Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

Real Men (and Women) Report Injuries


By Phil La Duke

conditioning

It’s starts early in our lives: “Don’t be a baby”, “Stop crying, you’re all right”. It continues through our childhood, “Toughen up, you pansy” or “walk it off”. Even when we’re adults were told to “man up” or “play through the pain”.  At a very basic level we are conditioned to see injuries as weakness, as some sign of inferiority.  Heck even the dumbest predators target the weak and the injured among their prey. And yet organizations expect us to ignore a lifetime of conditioning and openly admit our mistakes, injuries, skills deficiencies, and weaknesses. We reward and revere the strong, the burly, the toughest among us.  They are the carry over from the warrior class, knights, samurai, and warlords.  For centuries a person’s power came largely from their physical brawn and his or her ability to withstand physical punishment and survive. This is the world in which we are trying to find ways to get people to report injuries.

What makes matters worse are the many “blame the worker” programs that reward those fortunate enough to avoid injuries and punish those who are less fortunate (the withholding of a reward is a de facto punishment, after all). Talk to any safety professional about why his or her injury rates are rising and you are likely to quickly get into discussions about poor case management and fraudulent injuries. Even safety professionals aren’t immune for showing disdain for the slowest gazelles in their particular herd.  We—everyone in the organization—are better than these ten-thumbed dolts who trip over themselves, do stupid things, and violate policy. Most of us are disgusted by these clumsy oafs for spoiling our safety records; they deserve to get hurt. Oh sure, none of us will say it out loud—our world is far to politically correct for that —but deep down, most of us believe that somehow we would not have shared the fate of the injured worker.

One’s ability to silently suffer injuries without making too much fuss about it is celebrated by society, scars are badges of honor, and the more harrowing the injury the greater the status bestowed on the injured.  Remember the scene in Jaws where captain Quint and Hooper are swapping stories about their injuries? Both trying to one up the other, with broad smiles of nostalgia for their injuries; contentedly remembering not the pain of the injury, but the stalwart way in which they endured it.  Not once did they mention their own culpability in the injury (how their injuries were caused seemed insignificant) rather they reveled in the heroic way they took it with out complaint.

Attempts to provide some sort of bonus for zero-injury workdays reinforce this conditioning. If you can take the pain long enough to get treated by your own physician you not only grow in the estimation of your peers but you’re more the hero because you saved the safety BINGO, or the bonus, or the pizza party.

Deconditioning a lifetime where we have been taught that the measure of a man is his ability to take more punishment than his peers isn’t easy.  In fact, reconditioning the workforce to believe that they have a responsibility for reporting injuries so that it can save others (who might not be as tough)  can be damned hard.  So what can be done? Plenty:

  • Institute an aggressive problem solving training program.  Problem solving that focuses on areas where the system could fail and result in injuries reduces hazards without threatening the idea that tough as nails, hard-scrabble men are somehow expected to become simpering school girls.  Problem solving allows workers to keep their pride and puts a positive spin on injury prevention. It’s not about how tough someone is, it’s about how smart a person is, and how good he/she is at solving problems on the job.
  • Reinforce training with structured conditioning.  Think it terms of sports, or military training.  It’s not enough to teach the person what they need to do know to accomplish a task, but the person needs to compete the task over and over until the task is hardwired into the person’s brain. The task needs to become part of the person’s muscle memory.  The conditioning will happen with or without your guidance, but unguided conditioning is more likely to hardwire poor practices than it is to produce a safer workplace.
  • Focus on hazard elimination and not on injury prevention.  People are far more likely to tell you about something that COULD hurt people than about something that DID hurt people.  Focusing on identifying, containing, and correcting hazards is more about process and less about the soft side of safety.
  • Make it clear that injury prevention is about saving money.  It stark terms the company doesn’t give one whit about how tough a worker is, how much a worker doesn’t need to use a lift assist, or how much punishment a worker can take. Companies care about money; and unsafe work conditions and practices subject the company to unjustifiable financial risk.  A worker may be able to slap a Band-Aid on a cut worthy of stitches, but the company doesn’t empower that worker to risk infection or some other complication that is likely to cost the company money.
  • Reinforce the desired mindset continually.  The mindset that it’s laudable to get hurt, that it’s somehow a badge of honor or a right of passage can’t be changed by assailing it head on. Instead, safety professionals need to position reporting injuries for what it is: an important part of managing risk and doing business more effectively.  After all, a more efficient workplace means job security.

Our conditioning to suffer in silence, to stoically toil at our jobs and say nothing in complaint is deeply ingrained into our collective psyche, and mere training or behavior modification isn’t likely to move the dial (figuratively speaking). But if we approach things a bit differently we can make real strides in changing the way workers think about safety.

We need to recondition the workforce so that workers can do their jobs without harming themselves. This will require not only physical conditioning, but mental, and behavioral conditioning as well.

 

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

Pulling Safety Out Of Its Rut: The Value of A Different Look At Safety


By Phil La Duke

eyes collage

Let’s be clear, there is no such thing as a safe workplace. Sure we can slap each other on the back and brag to one another about the four years without a recordable injury and we can tell ourselves that we have achieved a Utopian risk free workplace but the reality is, there is always some probability that a worker will be harmed in the course of doing his or her job.

While the level of success in lowering the risk of injuries varies from organization to organization, its fair to say that we can all do better. (For you smug “I haven’t had an injury in my organization in 23 years” readers, I say look harder, do you have near misses? First aid cases? If you think the answer to those questions is “no” you are delusional. You might as well stop reading, because you will never understand the error of your ways until your next fatality; and believe me one is coming.) The problem isn’t just in the way we view safety, it’s also in the fact that for about 30 years the view of safety has remained largely unchallenged.  Consensus thinking on a complex problem leads to a convoluted mess, and in this case safety vendors—both the well meaning and the snake-oil salesmen—capitalize on the confusion to carve out lucrative livelihoods. When people make their livings off the status quo, they aren’t highly motivated to make substantive changes. In fact, most will fight like pumas to preserve their intellectual turf.

The problem with the same old thinking is that it implies that we have forever solved the problem. It’s as if safety is a static problem when in fact, safety is dynamic; every time there is a change in the workplace (which is constant—if nothing else every piece of equipment is getting older. Parts where out, workers get older and aren’t as physically capable as they were the day before. Without intervention, everything in the workplace is becoming more and more risky. Applying a static solution to a dynamic problem lies at the heart of disaster. Too many organizations miss this fact as they pursue improved worker safety. The approach most organizations take to making the workplace safer hasn’t really changed in the last 30 (if not 100 years). Effectively the solution is to modify the workers such that they are better able to interact with workplace hazards.

 “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”—Albert Einstein

If there is to be any sort of important, transformational innovation in workplace safety we have to think differently and explore radically different methods for reducing workplace risk; in short, we have to view safety in a revolutionary new way; we have to think differently.

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” —Albert Einstein

I understand that many of you don’t see the problem, after all, things are getting better—injuries are down, fatalities are flat, and in general the workplace seems safer, or at very least safe enough.  But people still get hurt on the job, people still die in industrial accidents. So perhaps you should consider that another approach is necessary.

“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”—Albert Einstein

It’s tempting to think that if we are getting good results doing what were doing then there is no real reason to change; if it aint broke, don’t fix it.  But emerging technology, slackening protections for workers, and socioeconomic changes relative to the business climate combine to create a drastically different workplace than we have previously experienced. We need to worry less about the procedural, less about the logical and more about the possible.

“Think Different”—Steven Jobs

Co-founder of Apple, Steven Jobs has had the greatest impact on our lives since Thomas Edison. When he returned to Apple he adopted the slogan, “Think Different”.  Others at Apple protested, “Think Different” they argued was grammatically incorrect, and should rightfully read “think differently, or think ‘different’”.  But Jobs had a specific meaning in mind. He wanted people to think “different”. Not differently from the way they were currently thinking, although that was certainly part of it. No, Jobs saw the credo as a call for thinking that was tangibly out of the mainstream. It was almost as he was calling for a visualization of exactly what the manifestation of what “different” looks like. It was more than a challenge; it was the defiant sneer of a mind that would change the world. If ever there was a place where thinking “different” is needed, it is in the world of worker safety.

Okay…So What?

It’s easy to hammer out a thousand words or so on the need for us to look beyond the traditional in worker safety, but without specifics how useful is the advice?  While the need for change in safety is considerable, the most critical changes need to come in these areas:

  • The Role of The Safety Professional.  Seeing the safety professional as the wizened old mage who is the arbiter of all things safety is outmoded.  Whether these sages are policemen or consultants, it’s time to imagine a completely different safety function. One where the decision making relative to safety isn’t housed in the safety office to be meted out by the safety engineer, rather where knowledge is widely distributed throughout population and decision-making regarding safety resides with empowered workers at all levels.
  • The View of Behavior As Causation.  Yes, unsafe behavior gets people injured and killed, but the BBS pundits have got to stop acting as if they have discovered the God Particle.  There is a dearth of understanding of sociology, neurology, brain function, group dynamics, anthropology, and even psychology underpinning too many BBS “solutions” (the only solutions offered by many BBS systems is to keep the providers well feed with full pockets). The question isn’t whether or not unsafe behaviors create heightened risk of injuries, but whether or not we can influence those behaviors to the extent that it will lower the risk of injuries.  If you considers other problems associated with populations—crime, poverty, war, etc.—governments haven’t had much luck solving these problems by modifying individuals behaviors; what makes us think we can be more successful in worker safety?
  • The View of Safety As A Discrete Element.  Trying to managing safety in a vacuum, that is, without considering Quality, Delivery, Cost, Morale, and Environment is like herding cats.  If you don’t treat the efficiency of your organization holistically, you will most likely shift problems from one area of the company to another.
  • Prevention. A couple of weeks ago I posted “Requiem for Prevention”. In that piece I talked at length about how we needed to siphon some of the effort that we currently put into prevention and refocus it on protecting workers when prevention fails.  We need to radically reinvent our view of prevention and how to balance it with contingency planning.
  • Treating Injuries As Somehow Different From Other Process Failures.  Safety professionals need to be re-envisioned as problem solvers and process improvement specialists; as utility players on the team. Safety professionals should be capable of making improvements across the SQDCME spectrum; more generalist and less specialized.
  • The View of Safety As A Sacred Calling.  Yes, safety is the right thing to do, sure it’s moral, yes…blah, blah, blah…admit it; we don’t save lives. We aren’t doctors, we aren’t searching for a cure for cancer.  The best we can hope to claim is that we might have saved a life in the course of our careers. We need to stop elevating what we do above the jobs of those we serve.

“You May Say I’m A Dreamer, But I’m Not The Only One”—John Lennon

I realize that a good number of you are bristling about what you’ve read here.  That uneasiness you’re feeling is the first stage to opening your mind.  You need to open your mind and stare into the abyss, because if you don’t you have no capacity to change. Those who have no capacity to change and adapt are on the express train to extinction. Open your mind, if you leave us too soon you’ll be missed.

Filed under: Behavior Based Safety, Safety, Safety Culture, , , , , ,

You’re Not the Boss of Me: It’s Not The Message It’s The Way It’s Delivered


By Phil La Duke

 argument

We’ve all experienced this at one time or another: you point out an unsafe act or safety violation in good faith, only to have the worker shoot back some sarcastic, rude, or juvenile comment.  It wears on you, but you’ve come to expect, accept (and probably) resent it.  Why can’t people just grow up and let you do your job?  The answer might not lie with the people with whom you interact, but rather HOW you interact with them.

In 1964 Dr. Eric Berne wrote The Games People Play, to identify and address what he describes as functional and dysfunctional social interactions. The book is a fantastic guide for interacting with workers. In the book, which has sold more than 5 million copies, Berne introduces the concept of transactional analysis that he believed was the key to interpreting social interactions.  Transactional analysis is a method for identifying one of three roles that people assume whenever they deal with others.  Berne identified three roles:

  • Parent
  • Adult, and
  • Child

Berne believed, and my experience has confirmed his belief, that a lot of dysfunctional behaviors are caused because of a conflict between these roles. You can avoid this dysfunction by not getting sucked into the dysfunction.  This is a lot tougher than it sounds. Because, as Berne suggests, these roles are subconscious the urge to be drawn into this dysfunction is powerful. Basically, when one addresses another as a parent, you send out parental stimuli that trigger responses in the other party.  Typically, the other party responds with behavior characterized by either a competing parent or a child.

This isn’t a book report, so I won’t go into a lot of detail on the nuances of Berne’s work, buy the book and read it; you won’t be sorry.

In terms of safety these dysfunctional encounters look something like this:

A Safety Professional (In the Parent role) see’s a worker using a band saw without the proper guarding in place, he approaches and says, “Haven’t you been trained to only use that saw when the guard is in place? Are you trying to lose a finger?” This highly directive, authoritative language stimulates some deep-seated psychological responses.  A common response is that the worker also responds in the “Parent” role. “Hey they’re my fingers and if I’m not worried about losing them than why should you.” Berne called these types of disputes “Parent-Parent”.  Parent-Parent tend to escalate quickly unless something happens to defuse the situation.  In our example, the Safety Professional might say something like, “Look, if you can’t follow the rules maybe you shouldn’t be working here. Do you WANT me to write you up?” To which the worker is likely to respond “Do what you have to do, your not my boss and I don’t have to listen to you”.  Sound familiar? It happens daily in workplaces around the world, but its not the only dysfunction that can be caused when the Safety Professional adopts the Parent role.  Sometimes the exchange plays out like this:

Safety Professional (parent):        This is the third time this week that I have caught you not wearing your safety glasses.

Worker (child):                               I know, but they are hot and I can’t see.

Safety Professional:                        The rule is in place for your protection, if I catch you without safety glasses again I will have to have your supervisor write you up, is that what you want?

Worker:                                             No, I will make sure from now on.

The worker then proceeds to passively aggressive comply only when the Safety Professional is in sight.

Sometimes the safety professional plays the role of the child and the result can be equally disastrous. The “child” role is characterized by nonassertive and pensive body language and word choices.

That same exchange might go something like this:

Safety Professional (child):          You know its my job to make sure you wear safety glasses but every time I see you aren’t wearing them.  I ask, and ask, and ask, but you just don’t care.

Worker (parent):                             Relax. I wear my safety glasses most of the time, the fact that you’ve seen me without them a couple of times is no big deal.

Safety Professional:                        It’s not a big deal to you. I’m the one who will get in trouble for not doing their job.

Worker:                                             Stop making such a big deal about it; you need to get a life.

There can also be child-child conflicts, but I think you get the picture. What Berne was saying is that social interaction is just basic stimulus and effect, and if you are able to control the stimuli that you send out you can greatly influence the results. The is to stay in the “adult” role. The Adult role is characterized by neutral body language and word choices. Staying in the Adult role is about controlling your deepest impulses toward dysfunction and this is especially difficult because the other party will actively try to draw you into his or her dysfunction.  Let’s take a look at how that might work using our scenario:

That same exchange might go something like this:

Safety Professional (adult):          Excuse me Al, but aren’t safety glasses required as part of this operation? Can you help me to understand why you aren’t wearing them?

Worker (worker):                           Relax. I wear my safety glasses most of the time, the fact that you’ve seen me without them a couple of times is no big deal.

Safety Professional:                        Please, instead of getting into a conflict about this, I’m hoping we can have a real conversation about safety.  I don’t have a vested interest in safety glasses, and as long as we can meet the legal requirements I am willing to work with you to adjust the safety requirements if we’re able to.

Worker:                                             Yeah right, you are always saying you are open to suggestions but when I make them you go on and on about why things can’t get fixed.

Safety Professional:                        I’d really like to talk about the issue at hand. You see, if there is a legitimate reason to make a change in policy I want workers to talk to me about it. You’re right, in some cases you have made suggestions, but we weren’t able to implement them without violating the law. I’m sorry if I didn’t make that clear when we talked about the fact that we wouldn’t be using your suggestion.

Worker:                                             (in an aggressive tone) Okay, let’s talk! I hate wearing safety glasses because they are hot, they look dorky, and I honestly don’t see why the law requires them for this job.

Safety Professional:                        I’m sure you can understand that the company has to abide by the statutes that require safety glasses, but we can certainly look into glasses that are more stylish and comfortable. Can I count on you to help me make a recommendation?

Worker (Child):                               Hey, I’m sorry for coming of as such a jerk. I will wear the stupid safety glasses.

Safety Professional:                        I appreciate that, but I would much prefer having someone like you—someone who has strong opinions on the subject and who understands what we can and can not do about this—work with me to come up with a better solution. What do you say, can I count on you for help? Say testing out some sample glasses and telling me what you think?

Worker:    I guess if that’s all you need me to do I could do that. (Laughing) You sure know I won’t be shy about sharing my opinions.

This is a simple example, and in the real world you will likely have to stay in the adult role much longer than our fictitious example, but it’s worth it.

There is a lot more to the book—almost half of it deals with a series of mind games —and there is a lot of good stuff you can use in dealing with the belligerent jerks we sometimes encounter in the workplace. But the pay off for adopting Berne’s strategies in the context of safety is substantial and valuable.

 

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

Requiem For Prevention


by Phil La Duke

Requiem for Prevention

I am a loud (some might say obnoxious) and ardent supporter of prevention.  In fact, I one of my core values is “Prevention is the key to sustainable safety.” So given my vocal advocacy of prevention, you might be surprised to learn that I believe that in many cases prevention has gone overboard and that in many cases companies would be better served by doing LESS prevention and more contingent planning.  Heresy? Consider the  organization that spends tens of thousands of dollars each year preventing accidents that would likely have little or no chance of ever happening.  These companies have 20-person safety committees that meet once a week to argue about why an over-burdened maintenance department hasn’t fixed a low-priority hazardous condition.

Prevention costs money and resources that may well be better spent elsewhere in the organization—and not necessarily safety. Equally damning, organizations that continue funding convoluted safety bureaucracies that unnecessarily add heads, complexity, and cost in the name of preventing injuries.  Too often these efforts focus on one of the most misunderstood sources of injuries in the workplace today: human behavior. These systems seldom deliver what they promise (that is, a sustainable change in human behavior) and can actually impede important business processes and the delivery of goods or services in the misguided attempt to control human behavior; it can’t be done, so stop trying.

I’m not suggesting that we return to reactive safety practices, far from it.  What I am saying is that there is a time and a place for prevention, but its is not a panacea.  Simply put, you can’t prevent every accident, and in some cases you should be looking for ways to protect workers when your best efforts to prevent an accident fails INSTEAD of wasting time on prevention.

Variation in Human Behavior

As organizations, we’d all like to think that we hire smart, capable people, and for the most part we do.  We spend days (and thousands of dollars) screening candidates: we ask them probing questions to find out how they reason, how they solve problems, and how they think.  We do background checks and ask professional references whether or not the candidate is worth offering them a position.  We screen the candidate for illicit drug use, criminal misdeeds, and the things in life that indicate that whether or not the candidate has sound judgment. In the end we confidently hire the candidate and invest time and money training the new hire so that he or she can meaningfully contribute.  And then it happens.  The person that we spent so much time screening and training gets hurt and we think to ourselves, “if only that idiot would have…”  Huh? Now because the employee got hurt he/she’s suddenly an idiot?  You may read this and think that you are immune to such thoughts, but the majority of the people I hear describing injured workers as idiots are safety professionals.

They Call Them Accidents For A Reason

As much as we would like to assign accountability for injuries, the fact remains that in almost all cases whatever happened to injure the person was unintentional, or at very least, the person who committed the unsafe act didn’t fully comprehend the potential consequences of his or her actions; the accident was an unintended outcome; in short, the injury was an accident.  Accepting that things will go wrong, that people make mistakes, is a bitter pill to swallow.  We are taught to believe that making mistakes are bad, subject to punishment, and indicative of poor judgment or out-and-out stupidity. But everyone makes mistakes—we learn by trial and error and without mistakes there can be no learning, at least not organic learning that lasts.

Everyone Makes Mistakes, But No One Should Have To Die Because of A Mistake

I’ve read (I can’t remember where) that the average person makes 5 mistakes an hour. Multiply that by the 2080 hours in the average work year and you have a boat load of mistakes.  Some theorize that because biologically speaking change is reckless and dangerous (nature tends to have a “if it aint broke don’t fix it’ approach to survival; if a species is thriving it resists change.  In fact, change is so dangerous, that our bodies are hardwired to resist it, when we are confronted with change it triggers our flight/fight response and causes us stress.  Conversely, species that are unable to change are unable to adapt to changes in their environments and are driven to extinction.  So it would appear that we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.  But if the research that found that the human brain will make 5 mistakes an hour is correct what possible advantage would there be in these mistakes?  Making tiny subconscious, non-cognitive mistakes could be our brain’s way of testing the environment by disrupting our routines in small ways.  If the mistake leads us to a better way of living we make serendipitous discoveries and innovations but if the mistake leads to an undesirable outcome we see it as an error. But in both cases our brains learn about the safety of deviating from its routine and we are better able to safely adapt.

Variation Leads To Errors

Experts in quality, particularly in manufacturing, cannot emphasis the danger of process variation strongly enough; when the process varies things go sour very quickly.  Manufacturing and process engineers have made huge strides in reducing mechanical variation, but the variation endemic to human behavior is so pervasive that it’s all but impossible to eliminate it, or substantially reduce it.  Outside of the military (and quasi military—police, security, etc.) it is very difficult to control human behavior.  Even variation in cognitive behavior is difficult; how many companies have problems with poor attendance? Certainly at least some of the causes of absenteeism are cognitive decisions where the offending employee simply chose not to come to work.

Focus On Contingency Not Prevention

Okay, relax.  I know that I preach prevention above all things, but when it comes to variation in human  behavior you just can’t prevent most of it. If we could there would be no crime, no traffic accidents, and no medical malpractice.  And to make things even more complicated, human behavior can be very tricky to predict, and even more difficult to prevent.  We have to stop pretending that all our problems can be solved through preventive measures; sometimes—despite our best efforts—things go sideways and when they do we had ought to have some contingency in place to prevent a mishap from becoming a disaster or a tragedy.  When it comes to contingency versus prevention it doesn’t have to be an either or decision.  I used to teach problem solving and we used a very simple tool for determining whether to use a preventive countermeasure or a contingency countermeasure.  We would rate both the probability and severity of an error in terms of high, medium, or low.  If the probability that the particular failure mode (engineering speak for a screw up) is high—in other words it is almost certain to happen under the given circumstances—then one should definitely find a preventive action.  If the probability is low (fairly remote, but possible) one would need to temper the response after considering the time and money it would require to implement.  Similarly, if the failure mode’s severity was high (if it DID happen the consequences would be severe) than one would have a contingency in place to protect workers, property, and inventory.  Of course if the severity was expected to be low one would again determine whether the protection offered would be worth the cost of the required resources.

Because one rates the severity separately from the probability, one ends up with two scores that must be considered together.  Certainly if the probability is high AND the severity is high one would implement both preventive and contingency controls.  On the other end of the spectrum, if both the probability and severity were low, one would likely only take action if the countermeasures were cheap and easy to implement. But the scores that are in between (medium probability and low severity, etc.) are subject to a lot more judgment-based decision making. This may seem like a serious weakness to some, but on the contrary, this subjectivity allows an organization to customize it’s countermeasures to its unique environment and situation.

It would be great if we could accurately predict and prevent injuries, but the reality is we can’t. We have to be pragmatic and take important steps to ensure that when someone does have an accident, protections are in place to keep the injury from becoming life altering or fatal.

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

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