By Darrel Canada
Any trip taken overseas is an immersion course in a culture. For a West Texan, a week in India—halfway around the world—is an immersion and then some! For a safety professional such as myself, it’s also a great opportunity to compare the culture of safety, as it exists in the United States, with that of a foreign nation and to draw some useful conclusions from the experience.
I was first approached about going to India back in October 2013. The University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) asked me to develop the curriculum for oil and gas training for the mining section directors of the government of India. I signed the contract in early January of this year, developed and delivered the training curriculum by Jan. 17, and caught the flight out of Abilene, my home city, on Feb. 14.
During the Dallas layover, at the gate area, I fell into a conversation with a lady who, it turned out, also was going to India. When I told her I was from Abilene, she laughed and introduced herself as Stephanie and told me that she was from Cisco, Texas. She said she was going to Mumbai to do some mission work. I, too, was journeying to Mumbai. That was where I was to teach safety classes for the oil, gas, and mining industries. Stephanie said that her mission work would be in the red light district, and that she would be teaching Christianity there. I knew immediately that she had a very important task ahead of her!
Stephanie told me all about some of the rich history and customs in India. She had spent six months there at one time, but this trip would only be a couple of weeks. I absorbed as much as I could of her knowledge about what to expect in India.
The first safety insight that she shared with me was to stick to only bottled water and to make sure the lid was not opened. She told me that some of the areas where she was going to didn’t have safe drinking water and people would have to walk for miles just to get a bucket full. Even if the water was contaminated, some very poor villages would still drink, wash, and cook with it. Stephanie didn’t tell me then—but I would learn later—that she was trying to get some money raised to help drill some fresh water wells for some of the villages.
Some 22 hours later we were in Mumbai, and soon I met my contact with UTA, who was there at the airport waiting for me. I had only met Dan at the Environmental Conference in Dallas back in December, and again in Austin in January, when we were finalizing the plans for India. I introduced him to Stephanie and he introduced me to our driver. I gave Stephanie my phone number and took hers and told her to call or text if she needed anything.
Inside the car, I noticed the steering wheel was on the right side of the vehicle. Dan and I folded our legs up to sit down in the back seat. Just getting out of the airport called for all kinds of skillful maneuvers around vehicles and pedestrians. Seeing my discomfort, Dan smiled and said, “Just relax, you have probably never experienced this kind of traffic before.” I actually thought I was going to die in a traffic accident about three different times just getting to the hotel! Buses, cars, trucks, rickshaws, motorcycles, and bikes were all moving the same direction at the same time. I have never heard so much horn honking in all of my life.
It never seemed to bother anybody, though. If they were getting honked at, they just moved out of the way and went on about their business. Honking at people in West Texas usually will get a not-so-friendly hand wave gesture if your reason for honking is something other than telling them hello! These vehicles all were within about 6-8 inches of each other, close enough to see the color of their eyes.
At some traffic intersections I was amazed at how the drivers would just “make another lane,” so to speak, and traffic would just fall in behind them. People would just start walking out in traffic to cross the intersection. Even when we stopped at red lights, if the space ahead was clear, drivers would just take off and go on. I think the back door of the car I was riding in still has finger indentions from me squeezing it so hard!
Finally, we arrived at the Trident Banda Kurla Hotel. We were stopped at the entrance while security personnel checked around the car with a dog, opened the trunk, and used bomb detection equipment to make sure we were not a threat to anyone. They cleared us proceed to the front door, where we were greeted, and our car doors were opened, by hotel staff. A metal detector was set up there and again we were asked to empty our pockets and show identification. My bags were run through an X-ray machine and I was now cleared to enter the hotel (!) and proceed to the check-in desk.
What a contrast, then, with all these precautions, to what I would encounter when I got to the first work sites.
Meanwhile, though, the friendly staff escorted me to the 9th floor, where I found a beautiful room waiting. When I looked out the window at the view, I could see the entrance to the hotel, where security had been so tight, and beyond that two major multi-story buildings that were under construction. I noticed none of the workers were wearing hard hats, boots, fall-protection harnesses, reflective vests, or safety glasses. The building did have safety nets around it, though I noticed some big holes in the nets.
To the left, I noticed a huge excavation job that was going on. Some of the workers there were wearing reflective vests, boots, and hard-hats, but not all of them. On the other side of the hotel another construction project was underway—two more multi-story buildings. Work was going on night and day. Every one of those workers was wearing all of their PPE, including fall-protection.
So how can three different jobs have such extreme differences in safety measures within the same square block? I think it has something to do with the culture and the cost. The company that cares and values their employees was taking good care of them and providing what they needed to do their jobs safely.
The excavation job was only half right. Not all of the employees were provided the correct PPE, but showed signs of effort. The remaining employer—the one first mentioned—had no regard for their employees’ safety at all, perhaps because other people were waiting in line to take those jobs if the workers fell and died. I thought I had seen it all, but then it occurred to me–this is how it still is in America too! We have great employers, mediocre employers, and some really bad employers who only care about the profits. The companies that put profits before their employees’ safety are the ones that find themselves in the courtrooms. I don’t think those repercussions have reached India yet!
I started my class on Monday morning at 9:00 a.m. After the initial introductions were finished and I had started talking, I observed some of the students kind of wobbling their heads. This meant they understood what I was saying! It is a bit strange, though, when it looks like people are shaking their heads no, but they are agreeing with you. It can be confusing to the instructor.
We took our first break at 10:30 a.m., as it was time for tea. The students told me that they stop for tea at that time and at 3:30 p.m. every day, so I needed to make sure we had that on the schedule. This custom was left by the British rule from so many years ago until they left in 1947.
I stepped outside the back door to see what it looked like behind the government building we were in. I noticed a bamboo scaffolding that was up on the side of the building and they had people up there working. Most were barefoot and climbing all around working. It was a safety professional’s nightmare! I couldn’t just go stop the job and tell them for their own safety they needed to be tied off and wearing harnesses. I did take some pictures with my phone, though, for a teachable moment.
I realized that it is going to take some time and effort to help build a safety culture that wants to be safe. Then it hit me—we were faced with this same line of thinking in the oil and gas industry when I started years ago. Many other safety professionals have been working for positive change in our own safety culture for 25 years and still counting.
The classes and exercises were well received as the training days passed. All of the students were interacting and they were highlighting their new OSHA Standard books that I passed out on the first day. They were all taking notes, working in group exercises, and asking questions. I noticed that when their boss came into the room, all of the guys stood up and showed him respect. They would take their turns at break to talk with him about changes they would like to make for the thousands of employees working under their authority in the mines.
I also observed that sometimes the guys in my class would refill their water bottles and several of them would drink from it, like a family might do. I thought to myself—here I am training these smart engineers about safety in the drilling industry and many of these families were dying from the basic need of clean water! We will one day realize how easy we have it in the great United States of America!
We finished the classes on Thursday afternoon and my plane didn’t leave until Friday night, so I got to go see The Hanging Gardens, The Arabian Sea, and Gandhi’s Residence, where the great leader lived and worked, and I got to get in a little bit of shopping for my daughters and grandkids. I have heard many times that one man doesn’t make a difference, but I saw with my own eyes what Gandhi accomplished. I also am seeing what a difference one woman is accomplishing there as well. I really enjoyed my stay and I hope that someday I too will be able to say that I helped make a difference in India!
Darrel Canada is president and Master Trainer at Canada and Associates Safety Training LLC, based in Abilene, Texas, with offices also in Snyder, Midland, and Carrizo Springs, Texas. Find them at canada-associates.com.