Government Regulations Are Personal

Apr 21, 2017

Credit Ken Smith

My story begins 23 years ago. I was at a conference a couple of blocks from the White House. Nobody had cell phones, but somehow word reached me to call my parents’ house in Missouri. Not a good omen. In a dim alcove off the hotel lobby I found a pay phone and tapped out their number. My sister answered and said, “Let me get Mom.” That wasn’t a good sign either. When my mother came on, she said, “Take a deep breathe, son,” and tethered to that pay phone I listened. My youngest brother, Dave, had been working up high on a utility pole of the kind that brings electricity to a house.  Something went wrong up there. The full current of the line he was working on passed through his body.

I promised to end our trip and come right home. I was due to meet my spouse for lunch, but there was nowhere private to talk. All I could think of was to walk out with her onto the wide lawn around the Washington Monument. We sat down on the grass as far away as possible from sidewalks and pedestrians, and I told her the news. In time we collected ourselves, got up, and began a journey to the Midwest.  

The next two days were immersed in family, but at the funeral home there were Dave’s friends and co-workers, many of them strangers to me. I spoke to one man near the open casket. Did you work with Dave? I asked. No, he said, but all of us who do utility work stand together at a time like this. Electrical workers in their work trucks swelled the long line of vehicles that made its way to the cemetery. Near the front of the procession the newest, biggest service truck, scrubbed to a mirror finish, followed behind the hearse. Dave’s widow rode high in the front seat.

Months passed, and there came a second phone call, this time from my father.  A person from the federal government, from OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, had come out to the house with the report on Dave’s death. It’s not information you’d inflict on a family by cruelly dropping an envelope in the mail. The OSHA person explained the findings and described the protections people need at work and the regulations in place to try to accomplish that. He told my parents, “Every one of those regulations was written in someone’s blood.”

Little more than a year later I was back in Missouri when another utility employee died working on a power line. There was a press conference—my father and I saw it on TV in the living room. “Does this happen very often? How long since the last accident of this kind?” a journalist asked. My father and I knew exactly how long it had been. The company’s PR person said, “No, no, not often at all. I couldn’t tell you the last time something like this happened.”

Dave’s kids are adults now. They’ve had extra challenges to face, I know, but I won’t try to speak for them. Over the years I still hear sometimes a clip of Ronald Reagan telling one of his most beloved jokes.

“I think you all know I've always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I'm from the government and I'm here to help.’”

But ever since the OSHA man spoke to my parents that day, Reagan’s joke has been bitter to me. For our family, the story of that Washington, D. C. phone call continues, since we hear of politicians today trying to weaken the protections we all deserve in the workplace. They’ve never made that sort of phone call, I guess, never heard an investigator say with sensitivity to grieving parents that each one of the regulations was written in someone’s blood.