Notable books on safety and work

This end-of-year list is more complex than one of unread books because of the qualitative elements. In writing this article, off-the-cuff, I thought of the three or four books that I could readily remember reading in 2022; those that stuck in my mind for several reasons.

The book that most readily comes to mind from 2022 is the Jessie Singer book “There are no Accidents“. Singer makes the same point as many occupational health and safety (OHS) people have – accidents are not an “act of God”. There is always a cause IF we choose to look. There is always a social, corporate, economic of ethical environment that either encourages or fails to discourage decisions that can lead to harm.

I have been critical in the past of the influence of road safety approaches to OHS, but I confess to having read plenty of Ralph Nader in my younger days so I understand the justifications for safety improvements in design. Singer uses her road safety motivation and experience to discuss the broader application of “accident”. After this book, there is little justification for anyone to describe an incident as an accident, but the adjective tragic will forever apply.

I also liked “Work Won’t Like You Back” by Sarah Jaffe. The subtitle was “How devotion to our jobs keeps us exploited, exhausted and alone”. It could have been a self-help book about findings your true self and internal happiness, and there is a little bit of that, but Jaffe looks at so much more. It may be that

“…love is too big and beautiful and grand and messy and human a thing to be wasted on a temporary fact of life like work.”

page 335

But she also analyses zero-hours contracts, the mythologising of hi-tech work in Silicon Valley, the spin applied to important work changes involving diversity, respect, and justice, and the creepiness of companies claiming to be one big happy family. Every family has a relative who no one wants to sit next to at the table.

I would also add Dirty Work by Eyal Press because although he revisits many of the work and OHS issues in earlier works of others like Fast Food Nation, Press wrote this during the COVID-19 pandemic when a virus caused us to reevaluate those who do our dirty work. Suddenly they were heroes; they were applauded, they were seen, and they were thanked. The reality is that none of that has improved their status. They remain poorly paid, overworked, undervalued and stigmatised. Press shows us the injustices, but the physical, mental and economic exploitation continues.

Press quotes Angela Stuesse, who wrote about chicken processing but, more importantly, about the nature of work:

“Chronic abuse at the hands of superiors also injures the spirit, threatening workers’ sense of dignity, self-worth and justice.”

page 170

I also must mention David Provan‘s book “A Field Guide to Safety Professional Practice”. It is very different from the books mentioned because it is a different beast. The content and the format (and the quality of the paper used) make this a standout book. Australia has so few OHS books, and this one set a very high bar. My review and interview with Provan is HERE.

These books come readily to mind because they tackle big work and safety-related issues but with a tone that is extremely readable and frequently produces moments that stop you from reading either in wonder, surprise, revelation or (often) anger. In short, these books engaged me in ways that the academic books rarely did. I’d rather not discuss some of the self-help, often self-published, mental health drivel that has also appeared this year.

Forgive me if your favourite work-related book from 2022 is not here; I am sure there are others I have not read. If you have read or written a book that you believe is notable, please let me know for next year.

Kevin Jones

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