Safety Is Knowledge Plus Attitude


“Mother says I can go to Devil’s Lake but no rope climbing,” words of our 10 year old niece visiting from out of town.  We told her to tell her mother that we did all our climbing without ropes – we had done only easy scrambles.  The reality of course is that rope is a very considerable safety advantage in rock climbing and not the problem.  Compare with people not donating blood because transfusions transmit AIDS (blood transfusions cannot transmit AIDS to the donor).


During World War II, a British physician stationed at a quiet backwater in Africa fought boredom by testing the locals’ hearing.  He discovered that their hearing did not deteriorate much with age.  Hearing loss with age had been considered normal in industrialized society.  Elevated trains, heavy trucks with Jake brakes, noisy tractors and feed grinders are the difference.  If your ears ring after a noisy job, you might not have damaged your hearing, but damage was close enough you should have used protection.  Draw the line between an occasional skilsaw cut mounting electric boxes and cutting off the entire scraps of sub-flooring projecting around the foundation of a new house.


Years ago a patient who had been raised near Covington, Kentucky told me about sledding at age 8 on a hill with the run out on the ice of the Ohio River.  He went through the ice and the current carried him past the hole.  It was shallow enough that he could pick up his sled to use as a battering ram to make a new hole and climb out.  Soon after hearing this story, we were driving beside a deep canal with steep banks and no guard rail in south Florida.  I thought of people telling me, “I never wear seat belts because I might go in the water.”  Then I thought of rolling down that steep bank and ending up too disoriented or stunned to make a successful escape.  So I left my seat belt on.  I would have to figure out which door or window to try to get out, and be patient while waiting for water to enter to equalize pressure to permit escape, meanwhile keeping track of the bubble of air to breath while waiting.


Finally, I remember a heat treater from Rockford who had a contract with a farm equipment manufacturer to harden corn picker snapping rolls so they would last longer.  Snapping rolls grab the corn stalks and pull them through the machinery where the ears are peeled off the stalks.  When snapping rolls get worn smooth, the whole mechanism may clog, tempting risky attempts at unclogging.  After my heat treater patient had demonstrated that treated snapping rolls lasted an order of magnitude longer than untreated ones, the equipment manufacturer decided not to forego the spare parts revenue.  I became incensed by the callous disregard for the safety of farmers.  Despairing of any ability to influence the manufacturer, I went to Studer’s and talked to the corn picker repairman.  He was a farm kid and immediately understood my concern, told me the speed of the tractor power take-off shaft, helped me count the cogs on the gears and sprockets.  I supplied the eye to hand reflex time.  Together we calculated that a corn picker can gobble 18 feet of stick before you can let go.  This has enhanced my safety discussions with patients, and enhanced my mental health by doing something constructive instead of just fretting.


Familiarity breeds contempt.  Thus, large factories need safety directors to remind the workers not to get too accustomed to hazards and households need to listen to each other including what the children learn in school about safety (and smoking).  A final message to farm spouses: Don’t bring up controversial domestic matters during lunch hour when it is corn picking time.  Distraction is a bad attitude while doing a dangerous chore.  I choose a calm day in my life when I use the garden waste grinder gratefully inherited from Judge Brand.

John A. Frantz

Chairman, Monroe Board of Health                                                                 

June 25, 2001