Every single day, workers in America are risking their lives to make a living.
Mundane moments in our lives that we take for granted — that lights come on when we flick switches, that roads are safe to drive on, that toilets flush away dirty water and taps supply clean — occur because of skilled trade workers, some of whom risk their lives in potentially deadly situations just to make them happen.
Despite the essential work they do every day, skilled workers aren't often given much credit in our culture. They're overlooked or underestimated.
Working in skilled trades isn't something a person can wake up one day, put on a hardhat, and start doing. The vast majority require a two-year diploma from a vocational school. Others are more in depth, adding apprenticeships and on-the-job training before workers can be certified to do it on their own.
Working as anything above an entry-level steward on an oil rig, for example, usually requires a diploma in welding, basic mechanics, or heavy equipment operations plus specialized courses in marine firefighting and emergency response. Workers must be physically strong, highly-skilled natural problem-solvers — able to do their tough, essential jobs perfectly on a moving, floating deep-sea drilling platform in all kinds of bad weather and treacherous conditions.
Most of the time, there are extensive safety protocols in place to keep workers out of harm’s way.
Coupled with strong leaders empowering workers to speak up about problems, sometimes they make a big difference.
Other times, like in the case of 2010’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, they fail horribly.
On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon was finishing up work on the deepest oil well ever drilled on our planet. The project was behind schedule and over budget. A chain of decisions, spurred largely by off-site executives wanting to save further money and time, led to a catastrophic explosion, a massive fire, and the largest oil spill in American history.
11 people — nine crew members and two engineers — lost their lives the day the Deepwater Horizon exploded.
Their shocking, preventable loss is unfortunately not unique to this one disaster.
In 2014, the most recent year for which there's data available, 4,821 workers died on the job in the United States. Some of these were the result of freak accidents. Others could have been prevented through tougher safety regulations and training, along with leaders committed to fostering cultures focused on inclusivity and safety.
That kind of workplace is possible. Paul O'Neill, the former CEO of Alcoa, famously built his entire business strategy on improving worker safety — a focus that both saved lives and helped his company succeed. That latter aspect, he says, was never his primary goal. Speaking to students at Harvard Business School, he reflected on his decision:
"I told the financial staff that if anyone ever calculated how much money we were saving by being safe, they were fired. I didn't lay down rules like that very often, but I'll tell you why I did it: because I didn't want [employees] to think they were being asked to do something because management was trying to think how to save money. I didn't care, and I was prepared to accept the consequences of spending whatever it took to become the safest company in the world."
Six years later, the effects of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill still linger.
This disaster caused catastrophic damage to the environment, to communities along the Gulf Coast, and to 11 families in particular who lost loved ones that day.
At the same time, it should be a wake-up call about so many things, especially about the conditions we expect for ourselves and our fellow workers who provide essential contributions to our daily lives.
When things go spectacularly wrong on a work site, skilled workers are often the last line of defense preventing a mistake from becoming a full-blown disaster. If management doesn’t listen to workers on the front line, people get hurt. Guaranteeing their safety is ensuring our own.