Today as I was reading reactions to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate agreement, I read a comment that I felt was quite idealistic. This person said that even though we had withdrawn from the agreement, she didn’t know ANY person who wouldn’t continue to act responsibly and continue to protect the environment. This statement stuck with me throughout the day, and it reminded me of something that happened many, many years ago when I worked in a microbiology lab. Struck by the naiveté of this comment, I have decided to share this story. It will drive home the point that environmental laws are necessary as not all people, especially large corporations that are focused solely on the bottom line, will do the right thing.
The company will remain nameless as this was an incident that would not shed a good light on them. It was, however, a large corporation that was making a product that consumers would ingest – thus, the need for a microbiology lab. In the lab, we tested samples of the product for bacterial contamination, and if the levels were higher than acceptable limits, we would reject the product by placing a big red “reject” sticker on the boxes that were ready to ship. These cartons would not be allowed to ship and would be scrapped, and many times, the management would give us a hard time saying that it would be too costly to scrap the box or bag. Even though they complained, they knew that they had to do it.
Needless to say, we weren’t the most popular people in this company. In fact, I had people tell me that management didn’t like us because we didn’t make any money for the company – the lab just cost the company money. In their mind, it was all about the dollar bill. But in order to operate, they had to have us there by law. The FDA requires it, so they didn’t have a choice in the matter.
The story I want to share specifically dealt with a single department in this company – the printing department. One day, a few workers in the printing department came into the microbiology lab, and they were mad. They proceeded to tell us that a week prior, there had been a sewage leak in the department, and management failed to notify the microbiology lab even though the workers complained to the printing manager. As a result, sewage was being tracked all over the department, and even the bottoms of some of the boxes of product were wet. These were boxes that were getting ready to be shipped. In addition, some workers in the printing department were getting sick with nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
We immediately went to the printing department and spoke with the printing manager. We demanded an explanation and insisted that the wet boxes could not be shipped. The manager was upset, saying that he had to ship all boxes in printing or they wouldn’t meet their weekly goal. We put a stop to it, but not without a fight. My boss put me in charge of this situation, and I began thorough microbiological testing throughout the entire printing department while my boss put big “reject” stickers on multiple boxes of product that had been contaminated by sewage.
Cleanup began immediately, especially in the area where the sewage leak occurred. I was expected to write a detailed report after I was finished with the microbiological testing. Results were shocking – Enterobacter and E.Coli (bacteria found in the intestines) were found all over the printing department, even on the actual printing machines. Since the product came in contact with these machines, it was imperative to shut down the department until all the contamination could be contained.
When lower management learned that they would have to shut down the department until everything was sanitized, there was a huge uproar. They said it would be impossible to shut down the department as they would lose an incredible amount of money. They absolutely refused to comply. The fight went to the president of the company. We had a meeting with him and several other high level management officials, and even though they weren’t happy about it, they agreed to shut down the department for two days for cleaning. Although lower management fought us tooth and nail, the president and upper level management knew that they had no choice. Again, they let us know that they weren’t happy, but they knew the FDA could come in and shut them down if the problem wasn’t addressed.
The moral of the story? Not everyone will “do what is right” as that woman said today. Big corporations like to have a good bottom line, and many times, they will cut corners in order to meet or exceed that bottom line. To think that we don’t need any laws and that we should just trust people to do what is right is very naive. Just think about what might have happened if the law wasn’t in place regarding the above situation. Management was forced to act because of the law.
Remember – Federal regulations do serve an important purpose – they could even help to prevent you and your loved ones from getting hurt.