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Business Advisor

‘I’m Sorry, My Son, You’ve Got Industrial Disease’

Those of us in leadership positions can set a relentless and hardworking example without being cavalier about safety

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Yes, it's my foot, and yes, it hurt, but why am I proud of this image?
Image Credit: UNC radiology
Yes, it's my foot, and yes, it hurt, but why am I proud of this image?
Image Credit: UNC radiology
I love cutting roofs and I'm glad to have been a rafter monkey. But my comfort in high places encourages my employees to take more risks than is necessary.
Image Credit: Beth Williams

I’ve been working in the trades for 35 years and have taken a few injuries along the way: four nail gun accidents—two through the bone; quite a memorable fall from a roof while working alone; tablesaw up the center of my middle finger (SawStop would have been nice right about then).

So it didn’t surprise me much when my incessant coughing during a recent movie date with my wife led to a doctor’s visit and the diagnosis of “industrial bronchitis,” aka white lung, or in the words of Mark Knopfler, “industrial disease.”

But what did surprise me was my reaction, which was sort of “Oh cool, wonder if I have that tune in my iPod?”

It got me thinking about the tough-guy culture I had established for myself and my crew over the years. I remember celebrating with a six-pack when a new guy sustained his first nail gun injury (“Welcome to the club.”). Sure, I made them all sign the “drug letter” when they were hired—that they will not come to work drunk, sick, or stoned, and will purchase and maintain dust mask, safety glasses, and earplugs and “use them when appropriate.” But a quick look around the job site proves that safety glasses are the only item from that list being even partially enforced. Fall protection? Harnesses are available on every job, but are not being used much. The standing joke is “If you fall off the roof you’re fired, 12 in. from the ground.”

I know that part of my style of “leading from the front” means that I’ve generally tried to outwork and out-produce everyone on my team to “pull” them along by setting a relentless example. So I’ve been the most guilty of climbing without a harness and exposing myself to hazardous conditions in the interest of getting the work done faster. But this means that I’ve been setting a terrible example for the folks who’ve been working with me over the years. And I know that I’m not alone. This tough-guy mentality is pervasive throughout our industry, and our culture (junk food, alcohol, high-school football).

But it doesn’t need to be this way. Those of us who are in leadership positions can set a relentless and hardworking example without being cavalier about safety. We can put the safety glasses on as we get out of the truck, and keep a bag in the apron with dust mask and earplugs and really use them when appropriate. We can carry a water bottle and show folks that staying hydrated is just part of the working day. I know that I’ll never wear greasy sunblock on a dusty job site, but at least I can wear long sleeves and a cowboy hat. As we lead, they will follow. It may be too late for me to make much of a correction at 53, but I can encourage others to learn from my mistakes.

Instead of resigning ourselves to hearing aids, chronic pain, and inhaled steroids in our old age, we can look forward to sharing our experience with younger builders well into our 60s, and even longer—which sounds like a lot more fun to me.


  1. Gerard | | #1

    general safety
    Two thoughts: - Everyone on the crew needs to be in one piece if we are going to get anything built at all, and - so we do all this "green" building in an attempt to make the planet, and the houses we build a healthier place for everyone's grandkids... since when did this let us off the hook about taking care of ourselves?

  2. user-282515 | | #2

    100% On the Mark

    Your thoughts and observations could not be more correct. For me, this epiphany came in August 1997. Working alone, and ripping 2x4s, one millisecond changed my approach forever. In that split second, my circular saw kicked back and tried its best to remove about half of my left hand. The cut went from the tip of my index finger across my hand to the opposing base of my palm. 8 hours of microscopic surgery to reconnect bone, tendons and nerves and 6 months of PT later, I have about 90% of the use of my hand back. Feeling is still spotty to this day, but I have my hand.

    What caused this was the same cavalier attitude you describe in your post - aka stupidity on my part. Since that time, I have stressed - if not forced - jobsite safety on my crews. Every accident that is prevented is worth the extra time. Whenever I catch myself starting to take a shortcut, and compromising safety in the name being the tough-guy, all I have to do is look at my hand!

    Just because we have done something in an unsafe manner thousands of times doesn't mean our luck will continue......

  3. jimblodgett | | #3

    Great thoughts, Michael
    I work with a couple young bucks, always working their tails off. I appreciate their efforts but regularly remind them to pace themselves..."it's a long way to 54" (a couple more months that will change to 55).

    I'm lucky. Because I have asthma, I have always had dust sensitivity and wear a dust mask much more often than most folks I have worked with over the years. We keep a box of them in the jobsite gang box and a few masks in the truck. Warms my heart to see these young guys walk by with one propped up on top of their head.

    The most valuable thing we can pass along is the respect we hold for our young coworkers- their safety and health. I'd have a tough time operating without them, I'll tell you that.

  4. Expert Member
    Michael Maines | | #4

    Money shot
    We probably work more safely than many companies, but there is still the tough-guy mentality, which you need to survive as a carpenter. We have been fined by OSHA and received warnings from our insurance rep for relatively minor violations, such as operating a table was without the guard. It hurt at the time, but now it's an easy way to motivate the guys to work safely--we just tell them that we can't afford the fines, so go ahead and take the extra time to work safely. That makes it positive encouragement--work safely for the good of the company, not because you're a wimp.

  5. Bryan | | #5

    Hi Michael,

    Great article that should make everyone realize the true value of the fragile parts that make up the only body we've got... eyes, hands, ears... and oft forgotten, lungs!

    Just curious, aside from the diagnosis, what did the doc say about potential treatment for the industrial bronchitis?


    It's inhaled steroids (Flow-vent, Azmacort, Albuterall, etc) and x-rays to check for lung cancer.

    The interesting thing is that one of the major risk factors (besides the dust and PVC primer and glue, and the time spent in India) was my chronic failure to drink enough water, substituting coffee in the day and beer at night. This lack of hydration sapped my system of the ability to cleanse itself effectively so the first order of business is a huge dose of antibiotics to wipe out any lingering bugs that might be living in the toxic waste site that is my lungs and then a big increase in my water consumption to push the cleansing process forward and a renewed commitment to the respirator when working. (though at this point I'm more of a teacher and coach)

  7. Bryan | | #7

    That really was an eye opener. I wouldn't have thought of hydration being such an important factor. But it makes complete sense once you think about it. Thank you very much for sharing these personal details. Here's hoping this can save many people in the industry from traveling down the same road.

    All the best in the future, Coach! : )

  8. awlright | | #8

    So I guess you can teach old dogs new tricks!
    I am humbled by your honest and caring reflections.

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