These days when you think about workplace safety, you think security cameras; locked entrances that are accessed by coded ID badges; and training courses that deal with anything from dealing with a dissatisfied customer to protecting confidential information by thinking before opening unusual email. For many of us, workplace safety is something we simply expect and honestly, take for granted.
Recently, and quite by chance, I saw workplace safety from a very different perspective – one that made me appreciate how far we’ve come, and how much I appreciate the laws and practices that are in place.
My college-aged sons took a geography class together. I thought it was great until they contacted me about a family tree/ geography paper that they both needed to do. Working on the family tree was always that project I was going to do until life and everything that goes with it (mainly my kids) got in the way. My husband reached out to his parents to work on his side of the family tree, (he traced his family back to the Mayflower!) while I reached out to my mom for help (my roots are not nearly as exciting.) What I first thought as a headache turned into quality time spent with mom and an appreciation for both sets of my grandparents.
I never knew the Shanks (my dad’s parents) or the Witmers (my mom’s parents). They all lived in the same small town and they all worked, at one time or another, for the same manufacturer. In fact, many of the town’s residents worked there. It was hard work but it was good, steady work.
However, it could also be dangerous work.
As a young man my grandpa Shank was a machine operator in the factory. During the 1920s an efficiency expert was brought in and he made the decision that the machines were to remain running while being cleaned. My grandfather was against the decision, but did as he was instructed – until his arm got caught. The efficiency expert disappeared after the accident, and going forward, the machines were turned off when they were cleaned. My grandfather’s compensation for losing a limb? He was guaranteed a position at the company for the rest of his life. From that day forward he served as a watchman.
My grandmother Witmer also worked for the company and, over time, became ill from contaminants at the factory. She passed away in 1945.
I almost find it unfathomable to think that both my parents and a number of other relatives continued to work for the company despite the life-changing impact it had on my family. I can only chalk it up to it being a different time.
Fast forward to the mid-1980s when I hit the work force – OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, had been around for about 15 years and most states had created similar agencies to assure safe and healthful working conditions for working women and men by setting and enforcing standards and by providing education and assistance. This was a development my grandparents could have greatly benefitted from!
Over the years, I’ve learned about workplace safety from a completely different angle – I’ve been involved with wellness committees because my company is concerned about employees’ health and well- being and I know a lot more about ergonomics than I ever thought possible. What’s the height of my chair and how does it relate to the position of my keyboard? I’ve taken for granted the air that I breathe is clean and the equipment that I use is safe – and if there’s a problem, there has always been a facilities department that I could call for help. I am proud of my hard working grandparents, whose work ethic was second to none and I am appreciative of all those earlier workers whose stories and sacrifices helped to make the workplace a safer place for all of us.
My sons scored As on their papers and I have a better and more appreciative understanding of my family’s past and my safe work environment.