For those of you who don’t know, OSHA is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the US. I learned this because, for a short period of my life, between January and April of 2000, I worked construction. I was a pipefitter’s helper, a professional much less sexual than it sounds and one which lacks in glory. However, in my few short months, all spent building a toilet paper factory in Oklahoma, I managed to get my first taste of what it might feel like to piss on OSHA safety standards: I was the only natural-born US citizen on the all Mexican crew.
Only three of us (including me) spoke English; however, it wasn’t the language that indicated our Mexican-ness, Mexican-ity—it was the efficiency, the pace at which all tasks got done, and especially the way they were done with little-to-no regard for health or safety. In the world of construction, “tying off” (attaching a rope from your harness to something stable in case you fall) is of paramount importance, not only for your own well-being but more so to avoid OSHA violations, fines, and being fired. No one must have translated those standards to our crew.
It happened all the time, but on one particular day, we were working on a rack of pipes running along a high ceiling, fifteen to twenty feet up, when we hit a snag and were unable to get a pipe where it needed to be. We were using scissor lifts to raise us to working level, and the rules stated that, when on a scissor lift, a one must be tied off and b at least one foot had to be on the standing platform. However, one guy, the foreman’s little brother, actually untied himself so that he could climb on the top rail of the scissor lift in order to shake, yank, and all things unbalanced the offending pipe until it moved. Meanwhile, the other guys looked out for OSHA. Pipe fitted!
Living abroad feels much like being on the Mexican crew: The rules of safety are generally based on knowing (and probably not acting) better, and at best, they are disregarded as logical guidelines. Look at traffic for a clear example—the movies depict it fairly well as a sort of free-for-all in which one-way streets, stop signs, and crosswalks are more video game obstacles than steadfast laws. Over the past few years, since living the safe umbrella of OSHA, I’ve maintained a sort of mental tally of health and safety violations that either provided laughter or concern, usually both.
Korea, in particular, amazed. Of course, in a world where motorcycles legally zip along pedestrian walkways, the same thoroughfares where small children (barely walking) toddle around under “community” supervision, regulations are bound to be different. I remember sitting under a makeshift tent outside a Korean bar, watching a soccer game on a half-covered big screen TV in the middle of a rainstorm, only to notice the electrical power strip in a puddle on the ground had been daftly protected by being inserted into a plastic cola bottle. The air conditioner in the kindergarten classroom dripped for months (all summer) onto an electrical socket just about perfect height for the children to stick one of their metal chopsticks into.
I’ve seen things that would twist an OSHA man’s well-groomed, safety-measured moustache into a handlebar flamethrower. However, I’ve recently witnessed the most blatant undermining of personal and public safety that, perhaps, has ever graced this former pipefitter’s helper’s eyes: Looking out of our apartment window, on the roof of the building across the street, outside the guard rails, a man was standing on the slanted, icy overhang, sweeping newly fallen snow onto the sidewalk some five stories below, nothing—no rope, cord, or out-reached hand—more than balance and luck to keep the man from plummeting to his peril, no caution to prevent pedestrians from walking under debris falling from above. Enjoy these pictures: