Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

Maybe You REALLY Can’t Fix Stupid


By Phil La Duke

In a recent blog entry on the blog, Fuel Fix http://fuelfix.com/blog/2014/05/12/human-errors-account-for-80-of-offshore-accidents-exec-says/  Oil & Gas executives were quoted as saying that 80% of offshore accidents were caused by human error.
According to the article, Jim Raney, director of engineering and technology at Anadarko was addressing the Ocean Energy Safety Institute at the University of Houston when he said, “You can’t fix stupid…what’s the answer? A culture of safety. It has to be through leadership and supported through procedures — a safety management system.” I’m careful not to use the stupid brush to tar too many people in worker safety. Are their stupid people out there working? I think it’s safety to say yes. But can we blame 80% of worker injuries on stupidity? I don’t think so, at least not among the rank and file. Let’s face it, if 80% of your injuries are because of human error, as the article later suggests, you have some big issues and I would be careful who you go around calling stupid.
Even Smart People Make Mistakes
I’m not going to beat up on Jim Raney. My guess is that at his level he isn’t doing the incident investigations personally, and therefore he is being fed conclusions by his safety practitioners that lead him to believe that the vast majority of the incidents are because he has a bunch of idiots working for him. But stupidity is not the same as making a mistake, and while everyone makes mistakes (it’s a biological imperative) no one should have to die because of it. If there is stupidity in this process it lies with the person who designed it; he or she either refused to believe that people make mistakes or knew people would invariable make mistakes but refused to protect those that did. Stupid? It’s damned near depraved indifference and gross negligence.
Dispelling the “Operator Error” Myth
For years I taught problem solving courses as part of lean implementations. For generations engineers (the folks typically charged with finding out what caused a quality defect) would ultimately conclude that someone screwed up; the report would conclude that “operator error” was the proximate and root cause. The problem was that the engineer never asked “why?” the operator screwed up. I’ve written reams on performance inhibitors, those things like worker fatigue, stress, distraction, drug use, et el, can cause even the smartest people to make mistakes so I won’t revisit them now. But I wonder how many of those 80% of the people working on offshore rigs had been working long hours without a day off or with inadequate sleep? Keep anyone up for days on end working 16+ hour shifts in the elements and even the brightest among them will seem like a drooling idiot. Simply denouncing the people as stupid and then doing nothing about the system issue will not create a culture of safety, it will create a culture of stupidity. If I can go off on one of my well celebrated tangents for a minute, why are Oil & Gas companies hiring so many stupid people? While you may not be able to fix stupid, you don’t have to hire it, you don’t have to seek out the dumbest in society and offer them a job.
Injuries Are Seldom Caused By a Single Root Cause
A part of the problem solving training that I taught for many years dealt with selecting the right tool from the tool box. Traditional root cause analysis, repetitive whys, and similar tools are designed for use in solving problem of a specific structure and a sudden occurrence, that is to say, issues that develop rapidly and happen in response to a single cause. Situation analysis, fishbone analysis, and other tools, are better used for problems of a general structure and a gradual occurrence, in other words, incidents that are the product of a multiple, inter-related elements. In these types of incidents, many factors have to be present to cause an injury, and it is only after a threshold is reached that we see a process failure. In my experience, injuries tend to be the product of multiple factors that contribute to the incident. As long as we continue to use inappropriate tools to find the cause of injuries we will continue to mask hazards instead of removing them. The fact that Oil & Gas executives are concluding that 80% of the workers’ injuries are caused by “human error” leads me to question their methodology used to identify injury causes. Yes people make mistakes, but if those mistakes are leading to injury you have more at play than stupid people, you also have a process that hurts people when they make mistakes.
Protect the Stupid
We may not all be stupid, but we all do stupid things from time to time—we make poor choices, take unreasonable risks, allow distraction, fatigue, or other factors to impair our performance, or generally act in a way at odds with our safety. Some seem to forget that not all safety is about prevention; probability of interaction is only PART of the formula, there is another key component, reduction of severity. Engineers use this formula when identifying which of the hierarchy of controls to apply to everything from the machines we use in the workplace to the consumer goods we use every day. If the probability of interaction is high (people will almost certainly interact with the hazard) but the severity is low (most of the people who interact with the hazard won’t be seriously injured) they will generally slap a “no-kidding?” warning label on it. But if the probability of interaction is low, but the severity is lethal, they will take greater measures to protect people. I don’t believe that 80% of the Oil & Gas injuries are the fault of stupid people making mistakes; frankly it sounds suspiciously close to Heinrich’s Pyramid. But if the processes used in Oil & Gas are so fragile that human error is going to result in injury, the safety practitioners had better take bold initiatives to make these processes safer.
They Have the Answer; They Just Don’t Know It
The last part of Raney’s statement, “It has to be through leadership and supported through procedures — a safety management system” is right on. Unfortunately, organizations can’t achieve a sustainable safety management system that is built on the belief that you can’t fix stupid. Leadership has to drive good decision making and has to reward and encourage worker engagement based on respect; and describing workers as “stupid” is far from respectful.

Filed under: culture change, Injury reporting, Just Culture, Phil La Duke, Safety Culture, Worker Safety, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Six Simple Ways to Change Your Life


by Phil La Duke

Years ago I worked in talent development for one of the largest faith-based healthcare systems in the United States. I left it to pursue other career goals but it never left me, at least not completely. The system was founded when two religious orders merged after discovering that the youngest among the two orders was 78 years old. They came together to preserve a way of life that had existed over 500 years. Sure it ran hospitals, but more important was the spiritual community that it had created. Faced with extinction it set about an elaborate plan for turning over its legacy to the laity. I always took that very seriously. For me it wasn’t about organizational development or training, although these were certainly a big part of my job, rather it was about preserving a way of life.
Some time ago I shared the podium at the Canadian Society of Safety Engineers with an anthropologist and National Geographic photographer who talked about cultural extinction (which interestingly enough, he attributed to the growth of the written word). According to him, cultures are going extinct at a far faster rate than animals; it’s scary really, thousands of years of knowledge lost as cultures die daily. I was determined that I would do everything in my power to save this one culture to which I had been entrusted.
I wasn’t the only one so entrusted; there were scores of professionals whose primary jobs were to preserve the mission, culture, and vision of the consolidated order. One of the tools they had for preserving the culture was the Guiding Behaviors (note to the grammar vigilantes: I know this sounds like number disagreement but the Guiding Behaviors is considered one tool). As I reflected this morning, as I do every morning, on these behaviors it occurred to me that these would serve the safety professionals as much as anyone else. I have changed the wording of some of these to make them less specific to healthcare, but I doubt the surviving members of the orders will mind too much.

“We support each other in service”
The first of the behaviors is “we support each other in service” what better way for a safety professional to sum up his or her job? We don’t really save lives—not the way doctors or nurses do anyway—but we can always support people in making better decisions and while not directly saving lives influencing people to save their own lives or the lives of a coworker.

“We communicate openly and honestly, respectfully, and directly”
I’ve written volumes about the importance of open and honest communication. I still believe that the only path for safety professionals to get respect is by truly respecting the people and organizations they serve. It’s disappointing how many safety professionals disparage the people they are charged with protecting. People who feel respected tend to respond respectfully. We must always strive, not only to be truthful, but truly honest and not just with the people we serve but with ourselves as well. And let us never confuse hurtful speech with honesty. Before speaking we should ask ourselves, “is what I want to say true? Is it helpful? Is it intended to help someone or merely to make ourselves feel better? And finally, is it necessary?” if all of these things aren’t true then maybe we should just keep it to ourselves.

“We are fully present”
Perhaps the behavior I struggle with the most is “we are fully present”. Being fully present means that you keep your mind on the job—no multitasking, no distractions, no dreaming about the weekend. While it’s easy to see how staying fully present on the job would greatly benefit most workers—distraction on the job can be deadly—we also need to be fully present as safety professionals. This means really participating in meetings and really listening (not just waiting to talk) and working with others to accomplish things. Keeping your head in the game every minute of every day is really tough and if you try to do it you will come home exhausted.
“We are all accountable”
“We are all accountable” means more than holding others accountable, although that is certainly a part of it. We also must strive to hold ourselves accountable. Each day we must ask ourselves if we earned our pay. Did we make a positive impact in people’s lives, not just in the context of safety, but did we make the workplace (and the world) a more pleasant place? Did we really bring our “A” game or did we merely phone it in? We must also remember that we have a duty to be just in holding others accountable. We do not stand in judgment above those we serve, but we owe it to the organization and to the entire population to hold people answerable—both positively and negatively,
“We trust and assume goodness in intentions”
People screw with our work, our day, and our heads on a daily basis. But trusting and assuming goodness in intentions has taught me one of the most powerful lessons of my life: we screw with our own work, our own day, and our own heads far more often than anyone else ever could. They say that forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves and it begins by never taking slight in the first place. Instead of assuming that the Operations leadership is throwing us under the bus we should ask the person some questions. Most often we will find that because we assume that the person meant us no harm and was probably completely unaware of the issues he or she was creating for us. Assuming goodness in intentions brings a person real peace and strengthens relationships. There is a saying that if you keep meeting jerks all day long the jerk is you. I say that if you assume goodness of intention in all you meet you will live in a world like you could never imagine. Send out good stimuli and you receive good responses.
“We are continuous learners”
Too often we strive to teach. We are, after all, the experts in safety and what good is that expertise unless we share it with the organization? We get sad and frustrated when people don’t want to listen to what we have to say. But when we are continuous learners, when we focus not on what we can teach others, but what we can learn from them, we find that we end up teaching other so much more of value than if we were to just spout facts at them. Continuous learning involves a lot of introspection—we have to examine our mistakes and try hard to understand why things went wrong and what we can do to fix things them.
The World Loves a Hypocrite
While I try to live by these simple six statements I don’t always succeed; in fact I fail a lot. But the beauty of these guiding behaviors is that they are things to which I aspire. So now I charge you to share these aspirations with me. Try doing these six things for a week. You may fail, but remember in some cases success comes, not in the outcome, but in the attempt.

Filed under: Behavior Based Safety, Hazard Management, Just Culture, Performance Improvement, Phil La Duke, Worker Safety, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Breaking News: Events


Hello all.  I just wanted to issue and “extra” on the blog this week to tell you about some exciting things that I hope you find valuable and will share with your network.

But before I get into that, ISHN listed two of my blog posts as among the most provocative of 2013, so a big thank you to all of you who have supported me for so long, and a big welcome to those of you who have just discovered the blog and are now loyal readers. Because I don’t advertise (most bloggers make their money by taking ads from Google or some other search engine who then drive traffic to the blog; I made a conscious decision to keep my blog advertisement free to protect the integrity of the content.  If I made money doing this I’m afraid I might (perhaps subconsciously) start to self-censor and I don’t think any of you want that) I don’t see anywhere near the number of readers that most blogs do so it’s a real thrill to see so many respected safety professionals and the safety media reading my blog.  Not that you should, but if you wanted to help spread the word about my not-so-humble-but-little-nonetheless blog you can do so in a number of ways by clicking one of the share buttons below, liking a post, or by rating a post (the highest rated posts are then promoted by WordPress.com)

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First of all, Dr. Paul Marciano’s follow up to Carrots and Sticks Don’t WorkSuperTeams: Using the Principles of RESPECT™ to Unleash Explosive Business Performance is due out on April 18, 2014 and can be pre-ordered from Amazon.  Dr. Marciano sent me a pre-release copy for review and I have to tell you it is pretty fantastic.  I like Marciano’s work because unlike a lot of folks from the Ivory Tower of Academia, Paul has a practical, common-sense approach and a conversational writing style that is really inviting.  I pre-ordered my copy yesterday (I know, I know, I already HAVE a copy, but despite my being a completely digital author I’m old-school when it comes to books, I like to have something that I can take with me and read where ever I want).

In my review of his first book, I said that the most important book on worker safety of the 21st century may already have been written, and it’s not a book about safety.  The idea that companies need to build worker engagement (that tendency of workers to do the right thing simply  because it’s the right thing to do) to improve all aspects of the business seemed particularly important to making a safer workplace.  Engagement at all levels has huge implications and any safety professional worth his or her salt should be as much of an expert as possible.  In “Teams” Marciano takes the theories detailed in  first book and shows how they can be put into practice.  I would get a copy for every supervisor in the company (and in case your wondering, I don’t have a financial stake in this, or any stake at all for that matter, I just think this is a very important work), but that’s just me.

His first book went international best seller fairly quickly so I recommend getting a copy quick.

Speaking Gigs You Might Not Want To Miss

My company (well as a parnter, a very small part of it is mine, but I still like saying that) Environmental Resources Management (ERM) is sponsoring a breakfast workshop on March 13, 2014 in Southfield, MI, USA (near Detroit).  The theme of this particular session is Moving Forward: Improving EHS Performance.  I will be sharing the podium with three of my most talented ERM colleagues and each of us will address a different element of Environmental, Safety, and Sustainability.  We will also have a “hot topics” session which I am really looking forward to.  My presentation will be Does Your Safety Culture Foster Strong Performance, but you won’t want to miss any of themThere is no cost for this but space is limited and these events (which by the way ERM sponsors all over the world, except Antartica) fill up really fast, so if you’re interested you will want to register ASAP.  For more details follow this link:

http://view.s4.exacttarget.com/?j=fe9d17707364007c71&m=fe98157076640d7973&ls=fdef1779736c067d72137574&l=fec0107877620674&s=fe2e10717660047b7d1370&jb=ffcf14&ju=fe571d777d64057e7d10&r=0

Masthead_9

And speaking of speaking, I will be presenting Your Mother Doesn’t Work Here: Why Housekeeping Matters at the 75th National Safety Council’s Texas Safety Conference and Expo on April 1, 2010 in Galveston, TX it’s at 8:00 in the morning but if I have to be up, why shouldn’t you?  If you can and do make it, stop by and say hi.
I’ve presented here before and it’s a great event.  While it’s a regional show it tends to have the feel and quality of an international event.  Here is a link to the article I wrote for Fabricating & Metalworking on the same subject:

http://www.fabricatingandmetalworking.com/2013/09/your-mother-doesnt-work-here-why-housekeeping-matters/

For more information:

http://tsce.nsc.org/tsce2014/public/Content.aspx?ID=2170&sortMenu=106000&utm_source=google&utm_medium=CPC&utm_term=safety%20conference&utm_content=safety%20conference&utm_campaign=2014%20Texas%20Conference

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April is just around the corner and that means the Michigan Safety Conference isn’t far off.  This year it is in Lansing, MI and I will be presenting Why We Violate The Rules on Tuesday April 15, 2014 at 10:05 a.m.

This presentation is also based on one of my articles:

http://www.fabricatingandmetalworking.com/2011/05/why-we-violate-the-rules/

and for more information on the Michigan Safety Conference:

http://www.michsafetyconference.org/

What Else?

Twitter

I’m trying to use Twitter more effectively which means that I need to do a better job of scaring up followers, if you would like to follow me on Twitter I have two accounts Philladuke and Workersafetynet.  I’d appreciate any help you can give me in this regard.

Health & Safety International magazine

I have an article coming out in the April 2014 edition of the  UK-based Health & Safety International magazine.  For an online peak, check out: http://www.bay-publishing.com/newsstand.php but you’ll have to wait until April for my article.

ISHN

Also in April, I will have an article published in Industrial Safety and Hygiene News (ISHN), the working title is “The Rise Of the Self-Loathing Safety Professional” and it is sure to raise some hackles. Look for it at http://www.ishn.com/ and be sure and let the editor, Dave Johnson know what you think.

ASSE

Bad news for those of you hoping to see me at the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) national conference; they shot down my last two abstracts, and I’ve decided these two would indeed be my last two submissions for ASSE consideration.  This has been a long time coming and for a lot of reasons.  First of all, participating is all at the speaker’s expense and for the priviledge of speaking at ASSE one recieves a complimentary admission to the show.  The show tends to be in June which is when I am in greatest demand as a speaker and it’s fairly busy for me as a consultant so I end up turning down business year after year to keep a slot open for a gig that doesn’t materialize.  That was in large measure why I was forced to pull out of an engagement at Loss 2010, and I’ve regretted that move. Loss 2010 is far more prestigious and this particular event was in Brugges so I feel like I missed out in favor or ASSE.  At some point one just has to cut one’s losses.

National Safety Council Safety Conference and Expo

I am waiting to hear from the selection committee from the NSC, for abstracts I submitted for its October show in San Diego.  If you haven’t attended this conference in the past you don’t know what you’re missing.  The NSC tends to be a truly international event and draws speakers, exhibitors, and attendees from all over the world.  I’m told that they are seriously interested in several of my abstracts and I hope to be on the podium there (I have exhibited 9 times at the NSC in the past 10 years, so here’s hoping that’s a good sign.)  For information on the NSC conference: http://www.congress.nsc.org/nsc2014/public/enter.aspx

Guest Lectures

I will be guest lecturing this summer at Tulane in New Orleans but the details aren’t quite gelled so watch this space for more info.

Similarly I have agreed to guest lecture at Cooley Law School but I am just in the preliminary stages of discussion.

I typically do guest lectures at universities pro bono, so if you are associated with a university who might like me to guest lecture, please contact me at phil.laduke@erm.com

Private Keynotes

2013 saw me doing more and more keynote speeches for private companies.  Typically I am asked to address leadership meetings, safety summits, etc. but I am just about willing to do anything this side of children’s parties.  If you see a speech that I am making that you are interested in, but cannot attend, you should consider having me in to one of your organization’s meetings.  Again, just drop me a line at phil.laduke@erm.com or call me at 313.244.2525

Consulting & Safety Services

Okay, this is as close to an ad as I’m going to have, but if you like what you read here and think you might find working with me of some benefit consider work with ERM.  ERM has 140 offices in 40 countries and over 6,000 top professionals in Environmental services, Health and Safety  support, and Sustainbility services.  ERM provides the full spectrum of services in all these areas; quite simply we may not be the biggest, but we’re the best.

Check us out at:  www.erm.com

I guess that’s it for now, as you can see there’s a lot of exciting things going on and I am thrilled to be a part of them.  Thanks again to all of you for your support.

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

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, , , , ,

What Every Operation Leader Should Know About Safety


 

one-on-one-coaching

 By Phil LaDuke

Every day I hear another safety professional bemoan the fact that Operations (or leadership) doesn’t support safety.  It’s a tired bleat from whiners who should know that I would have no patience for it.  I generally turn the conversation around and ask flat out what they have done to educate operations leaders on safety and they begin to drone on and on about incident rates and lost work days and whatever the latest fad in safety of which they happen to currently be enamored. As safety professionals we have to drive these eunuchs from our chosen field with knotted chords and send them scampering like shocked money changers.

It seems that every month or so I get a wild hair up my small intestine and advocate throwing a beating into some poor schmoo who’s trying to make a buck.  Maybe that’s unfair, but who cares, I care not one whit about fair and when someone is trying to make a buck by undermining the foundation of a profession that, for all its warts,  is ostensibly about keeping people alive long enough to toil another day. So for those of you who are reading this in hopes of yet another viscous attack against the ugly brutes schilling snake oil, sorry; you will be disappointed, perhaps on several levels.

But then I digress.  The target of this week’s blog is the self-castrated safety professional who simpers and whelps about the grave injustice of being saddled with a clueless Operations managers who just don’t get it when it comes to safety.  I freely accept that there are many Operations folks who don’t get safety, but why is that? We’ve made the topic of worker safety about as interesting as the farm report.  You want to shut down the conversation with the hyper caffeinated goofball seated next to you on a plane? You don’t tell them you sell insurance, or that you’re a realtor (when did real estate agents decide that their chosen profession needed to be pronounced real TORE instead of realter? Call it what you want your still selling real estate; case closed) No to strangle the conversation in its infancy you simply need to say, “I work in worker safety, what do YOU do?” The conversation will die quicker than if you said you enjoy watching snuff films.

Let us assume that you’re able to truly able to have a frank conversation with Operations management about worker safety, what would you say, what are the five things you would want  every Operations leader know about safety? First of all, if you need to have this conversation if you hold out any hope of making things better, and some of you, I’m convinced, don’t want that. Many of you are only content to be malcontents, to be the pitiful victims who are under appreciated; those of you who work so hard and receive so little reward.

For my part, here are the five things that every Operations manager should know:

  1. Injuries Aren’t Unavoidable.  Generally speaking there is a correlation between a tightly controlled process that has little variation and a safe workplace.  When people get hurt it’s obviously out of process, as your process (unless it was designed by the Marquis de Sadd) wasn’t designed to deliberately injure workers. So if a leader strives to make sure that people work within process (including things like following safety processes and procedures) they will tend to have less injuries.
  2. Injuries Are Inefficient and Cost A Lot.  When people get hurt it shuts or slows everything down; everything, and not just at the time of the injury sometimes for weeks or months afterward and far beyond the confines of the area in which the worker was hurt.  Depending on how gruesome the injury (or Heaven forbid a fatality) the witnesses may be forever shaken by what they’ve seen, some may not be able to return to work ever (and this isn’t me being melodramatic, I’ve seen strong men unable to cope—and therefore work—-because they saw a friend pulped and mangled before his or her agonizing death on a dirty factory floor.) Even those who didn’t witness the event first hand are shaken and the macabre cacophony that travels through the organization like ball lightening is sometimes far worse in its imaginings of the scene the bloody reality. It’s tough to give work your all when you wonder if you will be the next to shuffle this mortal coil in the name of building widgets. Okay so maybe I am being melodramatic, but what’s a bit of melodrama between us safety guys?  The efficiency goes on and on through investigations internal, corporate, and criminal.  It takes a lot of time to kill or cripple a worker, given all the paperwork and associated loss of production and time is, after all, money.  So when the final cost of carnage hit the bottom line it hardly seems worth it.
  3. 3.    If It Looks Dangerous It Is; So Shut It Down. Too often people assume that because the boss (whether it be the team leader or the CEO) allows an activity it must at a minimum be “safe enough”.  In a lot of those cases the boss is counting on the worker to make a judgment call and to keep him/herself out of harm’s way.  So on it goes with both parties counting on the other to prevent the accident that will kill the worker. 
  4. 4.    Giving People Credit For “a Little Common Sense” Is like Giving Them Credit FHaving Super Powers.  We could argue whether or not common sense exist ad nauseum and all that would come of it would be that eventually I would want to back hand you right in the mouth; probably more than once.  The bottom line is that whether or not you believe common sense exists to any great extent (it doesn’t) trusting it to keep people from doing something they never foresaw or intended (i.e. injuring themselves or others) is a pretty stupid way to run a business.
  5. 5.    Work is Intrinsically Unsafe and the Only Way to Make It A Bit Safer Is to Stay Actively Involved. All jobs carry with them some risk of injury so leaders have to be mindful of the risks endemic to a job and, yes, actively work to reducing the risks to the lowest practicable level.  We can pretend that people don’t commit errors, make bad decisions, take risks, behave recklessly, and generally do stupid things.  We can act as if we live in a utopia where machines don’t malfunction, tools don’t wear out, and equipment never fails.  We can do these things but when we do we do nothing to reduce the risks and we count on luck to protect people.  Lucky people win lotteries, date people way more attractive that any sense of justice would allow, and find hundred dollar bills on the ground. LUCKY PEOPLE DON’T NARROWLY ESCAPE DYING ON THE JOB.      

Are these the right five? Are the really ten? Fifty? A thousand? Maybe you have others you think they should know, but if you think they need to know about how hard your job is, how to calculate Incident Rates or how to conduct a JSA I would put it to you that you’re probably as dumb as the Operations leader thinks you are; maybe more even.

Filed under: culture change, Just Culture, Phil La Duke, risk management, Safety, Safety Culture, Worker Safety

Breaking Down Resistance


scan

 

By Phil La Duke

When it comes to Organizational Change, for my money you can’t beat the work of Edgar Schein. Schein is considered by many to be the father of Organizational Development; he coined the term “corporate culture” and if for that fact alone should be revered in the same hushed tones in which people talk about Edison, Deming, or Jobs. I’ve written about Schein’s work before, but a thousand or so words ranted in frothy hyperbole from what amounts to a hot head and malcontent is hardly sufficient to explain the great man’s thoughts, let alone apply them to safety.

Schein postulated that organizational change can only come when the resistance to change is less than a combination of dissatisfaction, vision, and next steps. (Although, in fairness, Mao said “all change comes from the barrel of a gun” and I think that there’s a fair amount of truth in that as well, but given the sad fact that most worrisome Human Resources toadstools won’t allow firearms in the workplace—never mind pointing them at the heads of those mouth-breathing dolts unable or unwilling to change—Schein is what were left with, and we could do worse. But then I digress.)

I have devoted much digital ink to fomenting discontent, casting the vision, and crafting logical next steps, in fact, I make my living doing all three; but what about resistance? How do we recognize and attack it. Week after tedious week I work with organizations that seek rapid change—a means of accelerating culture change without merely masking symptoms by obfuscating them with a climate change. Some say it can’t be done—that culture change is a long and laborious process, but since time is money, most notably money that ends up in the pockets of safety culture salesmen (mostly through greed or stupidity) I distrust the argument—I say it can be done. I’ve done it.

Tackling the resistance is the toughest nut to crack in Schein’s formula; chiefly because it can be so tough to spot. I’ve found that people offer clues to their true feeling in the language they use so recently I set pen to paper to identify some of the most telling signs of resistance to change.

“We’re a lot better than we used to be”

People love to get credit for growth, even when the growth they’ve achieved is inconsequential. I’m a big fan of the cartoonist, Al Martin. Martin’s glimpses into human relations in comic strips like Mr. Boffo and Willie and Ethel are without peer; I urge you to seek it out. In one strip I particularly like, Willie and Ethel are having a conversation, and I’m paraphrasing here so if I don’t get it exactly right bear in mind that sending me an indignant email will only result in me unleashing a response so filled with bile and venom it would make Linda Blair’s Regan in the grips of full demonic possession gasp in incredulity, disgust and shock. So ANYWAY, Ethel says to Willie, “Mr. Johnson takes his wife out to dinner once a week. Mr. Johnson, brings his wife flowers. Mr. Johnson takes his wife out dancing…” Willie responds “Hun, why don’t you do us both a favor and stop comparing me to Mr. Johnson and start comparing me to some of those guys on death row.” Essentially, when someone in the organization tells me how much better than they were than they used to be they are telling me that any future change must be seen in the context of the wonderful things they have already achieved. I’m not handing out blue ribbons, and you wouldn’t get any credit for sucking less than you used to even if I was. Similarly, you get no credit for “we’re better than industry average”. Okay, so effectively you are telling me that you kill less people than the competition. That’s like John Wayne Gacey saying, “hey, at least I didn’t kill as many as Ted Bundy’ at his sentencing hearing. When people defend their mediocre safety performance by comparing it to the way it was when mastodons roamed the earth it makes me want to puke; I can feel myself getting dumber for their company.

It’s easy enough to refute the position that the organization isn’t quite as bad as it seems because they used to be worse. Doing a crappy job at safety is doing a crappy job, irrespective if you are doing a less crappy job that you used to.

What’s the requirement?

When governments started issuing regulations for workplace safety they never expected that businesses would see the rules as the gold standard for Operational Excellence, and yet those who resist change are quick to challenge suggested changes with a smug “what does the law require?” There is often a chasm between what is right and what is legal, and an even larger gap between the smart thing to do and what it takes to comply with a regulation. People asking what the government requires are the equivalent of the four-year old who reminds his mother that she said he couldn’t have A cookie, not the 15 he ate. When I hear this I silently wonder where Mao’s gun is when I need it.

How do we respond to “What’s the Requirement?” Simple: “what does your business sense tell you is required?”, “What do your ethics tell you to do?” and “what would someone with the sense God gave geese do in this circumstance?” Remember when asking these questions to resist the temptation to backhand slap the people who asked what the government requires as much as is practicable and reasonable.

We’ve Been Doing It This Way For Years and Nobody Ever Got Hurt.

This statement comes in many forms from the pleading ignorance of the implied, “why do we need to change when it’s obvious that it’s working” to the obstinate smirking challenge of “hey, you don’t know @#$%, we work here and this is fine, if you had a modicum of sense you wouldn’t drag your sad-assed theories here; go play and let the grown ups talk.” I had a social maladroit skulk up to me after one of my speeches where I made the statement that the “absence of injuries” does not denote the presence of safety. He smiled one of those smug, “gotcha” smiles and said that I was wrong because safety by very definition meant that nobody got hurt. I smiled politely and congratulated on his fortune of being immune from dying in a car crash. He looked puzzled, so I explained that by his reasoning the fact that he had not yet been killed in a car crash meant that such an event was impossible and he was immune from a death from this cause. Hell, he may have well been immortal—God, after all, looks after the stupid.

How Safe Does It Need To Be?

I usually get asked this question more in the form of a challenge than a good-faith request for information. This question might seem an expression of tolerance of risk, but in reality it’s usually a way of condescending the point of safety, a way of rolling your eyes and saying “can’t we give people a little credit?” I’ve found that the best answer to this is “how dead do you want your people?” or “how quickly do you want to kill your people?” When dealing with resistance to change, I’ve found that escalating rhetoric can be useful.

What About Common Sense?

People have a deep and abiding need to blame people for not having common sense; it’s a neat way of garnering agreement that the injured party deserves to go home on slab or in a body bag because they exercised inferior judgment. It’s reassuring to know that only the stupid and careless get hurt; it won’t happen to us, because we would never act so irresponsibly, do something so stupid, or behave so recklessly. Dr. Robert Long does a nice job dispelling the myth of common sense in his book Risk Makes Sense (note: I continue to plug Long’s book even though I don’t think he’s speaking to me at the moment owing to one of my sharpish replies to one of his patronizing comments he made on one of my posts; he essentially took his ball and went home. That not withstanding, his books are really insightful and worth the read.)

Common sense is essentially the collective wisdom of a population. Those of us who grew up in small towns understand the way folk wisdom grows up out of the collective experience of yokels who meet in the post office lobby and worry over the price of corn and the amount of rain we’re getting this year. But now that we live in a truly global community and are part of the world population there is no common sense. My life experience is far different than an urban Britt, a rural Chinaman (is this still an acceptable term? No slur is meant; I just don’t have the energy to change the nomenclature every time someone halfway across the world get’s chuffed because they prefer to be called something different. Note to all: If I am looking to insult you, my message will be clear, and if I am successful, I will leave you wondering at the accuracy of my slurs until you shuffle this mortal coil. So if “Chinaman” offends you, grow the @#$% up.) or many of my coworkers. So, no we can’t rely on common sense in the same way we can’t rely on magic, divine intervention, or blind luck to keep the work place safe.

Words alone won’t end resistance but having the dialog that challenges these statements undermines the resolve of those who resist change. As Edgar Schein notes the most effective path toward organizational change lies in attacking all elements across the formula.

Filed under: culture change, Just Culture, Phil La Duke, Safety, Safety Culture, ,

The Folly Of Safety Reminders


 

Don't forget

by Phil La Duke

It’s been awhile since I blogged about the role of behavior in worker safety.  Truth be told, despite the tonnage of digital ink I have devoted to criticizing Behavior Based Safety, I am a firm believer in an organization’s need to address worker behaviors that cause injuries, but I differ with many BBS devotees on the best way to do so.

Variation in human behavior represents the biggest challenge to maintaining a robust and reliable process; whether you are seeking to prevent quality defects, reduce cost, or eliminate injuries you have to consider the effects of human behavior on your process.  That having been said, if we are going to address behavioral causes of Injuries, shouldn’t we concentrate on behaviors we can do something about?

Human Error

Human error is as much a part of being human as anything else; it’s practically encoded in our DNA.  Researchers estimate that the average person makes five mistakes an hour.[1] There seems to be a biological imperative that compels us to make mistakes.  Some believe that mistakes are our subconscious’ way of testing the safety of rapidly adapting to our surroundings.  Irrespective of why we make mistakes, it’s certain that people will make mistakes no matter how hard we try.  Not that we should give up.  While we can’t completely eradicate mistakes we can reduce the probability that human error will result in serious injury or death. Mistake-proofing equipment and processes is an integral part of any safety management process.  We should think of mistake proofing as making our process more forgiving, more tolerant of mistakes.

Of course, we can’t bubble-wrap the world, and any control has limits.  We may not be able to prevent mistakes or protect people from their mistakes, but we can work on ensuring that factors that make mistakes more common are controlled.  There are many things that can make mistakes more likely—from fatigue, drug- or alcohol abuse, to lack of training or stress.  Organizations should redouble their efforts to help workers to manage the things in life that make mistakes more common and potentially, more deadly.

Flawed Decision Making

While human error is inevitable, flawed decision-making need not be.  Workers often make decisions that result in injurious consequences.  Organizations wishing to reduce behavior-related injuries should seriously consider training workers in decision analysis and decision making techniques.

Not all bad decisions are the product of a lack of decision making skills, however, and if an organization discovers a pattern of poor decision making it should take a hard, diagnostic look at its communication.  Often decisions that end in injury are poorly made because someone believed something was true when it wasn’t or didn’t believe it was true when it was.  A lack of communication, or poor communication channels can seriously disrupt the decision making process.

Risk Taking

Every action carries some element of risk with it.  Risk is neither good nor bad, and often we are called on to take risks as part of our daily jobs.  The key is not to have workers become risk averse, instead, we should develop the skills so that workers can take educated, controlled, and planned risks.  When teaching workers how to manage the risks they take, it’s important that organizations train the workers in core skills. Unless workers understand the limits endemic to their processes the risks they take will be more gambles than controlled and planned risk.  While you can coach workers on the inappropriateness of the risks they have taken, it’s far better to educate workers before they are faced with the decision than reactively.

Carelessness

Sometimes workers are so derelict in their duties that we describe their behavior as carelessness.  While some argue that carelessness doesn’t truly exist—that the behavior is really poorly managed performance impediments or recklessness—there are times when a worker is so distracted, manages his or her performance impeding factors, or simply cares so little about the quality of his or her performance that one could accurately characterize the behavior as carelessness.  Carelessness is likely a disciplinary issue; it is unlikely that training, coaching, or mistake proofing will have any meaningful effect.

Recklessness

Sometimes workers will—out of frustration, belligerence, or maliciousness—act in a way so fraught with danger that it can only be categorized as recklessness.  Recklessness is not the act of a mature, responsible professional and it should be addressed surely and immediately.  If the reckless behavior continues the worker should be fired; as drastic as that sounds it may be the only way to protect the organization from the extreme dangers associated with reckless behavior.

Incenting Safe Behaviors

What all these behaviors share is that there is little use in trying to use antiquated behavior modification techniques to change the behaviors.  Traditional incentive and awards is not likely to change subconscious behavior, and attempts to do so can be costly and destructive.  In fact, there is very little we can do externally to change behaviors that aren’t deliberate or that are the product of poor decision making or inappropriate risk taking.

Observations

Just because behavior modification and incentives are of limited value and effectiveness doesn’t mean that we can’t do anything to reduce the variability in human behavior that causes injuries.  The first and most important step is observations.  There is a pervasive belief that the only effective way to do safety observations is peer-to-peer; I don’t believe this, but I will leave those criticisms for another day.  We can’t address unsafe behaviors unless we know when and why they occur.  A safety observation can be as simple as a supervisor walking his or her work area talking to workers and watching them as they worker work.  Supervisors can coach workers on managing performance impediments, risk taking, and decision making while being alert for carelessness or recklessness.

 

 


[1] I’ve cited this research many times.  I saw a speaker on patient safety at a medical conference.  I took detailed notes as to the research that concluded this, but sadly lost it in a flood (along with many other irreplaceables).  If anyone knows the study, the researcher, or a parallel source of the findings I would sure appreciate hearing from them.

Filed under: Behavior Based Safety, Hazard Management, Just Culture, Mistake proofing, Phil La Duke, Safety, Safety Culture, , , , , , , , , , ,

Legitimizing Risk


goldfish jumping out of the water

By Phil La Duke

Several days ago the United States celebrated the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the first step toward its becoming a sovereign nation.  It was an event marked in the state of Michigan by the irresponsible and dangerous use of fireworks by drunken amateurs with no training.  Michigan shortsightedly recently repealed a decades long ban on these types of explosives.  Michigan also recently rescinded a requirement that motorcyclists wear helmets while riding.  These two important laws designed to protect people are just the most recent erosion of public support for safety.  I’ve written at length about the alarming shift in public opinion toward the belief that at home or at work we have gone overboard with safety, so I won’t repeat myself.  Instead, I thought I would focus on how legalization (whether in the traditional legal sense or in the relaxation of work rules) endorses and legitimizes unsafe practices—if something is allowed most people assume that it’s safe.

In a similar vein, if we have rules and regulations to which we turn a blind eye we are effectively sending the message that the rules don’t matter; that they don’t really protect us, they are just a means to keep order in the workplace.  This further reinforces the idea that disregarding a safety regulation isn’t really putting anyone in harm’s way. When people believe an activity is is safe they are more likely to take risks while engaging in said activity.  If we believe that a shortcut puts us at less risk than it in fact does, we sharply increase both the probability (if you believe that the amount of interaction increases the probability) and (perhaps) the severity of the injury (if for instance, emergency response equipment is not maintained, or if the requirements for drills are ignored).

My intent is not to wax political, in broad strokes I don’t care if the law requires helmets  or outlaws fireworks, but the legitimization of  hazards seems, at least to me, to be a growing problem—both internal to the workplace and external to it.  As companies pull themselves out of the economic hole it has been easy to let maintenance issues accumulate.  This in itself isn’t a bad thing; I’ve said for ages that the safest companies are those who went out of business because they were foolish with their spending and unable to prioritize expenditures.  But I’ve seen a rise in complacency and a lack of operational discipline that puts lives and livelihoods at risk.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

As workers and companies become more comfortable with hazards the hazards cease to motivate them to take reasonable care.  Why is it now necessary to ensure that industrial vehicles are checked for defects and taken out of service and repaired when it was no big deal a year ago, after all, nobody has been hurt in all that time?  The fact that companies were forced to take risks (putting off maintenance, removing unsafe tools and equipment from service, letting training slide longer than one should, etc.) and suffered no meaningful consequences (governmental budget cuts have meant that, for many locations, surprise visits from regulators—and their subsequent findings—have been exceedingly rare) has left many wondering if those safety protections were necessary in the first place.

The company isn’t alone in its cavalier attitude toward workplace hazards; workers are also more likely to take more and greater risks in this climate.  Even as companies diligently try to create more of an empowered approach to safety and improve their safety cultures, five years or more, of neglect for respecting hazards has greatly increased individual’s risk tolerances.  This increased tolerance for risk manifests in individuals doing things they might ordinarily have avoided.  When we think of individuals taking risks, it’s natural to think of front-line workers, but there are others taking risks whose faulty decision making is far more dangerous.  When crew chiefs, foremen, supervisors, and others whose decisions can have severe consequences for a large population the danger to workers becomes exponential.  A single flawed decision from an Operations leader can lead to catastrophic chain of events that kill multiple workers and become international news.

Denial Isn’t Just A River In Egypt

For many companies the problem just isn’t that bad. In the mind of some leaders the fact that nothing bad has happened yet is pretty good proof that it will never happen.  These organizations have been living in a collective denial (it’s difficult knowing that you are operating at heightened risk simply because you can’t afford to fix things and it’s comforting to believe that nothing is likely to happen, and if something DOES happen, it most likely won’t be serious.)  Unfortunately, risks tend to grow and unless there is some form of intervention hazards will continue to build until they reach a threshold where injury is all but certain.  And years of under-reporting borne from fear of job loss, corporate programs aimed at reducing “recordable” injuries instead of reduction of risk and the elimination of ALL injuries, has reinforced the idea that companies have things under control when, in fact, they may not.

Reversing the Trend

For most organizations the problem of legitimizing risk did not happen over night and unfortunately it needs to be rapidly reversed. One solution is a performance audit.  A performance audit is different from a compliance audit in several important ways. While a compliance audit is designed to determine the gap between what is legally required and the current state of an organization a performance audit goes far deeper.  The purpose of the performance audit is, in part, to assess the organization’s tolerance for risk and to present—often in jarring terms—the areas where immediate action must be taken.  Performance audits can open the eyes to hazards and unseen risks and reverse decades of incremental complacency and underestimation of hazards.  Performance audits are often pricey, and many organizations balk at the cost, especially as they are just beginning to limp out of the red and into the black, but these audits remain the best and most effective way of quickly breaking the trend toward legitimizing risk.

Filed under: Phil La Duke, Risk, risk management, Safety, Worker Safety, , , , ,

Safety Isn’t Immune to Hiring for Technical Skills and Firing for Interpersonal Skills


hire fired

By Phil La Duke

In my last column, The Safety Side, in Fabricating and Metalworking magazine (http://www.fabricatingandmetalworking.com/2013/06/stereotypes-get-a-bad-rap/?goback=%2Egmr_1533957%2Egde_1533957_member_254035449) I wrote about personality styles and understanding how a person prefers to be treated and tempering ones style of communication to meet another’s needs can make one not only a more effective safety professional, but a very effective professional of whatever career one chooses to pursue. I posted, as is my habit, a link to the article to the many LinkedIn groups to which I belong. The response was generally positive, but not universally so.  One reader posted”

“well i’m not quite sure to agree with what you are saying. i know first hand that most employers, supervisors, or just about most anyone does not like or like working with someone who speaks their mind. and i guess i fall under that category. i say what is on my mind and i don’t try and find precise words so feeling are not hurt or just misunderstood. it tends to piss people off, oh well that’s me and i’m not changing for anyone. i am very productive in any job/career i do though. ell i’m not quite sure to agree with what you are saying. i know first hand that most employers, supervisors, or just about most anyone does not like or like working with someone who speaks their mind. and i guess i fall under that category. i say what is on my mind and i don’t try and find precise words so feeling are not hurt or just misunderstood. it tends to piss people off, oh well that’s me and i’m not changing for anyone. i am very productive in any job/career i do though.”

I always appreciate it when people post comments, especially when they disagree (provided they can avoid attacking me personally, to which I typically respond in kind) and this was no exception. In this particular case, I was struck by how resolute the poster was in his position of “oh well that’s me and I’m not changing for anyone.”   I responded in part that if what he is doing is working for him then he should keep at it.  Maybe it is working for him, but many others who feel—and act—that way the poster does, find themselves limited.  These people seem to be offered far fewer advancement opportunities, pay raises, opportunities for plumb assignments, and tend to have worse performance appraisals. Often they limit themselves without even knowing it, and many who ignore differences in personality styles find themselves forced to work twice (or more) as hard just to achieve the same (or less) rewards as those who temper their styles to better relate to others who feel differently.  It’s easy for those who find themselves blaming the successful, branding them as suck-ups or favorites or some other pejorative euphemism for someone whose sole reason for success is undeserved and unfair.

The whole exchange reminded me of an adage Human Resources professionals have known for years “we hire people for their technical skills and we fire them for their (lack of) interpersonal skills.” I think this is particularly true in the field of worker safety, and this is a real problem.  Of course we need competent and skilled safety professionals this should go without saying.  Safety professionals must be skilled in a lot of technical areas and my intent is not to diminish this in any way. But there is a real need for safety professionals to be interpersonally adept—unless they can do their jobs in a way that encourages people to respect, and yes, even like them, they won’t be effective for long.

The Good The Bad and The Ugly

There are four types of safety professionals: safety professionals who are technically good and interpersonally good, those that are technically inept AND interpersonally inept, those that are technically skilled but interpersonally clumsy, and those that are technically incompetent but are politically adroit. I make no claim to what percentage of safety professionals fall in which category, but it behooves us all to try to increase the population of safety professionals who are both technically and interpersonally masterful.

Technically Gifted Social Toads

If there is any truth to the idiom “we hire for the technical skills and fire for the interpersonal skills” then there is likely a disproportionate number of safety professionals who are well educated and skilled in the requirements of worker safety. These people bulldoze their way through life and tend to alienate not just the rank and file, but also leadership. They find it difficult to get funding, have their initiatives thwarted at every turn and generally do their jobs in a haze of hostility and frustration. They start to see the organization—both front line employees and leadership—as the enemy; as impediments to the work that needs to be done.

Some safety professionals may scoff at the idea that their success is rooted in whether or not people like them, and may even seen popularity and safety as mutually exclusive (I have at least one colleague who, whenever he wants to avoid talking to someone on a plane simply tells the other passenger the he works in safety).  Many safety professionals who were drawn to the profession because of their love of rules and enforcement may find it difficult to understand the importance of having good interpersonal relationships with their constituency.  In the most extreme cases the safety professional is dismissed and replaced by someone more “reasonable”.

The Eighth Waste & Rain Man

I once worked with two different safety professionals who were universally seen as great guys—real sweethearts—but completely incompetent. One, who in an organization that had an aggressive continuous improvement program aimed at eliminating the Seven Wastes—[1] earned the unfortunate nickname, “the Eighth Waste” because of his simple-minded, albeit well-intentioned ideas, around the nature of safety. Rain Man, was a similarly well-liked and uninformed safety professional. Neither of the two were able to do much good, and when the organization began valuing the job a competent safety professional was supposed to do both faced with either rapidly bring up their skills to an acceptable level or be summarily dismissed.

Taking Out The Trash

Obviously, we can’t protect those in our number who are neither interpersonally skilled nor technically adroit, but they are out there. Fortunately, their numbers are rapidly declining.  There was a time that people who weren’t particularly skilled but who hadn’t committed an offense that would justify firing them.  These people were put into safety because —at least in the early days of our profession—safety was seen as a function that was impossible to screw up.  Many of these people were put into the position after washing out of the job that they were hired to do.  Most kept their jobs until they were allowed to retire.  Unfortunately, many of these retirees have decided to hang out a shingle and continue to ply their trade as a consultant.[2] So be fore warned, the drecks of our profession have not gone gently into that good night they have poorly made business cards, a crappy website, and are open for business.


[1] The “seven wastes” is a key component of the Toyota Production System, a continuous improvement system that forms the foundation of practically every world-class management system developed since. The Seven Wastes in TPS are defects/scrap, over-production, waiting, transportation, excess inventory, motion and excess processing.

[2] Before any of you retirees get all bent out of shape, puff up your chests and fire off a nasty missive, most retirees I know are more than competent professionals. In fact, when I was running Rockford Greene International  I relied heavily on skilled retirees to deliver training and provide my clients consulting services.

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

Why Housekeeping and Static Electricity Are No Longer “No Big Deal”


DUST bomb

By Phil La Duke

The safety rumour mill is buzzing about the probability that governments are about to target a hazard that many of us really haven’t given much thought to: dust. I can’t tell you how many times I have been on audits where the merest mention of poor housekeeping send eyes rolling and smirks crackling like lightning strikes across the faces of both leadership and the rank-and-file alike. “You’re going to write up poor housekeeping? Talk about nit-picking.” Given that “slip, trip, and fall” consistently score among the top causes (or contributors) of workplace injuries I happen to think housekeeping is an important and easy way to keep workers safe, but increasingly housekeeping is becoming one of the most important ways to save worker’s lives.

According to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) there have been 281 combustible dust incidents between 1980 and 2005 and these have caused 119 worker deaths, 718 injuries, and extensively damaged numerous industrial facilities—and this is just in the U.S. When dust blows up it blows up big,

Of course, not all dust is combustible, and the number of incidents are still a relatively small issue in workplace safety, but the problem has received enough public attention that it is likely to become an increasing target for enforcement agencies word-wide.

Any thing that can burn can do so quickly especially when it is in fine particles and airborne. A lot has to go wrong for a major catastrophe: the dust has to be suspended in air, it has to be in the right concentration, it needs an ignition source, and there are often other conditions that must be present depending on the material. But even things that don’t typically burn (like metals) will do so if they are in the form of a fine dust.

It’s tough for laymen to wrap their minds around why something like metal dust or sugar would explode.  It doesn’t seem to make much sense after all, our Pop Tarts don’t explode when we put them in the toaster.  Understanding explosives might help.  There are two basic kinds of explosives: high explosives and low explosives. Both high explosives and low explosives have the same ability to create powerful destructive blasts.  Low explosives don’t detonate, however, in a sense they just burn so fast that they appear to detonate, but they don’t they are just burning all at once (explosives experts call this process deflagration.  Of course, the burn does happen fast enough to create great pressure (not as great as high explosives, but great enough to really mess up your day), heat, and light and this pressure causes the blast, so unless you are planning to blow something up (and don’t, by the way, there are enough whackos blowing things up in the world) the difference is fairly academic.  The point is when something flammable burns quick enough you get an explosion and at that point do you really care if it was caused by a high explosive or a low explosive?

The force from such an explosion is often substantial and often causes employee deaths, injuries, and destruction of entire facilities. Combustible dust is a problem in a lot of diverse industries from to food to pharmaceuticals manufacturing, to metal to mining or oil and gas. Not long ago an explosion of titanium in West Virginia left three workers dead, and of course for many of us the 2008 Georgia sugar explosion that killed 14 workers still looms large in our memories.

Even though the dangers of combustible dust are palpable and volatile, in the dust itself doesn’t pose a great deal of risk, like most hazards, combustible dust needs other hazards to create a disaster, and facilities need to do more than just focus on the dust itself (although, of course, they can’t ignore the dust).  Dust (or vapors for that matter, but this post isn’t about the dangers of explosive vapors) can’t explode without an ignition source.  This is where things can get a bit sticky—a lot of workers resist restrictions on items that might provide the necessary ignition source.

Anatomy of a Combustible Dust Explosion

All fires need three things: an ignition source, fuel, and oxygen, but a combustible dust explosion requires several additional elements, namely, sufficient concentration of the dust particles and confinement of the dust cloud. Despite the clear definition of the elements required for a dust explosion, many organizations do an inadequate (or downright poor) job of recognizing the hazard of combustible dust and an even worse job of mitigating the risks.

Controlling the Fuel

Eliminating the accumulation and concentration of combustible dust in the air is the single greatest protection against a combustible dust explosion, but even here companies often put themselves at heightened risk simply through the use of equipment that is poorly suited for the task.  An air filtration system that is poorly maintained, for example, can actually take dust that has settled (and thus far less a danger) and circulate it through the air.  Additionally, some vacuums used by organizations to remove the dust can provide an ignition source and actually exacerbate the dangers.

Obviously, the biggest source of fuel associated with a combustible dust explosion is the dust itself, but those identifying the risks associated with combustible dust explosions need to be mindful of other considerations like:

  • The presence of accelerants.  Many chemicals present in the facility may speed the spread of the fire and increase the damage to facilities, and more importantly increase the severity of injuries to workers. The careful placement and storage of these chemicals is an important factor in mitigating the risk associated with a combustible dust explosion and fire.
  • Release of toxic fumes. Often the resultant fire caused by the initial explosion cause materials to burn or melt and release harmful and even life threatening fumes. Companies should do their utmost to identify these materials and store them appropriately.
  • Emergency response and evacuation.  Explosions of the magnitude typically caused by combustible dust leave scarce little time for evacuation and emergency response.  It is imperative that emergency response and fire-fighting equipment be kept in good working condition and that all workers are trained in emergency response, evacuation, and the use of firefighting equipment where appropriate.

Controlling Ignition Sources

In some workplaces just getting workers to understand that smoking represents more than just a threat to their health is a challenge, and incredibly these workers are often so complacent about the dangers of having a lit cigarette in close proximity to flammables that it can be very difficult to get them to respect the danger of fire or explosion.  I remember auditing a manufacturing facility and finding a worker smoking a cigarette while working with acetone (beneath a prominent “no smoking” sign).  When I approached with the site safety manager the worker quickly flung the cigarette from his hand, narrowly missing a barrel of acetone soaked rags.

Even where workers understand the risks of smoking the risk from other ignition sources can be a difficult sell (and when workers discount the risk, the likelihood that they will comply with the controls put into place drop considerably.)  Some of the less obvious ignition sources are:

  • Static electricity. When most people think of static electricity they think of dragging their feet across carpet and giving some unsuspecting victim a mild electrical shock.  A spark less than the size of the one generated by this childish prank is enough to cause a massive explosion, provided that the other conditions are present.  And one need not scoot across the carpet to generate a static electric spark: a plastic bucket, PVC piping or even a cellphone can generate enough of a spark to ignite a dust cloud.
  • Heat. Hot work permitting is common practice in most industries, but depending on the criteria used to require a hot work permit, an organization may not be adequately protecting itself from a combustible dust explosion.  Ambient heat in some locations can be enough to ignite a combustible dust cloud in some rare conditions (but let’s face it, it’s the rare circumstances that kill us).  Cellphones and other electronic devices—particularly those that have been damaged or that have faulty batteries—are capable (if unlikely) of providing sufficient heat to be an ignition source.
  • Strikers.  Many organizations that prohibit the use of lighters on the premises will turn a blind eye to welders who have a striker hanging from their belts.  A spark is a spark when it comes to igniting a dust cloud and allowing workers to have a device whose sole purpose is to produce a spark dangling from their belts is a recipe for disaster.
  • Running Automobiles.  The combustion engine is a good source of ignition, and workers are sometimes reluctant to shut off a vehicle if they are only going to be out of it for a moment (like while opening or closing a gate, or other quick task).  Too often the cause of explosions of dust or vapors is a spark from an idling vehicle.

OSHA Standard NFPA 654, Standard for the Prevention of Fire and Dust Explosions from the Manufacturing, Processing, and Handling of Combustible Particulate Solids, provides some excellent advice on how organizations can control ignition sources to prevent explosions.

“The following are some of its recommendations[1]:

  • Use appropriate electrical equipment and wiring methods;
  • Control static electricity, including bonding of equipment to ground;
  • Control smoking, open flames, and sparks;
  • Control mechanical sparks and friction;
  • Use separator devices to remove foreign materials capable of igniting combustibles from process materials;
  • Separate heated surfaces from dusts;
  • Separate heating systems from dusts;
  • Proper use and type of industrial trucks;
  • Proper use of cartridge activated tools; and
  • Adequately maintain all the above equipment.”

The dangers of combustible dust aren’t new, or newly discovered, but if the rumours are true controlling and preventing these types of incidents will be given heightened priority among government regulators worldwide.  But apart from running afoul of regulators, isn’t it wise to be mindful of the dangers and to recognize that one need not work in a flour mill or sugar refinery to face the very real dangers of a combustible dust explosion?

Filed under: Combustible dust, Hazard Management, Loss Prevention, Phil La Duke, , , , ,

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