“Politicized public health policy strays too far from sober assessment of scientific facts and runs the risk of constituting naked political advocacy.”  — Daniel Goldberg

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and what many would argue has been an abysmal response to that catastrophe, there has been much said about the politicization of public safety. In a recent piece in Chemical and Engineering News, Ryan Cross reported on a widespread concern of scientists in all fields that polarization in the public sphere threatens “to disintegrate public trust in science.” They wonder if the public’s trust in science can survive the pandemic.

The concern is that if the public loses trust in science in one area, that loss of trust will extend to all areas. Some of us have already felt pushback from personnel on mandatory PPE. “My body, my choice,” is the slogan they are using. If that can be applied to face masks during a pandemic, it can be applied to any PPE.

Mandatory Safety

The general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act states, “Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” The burden is on the employer to make sure that employees are safe.  So, employers mandate all sorts of safety measures, from hardhats, safety shoes, safety glasses, and hearing protection to confined space entry programs, all in the name of protecting the health and safety of their workers. These are not optional, and generally, are not controversial.

But they could be.

In 1967, the U.S. Department of Transportation linked federal funds for highway construction to states have motorcycle helmet laws. By 1975, all but three states had them. Then congress revoked federal authority to penalize states for not having and enforcing motorcycle helmet laws and between 1976 and 1978, eight states completely repealed their helmet laws and another 20 states undermined them by applying them only to younger riders—an almost unenforceable distinction. There are presently only 19 states that require motorcycle helmets for all riders. This, despite data that indicates that wearing a helmet reduce the probability of dying in a motorcycle crash by almost 40% and that unhelmeted rider are 3 times more likely than helmeted rider to experience a traumatic brain injury during a motorcycle crash.

The same could happen in other areas if there was a concerted push to make it happen. Safety is not a given.

All PPE poses a burden. It is always more comfortable to go without PPE than to wear it. When it becomes a matter of “My body, my choice”, some people will choose to be safe, but many will not. Motorcycle helmet use is almost 90% in states with universal helmet laws, but only 56% in states without it.

When Safety Measures Are for Everyone

The “My body, my choice” philosophy completely falls apart, however, when the choice impacts the safety of others. Arguably, hardhats, safety shoes, safety glasses, and hearing protection only protect the person wearing them. Never mind their families that depend on them, or their coworkers who must respond to their injuries. If the only person protected is the person wearing the PPE, maybe OSHA really has no business holding employers responsible for enforcing their own safety policies.

But many safety measures are for the protection of others. In the current pandemic, face masks come immediately to mind. When others are endangered by the actions of one person, those others have an interest in requiring safe actions. “Your bodies, my choice,” is the sort of selfish nihilism that has no place in the workplace or in society.

In 29 CFR 1977.12, OSHA provides that employees have a right to refuse to do work that they sincerely believes puts them in danger. So, not only do employers have to provide a safe workplace, free from recognized hazards, but employees have a right to refuse to work in a workplace where they are exposed to recognized hazards.

When Safety is Controversial

Most people don’t have a death wish. It is a safe bet that everyone wants to leave work in the same vehicle they arrived in—not an ambulance, not an EMS helicopter, and not a hearse. It’s easy to say that safety only becomes controversial when it serves a political purpose for it to be controversial. In addition to wearing a mask during a pandemic of an airborne virus, this would include safety controversies about anti-vaxxing, cell phone radiation, vaping, the use of the morning after pill, gun control, and domestic violence. It is not the data is ambiguous about the hazard or lack of hazard, but that there is a dispute about the cost and the benefit, and the morals of the issue. The cost-benefit assessment requires value judgments, and there is nothing about the scientific method that equips scientists and engineers to make value judgments or moral judgments.  It’s not that scientists and engineers cannot or should not make value judgments and moral judgments. It’s just that those judgments are not “scientific” and should not be cloaked in science.

Amy Fairchild and her colleagues described the “basic six” tools of public health in their article on the future of public health. These basic six tools are the scientific underpinnings of non-controversial public health. They can be adapted to industrial and process safety:

  1. Recognizing hazards
  2. Maintaining safe working conditions
  3. Training on safety
  4. Testing and inspection
  5. Assuring proper treatment after incidents
  6. Collecting statistics

When safety professionals stick to these six areas, they typically avoid controversy. Their work is largely “scientific”, the work of making and interpreting observations. Observations are amoral and value-free. However, society expects more from us. Not just analysis, but conclusions and recommendations. Society expects judgment. It just doesn’t want those judgments to involve sacrifice.

We Want to Improve but We Don’t Want to Change

The C&EN article quotes William Hallman, a psychologist at Rutgers University: “We trust the science that leads to the gadgets. Buying stuff is easy. But changing our own behaviors and opinions is hard.” This is one of the reasons that new OSHA regulations almost always focus on the safety infrastructure that the employer must provide, rather than on the behavior that employees must adopt.

Unfortunately, safety depends a great deal on behavior.  We are as safe as we want to be. When we introduce improvements, we compensate for those improvements by becoming more reckless in other areas.

As important as safer layers of protection are, the overall trend in safety is going to depend on how much we—as individuals, as organizations, as a society—want to be safer. As long as we are satisfied with where we are, or rather, where we believe we are, any effort to shift us to safer levels will require value judgments.  And as long as value judgments differ, becoming safer will be political.

Go Ahead, Politicize Workplace Safety

If you believe that your organization is as safe as it needs to be, then your job is to defend and enforce the status quo. That is not an easy task and it is honorable work, but it is not controversial. However, if you believe that the safety in your organization must improve, then the status quo is insufficient. That means change, change is controversial, and controversy is political. So, don’t be afraid to politicize workplace safety. That is what happens when you become an effective advocate for a safer workplace.

This is not without peril. As Machiavelli said, “there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.”

Take heart, though, in the words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”