“There’s nothing sadder in this world than to awake Christmas morning and not be a child.”  — Erma Bombeck

This time of year is full of holiday wishes. It’s as though, as the year comes to an end, we are desperate to squeeze in the caring and kindness that we failed to get to all the previous year. It’s not just the holiday wishes, but the resolutions for the new year. Everything suddenly comes into focus and during the last few weeks of the year, we try to make up for it, to approach the season with the “open heart of a child.”

I think that one small reason for the depression that haunts the holiday season is the realization that once again, we didn’t live up to our own expectations of ourselves.

What Do We Wish?

Each year at about this time, radio stations take to playing seasonal music. Mostly overtly Christmas music, much of it not very good, but what the heck, it’s Christmas. A song that always gets my attention whenever it comes on the radio is “My Grown-Up Christmas List” by David Foster and Linda Thompson-Jenner. You may be familiar with Amy Grant’s 1992 cover of the song, or Kelly Clarkson’s 2003 cover. There’s is nothing particularly Christmas-y about the song except its title, but the song is completely in keeping with the spirit of these winter holidays. The refrain goes like this:

No more lives torn apart,
And wars would never start,
And time would heal the heart,
And everyone would have a friend,
And right would always win,
And love would never end.

It has always seemed to me that this is a good list of wishes for the holidays and for the whole year. Big, world-encompassing wishes that would make the lives of everyone better. And it starts with “No more lives torn apart.”

The problem with big, world-encompassing wishes is that they seem beyond reach. Only a child can make a wish, believing with all their heart that it might come true.

No More Lives Torn Apart

Each year at about this time, the folks at Bluefield Process Safety send out holiday cards. The message is similar every year. This year’s card said, “May all your days be happy and safe.” We have no illusions; we know that wishing won’t make it so. But still, it seems better to wish for it than not to.

Why do we wish for a safer world? Because in the absence of safety, lives are torn apart. “No more lives torn apart,” is too big a wish, but “Make the world a safer place,” is within reach. If the world is safer this year than last year, that’s progress. If it is even safer next year, that’s more progress. And that is how we approach the world that Amy Grant and Kelly Clarkson sing about.

Making the World a Safer Place

Each year at about this time, we make wishes for a better world. Though wishing is not enough, it is important. Call it wishing, call it prayer—the act of thinking about what we want brings it into focus for us. It guides us to act in a way that is consistent with what we want.

Do we really want a safer world? Or is that just a holiday sentiment that gets shoveled out there like so many others? Because if it is what we really want, we want it all year round, not just during the winter holidays.

A few months ago, my wife and I were at the zoo with our granddaughter. There’s a train at the St. Louis Zoo and it has crossing gates at the walkways. We came to one and it was down, lights flashing. We were late to a show, so I looked up and down the tracks and saw no train in either direction. I went around the gate, my granddaughter riding my shoulders. My wife balked for a second but followed my lead.

“What?” I asked as she looked at me with a mixture of disappointment and disapproval. “It was safe. See? There’s still no train.”

“It was,” she agreed. “But is this what you want to teach her?” nodding toward our granddaughter.

I was ashamed and promised myself to do better, to be the man my family thinks I am.

Things Can Get Safer

Each year at about this time, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its final reports on work-related injuries, illnesses, and fatalities for the prior year. In a week or two, we’ll see their report for 2021. We’re afraid there will be no surprises. We expect that the overall work-related fatality rate will still be around 3.5 fatalities per 100,000 full time equivalents, unchanged for more than a decade. We expect that the occupations with the highest fatality rates will still include commercial fishing, logging, roofing, and trash collection. It will be disheartening, when year after year, things change so little.

But things do change. For years, aircraft pilot/flight engineer has also been consistently in the top five list of occupations with the highest fatality rates, ranging from 49 to 64 fatalities per 100,000 full-time equivalents. Then, in 2020, the fatality rate for that occupation dropped to 34 fatalities per 100,000 full-time equivalents. That drop is statistically significant! Something happened. The most interesting thing that we will see in the upcoming BLS report is how aircraft pilots and flight engineers did in 2021. If it stays low, then we can have even greater hope that we can make significant changes elsewhere.

We’ll make these changes, here and here and here, because we are determined to.

Be the Change You Wish For

Let’s all make wishes for a safer world. We can’t change the whole world, but we can change our part of it. But let’s not limit it to a holiday wish. Instead, let’s make it a wish (or a prayer, or a conscious choice) we make every day.

Then, let’s not stop at wishing. Let’s do the things we must, set the example we must, to make the world—at least our part of it—a safer place. It will spread from there.


  • Mike Schmidt

    With a career in the CPI that began in 1977 with Union Carbide, Mike was profoundly impacted by the 1984 tragedy in Bhopal and has been working on process safety ever since.