point, I want to explain that as an apprentice, I went through training in both school and on the job. We were always taught about safety measures. We were taught “Safety first,” and we were told horror stories about what happens when safety isn’t first. “He was lucky,” said a senior engineer while telling me about the accident. “He could have been killed and for what? To bring a fan back on line so he doesn’t have to deal with complaints?”

In The Power of Habit, writer Charles Duhigg discusses Paul O’Neil and his focus on Safety while acting as the Chairman and CEO of Alcoa from 1987 to 1999. O’Neil’s focus on safety in his plants was unmatchable by anyone else. He took note of accidents and safety measures and sought to improve worker safety across the board. O’Neil focused on the personal value of his workers and not just the productivity of their production line; and therefore, by initiating measures of safety first, O’Neill took on the challenge to walk the walk over talking the talk. This not only showed workers that they are valued, this showed genuine concern for health, wellness and personal happiness. 

In the stories, O’Neil turned the Alcoa plants around. He made himself readily available if there were any health risks or safety concerns and showed by valuing personnel, workers not only invested in their work, but they showed interest in both personal and professional growth of the company. People felt as if they wanted to invest in Alcoa; not only at a financial level but more so from a personal level. They felt included and valued and more, there was a sense of equity in their work because above all, the drive to improve, succeed and more importantly the drive to stay safe gave workers a sense of equity.

The terms diversity, equity and inclusion are used on a frequent basis. In fact, some might argue that the words are overused or misused and as such; the misuse of these three terms tends to degrade the important nature in which they stand for. 

For example, diversity is a range of people with a range of characteristics, backgrounds, color, beliefs and religion.
The term equity means fair or equal. However, equity also means ownership, especially when considered as the right to share in future profits or appreciation in value or the interest of common stock in a corporation.

I want to go back to our lessons in safety. I think back to my shop class in middle school. I am remembering a word from a shop teacher who was missing a section of his pointer finger. I remember being less careful and the shop teacher said, “Wake up!” He told me, “Keep your fingers and pay attention!”

People who feel better about their work tend to invest more attention towards their work. On the other hand, I was no expert in shop class. I was not one of the classroom favorites and nothing I built came our exceptionally well. Therefore, since my spirit was down – so was my productivity. Still, this was good advice from the shop teacher. His finger was unsightly. Then again, so was he. The teacher was a large angry man, loud and seemingly uncaring for students who needed special or extra attention. I took on the feelings of my environment; and hence, so did my productivity.

There are guidelines that we have been taught since grade school. There are standards such as “No running in the hallways.” There are signs that warn us after a floor has been mopped that say “Caution: Wet Floor.” We know to be safe. Otherwise, we get hurt. Right? In fact, there are classes that teach about safety. We have CPR classes. Basic first aid and life safety classes. There are countless classes like this and there are refresher courses too. This way we always remember to be safe.  Fortunately, the word has made adjustments in the realm of sensitivity. Unfortunately, we find that people are easily triggered and easily offended. This is something that troubles the workplace and our home life.

People do not know what to say to each other or how. We are at war with each other and face differences in political views. We are living in a hostile time. Needless to say the time to “Be the Better and Embrace the Culture” is now.

Diversity itself is about more than race. We all have personal differences, cultural differences and generational differences. However, the aim here is to learn different ways to get along. How can we embrace each other, differences aside, and learn to both effectively interact as well as co-exist and manage to better our social cultures without argument, prejudice or bias.

In the Alcoa plants, O’Neil sought to improve work conditions to minimize accidents and improve worker safety conditions. He encouraged discussion. He wanted his teams to work safe and be successful. And overall; O’Neil was successful.

I worked for a man who was less than kind. He yelled from the time he walked into his office and kept yelling until the time he left. He would tell people, “Anything you thought about doing, I’ve already done it. So don’t try to get over on me!” This man was mean to the core. No one wanted to work for him. No one had the opportunity to try anything different from what they were ordered. Besides, anyone who offered an opinion or spoke up was immediately shouted at and punished in some way. 

Nobody cared about their job. Instead, all who worked there saw this as a temporary placement. Everyone had their resumes out and everyone was looking to go someplace else.

In fear of disciplinary action, a young engineer worked hard to be sure that his job was finished so that by morning, the boss would come in and be satisfied. However, while focusing on his chores, there was a problem with a control panel and a large fan went down. The problem might not have been as extensive had this been addressed properly. However, in searching for approval, the engineer worked hard to make sure his chore was done. The next day, the problem with the fan escalated. The young engineer was in trouble and while being faced with an irate boss who scolded him, the engineer cracked and shouted back. This nearly led to a fist fight.  The young engineer was outmatched but not just physically. His position was outmatched as well. 

There was no unity or cohesion in the crew. There were no ideas of safety first or interpersonal value. There was certainly no regard for emotional or mental safety. The young man was disciplined. He was removed, which worked out because here I am now to tell you about this. 

The point is diversity, equity and inclusion are not only about privilege or background. This is an attitude. This is an alliance; it’s setting up the parameters and creating the dynamic for a better level of teamwork. In the courses taught in mental health first aid classes, we learn about ourselves. We learn a better level of understanding, how to dismantle our attitudes and how to disarm the argument so we can improve upon a better level of communication. In fact, I have found myself in conversations with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion officers and yet, they themselves are caught up in exclusionary ideas that do not embrace all interests. I’ve heard some of them become irate, which is not supposed to happen when speaking with someone from Human Resources. Perhaps we all need lessons. Engineers, blue collars and white ones too.

Mental health safety –
I don’t know when the last accident was in any of the Alcoa plants. I don’t know when that old boss of mine had his last meltdown. I do know that working with others who are conscious of each other’s safety and well-being, I find that it is easy to have a sense of equity with what I do.

Want to improve your team?
Ask yourself about their mental health safety.
Reduce those accidents and see how they perform.

I’m sure you will be happy with the results.

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