As safe as water

I met the OSHA equivalent of traffic rules recently, detailed yet useless advice meant to shift liability more than protect people.

If you want to see what happens when lawyers displace human beings in society, look up the Safety Data Sheet for water. You will learn what to do if your water catches on fire (extinguish with water). What to do if you ingest water (seek emergency medical attention). And so forth.

Water was an entertaining diversion. I’m going to handle dihydrogen monoxide the way I always have. I was reading data sheets for a different chemical to learn how to dispose of it. I read about ten different manufacturer’s documents. They consistently told me “Dispose of in compliance with federal, state, and local requirements.”

What does that tell me that I didn’t already know?

Can I pour it down the drain? They didn’t say. One SDS noted that the chemical could hydrolyze. What are the byproducts of hydrolysis? The SDS didn’t say. People who work with the stuff tell me it generates ammonia when mixed with water. I’m talking about the toxic gas, not the lemon-scented window cleaner you have at home. Good safety tip. Why isn’t it in the safety document?

It’s not there because the safety document is first and foremost a cover-your-ass document.

A few told me the chemical could be incinerated as long as it wasn’t exposed to high temperature. Only one gave useful advice: I could also absorb it with clay. That’s easy. Clay is sold as kitty litter. It can even soak up nuclear waste. (Be careful, though, not all kitty litter is clay.)

The Material Safety Data Sheet for water has been a joke on the internet for 30 years. But it used to say you could wipe up water with a sponge. Now “soak up spills with inert solids, such as clay or diatomaceous earth as soon as possible.” Notify authorities if water enters sewers or public waters. Wash hands with soap and water after handling water. Do not expose to direct sunlight. Wear safety glasses. Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball.

Supposedly these documents are to help workplace safety. The legal purpose of an SDS is personal safety. In fact these are written by and for lawyers.

According to OSHA-mandated instructions, genuinely dangerous chemicals are as safe as water. Safer, in fact, because I learned today you’re not supposed to let water into the sewer system.

In investment, being risk averse means you put your money in bank making 0.25% interest. In your mind that 1% chance of the bond issuer defaulting outweighs the 3% return.

In regulation, being risk averse means you’ll take actions that hurt safety just to avoid the chance that you’ll be blamed.

This is the mindset that gives us the game of “operation” we play on the roads. One state has a law saying if you follow closer than 2 seconds you’re tailgating, but if you follow farther than 2 seconds you’re obstructing traffic. Another state has signs setting the minimum speed at 45 and the maximum speed at 45. Touch a white line, get pulled over. Is your parking sticker in a legal place? Is your license plate dirty? Put your kid in a car seat, even though they don’t help.

Make sure everybody breaks the rules. Lawyers will decide who faces the consequences, and it won’t be the people who made the impossible-to-follow rules.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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