Elfin Safety

The other day I saw that Major League Baseball plans to experiment with a special helmet for pitchers. This is in response to the very rare event of a batted ball hitting the pitcher in the head. The pictures of this thing suggest it is a weird contraption to have sitting on your head. Anyone who has worn a football or motorcycle helmet knows they are not very natural. This thing looks ridiculous in addition to probably being uncomfortable

I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think cricket bowlers wear a helmet. It seems to me that cricket bowlers would be more likely to take a ball off the head than baseball pitchers, but I’m not an expert on cricket. I’m just thinking that the Brits are way over the top with “elfin safety” compared to Americans so if they have not mandated helmets, there must be no risk. As I said, I could be wrong about cricket.

Thinking about it, the number of pitchers that get hit by batted balls is surprisingly small. I can recall a few ugly incidents, over many years of watching sports. If you do the math, there are about 80,000 balls hit by a batter that end up in play every season. In a given year, maybe one or two Major League pitchers get hit hard enough to be a concern. There are some years when it never happens so maybe the odds are 1-in-100,000.

As a point of comparison, there is a 1-in-700,000 chance of being struck by lightning on any given day.  The odds of being struck in your lifetime is 1-in-3,000. No one, as far as I know, has been killed by a come backer in professional baseball. I’m sure it has happened somewhere in pickup games or youth leagues. The point being is that you should have a greater fear of lightning, if you are a baseball player.

In my youth playing sports, helmets for batters had been around for a while, but they were crude compared to today. As a catcher, I never wore a helmet, even though they were available, until I was in high school. They became mandatory at some point. They also improved the design around that time so it was not as big of a hassle. Even so, I caught a lot of baseball games and never took a hit to the head.

The fetish for safety is one of those strange things about the modern age that is hard for me to pin down. It’s irrational to make pitchers wear a helmet when they are at no real risk. At the same time, the people arguing for these things make the point that it does not cost anything to be careful in these cases. That’s not really true, but I can see why they think it is true. That and no one wants to see a ball player get seriously injured.

Still, there is something driving this that says something about modern mass media democracies. For the bulk of the 20th century, safety items for sports were rare. Everyone just assumed the risk and did not think much of it. Look at old hockey video and you see guys skating around without helmets, face guards or mouth protection. Goalies did not wear a helmet.

It was not just bat and ball sports. Look at the history of F1. There was a great documentary on the safety issues in the early days of Formula 1 a few years ago. Even if you don’t like car racing, it is a very interesting piece. The near total disregard for the safety of the drivers was just something everyone accepted for a long time. In fact, the danger was part of the appeal for fans.

In the case of F1, safety was forced on the sport by drivers. Guys getting killed every week simply became too much for even the bravest men. That’s an exception. In all other sports, safety is forced on the players. No ball players want to wear those goofy looking pitcher’s caps. Hockey players scrap the face guard as soon as the hit the professional ranks. Boxers would die in the ring if allowed.

Steve Pinker has documented the decline of human violence and the safety revolution probably fits in there somewhere. Violence declines as the respect for human life increases. The revolution in medicine that has extended healthy lives in the West probably means a corresponding spike in the respect for human life. When you’re lucky to make it past 30, blood sports don’t sound so bad. When you live to 80, taking care of yourself makes a lot of sense.

It’s not just sports either. Safety is a whole industry now. Walk around anywhere work is being done and you see all sorts of safety measures in place. Most of these are just in my lifetime. I’ll grant that much of it is driven by government meddling, but a fair bit is driven by a genuine concern for the safety of people in their daily lives. There’s no real push-back from employers and in many cases, the employers sponsor these measures.

There’s a limit to all of this. Safety has become something close to an obsession in the last half century. It’s not a bad thing, but the point of diminishing returns may be upon us, maybe behind us. If we’re down to making ball players wear strange head gear it means we have run out of serious safety concerns. That means the cost-benefit ratios will be turning the wrong way, if they have not already done so.

17 thoughts on “Elfin Safety

  1. “The fetish for safety is one of those strange things about the modern age that is hard for me to pin down. ”

    I was going to write a long response to this, but you provided the answer and made exactly that point in the third to last paragraph.

    Americans now believe that if you dot all the is and cross all the ts, you will get your full 78 years of life expectancy. This wasn’t the case in “the old days”. Though there were cases of people living that long, there were umpteen mostly random things that could and usually did get you at any age before you reached that point. Life was in fact cheaper. Now people take the attitude that there is something really wrong if everyone doesn’t get their 78 years (it makes matters worse that people don’t know statistics and tend to think life expectancy is higher than that). There is a philosophical problem with this attitude, given that death is still guaranteed to come at some point it is seriously questionable whether a life staying between the lines, not doing all that much of note, and getting to 78 is really happier than a more active life that ends in an accident or lifestyle disease at 39.

    However, life expectancy is now dropping in the US, its actually not 78 anymore, so maybe we will see a change here.

  2. It’s mostly due to the liability issue, as has been pointed out above. But as life gets easier, smaller risks loom larger.

    In regards to child safety, the fact that families have one or two children, as opposed to seven or eight two generations ago, makes parents much more risk-averse when it comes to their activities. Not that having a bunch of kids makes parents callous about their individual welfare, but simple math makes the stakes much higher if your only son gets brain damaged in freak bicycle accident. So now if your kid does what you did every day growing up, ride his bike without a helmet on, you are a reckless and irresponsible parent.

  3. I agree that we’re fast approaching the point of diminshing or even negative returns. However, increased safety regulations benefits the government and industry in other ways; for the government, staff and budget are needed to write, maintain, and enforce the regulations; for industry the regulations increase costs and prevent small startups from entering the business–barriers to entry. It’s virtually impossible to argue against more safety regulations: “Oh, you want MORE people to die?”
    We see this in the auto industry as car makers work beside government regulators to add “required” safety features to the regulations. This increases barriers to entry, work for bureaucrats, and creates a new revenue stream from repairs and maintenance of said safety devices.

  4. I can’t speak for on the job safety- of course there seems to be no concept of diminishing returns. In sports however, especially violent collision sports, I believe increased levels of safety equipment lead to more rather than less injury. In hockey, the sport I know best, I believe the current “search and destroy” game at both the pro and college levels is made possible by the hardness and bigness of the equipment- big elbow and shoulder pads, and in the case of college hockey face masks. Helmets, eye shields and masks for goalies are sensible; the rest encourage players to take risks they would not have in the past. Add to this the fact that players are bigger, stronger, faster, and it’s a recipe for injury.

    • I once heard that a guy who was big in the creation of car seat belts said if he had his way it shouldn’t be something that encouraged recklessness: instead, every car steering wheel should have a spike in the middle. It would be the only way to ensure people drove slowly and safely.

      • It’s the Lulling Effect: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1816378?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

        A similar thing has happened in American football. The great leaps forward in protective gear have made the players reckless. It’s also encouraged a rush to get bigger and faster via chemistry. The result is enormous men running into one another at forces greater than the body should withstand on a regular basis. It’s not just head injuries. Long term joint problems are common now, when they used to be rare.

        The lost art of leaving things alone may make a comeback, simply because we have no choice.

        • When concussions became a big (and from what I’ve read, legitimately big) issue with American football, my first reaction was that they should go back to leather helmets. Other than the prospect of using that hard helmet as a weapon, which is banned, I can’t imagine the inflexibility of encasing the head that way helps with some collisions. It probably more than cancels out the additional protection.

          A conspiracy theory occurred to me that the concussion issue was being played up as an excuse to wind down the sport. However in this case it seems that there has always been a problem with concussions that is coming into focus more as we understand more about the brain (and injuries in the recent Middle East wars gave alot of impetus to the research), and also the NFL makes changes to the sport every year and there are a number of adjustments they can make to handle the issue, some of which they have already done.

  5. Delbert hit it. The litigious nature of this country has caused a great deal of this. A few years ago the Washington Post humor contest asked for ridiculous safety warnings. The selected winner was disqualified when they found out car windshield sunblockers actually said “do not drive with sun screen in place.” Employers don’t want to be sued anymore than anyone else.

    • A common sign on vending machines is a pic of a guy being crushed by a vending machine toppling over on him. The label says, “Caution: This machine can tip over.” It’s on one in my office building. I laugh every time I get a soda pop. I’m thinking that if the laws of nature change such that we have homicidal vending machines, I have bigger worries.

  6. Workplace safety does make sense. But let’s not kid ourselves, we are long way from the days when children swept the dust from under weaving machines with unguarded drive belts and limb crushing metal moving around them.

    Safety today is big business and big government, both of which profit quite well. Should we wear safety toed shoes, eye protection – in many places, yes. Working a grinder without either is asking for an injury. Of course there are plenty of old guys who’ve managed to not maim themselves for their entire careers.But does every kid need a safety helmet riding a bike or inflatable devices for their arms when they go swimming? I never had either, and pretty much everyone on the planet over the age of 25 didn’t either. And we’re all here.

    Point is, when safety gets in the way of doing ones job properly, then we really have to question if the work itself should be changed, and not just throw a pile of safety regulations, inspections and equipment on it and hope it works out. Many jobs are just inherently dangerous, ask anyone in the military. Most vehicles are not designed with safety in mind. A quick inside pretty much any military vehicle will prove that point. It’s why when civilians work on them, they have very different equipment from what the soldiers who actually use them wear.

  7. One of the reasons why it seems that pitchers get hit more often is because their follow through has changed over the years. I’m 54 and pitched up through college at an NAIA school in SoCal. I was taught early on to follow through after a pitch so that I could “field my position “. Kids now don’t do that, therefore they don’t have their glove up to handle a come backer. So, more pitchers get hit. This new follow through supposedly allows a pitcher to have more velocity, but I don’t buy it.

  8. “we have run out of serious safety concerns..”

    Indeed, we have run out of ANY serious [fill-in-the-blank] concerns. Therein lies the conundrum of the West in 2016, as many have noted.

    I’ve lived most of my life in Southern California. When I hear someone say “Clean up the air!!”, I laugh. They must be too young to remember REALLY bad air quality in the 60s and 70s. Most of the time our air is as sweet as a breeze coming off a glacier by comparison to those bad old days. Today’s Smog Problem is the LA Basin is but an occasional minor nuisance, and nowhere near the legitimate health concern it was several decades ago.

    I try to patiently describe the Law of Diminishing Returns, and that not only have we picked the low hanging fruit, but have picked our way so far up the smog tree that only the highest fruit requiring the costliest and most difficult effort is still available.

    They are having none of it. I am met with blank stares and slack jaws.. Same goes for the EPA, which heaps on even more onerous and impossible-to-reach air pollution standards. Do they not realize 18 million people live within 60 miles of LA’s City Hall? The likelihood of ever reaching these standards is about that of me croaking in the saddle with a supermodel……=)

    • Two points. First what really cleaned up the smog was shipping the smog-creating industries to China (see the previous post). How much manufacturing is left in the LA basin.

      Second, LA still produces air pollution, though obviously not as much. A park ranger pointed out pretty visible air pollution coming from LA when I last visited the Grand Canyon, so I’ve seen with my own eyes that it exists. But it mainly comes from cars now. Auto emission technology has really improved in the last few decades, but so has the number of people living in this country, especially Southern California, and therefore the number of cars on the roads, and this probably cancels out. But this is not low hanging fruit.

  9. Cricket bowlers don’t wear helmets, only batsmen and close in fielders wear them and other gear. Bowlers don’t really wear any padding at all as it’ll slow them down and bugger up their action. Bowlers do sometimes get hit by the ball but usually it is because they are trying to get in the way (for a catch or to knock it onto the opposite batsman’s stumps). In all my years of watching cricket though I’ve never seen a bowler get hit in the head by a return hit. Hitting down the ground as its know, back past the bowler is one of the hardest shots to do right and a batsman usually aims to do it along the ground because if you hit it at the bowler, you’ll likely be caught by them.

    • I echo all that Crazed Weevil has said: cricket balls are hard, and meant to be, so it is best to get out of the way of them except that a catch will change a game, so people stand their ground. (Old story of a Yorkshire cricket legend who, while batting for England, took 90 mph cricket balls against his unprotected body while playing against the West indies and refused to even rub where the ball had hit him. It was his way of intimidating the bowler by saying “Is that the best you can do?” Oh yes, and there is a tactic in cricket where the ball is actually aimed at a batsman’s body, called bodyline bowling)

      An elfin safety tale: I knew a guy who went to China and was horrified to see people ducking and wriggling under moving, working machinery to collect things or fix things. He told the Chinese company he could not do business with them unless they appointed a safety officer. When he went back, six months later, the Chinese proudly showed the businessman a worker wearing a bright yellow armband signifying he was the appointed health and safety officer. Good, the Englishman said, and then saw workers were still going under machines to get things and fix things. As far as the Chinese were concerned the yellow armband was enough.

    • I believe a cricket umpire was killed a couple of years ago by a ball to the face. In Israel of all places!

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