Since I am going to be at the Max Planck Institute for more than six weeks, I had to attend my Erstunterweisung Arbeitssicherheit (First Training in Work Safety) today. It lasted over two and a half hours, with an hour and a half for classroom presentation and discussion and then an hour or so of practice, which included a thorough tour of the building, from the cellar to the top floor. (The MPIfG has a little over 100 researchers and staff, occupying five floors of nicely sized building.)
Relishing this ethnographic opportunity, I was fascinated by the event, although it might just be the sort of thing I would roll my eyes at were I forced to do it at home. Still, I admired the thoroughness, and the thoughtfulness that it provoked about the surroundings we take so much for granted. Who knew where the master shut off switch for the elevator was? Now I do, with a demonstration on how to use it should I need to (although, the only scenarios I can imagine tend toward the James Bond-ish).
I do feel well protected here, I must say. About a quarter of the employees here have undergone intensive first aid training (a two day seminar and bi-annual follow up), and each floor has a number of designated first responders. The defibrillator is in the sick room, which looks like a school nurse’s office, complete with an exam table to lay on.
Every piece of electrical equipment in the building is inspected by an electrician every two years (lamps, coffee machines, computers, everything); if you bring a coffee maker or electric pencil sharpener from home, it needs to be registered. We are shown how the electrical wiring is placed under the buildings slightly raised floors (in case a desk chair breaks through the floor, perhaps, severs a cable, and electrifies the desk. You never know.)
All ladders, stools, and other equipment are inspected every year, with a seal attached to show approval. We had a mini-course in ladder engineering and proper use, which was fascinating. We learned that the Institute’s ladders are certified only for under 90kgs; it was mentioned that there are two people at the institute who are therefore not allowed to use the ladder.
We were particularly attentive to fire. Our instructor, the head of safety here for over 20 years and a man who takes his job very seriously, had previously trained as a fireman, and the building is extensively outfitted with fire doors, extinguishers, and evacuation routes. During the practical section, we went to different parts of the building and were presented with different scenarios, asked to describe and act out what we would do: what if the fire is between you and the stairway? how to open the windows? When to close the fire doors? What to do with someone in a wheelchair? When and how to call the fire department (only from downstairs).
There was also a section on suggestions for health and safety. We were shown just how to use the ergonomic desk chairs, demonstrating the different adjustments; if we have back problems we can request a standing desk. They recommend keeping one’s eyes about 70cm from the computer screen, and to take regular breaks to move around.
It was suggested that we not eat at our desk, or at least not while working: the keyboard is the place most filled with germs and bacteria in the office; it was recommended that we take our food instead to the cafeteria to eat.
While I have the luxury of relishing the experience, I also hear my friend Jon’s voice saying, in an almost sorrowful tone, that, boy, that much regulation must cost a ton of money. And it is pretty intrusive too. Imagine trying to start a small business and keep it running while dealing with such onerous regulatory burdens. It isn’t easy or cheap, but the big concerns like Volkswagen or even the Max Planck Institute can manage. But the little guy with entrepreneurial ambitions suffers. This is true, and certainly part of a pronounced German non-embrace of entrepreneurialism, despite the talk of all the Silicon Rheines and Alleyways.
Perhaps the emphasis on security and stability over risk at the workplace is an apt metaphor for the balance (or imbalance, depending on one’s perspective) between regulation and competition in the German economy generally.