When we encounter challenges and worsening conditions at work, if we don’t respond immediately to those negative changes we risk having those degraded conditions becoming standard procedure. Whether it’s a reduction of staffing, an increased speed of work or anything else that makes our day-to-day lives on the job more complicated or less valuable, we must act quickly or run the risk of these lower standards becoming firmly established into precedent. The longer we wait to respond to these issues, the more challenging it becomes for us and our co-workers to change them. One such example my co-workers and I encountered involved a safety concern. If we did not respond to it immediately, the result would have been a permanent risk to our well-being.
One day I arrived to work and nothing seemed to be different; a day that was starting off just like the rest. Fifteen minutes into my shift, I needed to slice a loaf of bread for a customer. Our slicer is automatic, just push a button and a weight pushes the bread against a dozen or so jostling blades, neatly slicing a full-size loaf of bread. For years we’ve used this machine with no issue. I trained and seen countless co-workers trained on this machine. Each time, the optical sensor –if triggered– will stop the blades. This feature is pointed out and demonstrated often by one passing their hand by the sensor. The safety feature came in handy in the past when errand objects fell into the slicer and we needed to fetch them out by hand.
Back to that loaf of bread I was talking about, as I started the slicer I noticed the optical eye was mangled and covered in tape. So I safely checked to see if the stop mechanism was still working, it wasn’t. I then asked my co-worker if she knew what was wrong with the slicer; she responded emphatically, “Yeah, the safety was malfunctioning. It was disabled to make it functional.” Earlier in the morning, a group of managers looked at the slicer and made the call to keep it in operation. Despite my co-worker’s concern, she was told to use the machine anyway. “I throw the bread in and run away,” she added. She was obviously unhappy about being told to use the machine with a broken safety.
I then approached our manager and asked if he knew the slicer’s safety was disabled. Trying to sound empathetic, he replied, “Yeah, I know. It’s something to bring up at the safety meeting tomorrow.” Tomorrow? I appreciated the fact he seemed to recognize the issue was a safety concern, but seriously, tomorrow? Wasn’t there something that could be done today? Also, why weren’t other workers or myself told that the safety was disabled? Not even a sign posted to that effect?
I immediately recognized that the issue necessitated immediate attention and if we didn’t act now the sensor would remain disabled until the machine completely broke down, which could be years. If our direct manager wasn’t going to do anything, if upper management prioritized the customer’s convenience over the safety of employees, then it was up to us to take action.
I asked my co-worker again if she felt safe using the slicer and again she said no. I agreed. I told her I didn’t want to use the slicer either and that we can tell the manager we won’t use it. She agreed. When the manager came back, with my co-worker next to me, I told him that we didn’t feel safe using the slicer and that we weren’t going to use it today. He seemed a bit surprised and said, “Ok. That’s your choice.”
Now, we spread the word to our three other co-workers. The first, who witnessed the exchange with the manager, was down and said she wouldn’t use the slicer either. Another co-worker had just arrived to work, I caught him before he hit the floor and told him the story. He was down, too, and he spread the word to the last co-worker. At this point, the only person using the slicer was the manager and it seemed like he was starting to feel uncomfortable about it now. When a customer asked for a loaf of bread sliced, we simply said “Sorry, the machine’s broken” and remarkably they weren’t too upset.
Recognizing that there were dozens of other workers in different departments who wouldn’t know the slicer was inoperable. A co-worker took the initiative to print a sign to post on the slicer: “WARNING: Safety Disabled”. The sign was only up for a minute though, because when I returned from my break I saw the machine being wheeled out of the café. The manager told us that he talked to the other managers again and they decided that the slicer was a “liability”.
This incident highlighted and revealed a number of truths. My co-workers and I were confronted with two choices: 1) accept the degraded working condition and risk using an unsafe slicer or 2) refuse to work on equipment that is unsafe. Management was informed of the situation but preferred to not interrupt work or pay the cost of ensuring safe work environment for us. This disregard to our well-being is disrespectful. Our response demonstrates that those who are truly looking out for our interest are the co-workers we work alongside and not management. Sure, we could have had our manager bring up the issue at the safety meeting or I could even have called OSHA, the poorly funded and understaffed agency which tries to ensure safe working conditions. But, we’re the ones most affected by the issues we face on the job and were the ones in the position to take immediate action to remedy it. By further empowering our ability to do this, we prove capable of preventing any degradation to our working conditions.