I’m From the Government, and I’m Here to Help

“I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

The phrase was enough to raise panic in any rational businessman, and Georg Schrapel was nothing if not rational. He hastily dropped the file he’d been reading into a drawer and shut it. Then and only then did he look up. The speaker was a young woman. That didn’t encourage Georg. She was a German. That just added to the problem. She was obviously educated. That was always dangerous. She was holding a briefcase with her left hand. That could only mean one thing. “I know I’m a bit late filing my tax forms, but . . . “

“I’m not from the tax department, Herr Schrapel.”

“You aren’t?” Georg slumped back into his chair, hoping the young woman didn’t detect his relief. He shot her a smile just in case. “Please, take a seat. How can I help you?”

She used a clean white handkerchief to dust the leather chair before settling into it. Then, with her briefcase resting on her knees she passed him a business card. She smiled. “My name is Christina Kleiner. I’m from the Department of Occupational Safety and Health.”

Georg stared at the card in his hand and swallowed convulsively. Right now he would gladly have swapped Christina Kliener for the tax man. The tax man was only interested in money. Occupational Safety and Health, on the other hand, never thought about money. “There’s nothing wrong with my operation,” he said as convincingly as he possibly could.

Christina continued to smile. “I really am here to help you, Herr Schrapel. My specialty is ergonomic design.”

“What the hell is ergonomic design?” Georg demanded. He was so upset at being visited by OSH that he didn’t care about his language, which he noticed, didn’t bother the young woman one little bit. He sat impatiently waiting for an explanation.

“Ergonomic design looks at designing processes that fit humans, rather than trying to fit humans to processes.”

Georg tried to get his head around that, and failed. “We already had our processes Taylorized.” And that had cost a pretty pfennig too. But it had been money well spent. Productivity had shot up.

“Taylorizing isn’t always the best fit for humans, Herr Schrapel. Especially when it comes to matters of personal safety. For example, the guillotine you use to cut sheet metal to make hacksaw blades . . . “

“You’re here about Berneck, aren’t you?” He didn’t wait for confirmation before launching in to an attack on Conrad Berneck’s general level of incompetence.

Christina held up her hands to stop Georg’s rant. When he spluttered to a stop she spoke. “Yes, I am here about Conrad Berneck, and yes, the union has lodged a ‘Notice of an Injury Accident’ with OSH. However,” she inserted quickly to preempt another rant from Georg. “I am not here as an enforcement officer. I’m here to examine the machine that caused Herr Berneck’s accident.”

“The guillotine didn’t cause Berneck’s accident. The fool did it himself. There is no way he should have been able to operate the guillotine with his hand near the blade.”

Christina nodded. “Yes, the department was surprised that such an accident could occur on a Kudzu Werke guillotine. They spent a lot of time and effort developing suitable safety mechanisms. That’s why I’ve been instructed to inspect it.”

“There’s nothing wrong with my guillotine. It’s always properly maintained.”

“But somehow Herr Berneck managed to injure himself.”

Georg snorted. “He was lucky he only lost most of his little finger. That machine could have taken off his arm without a pause.”

“Which is why I need to inspect it.” Christina laid her briefcase on Georg’s desk and rose to her feet. “Now, if you could just show me to the machine . . . .”

Georg rose reluctantly to his feet. As he reached for his white lab-coat he had a thought. The young woman was well-dressed, in good quality clothes. “It’s very dirty in the shop,” he said hopefully.

“That’s all right, I’ve visited workshops before and I came prepared.” She opened her briefcase to reveal a neatly ironed, brilliantly-white lab-coat, a hat that she immediately put on, covering all of her hair, and a pair of pink ear defenders. She draped those round her neck while she slipped on the lab-coat. Then she removed a clipboard and pens from the briefcase before closing it. “Shall we go?”

“What about shoes? OSH directives require all people in the shop wear approved safety footwear.”

It was a last-ditch delaying tactic, but the girl pulled up the leg of her skort to reveal a pair of Calagna and Bauer’s lady’s line of industrial safety boots. At least that’s what he thought they were. Nobody else used that shade of pink in their leather boots. Defeated, Georg led Christina into the shop.

****

Several hours later Georg followed Christina back into his office where he pulled off his lab-coat and threw it over the coat rack and slumped into his chair. He watched the girl, with her still spotless hands, remove her still spotless white lab-coat, fold it, and place it in her briefcase before adding her cap and ear defenders. He was amazed at how clean she’d remained. His coat had been fresh from the laundry this morning, and it was filthy. As were his hands. What had started as an inspection of the guillotine had grown into an inspection of the whole workshop. Georg was exhausted, but Christina still bubbled with energy. “What happens now?” he asked, fearing the worst.

“I’m pretty sure we’ve identified how Herr Berneck circumvented the guillotine’s safety mechanisms. I’ll get in touch with Kudzu Werke about possible fixes, and I’m sure they’ll be in touch.”

Georg stared at Christina. He couldn’t believe this. “That’s it? I can still use the guillotine? What about the union, they lodged a complaint?”

“The union lodged a notice of a level four accident. I’ve inspected your workshop, and I am of the opinion that the cause of the accident was Herr Berneck deliberately ignoring your company’s safety practices in order to keep up with the required work rate.” Christina shrugged. “That’s engineering-centered design for you. It invites accidents. I’ll be sending you a report giving my recommendations on how to make your current procedures more ergonomically efficient.”

After three hours listening to Christina, Georg understood what ergonomics were, and just how ergonomically deficient his current production line was. “Thank you for that, it should make things a lot easier in the shop. How much will it cost?”

“Nothing. It’s what I’m here for. Think of it as your tax dollars at work.” With a final smile and wave Christina picked up her briefcase, shook Georg’s hand, and left.

Georg stared after her until she shut the door behind her. Just before she left the building she dropped something into a waste bin. Curious, he wandered over to see what it was. It was a piece of moist tissue paper, with a black smear on it. He glanced from the tissue to his right hand. The dirt on his hand was a good match. He scrubbed at his hand with the paper, and was surprised to see the dirt come off easily. He cleaned his hands as best he could before dropping the now filthy tissue into the waste. He really needed to ask Christina what she used and where he could get some.

With that thought distracting him he wandered back to his desk. What had he been doing before Christina arrived? That’s right. He pulled open the drawer and pulled out the file he’d been working on. It made him pause. Christina, working for OSH, was going to provide him with a report outlining how he could increase the productivity of his business, and as she’d said, that was his tax dollars in action. Maybe the government wasn’t wasting his money. He glanced down at the bit of creative accounting that was his current tax declaration, screwed it up, and threw it at the waste bin. It hit the rim and bounced out.

That was his first miss in months. Geog stared at the crumpled papers sitting on the floor. Maybe it was a sign. He nodded to himself. That was it. He hurried over to the papers and walked back to his desk flattening them out. There would be plenty of time to trash them after Christina sent him her recommendations.

****

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