AME Author, President of Fulcrum ConsultingWorks, Inc
The Cuyahoga River is fed by tributaries and flows into Lake Erie off the shores of Cleveland, Ohio. It flows past manufacturers, steel mills and a downtown area called the Flats before emptying into the Great Lakes.
Almost fifty years ago the Cuyahoga River caught fire. People nationwide still remember that. How can a body of water catch fire? Simply because manufacturers and steel mills not only spit exhaust into the air, but dumped refuse into tributaries and the Cuyahoga River directly. That is what caught fire. The flotsam and jetsam provided poison for animals and people and fuel for the fire.
Downtown Cleveland and the river recovered years ago, both offering beautiful scenery and a great life. But the fire is still remembered. It still scars conversations about Cleveland.
Serious injury, and even death at work was not uncommon then. Pictures showed men leaving work, their faces covered in soot and dirt. Many still think of manufacturing as dangerous, back breaking, and filthy. From outsourcing decisions, many skilled workers moved on to other careers and recommended to their children to stay away from manufacturing.
Each of us know that manufacturing has changed drastically, just like the city of Cleveland has. But our industry continues to be hurt by those who fight safety and environmental laws, arguing they are too costly.
But think of this: Just how costly was the Cuyahoga River fire, the pictures of men leaving work covered in filth, black lung and other work-related cancers killing family and friends, photos of smoke pouring from stacks leaving tracks in the sky, current stories of CEO-led violations, and factories outside of the US collapsing, exploding or otherwise killing workers. We pay for all of that even today.
While most manufacturers have realized that success requires minimizing both safety and environmental impact on employees, suppliers, customers, investors and the community, some have not. We are all impacted by the continuing stories of those people, as well as those of our predecessors and even ourselves a few short years ago.
People have long memories, and often draw conclusions from limited data. What we don’t know we make up, and we likely make up bad stuff. All it takes is one story of layoffs, or injury, or environmental harm. We can talk until we’re blue in the face, but the reputation of manufacturing won’t fully recover until mistakes are forgotten or forgiven. The longer we keep making them, the longer the next generation will have to wait. It’s time to stand up for the future of our industry in ways that will truly help it.