Words of An American Safety Inspector: “I’m not your enemy.”

Words of An American Safety Inspector: “I’m not your enemy.”
Photo Credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission @Flickr CC BY 2.0
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By Euphie Chen (Retaining all degrees attainable in Taiwan, Chen holds a bachelors in International Business and a masters and doctorate in Energy Science. He then went on to do research at the prestigious University of Chicago. After years of cracking the books, Chen now runs a café in Washington D.C., selling Taiwanese snacks and bubble tea.)

It was almost Christmas. My plans of opening shop in October had been postponed multiple times because I still couldn’t get a license. My Vietnamese interior designer told me not to worry. Today would be the final inspection.

I couldn’t help feeling anxious and said, “You have been saying that since October, but something always goes wrong.”

“Just your luck. The inspectors you have ran into have been too picky.” He made sure to emphasize the last word.

The inspector arrived around ten in the morning. He was a pleasant-looking white old man with grey hair.

I thought, “It’s going to be fine this time. I have a way with old men.”

I greeted him with a particularly sweet smile, and he kindly said, “It’s almost Christmas. I want to get this done with as quickly as possible and go home. It’s going to be my Christmas present to you.”

He went about with his meticulous tapping and knocking with me at his side. Using professional equipment, the inspector started by opening all of the refrigerators and freezers, and confirmed the temperatures and humidity. Next were the fryer drainpipe, storage room, sewer, alarm system and so on. He nodded as he put an “x” beside each item on his chart. (In the States, crossing an item means you passed.)

This wasn’t my first inspection. In the past two months, we needed to start from the very beginning every time an inspector came.

Last but not least, he turned on the fryer for fried chicken. Smoke filled the air once it was lighted. Watching the kitchen ventilator do its job efficiently, I thought, “This is it. I’m finally going to open shop!” It was hard to hide my excitement. I looked at my watch. It was two in the afternoon, four hours since the inspector entered my restaurant.

“The smoke is going up counter clockwise. I can’t let you pass,” said the old man slowly.

“What? Why? Isn’t it fine as long as the smoke goes up? What does clockwise or counter clockwise have anything to do with it?”

My enthusiasm immediately transformed into a slightly uncontrollable angry shout. I even took out my phone and looked up “clockwise” right in front of the inspector, just to make sure I hadn’t misinterpreted his words.

He started explaining slowly why the smoke needed to rise clockwise, but as he spoke I grew more and more disheartened. I called my interior designer and hysterically demanded he come to the shop immediately. The inspector saw my panic and repeated again, “This is very important. You must ask him to fix it.”

“If I can’t pass the inspection before Christmas, then the next one is going to after the holidays. That means I won’t be able to open shop until next year. I’m going to lose so much. I have been waiting since October, and every time the designer says it’s going to be all right.”

I say all of this quietly with tears welling up in my eyes.

“Let me do a final inspection before the holidays. But you must understand, if I let you pass now and something happens in the future you might go broke, get sued or even be banned from opening a business in the States. I’m helping you make your shop safe and certified. I’m not your enemy.”

Though the old man was expressionless, I could tell he didn’t mean to give me a hard time. He was just doing his job.

Photo Credit: Georgie Pauwels @Flickr CC BY 2.0

Running errands in the States, you usually feel like the Americans are lazy, inefficient and careless. But times like these are when you realize though they seem slow and sloppy, they take every regulation seriously. You can call them old-fashioned or stubborn, but they don’t let anyone off the hook.

For example, the disposed oil from frying foods needs to be recycled by professionals. You’re looking at a ticket if you pour it into the sewer. But before you open a shop, if the signature from a recycle company is missing or if the equipment is out of place, then the inspector will immediately say, “See you next month.”

Another example is regulations state that if a restaurant has only one restroom, then it can only have ten seats. The inspector from that time wanted me to make the eleventh chair disappear into thin air instantly.

And because the tapioca had been imported in earlier, it was already sitting in the storage room. The inspector said storage rooms that haven’t passed inspection can’t hold any material and I needed to discard everything.

I wanted to yell, “The tapioca hasn’t been cooked and hasn’t expired. If I can’t put it in storage, do you expect me to eat it all now?”

These random details postponed the opening of my restaurant from October to December. Rent, water and electricity bills are all extra costs. When my sloppiness creeps up on me, I think, “Why are you being so stubborn? This doesn’t even matter. Are you being racist?”

The grey-haired old man came for a second inspection the day before Christmas Eve. He was as slow and attentive as before. The moment all the items were crossed off the chart, I heaved a sigh of relief.

“Merry Christmas. I told you I wasn’t your enemy. Now you can open business with a peace of mind. Congratulations.” The old man finally smiled.

There are a lot of times when our indifference may lead to danger. We might think regulations or law enforcers are being too harsh, inflexible or are deliberately looking for trouble.

We might try to find a way to escape or neglect certain things before something actually happens. Every one thinks there’s no way they can be that unlucky and nothing is that serious. But doubts concerning safety and health can’t be fooled around with. We can only be more tentative and cautious when facing possible hazards.

“I’m not your enemy.”

These words lingered with me in the days before that Christmas holiday.

Translated by Olivia Yang

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