Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

Never Trust Anyone Who Claims Safety Is Their Number One Priority

Safety Priority

By Phil La Duke

The following is a retooled, repurposed, and recycled post that was origionally made to the now decommissioned Rockford Green International blog. (Since renamed the Worker Safety Net)

There are things that need to change in safety and they need to change fast.  Safety is losing ground, no matter how hard we try, we are losing ground in the court of public opinion—public policies are softening on safety (Michigan recently legalized the personal use of fireworks and the practice of riding motorcycles without a helmet—effectively rolling back almost 50 years of safety regulations.  Michigan may be a long way from where you live, but believe me these kinds of rollbacks aren’t isolated to Michigan.)

One of the primary reasons safety professionals have lost credibility is the insistence that safety is—or at least should be—an organization’s number one priority.  This ludicrous claim sets safety at odds with operations, and makes the both workers and the general public view us as kooks, imbeciles, or hopelessly out of touch.

Let me state for the record that I remain completely devoted to safety, I believe one’s right to make a living without undue jeopardy of loss of life or limb is a basic human right.  But how we approach the achievement of a safe workplace will greatly shape the likelihood of our success.

It’s tough to visit any workplace without seeing a poster that says, “safety is our number one priority”.  It’s a crock; no company ever has gone into business for the purpose of keeping its workers safe. Companies exist to make money. No sane person would manufacture, ship,  process, or manipulate anything if his or her primary motivation was to ensure nobody engaged in these activities got  injured. When safety professionals perpetuate the lie that safety is the number one priority they lose credibility and are alienated.  People hear, “safety is our number one priority” and know it’s either a lie, or the pathetic simpering of a deluded fool, in either case the prudent move is to assume the person spouting this nonsense can’t be taken seriously or trusted.

Imagine a worker who has been told that “safety is our number one priority” following any advice the boob who said offered the advice has to say; why believe that tying off while working at heights is essential to safety when the person who told you so also told you safety is your first priority?  If safety truly is your number one priority, don’t work at heights, period. But safety isn’t our number one priority, getting the job done is almost more important than anything else.

The effectiveness of a safety professional depends on his or her credibility; safety professionals have to stop forcing people to choose between working safely and making a livelihood. One of the most frequent complaints about safety professionals from workers and business leaders is that safety professionals are obstructionist policemen who, however well intentioned, don’t live in the real world.  People gravitate toward the practical and tend to disregard things that don’t make sense, or where they see over whelming evidence to the contrary. Safety professionals have to balance safety against the practical requirements of a job.

I want to be clear that I am not saying that safety isn’t an important criterion for success but there is a difference between saying, “making money is our priority, but we can’t in conscience make money while hurting workers” and saying “safety is our number one priority”.  Hurting workers costs money and is poor business practice, but when safety professionals makes the claim that their function, safety, is the primary reason a company exists, nobody in their right minds can take them seriously.

Safety professionals need to shift their thinking when it comes to worker safety, away from “safety as the right thing to do” to “safety as a crucial improvement initiative”. It may sound like I am nit-picking but the words we use shape how our constituents view us and whether or not they find us credible.  A safety professional without credibility is worse than ineffective; he or she is taking a job that an effective safety professional could otherwise be doing.

Safety isn’t a priority; it’s a value and criterion for success.  Frankly, we don’t want safety to be a priority—priorities change and shift where values endure and guide our decision making.  The safe execution of work must be a core value and a guiding behavior in any ethical organization.  Treating workers like chattle, or fuel to be used up in the furtherance of business is morally repugnant.  Safety must go deeper than being a mere priority, it must be the cornerstone of any business that is serious about sustainable success.

Sadly, many of the companies that proudly boast of safety as a priority are some of the worst offenders for putting workers at risk.  In these cases, safety is neither a priority nor a value.  Safety at these hell holes only becomes a priority after catastrophe strikes and then only when the climate of fear and retribution is in full swing.  When the smoke clears and the blood is mopped up, these companies quickly revert to bad behaviors and more misguided behaviors.

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

Trust Me

Stone wall copyBy Phil La Duke

There isn’t any magic bullet when it comes to making the workplace safer but the thing that comes closest is trust. No change, no improvement, no carefully crafted organizational change initiative will ever come to fruition until and unless workers trust the leadership of the organization. If workers mistrust their supervisors, the leadership, or the safety professional even the best safety efforts will fail. It sounds simple, but in my career I have seen more organizational change effort—whether aimed at improving safety or changing benefits—fail because of mistrust.

It’s a shame, because every day, we ask—no expect—worker’s to trust us, and let’s face it, in many cases there is scant reason why workers’ should believe us when we tell them that everything will be better if they just do this or that or when we tell them that this time things will be different.

Workers’ Aren’t Stupid (Well Most of Them Anyway)

Workers’ do stupid things, we all do, and like most (if not all) workers are skeptical when they hear that the “flavour of the month” will be the salvation of the workingman. Most don’t want to invest time, effort, and emotions into something that they know in the deepest recesses of their souls won’t last as long as the life of the alpha fruit fly. And with the safety community trotting this dog and pony show after that can we really blame them? Workers want to do their job, collect an honest wage and return home safe unharmed. It sounds simple, maybe even trite, but it’s true.  The problem with getting people to change the way they conduct themselves in a business setting—whether or not they follow the rules, whether or not they take unreasonable risks, and the very basis of their decision-making—depends on the level of trust within the organization.

The Nature Of Trust

When most of us think of trust we think about our willingness to believe that people wouldn’t deliberately harm us, whether the nature of the harm be physical, psychological, or financial, or some other means I’m too lazy or intellectually limited to ponder.  In basest possible terms we count on the fact that they, as The Simpsons barman Moe Szyslak put it, “wish (us) no specific harm”. When we trust someone we count on them to consider our best interests when they act, and not “screw us over” in some way.  Most safety professionals are trust worthy in this respect.  But there is more to trust than just believing that given have a chance your safety rep won’t mug you in the men’s room.  In fact, there are several different kinds of trust.

  1. Trust in motives.  When we mistrust someone’s motives it’s generally because we suspect that they have an alternative agenda, about which they aren’t being completely honest and above board.  We suspect that the person we mistrust is putting their own needs  (or the needs of the Elvis impersonator who lives next door, for all we know or care) before our needs, and if momma ever taught us anything it’s that if we don’t look out for ourselves no one else is likely to. When workers mistrust the organization it’s not that they necessarily think the safety professional or the leadership are looking out for themselves at the expense
  2. Trust in competence.  Sometimes we don’t trust people, not because we believe they have a larcenous heart, rather because we believe they have cheese and sawdust in their heads.  And when it comes to safety we want to know that the people making decisions about how work is completed actually know what they are doing, that their decisions won’t get us killed or leave us horribly maimed. We may believe that people making the decisions hear t is in the right place
  3. Trust in Judgment. I know some safety people who have never met a dumb idea that they didn’t immediately love. The rest of the organization just rolls its collective eye when it hears the details of the hair-brained scheme-d’ jour
  4. Trust the facts. It’s one thing to trust people have your best interests at heart and another thing to believe that they have the facts straight and still another to believe that they are properly interpreting the facts.  We live in an age where people are bombarded with facts. Facts without context, facts that are often confused and sometimes just made up. More and more people seek out the most ludicrous information to support whatever they want to believe, and its tough convince them otherwise.  So it stands to reason that workers will openly question the facts presented to them.  Just look at the practice of smokers.  There has been evidence linking cigarettes and cancer (not to mention heart disease) and yet as I write this, countless thousands will spark up another one. Why? Because sometimes even when the facts are known a person simply choses to ignore them.

It takes a lifetime to build trust and only a simple lapse in judgment or bad decision to wipe it out. Mostly trust is built on two things, past experience and consistency. And while we can’t change past experience we can develop a climate of consistency.  People tend to trust what they  can predict.

And let us not forget that trust is a two-way street; leadership can’t expect workers to trust them unless they first trust workers.

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

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

By Phil La Duke


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, , , , , ,

Sailing The Seven Cs of Change

Sailing The Seven Cs of Change

Photo courtesy of Asmundur

Photo courtesy of Asmundur

By Phil La Duke 

More and more safety professionals are coming to the conclusion that real, lasting change can only come as a result of a change to the culture.  For some, this means relabeling the same old schlock and positioning the same tired method as a new, “culture transformation”.  This trend concerns me.  While there are a handful of good (in fact, really good) change professionals out there, there are far more conmen out there whose only experience with change is nickels, dimes, and quarters.

For the record I am not against entrepreneurs making an honest living. But if we aren’t careful we can really screw up and have an uncontrolled and unplanned change with dangerous and unpredictable outcomes.

In my experience, change comes in distinct phases that sometimes overlap and may even move forward and backward.  These phases can be conveniently described using words that begin with the letter C allowing me to make my title pun.


It’s said that change only happens when the pain of not changing exceeds the pain of changing.  Organizations, like people, tend to actively resist change. Even positive changes that they know need to happen. Change, biologically speaking, is stupid and dangerous. If you are an organism that is flourishing—you have amply food and shelter, good breeding grounds and prospects, and low predators—changing even the seemingly most insignificant element can lead to extinction. Our central nervous systems are designed to resist change because it puts us in unpredictable situations. Of course we also live in a dynamic environment that is constantly changing and remaining static in a rapidly changing environment leads to extinction.
Organizations tend to resist change until the dissatisfaction with the status quo hits a critical level.
Not all change, is as Mao said, borne out of the barrel of a gun, but the more disruptive the circumstances the stronger the drive for change.

Creation of Vision

Unless leaders can construct a compelling vision, change will be stifled and obstructed. Change grows out of dissatisfaction with the current state, but change that is driven by dissatisfaction alone creates environment where the organization can go from bad to worse. An environment where change is made without a clear vision of the desired state leads to chaos and confusion and can quickly devolve into organizational anarchy. That may sound melodramatic, but in companies that I have seen fail, the failure tends to come gradually as systems breakdown and processes stop working. People still come to work, there is no reign of terror with the aristocracy being dragged to the guillotine, but there is a perceptible shift in work ethic. The good and capable leave the organization and the population reduces to incompetents who are too fearful to leave.

A compelling vision of a desired state focuses the population on a singular purpose, a common cause and an understanding of what they as an organization is trying to create.


Legend holds that Hernando Cortez burned his ships when he arrived in the New World to demonstrate to his men that retreat was not an option. Irrespective of your feelings toward Cortez, his actions, however apocryphal, are an excellent example of how commitment to a goal can drive change. Faced the with the choice of either achieving the goal or certain death, it’s fair to say that Cortez’s men were deeply committed to change. Obviously, change can’t always be driven as ruthlessly or aggressively as Cortez, but leaders must aggressively push change by figuratively burning the ships, i.e. they must make it unmistakably clear that anything shy of  100% support for the vision will not be tolerated and those who can’t change attitudes will be forced to change jobs.

Communication of Vision

It’s not enough to have a vision; leadership must make a compelling argument for the vision and inspire passion for the desired state among the population.  Communicating a fierce vision that inspires the population is paramount to a successful organizational change.


As the chances are implemented the organization quickly devolves into chaos. As theories become practices the numerous glitches make the change impossible and frightening. It’s easy for leaders to falter in there commitment to change when all seems lost.  Unless leaders are courageous and stick to the course they will not last long enough for the change to put down roots and grow.

As people struggle to create the new normal out of the howling chaos, they begin to see successes and reasons to hope.  At this point in the change, people start to connect these successes with elements of the vision.  They begin to connect with the desired state as something tangible and real.  These connections begin to forge the foundation of the new processes, tools, mores, and values on which a new and better corporate culture can be built. People tend to fiercely protect these newly forged connections and build norms around them.

Capability & Confidence

Slowly these connections and new practices start to yield real, tangible results and the population’s confidence rises. The organization becomes more capable as it repeats the new practices.  The reliable results that come with organization and personal capability builds confidence and the two form an improvement spiral, which ultimately makes the desired state a reality.

The desire state rarely comes to fruition exactly as envisioned or expected (remember change takes time and the vision often evolves and is refined as time elapses.) This isn’t a bad thing, often the ultimate state far exceeds the organization’s wildest expectations and desires.


Filed under: Organizational change, Safety Culture, , , ,



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