Friday, October 08, 2010

Want Better Administrators? Here's How

October 8, 2010, 11:45 a.m.

Workplace Safety: Look to China's Coal Mine Solution
. . . and other lessons

(bought to you by*)

China seems to be doing a lot of things right, and I'm not just talking about what appears to be their stealth monopoly control of the world's essential "rare earth" resources. Keith Bradsher, "China Tightens Grip on Rare Minerals," New York Times, September 1, 2009, p. B1.

At a time when we don't seem to have figured out how to make corporate executives and their government overseers take a more serious approach to workplace safety, the Chinese have come up with an approach that can be applied to improving administrators' behavior generally.

"[N]ine men . . . have died inside U.S. coal mines in the six months since the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia, in which 29 men were killed on April 5." David A. Fahrenthold and Kimberly Kindy, "Mine Safety's Black Hole," Washington Post, October 5, 2010. And see Nicholas Johnson, "Honor Workers Every Day," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 6, 2010, p. A7 (and in "Labor Day: Honor Workers Every Day," September 6, 2010); and Editorial, "Miners Die, Congress Dawdles," New York Times, September 19, 2010, p. A20.

What can we do? Where can we look for "best practices"?

Admittedly, it seems counter intuitive to look to China for coal mine safety. There are seven million Chinese coal miners -- more than in the rest of the world combined. In 2004 6000 Chinese miners died in mining accidents. China produces 40% of the world's coal, but 80% of the mining deaths. Chinese miners die at a rate 100 times greater than in the U.S. Mark Gregory, "Why Are China's Mines So Dangerous?" BBC World Service, October 7, 2010.

But last year those deaths dropped to 2600. Id.

And now Beijing has added another innovation that will not only reduce those deaths further, but offers an insight into reforming the attitudes of elected officials, administrators and managers generally.

"New regulations have come into force in China that require managers of mines to accompany workers down the shafts. . . . The authorities hope that putting officials in the mines alongside their workers will act as a strong incentive to improve safety conditions." Martin Patience, "China Introduces Mine Safety Rule," BBC News, October 7, 2010.

As you'd suspect, China's coal mine managers aren't crazy about the idea. "[A]lready there have been reports of some managers trying to manipulate the new regulation. At one mine, seven workers were given jobs as assistant managers to circumvent the new rule." Id.

How else might this principle be applied?

Professorial humility. At one point I applied it to myself. I'm not a good foreign language student. Oh, I manage to learn and use a few expressions in the native language of all the countries where I travel. But the portion of the brain that seemingly enables some individuals to master a foreign language on a single hearing never fully developed for me. Besides, most of the people I was dealing with abroad were fluent English language speakers.

But a time arrived when it looked like I was really going to need more than a few expressions in Russian. So I took a Russian class with about six other students, many of whom were simultaneously studying Japanese and Chinese. That should have been a clue. I spent time in the language lab; I did the exercises in the book. But there was no way I could master the language as thoroughly and quickly as the others.

Now it's undoubtedly true that there are undergraduates and law students who do not do well in class, and on exams, because of binge drinking, other partying, or a lackadaisical attitude generally. But what I learned from my experience -- deliberately taking a class that I knew would be exceedingly difficult for me -- is that there are also students who are not doing well in spite of really making the effort and logging the time.

It was a lesson that has served me well in the years since. Indeed, I recommend it to teachers at all levels. What are the subjects, the intellectual challenges, at which you have the least aptitude -- advanced math, physics, spoken and written Chinese, philosophy, memorization of historical facts and dates? Take a course in one of those subjects. Feel the pain. It will make you a more sympathetic and effective teacher.

Employing minimum wage workers? Lobby in opposition to raising their pay? Take a page out of Barbara Ehrenreich's book; literally. Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Henry Holt, 2001).

As an absolute minimum, all such individuals ought to at least be required to read and reflect on her report of the consequences of such pay for those who have and hold a job, go to work every day, and play by the rules. The conditions confronting America's "working poor" put all of us -- and our elected representatives -- to shame.

Working conditions. In 1974, when I was running for Congress with UAW support, I was talking to some factory workers about their working conditions. What's a fair wage for working in a foundry, in temperatures often in excess of 100 degrees, around machinery that could remove a limb, and next to vats of molten metal that would instantly kill if one misstep caused you to fall in?

It occurred to me one measure might be to ask the CEO what he would require as a fair wage were he to be doing that work. How much better, I now realize in light of the Chinese practice, if he were required to work there every day for at least a couple of weeks before answering that question.

Similarly the foundry workers could take turns sitting at his desk, with carpet up to their ankles, playing golf one or two afternoons a week, following which they would have to indicate the minimum income they would find acceptable for doing his job.

Other. There are no limits to this approach. School superintendents could be required to eat lunch in the school cafeteria every day for a couple of months, rather than in the swanky restaurants their salaries make possible. Doctors could experience the joys of emptying bed pans in a hospital for a week or so. Hotel managers could try to change the linen, make the beds, replace the towels, and clean the rooms in the time they allow their cleaning crews. University presidents could try to personally figure out the building maintenance challenges that daily confront employees, or work along side a night shift cleaning crew trying to do the job with half the personnel they had not that many years ago. Auto manufacturing CEOs would have to figure out how to get at an engine part needing repair that is seemingly impossible to reach. Airline executives could be assigned to serving all the passengers on a short flight with a full plane -- including how to get those carts in and out of the galley.

Stuff like that. Use your imagination. The Chinese used theirs, and it's saving lives. It would be a better world.
"Dark as a Dungeon"

Where it's dark as a dungeon
And damp as the dew
Where the danger is doubled
And the pleasures are few
Where the rain never falls
And the sun never shines
Oh it's dark as a dungeon
Way down in the mine
Now here's Johnny Cash singing it to you.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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