Peter Knight ponders the American approach to health and safety

Watch your heads! That was the only warning for me and my fellow subway riders at 96th street on a Monday morning rush hour as construction workers used a mobile crane to hoist a very large bag of sand over us.

For the past few years the New York Metropolitan Transport Authority has been building a spanking new station literally around the thousands of men, women and schoolchildren who use the station every day.

This has involved closing off skanky but safe access points that run under busy Broadway and forcing commuters over the main road. That Monday, the suspended sand bag merely added excitement to the day as we dodged mammoth delivery trucks and badly driven taxis with tonnes of No 1 grade hanging over our heads. It’s a bit like being in the midst of a reality TV show: I’m not a construction worker, get me outta here!

In what other advanced nation would such blatant disregard for the public’s safety be tolerated? The grubbiness of the construction workers’ “safety” jackets reflects the deeply conflicted attitude the US appears to demonstrate to safety: plenty of jackets but no reflection.

The Gulf explosion and loss of 11 lives on the Transocean rig that led to the ghastly BP spill came shortly after the loss of 29 coalminers in West Virginia when safety systems clearly failed. Only in China, it seems, do these big industrial accidents happen with greater regularity.

A few weeks back a young commuter was squashed by a passing subway train when jumping on the tracks to retrieve a bag. A few days ago another woman had to be dissuaded from trying to retrieve her favourite lipstick after dropping it on the tracks.

Mixed-up priorities?

This cavalier attitude to safety has taken me by surprise. I always thought the US was up there with the Swedes and the Swiss. It was, after all, the Americans who in the 1970s insisted that foreign car makers retrofit massive bumpers to their exports. The cars, no matter what their safety record, had to wear these dodgem-style girders of steel and plastic to comply with US crash test standards.

This emphasis on safety was underlined in my first visit to the US with my son, who was banned from any skateboarding facility unless he wore enough body armour to render him immobile. The swings in the parks are mostly full-body protectors similar to the seats you find on modern roller-coaster rides.

But in 27 states you can ride a motorcycle without a helmet if you are an adult – which kicks in at between 17 and 20 depending on the state – and three states have no helmet law. A heart surgeon friend calls summer the heart-donor season because there are plenty of young healthy hearts on offer from victims of motorcycle accidents.

There seem to be a number of intertwined reasons for this attitude to safety among many, but not all, Americans.

The US still has a wonderful can-do spirit where most things are considered possible. This leads people to act in ways that more cautious societies might discourage.

The attitude stems from the pioneering spirits of the “go west” days and the celebration of the space race when the US demonstrated that a combination of brains and determination could overcome enormous odds.

There is also feeling that the individual has a right to take risks and, frankly, a right to die. This anti-authoritarian spirit is linked to rights that the constitution bestows on the individual. Who the hell are you to tell me to wear a seat belt or a helmet?

Unfortunately the overriding reason for lax safety is probably far less romantic. It is called saving money. There is an obsession with cutting costs for both economic and ideological reasons. There are, of course, laws to prevent companies cutting safety to cut costs. Indeed, many US corporations run some of the safest operations in the world. DuPont, for example, has made a world-class business from teaching others on how to operate safely.

It is the ideological support of cost-saving which is more frightening. This is where politicians – usually on the right – fight any legislation that may introduce regulatory costs that corporations want to avoid. We have heard it in the healthcare debate. We are hearing it in the flagging discussions to tackle climate change. And it is central to the analysis of why the oil industry was able to drill in deep water with inadequate safeguards.

Peter Knight is president of Context America.

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