Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

Safety Expert Dies in Fall


About two months ago while retrieving an item from the loft in my garage I fell approximately 8 feet onto concrete. I miraculously escaped any serious injuries.  For the last couple of days I’ve been engaged in a spirited debate on a LinkedIn safety forum about the extent to which an employer can discipline a worker for legal, albeit unsafe behavior.  It got me wondering about a couple of things one of them I’ll address here and the other that I will address in www.rockfordgreeneinternational.wordpress.com

(shameless plug for both my consulting company and the other blog that I write weekly.)

Given that safety is essentially an expression of the probability of emerging uninjured from a given circumstances or activity and that virtually any activity carries with it some assumption of risk on the part of the person so engaged, at what point does the risk become so great that it rises to the level that it should be construed as the much touted “unsafe behavior” bugaboo.

This is more than mere intellectual pursuit.  Blaming worker injuries on unsafe behaviors has a long and storied tradition in safety.  From it’s earliest roots accident investigations have found that most accidents are rooted in the carelessness or recklessness of workers.  I won’t beat the dead horse that is my seemingly limitless condemnation of Behavior Based Safety and the slow-witted brutes that continue to swindle industry with bold promises of behavior modification (the equivalent of using phrenology as pre-offer hiring screening).  I will, rest assured, return to my epic diatribe in due time, but for now, I wanted to leave that alone and assume for a moment that the half-baked premise is correct and explore exactly where the line between normal, acceptable behavior lies.  Unless we know where the line is with out needing to cross it then BBS is little more than a “no shit” observation. A “thanks captain obvious” factoid that does little more than to make the expert feel even more superior than usual as he nods knowingly and  patronizing in baleful, clucking shame.

So here’s where we sit.  Unless we can trace the precise moment where safe behavior becomes unsafe we can’t really do anything to move the proverbial needle towards a safer workplace.  The extremes are easy to spot. At one end the continuum we have sitting doing nothing—not moving or interacting at any level with anyone else or anything in our environment. At the other extreme are those clearly dangerous activities like driving drunk or juggling cats or a howler monkey opening paint cans with a chainsaw.

Engineers are the first to try to determine where the line lies, and they are frequently mocked for it.  In our zeal to reduce “frivolous lawsuits” special interest groups have tarred most product warnings as ridiculous outgrowths of a litigious society.  There is even one self-important fellow at a Michigan University who runs a “wacky warnings” website where he gleefully makes fun of those dedicated engineers who try to foresee every potential way a product can hurt us. I heard him on All Things Considered  on National Public Radio. I am particularly interested in who funds this ivory tower half-wit and why NPR would give him a national soap box on from which to spew his smug condescension. But engineers do try to define the line between safe and unsafe and arguable made great progress.  Products have gotten safer and fewer people are injured doing stupid things.

A different approach is to take the other extreme and analyze the situation one element at a time.  In the case of a howler monkey opening paint cans with a chainsaw, we can apply the hierarchy of controls to work on the howler monkey, the procedure for opening paint cans, or the tool with which the cans are opened. So in this scenario we can probably agree that a person using a chainsaw to open a paint can is safer than a howler monkey, or a spider monkey, or well… chose your monkey.  Similarly, a person opening a paint can with a screw driver is, all other things being equal, behaving more safely than one opening a paint can with a chainsaw, We can move along the safety continuum even further by providing the person with a paint can opener and training in the correct procedure for doing so. But at this point we can’t pronounce the behavior as completely free of all risk of injury.  There are just too many variables, too many things that can go wrong, and too many possibilities for different outcomes.

Deviation from the Norm

The degree to which a person behaves safely is essentially the extent to which that person adheres to the defined process AND the extent to which the defined process is being performed in the anticipated circumstances.  That may sound more complicated than it needs to be.  Essentially the safest conditions are those where things are going as planned, but unfortunately things seldom do.

The Handrail Conundrum

Recently, in three separate conversations, I’ve had three people cite the use of handrails while walking down stairs as an example of people not following a basic safety procedure.  We’ve all walked down stairs and I for one seldom if ever touch the handrail.  Why? not because I am reckless, stupid, or derive pleasure from the adrenaline rush of not using a handrail.  I don’t use a handrail because I have never seen a janitorial crew washing down or disinfecting a handrail and I judge NOT touching the handrail as the healthier, if not safer, thing to do.  Additionally, I have always viewed the handrail not as something I should be hanging on to prevent a fail, rather as something I could take hold of and break my fail and mitigate injury.  Of course I have never been trained in walking stairs or in handrails.  And yet everyone seems to assume that the purpose of a handrail is not to break a fall and mitigate injury but to prevent injury. As a contingent safety device handrails make sense, but as a preventive measure they are a piss poor safety device.

If we extrapolate the handrail conundrum to other situations, safety devices, and household/day-to-day experiences we will find that we have received scarce little training in what is the safest way to do things or in how the misuse of these things can cause us harm.

Filed under: Behavior Based Safety, Loss Prevention, Phil La Duke, Safety, Safety Culture, Worker Safety, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What ‘s Wrong With You People?


In my haste I had a typo or two and even an incomplete thought.  I did a quick edit just now, but I would hazard a guess that it’s  far from perfect…Phil

This week I joined two or three new groups on LinkedIn. That’s my fault. For whatever reason I seek out the company of people who post largely inane opinions and spend their time arguing with strangers. That’s not to diminish LinkedIn; I’ve met many really great people through the site, unfortunately I’ve also met some honest to dogs imbeciles. Recently I weighed in on whether or not a company should consider itself world-class (the author didn’t think it germane to the discussion to hint at precisely in “what” company should claim such an honor) if it fires its employees for things they do on their own time (as in while off work). The topic generated some minor buzz, largely centered around Chrysler workers caught by a local Fox news show should be fired for drinking on their lunch hour (nobody questioned how three autoworkers drinking on their lunch hour in a city with a population smaller than Columbus, Ohio with a murder rate of 40.1 per 100,000 residents rose to anything approaching news worthiness). I couldn’t bring myself to continue the argument—nobody seemed to much care about the pseudo topic—but it got me thinking: is any company so free of risk and so flush with resources that it can even consider doing this?

As far as the absurdity of trying to govern worker’s off-the-clock behavior, Henry Ford tried something similar when he hired private detectives to follow his workers to see if they were smoking, drinking, or otherwise doing something decidedly unFord-like. In the case of Ford, the effort hastened union organization and generally collapsed under the weight of its own complexity. Even given today’s sophisticated technology the cost of snooping on your workers far exceeds the financial benefits.  Add to that the fallout from workers when they find out they are working for a voyeuristic creep, and you end up in a no-win situation.  The argument was pointless and while safety professionals continue engage in pointless debate about which latest fade is way cool, people are dying.

This topic hits pretty close to me. My father died from mesothelioma. I watched him devolve from an energetic and active retiree to a shell who could barely move, much less breath. My father never blamed his employer, who he believed took every reasonable precaution to protect him. But he was incensed to learn that the asbestos manufacturers who provided materials to his employer knew and failed to disclose that information. I have a brother-in-law with days to live. He has lung cancer likely caused by working as a millwright at what was once reputedly listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the dirtiest square mile on Earth. One doctor initially thought it was caused by silica exposure, another by some other industrial exposure. I’m not privy to his exact medical records so I doubt I’ll ever know the truth.

I have a brother, who years ago was overcome by fumes and fell from a pallet that was raised using a forklift as a makeshift platform used to paint the ceiling. A task that not only was he instructed to do by his supervisor, but one that the mouth-breathing thick-witted brute of a supervisor stood by as it happened. The fall left him close-head injured with short and long-term memory loss that only through God’s grace did not cause him any long-term disability. I’ve lost friends to a horrific array of industrial accidents—two co-workers to electrocution, another who fell in an open vat of acid, I could go on, but at some point it becomes macabre. None of these people took frivolous risks, drank on their lunch breaks, or thumbed their noses at safety regulations. They were just guys looking to make a fair day’s wage and go home the same way they came to work.

Thank God the safety professionals around the world have the time and intellectual energy to argue about what sorts of unsafe behaviors workers engage in off the job. After all, doesn’t safe behavior off the jobs safe lives too? Isn’t that important too? Well…no. If I chose to mow the lawn barefoot and drunk as a monkey I am making my own choice. I assume the risks and face the consequences. (Let me state for the record that mowing the lawn barefoot while drunk (as a monkey or otherwise))  is foolhardy and should be discouraged but despite the recklessness of such actions I am in an environment controlled by me.  It is an inalienable human right to make a wage without the unmanaged risk of injury.  When we enter into an employer-employee relationship the employer has a more, financial, civic and legal obligation to do everything in their power to protect us.  And THAT is the issue of the allegedly drunken Chrysler workers (trusting Rupert Murdock to provide you the truth is like trusting Charles Manson to house sit). It’s not that tax payers bailed out Chrysler and now we somehow own not only the company but the workers as well, it’s that drinking during lunch and returning to work endangers multiple other workers who are working safely and minding their own businesses.  That Fox film crew could have raised the alarm, but instead chose to get the ratings; it’s practically depraved indifference.

Let me get to the crux of my issues.  When safety professionals sit around arguing about this pointless crap, people are dying. While people in ivory towers debate whether safety is the fault of unsafe behaviors or failed processes people are horribly maimed and deprived of their livelihoods. And while safety professionals sit around congratulating themselves for lower recordable injuries or for the neat new incentive program because injury reporting is driven underground or because “effective case management” has taken a recordable off the books, things don’t get any safer.

Through all of this there is an opportunity cost. For starters, we are losing the war in the court of public opinion. People around the world who are actively trying to convince the public that worker injuries are largely the fault of bad luck; careless, drunk, or stupid workers. Even then-President of the United States decried the people who exercised their legal rights to hold companies responsible for knowingly putting people in harms way as filing “frivolous lawsuits”.

As the economy worsens more and more people are prepared to trade job safety for jobs. In a world where there are 27 million slaves (more than ever before in the history of mankind) worker safety rights need to be protected. Despite the rapidly deteriorating opinion as to the importance of worker safety there is little attention paid to the problem at professional conferences. Peruse the abstracts offered at the majority of the expos and conferences and you will see plenty of talks on culture, on incentives pro and con, and a fair amount on regulation. But scare few speakers take on the most serious threat to worker safety faced today: the belief that safety as a profession is irrelevant. We safety professionals have to be more than theorists. We have to be more than money-grubbing snake-oil salesmen. We have to worry less about pointless minutia of or trade and work to raise awareness of the importance of safety professionals who know how to do their jobs, do them well, and make meaningful advances in the trade.

It’s time to wake up.

Filed under: Behavior Based Safety, Loss Prevention, Phil La Duke, Safety, Safety Culture, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Four Flaws of Behavior-Based Safety


By Phil LaDuke

There is a growing body of evidence that BBS does more harm than good (the current head of the OSHA recently expressed his concerns that incentives and BBS were creating a climate where not reporting injuries is more important than preventing injuries. That is not to say that there are not studies on the wonderful effectiveness of BBS (although a fair amount funded by companies that make tens of millions of dollars selling it). So how can studies show diametrically opposed points of view?

For starters there is no international standard that differentiates BBS from well… BS. Anyone can describe there particular flavor of snake oil as Behavior Based Safety. Read the admittedly less than universally respected reference Wikipedia article on BBS and it reads like a brochure written by the closed head injured. It is far from impartial, and anyone who dares question the value of BBS is soundly shouted down. The vagueness with which people talk about BBS is astonishing (and no, I don’t include everyone in this condemnation, but let’s face it there are a lot of quacks out there selling some quasi-psycho babble as BBS and it has hurt anyone who labels there approach to worker safety as BBS.

Here’s a thought. What if we stopped creating labels for our safety? would it kill us if we didn’t keep trotting out a new complex safety panacea? Behaviors cause injuries. I get it. But there is plenty more to consider (whether or not the behavior was the result of conscious, informed decision making, for starters) than behavior (like how individuals behave differently in a population, or the innate, uncontrollable variation in human behavior to name two.

Honestly there are so many people who are so quick to jump to defend BBS it really makes me suspicious of whether it is the methodology or their livelihoods that they are so adamant about protecting (again, Dominic, I am not throwing stones at you, but having just returned from a major safety conference where I heard dozens of specious arguments about why more people should invest in BBS that I could just pull my hair out.

And while we’re at it, how many of the new charlatans selling culture change solutions where schilling have baked BBS 5 years ago? Until I hear a BBS proponent that will even consider that there are other, perhaps better solutions out there, I will continue to be skeptical. Too many of these professionals are process zealots—the care far more about the methodology than the results, and that is dangerous. These people will always dismiss individual cases (whether it be an injury or a catastrophe) as statistical outliers or anomalies or in some way the fault of someone else.

If BBS is so clearly the best solution, why does it need defending? And why are their so many hotly contested variations of it.

I understand that several giants of BBS certify safety professionals in their methodologies.  It’s a great business model: safety professionals, buoyed by their new found sense of importance and portable credentials, become advocates for your methodology.  They will push and advocate your system and you will make money hand over fist.  If you can live with the fact that people will not be protected while you make huge profits I guess this is a pretty good life.

More and more companies are finding Behavior-Based Safety Programs just don’t deliver what they promise and are moving to a more balanced and practical approach to managing worker Health and Safety. Executives are drawn to Behavior-Based Safety Programs because they promise quick and painless results. Safety professionals are attracted to the idea that worker behavior is the cause of most workplace injuries. Unfortunately, experts are beginning to question whether or not Behavior-Based Safety is based on a foundation of flawed premises. Flaw 1: Behavior is a contributor in 93 percent of injuries. On the surface, this kind of statistic would certainly seem to argue strongly in favor of a Behavior-Based Safety Program, but it is a specious argument. 100 percent of injuries have a behavioral element. The formula for an injury is Hazard + Interaction + Catalyst = Injury. By definition, an interaction is behavioral in nature, so essentially the argument that unsafe behavior accounts for 93 percent of all injuries is akin to saying, “If workers didn’t DO anything, they wouldn’t get hurt.” Fair statement, but then who wants a workplace where no work is done? Flaw 2: Behavior modification is an effective tool in reducing workplace injuries. Most Behavior-Based Safety Programs rely on recognition and rewards to positively reinforce safe behaviors and discourage unsafe behaviors. So, basically, a worker is forced to choose between seeking treatment and receiving a safety incentive. “If you had told me when I was building seats for the General Motors Fleetwood Plant that I would get a $50 quarterly bonus if I didn’t get injured, you would not hear about any of my injuries unless I left the plant in an ambulance.” What tends to happen in these programs is that inflammation of the elbow turns into tendonitis which then turns into carpal tunnel syndrome and the resulting cost of treatment is astronomical. Research has shown that such systems are certainly effective at discouraging the reporting of injuries, but there is little evidence that behavior modification has any sustainable effect on the corporate culture. Flaw 3: Unsafe behavior is deliberate. Behavior-Based Safety starts with the premise that if workers were more careful, less of them would get hurt. This philosophy appeals to many executives who, frustrated by a lack of progress in reducing injuries, would like to put the burden for workplace safety back onto the worker. Two better premises are “nobody wants to get hurt” and “no system is designed to hurt workers.” If these premises are true, no amount of behavior modification will lower worker injuries. Flaw 4: People take unnecessary risks because they are careless. In the many incident investigations that I have conducted where behavior played a key causative role, the clear majority of the injured workers took the risk because a) they were trying to show initiative and save time, and b) they were unaware of the magnitude of the risk they were taking, and/or c) they didn’t believe the risk was credible. Very few of these injured workers believed they were putting themselves in serious jeopardy. So is Behavior-Based Safety so deeply flawed that there is no room for recognition programs in a world-class safety process? Absolutely not; here are some tips for integrating recognition programs into your safety process: Reward the Right Things. Instead of rewarding workers for not getting injured, reward them for identifying system flaws that cause injuries. A reward for a suggestion that makes the workplace safer is far more meaningful than one for “collective safety” where an entire department is rewarded for going without an injury. Understand and Correct the Root Causes of Unsafe Behaviors. It’s not enough to identify unsafe behaviors; to truly improve workplace safety, one has to take proactive steps to remove hazards (both process flaws AND unsafe behaviors) before people get hurt. Rewarding workers who identify and correct the root causes of injuries is a good use of recognition and reward programs. Don’t Jump to Conclusions About Behaviors. Use “repetitive whys” to understand the thought processes that lead to unsafe behaviors before reacting to them. More often than not, the process dictates the behavior.

Filed under: Phil La Duke, Safety, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Blogroll

broadcasts/podcasts

Guest blogs

La Duke in the News

Presentations

Press Release

Professional Organizations

Publications

Safety Professional's Resource Room

Social Networking

sustainability

Web Resource

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 432 other followers

%d bloggers like this: