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.