Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

In Harm’s Way: How Safety Professionals Brought Down the Safety Profession


Image courtesy of TheGuardian.com

“My pledge to you this year is to kill off for good the excessive culture of safety and health that is dragging down business like a heavy wooden yoke.”— David Cameron, United Kingdom Prime Minister.

In a recent article in ISHN magazine editor, Dave Johnson does an excellent job of covering comments that David Cameron, UK Prime Minister recently made about the onus that safety puts on businesses and of his party’s intention to “crush” the culture of safety. http://www.ishn.com/blogs/16-random-sampling/post/politicians-just-dont-get-safety At this point most of you are expecting me to launch into another one of my pithy rants about how safety is being attached on all fronts and people of good faith should rise up in righteous indignation. You will be disappointed. I have been writing and blogging about safety for over 5 years, speaking on the subject for close to ten, and working in the field consulting and providing safety training for nearly thirty years. I have plenty to say on this subject and most of you aren’t going to like it.

Most recently I have pumped out some pretty aggressive messages that puts the blame for the decline in respect for the safety profession squarely on the shoulders of the safety professionals. I have been fairly clear in my message: Safety professionals have to reposition themselves as key resources for making the workplace more efficient, more cost effective, and more productive. Instead we continue to propagate the image of the safety professional as a bleeding heart social worker that wants to coddle workers and impeded progress. I have said, in no uncertain terms, that if Safety is going to regain a position of respect it will have to stop doing such stupid things.

“safety cultures (are) a too often farcical, marginal monster that must be crushed and killed.”— David Cameron, United Kingdom Prime Minister

When “Protect Your Dignity” was published in ISHN a couple of months back, I got a visceral response from a bunch of old-school safety half-wits who squawked and bawled because I asked what kind of sociopath introduces the possibility of a parent dying at work to eight-year olds in the guise of a children’s safety poster contest.

When I wrote an article that criticized the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) for sponsoring an expensive boondoggle to Brazil in the worst economy in a lifetime, no fewer than three safety publications refused to run it. And when I publicly criticized the organization for their actions—well…let’s just say if you are wondering why I am no longer speaking at their conference you have your answer.

When I made blog posts decrying Behaviour Based Safety as amateurishly shilled snake oil, one greasy, bloated, pig-eyed brute rallied the fanatics and the zealots who sent me a steady stream of venom, and made clear their intention to protect and preserve the Behavior Based Safety Bureaucracies at all costs. I’ve been called every thing but a child of God, simply for calling into question the status quo.

Well guess what? It turns out WE ARE under attack, and not by some third world despot or human trafficker but by the leaders of the free world.

‘Cameron, meanwhile, says, “I am hereby declaring war… on the safety and health monster.’ .”— David Cameron, United Kingdom Prime Minister. ”(ISHN)

As Dave Johnson points out, politicians don’t get safety, but politicians do “get” what messages people want to hear, as people the average politician is a thick-witted brute without basic skills to pour piss out of a boot when the instructions are written on the bottom. Except on extremely rarified occasions, politicians aren’t all that extraordinary, there are no heroes here and few villains either. The politicos are, like every other organism designed to survive and politicians can only do this by sensing public sentiment and regurgitating it back to voters.

The story here isn’t that David Cameron, the leader of one of the most industrialized and powerful countries in the world thinks its okay to kill workers, rather the story is that David Cameron thinks that voters will be sympathetic to those sentiments. What matters here is not that a single politician believes workers should be seen as expendables, and chattel to be used up and thrown away.

“Safety culture is nothing more than a straitjacket on personal initiative and responsibility. We must crush these cultures before any more damage is done.”— David Cameron, United Kingdom Prime Minister.

This Is a War That We Are Losing.

Public sentiment is turning against worker safety. Politicians equate safe workplaces with job loss and hyper-sensitivity for paper cuts and bruises. Less and less people are taking us seriously and human life hangs in the balance. “safety cultures (are) a too often farcical, marginal monster that must be crushed and killed.”— David Cameron, United Kingdom Prime Minister Is safety farcical, marginal monster (“farcical” means “absurd” or “ridiculous” for those of you who have been directed to this page by one of my many detractors who are reading this for the sole purpose of getting pissed off)? Well when you hear things like the case a friend of mine shared with me it makes it pretty tough to see safety as anything but the rightful object of ridicule. In this case, my friend’s safety manager slipped and fell but did not report the incident and instead sought treatment from her personal doctor so that she would not “ruin” the safety BINGO. When the writers of The Simpsons wanted give the hapless, drunken, and perpetual screw up main character Homer a job, they ultimately chose head of safety as the most ludicrous job (Homer has had jobs ranging from body guard to astronaut, but he always comes back to safety). And when you see some of the safety bureaucracies that try to manipulate people’s behaviours like so many lab rats the “monster” appellation seems pretty spot-on.

Where is This Coming From?

Lord knows I’m full of answers, but this one has got me stumped. Where is the big, unifying event that convinced the public that we have taken worker safety too far? As far as I can recall there has been no major fines lobbed at corporations for infractions that a reasonable person would see as frivolous. There have been no high profile cases of companies forced out of business because protecting the workers became to onerous. Why then, has the public turned on us? Fighting Back What can we do to turn this around? Because let’s face it, we have got to stop fiddling as Rome burns, and we aren’t going to win this fight without first winning the hearts and minds of greater society. • Advertise the cost of Injuries. In the world of corporate Learning we like to say, that “if you think Learning is expensive, try stupidity”. We have to make the average person understand how much productivity and efficiency is lost when a worker is injured, even when that injury was minor. And when we talk to people about worker safety we have got to stop filling the air with jargon that we think makes us sound smarter but in actuality makes us sound like pretentious dung heaps. • Seek Out and Eliminate Safety Gimmicks. End safety BINGO, scrap the gift card programs for doing something a reasonable person would do without being asked. If it’s cute give it the boot. Incentive programs MUST return a quantifiable return on investment and must DIRECTLY link to safety improvements. • Proactively Seek Out Ways to Lower Costs. Find ways to lower the operating cost of the safety function BEFORE Operations suggests it. If you are able to demonstrate a willingness to share in the responsibility for process improvement and waste reductions Operations leadership will begin to see you as a partner instead of a policeman. • Talk Dollars, Make Sense. Express the costs and savings in ways that make sense to Operations; if products sold is a hot button talk about the increase in sales that the company will have to make to pay for the injuries incurred. Or better yet, talk about how much more efficient the Operation is because of a decrease in injuries. We have to run the safety function like a business and we have to speak the same business language as Operations. • Lay Off the Platitudes. “Safety is everyone’s job” —oh yeah? Then why do we need you? “Safety is our number one priority”—no, making money and staying in business is our number one priority, and if you don’t believe that go somewhere else to work, safety supports this, but let’s not be stupid. “Safety Is the Right Thing To Do”—So is making money, so is being globally competitive, so is producing high quality, so is…there are a lot of “right things to do”. • Vote. Get out and make your voice known. Talk to your neighbors about this dangerous trend and how it should affect the way they vote. Refute the misconceptions about worker safety. Tell war stories, but most of all vote and make sure the candidates know that their positions on worker safety matter to you. A Parting Shot I have worked with companies that spend more money keeping worker’s safe from cuts and bruises than they will ever recoup in savings and I am often asked when I consult with new clients if I am going to turn their company into one of those paranoid companies that have 7 safety people watching a guy loading a truck. I always respond to those concerns the same way. The safest companies on Earth are those whose doors are shuddered because they went out of business. The job of safety is to keep companies in business by eliminating waste and boosting productivity.

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

Standing Up for Safety


Four Burros in the Back of a Pick Up Truck

According to researcher, Benjamin Skinner in an interview with, Terrence McNally host of Free Forum on KPFK 90.7FM, Los Angeles and WBA I99.5FM, New York there are more slaves today then every before in human history.  Skinner spent four years undercover in the world of illegal slavery researching his book: A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face with Modern-Day Slavery.

Modern day slavery is more than a social ill, it’s an epidemic that should scare safety professionals. Experts estimate that before the global recession that there were 27 million people. Author, Kevin Bales’s, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy defines slaves as “those forced to work, held through fraud, under threat of violence, for no pay beyond subsistence.”

It may seem like a leap to equate issues in safety with human trafficking, but I am not being melodramatic.  Workers in highly industrialized countries have long felt the pressure from employers who threaten to move jobs overseas if the workers do not comply with demands for cheaper labor.  Little by little corporations have chipped away at worker safety by creating a climate of fear.

In some cases companies are more overt, they shut down operations in the U.S., Europe, or Australia and move production to countries that either turn a blind eye toward safety and environmental violations or lack even the most basic worker and environmental protections.  In other cases, companies move jobs to overseas suppliers who have criminal safety records.

The post recession world is even uglier.  Politicians increasingly describe safety regulations as “job killing” or some other euphemism for a threat to job security.  Workers are increasingly told that they can either have a job or they can work safely, but they can’t have both. How different is that from slavery? Quite a bit, actually,  I won’t cheapen the atrocity that is slavery by equating it to corporate bullies who continue to chip away at worker and environmental protection by telling us to toughen up. But I will say that it is on the same continuum and part of the overall trend toward diminishing the importance of workplace safety.

Even in the most mature industrial countries the law encourages us to shift blame to the workers or other companies. Government regulations encourage us I have worked with several companies who have had worker fatalities that “didn’t count” because the workers were contractors and therefore, “not our recordable”.  When did human life get so cheap that we as safety professionals started to see the loss of life as somehow less horrific because the worker—a person who we saw day in and day out, swapped stories over coffee, and save for some legal designation, was our coworker in all the ways that count—wasn’t on our payroll?

It’s easy to blame governments, after all they are the ones who made the laws and fail to enforce them, but realistically, how can governments regulate a moving target?  Furthermore governments lack the resources to be fully effective; they simply can’t be everywhere so they tend to respond only complaints and complaints aren’t coming from the worst offenders. Off course, governments have allowed assaults on worker safety to effectively go unanswered. In the rush to compete one municipality sells out the community and workers just to lure business in only to have it leave for a better deal.

It’s even easier to blame corporations; the nameless, faceless evil empires that we all love to hate.  Mitt Romney drew criticisms for his political faux pas of saying that corporations are people too.  A dumb thing to say, granted, but was he that far off? I own shares of a mutual fund that own stock in corporations. I don’t even no what stocks I indirectly own let alone their safety or human rights records, and forget the supply chain they could be butchering people and I would never know. I’m not proud of it, but for all I know I could own stock in a company that uses slave labor. Corporations will argue, rightfully, that they have a responsibility to there shareholders to make as much money as they are able.  Many will argue that they don’t or can’t know the particulars of each of their suppliers in a multi-tiered supply chain.

Safety professionals bear no small amount of accountability for the problem.  The “my hands are tied because…” spiel is getting old. We prorogate ineffectual, complex, and cutesy safety fads, and whine when we aren’t taken seriously.

If you think this is a third world problem, think again. Witness the North Carolina pork processing plant that preyed on immigrants (complaints about working conditions were met with threats of visits from the department of Immigration Naturalization Services (INS).  The plant didn’t get more than regional attention even after it illegally confined a worker in an in-plant jail cell (the company alleged that the woman was suspected of stealing pork). The company was fined. An attempt to organize the plant failed, and things presumably went back to the way they had been.  Slavery? no, but how far from it? And this is not happening in some third-world back alley it’s happening here; we own this.

As long as we continue to allow companies to shop for areas of the world that will allow them to use up workers and throw them away afterwards this issue will not go away; in fact it will grow and eventually it will grow so big that companies won’t need safety professionals. I’ve sounded the alarm before.  Safety professionals need to be on the forefront of this issue—slaves or human chattel—do we really need another Triangle Shirtwaist Fire to pull us back into the game?

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

When Safety Dies, It Won’t Be An Accident


Last Friday ISHN released its list of the Power 101, people who “moves and shakes the safety world”. I’m honored to be among so notable a collection of professionals, but I won’t spend time writing about people writing about me writing. Not that I am above shameless self-promotion, or that I am in any way hesitant to pander to the media. It’s an ego feed to be on the list and I am all about ego. But what struck me about the list is the subtext. Buried in the footnotes are some real gems and I thought I would devote some digital ink to exploring things a bit further, because while the list reads like a who’s who of safety (you had to know I would describe myself as such) what is most significant is who’s NOT on the list. “You’ll notice missing from this list is OSHA chief Dr. David Michaels and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. This is because Washington at this bitterly partisan point and time can accomplish nothing… For the same reason, no U.S. Senator or Congressman is on the list. If not for some associations and consultancies based in DC, plus Dr. John Howard and a few bloggers, Washington would be wiped off this list. It is a power and decision-making black hole.” To be fair there are some very influential OSHA professionals on the list, but the point ISHN makes is an important one and one that isn’t isolated to the U.S. When it comes to worker safety the government is fiddling while Rome burns. In the U.K, politicians decry safety as costing jobs and making it impossible to do business. In the U.S. any attempt to reign in business, business who by act or omission are recklessly putting workers at risk, is categorized as killing jobs. In Mexico enforcement is so lax that even if a company kills a worker they aren’t likely to be fined, never mind jailed. And in China …well to be fair I don’t have a duke of an idea where the Chinese government stands on worker safety but I’ll wager a guess that they have a Doritoesque approach that allows business to crunch all you want, there’s plenty more where they came from. Worker protections under the law have simultaneously elevated and recessed. On one hand safety regulations have increased globally but on the other, incidences of non-compliance in the name of jobs have become far more common. I am expecting the day will soon come where industry will describe workplace fatalities as job openings. Instead of being thrown into a black hole with the pederasts, thieves, and killers they will be hailed as job creators. To a large extent years of BBS BS have reinforced the mindset that workers who get hurt deserve it.  Some misguided social Darwinism that holds that the one thing all injured workers share is their need to be more careful. It’s shameful quackery that has harmed us all collectively

Truth be told I don’t think that more government meddling is the answer. OSHA is so out of touch with modern business practices that it won’t allow most safety training to be delivered via the web, without a proctor, perpetuating the checklist mentality (Note: I just mistyped “checklist” as “checklost” which I have to say is probably a better description of OSHA—and its European, Asian, British, and Aussie equivalents—approach to worker safety training.) We have to end the reliance on compliance but in this environment rolling back government regulations and more importantly enforcement will give business a literal license to kill, and kill they will. At what point do we say enough’s enough? At what point do we rightfully say that business can no longer treat workers as an expendable and inexhaustible commodity? The day is coming, and coming soon, where some horrific workplace catastrophe will so shock the world community that the outcry will be universal and profound; an incident where people will no longer be able to categorize safety as an overprotective nuisance pushed by the soft to shield the careless and the lazy. It’s a shame that we need such a consequence to jar us into action, but I fear we do.

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

The Most Important Laws Governing Safety Don’t Come from Government Regs


We all know Murphy’s Law— anything that can go wrong will go wrong[1] but far fewer know Pascals Gambit, Occams Razor, or Parkinson’s Law.  And this week I thought I would explore how these laws govern safety and how we can use these laws to change the way we think about Safety.

Murphy’s Laws and Its Bastards

Murphy’s first law Laws is probably the most quoted of all the law’s that are supposed to govern business (if not life itself.)  Murphy’s Law is interesting not only in its simplicity but because it is the bastard child of another, older law: Sod’s Law.

Sod’s Law

“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”

The widely known law proffered by a little known author and attributed to another better-known one holds that anything that can go wrong will go wrong.  An admittedly bleak perspective and one that is easy enough to invalidate (after all Sod had the huevos to speak in absolutes where many, myself included, use weasel words like “many” or “likely”—using these words I need only produce one example to make my statement true whereas I need only produce a single exception to ?’s law to discredit it, but then I digress.) In terms of safety we would be wise to incorporate ?’s law into our mindset.  Shit happens.  And sometimes the shit that happens comes back to bite us in lethal or fatal way.  I used to get derided by safety professionals when ever I would say this.  A roar would go up not heard since Jesus before the Sanhedrin.  “Heresy!! Blasphemer!! Or worse yet the dripping condescension of a smirking jerk in the audience at a conference. I guess I was in good company.  But the fact remains that while there is always a chance that we can get blindsided by some unanticipated factor, most (yes I said, “most”) injuries happen from multiple variables working in concert with a catalyst.  So we can reduce the probability that the things that can go wrong won’t go wrong, but it’s a whole lot of work, and let’s face it, we have our fair share of lazy working in our field.

Murphy’s Law

If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong

At first blush, Murphy’s first law seems indistinguishable from Sod’s Law, but the importance while subtle is important for safety professionals.  Murphy’s Law is a little less fatalistic than Sod’s Law, Murphy allows that there may be some possibility than things won’t go wrong, at least not immediately.  This may be a semantic difference but it’s my blog and I’ll pick nits if I want to.  In either case, both Sod and Murphy agree that we need to spend our efforts and energies determining what can go wrong and how we can reduce the probability that it won’t.  This thinking is at the heart of all safety processes and while it sounds rational, it ignores both Murphy’s and Sod’s Laws—that if there is a possibility that something can go wrong we need to expect that it will.  So trying to prevent something from going wrong is impossible since the probability of catastrophe is never reduced to zero percent.

Finagle’s Law of Dynamic Negatives

Anything that can go wrong, will—at the worst possible moment

Another interesting law at play in the workplace is Finagle’s Law of Dynamic Negatives which states that Anything that can go wrong will—at the worst possible moment. This expectation should help safety professionals to understand the danger of collaborative hazards—that is, those conditions, whether behavioral, mechanical, or environmental that act in concert with one another to either create a catalyst for disaster or causing the hazard outright.  This mindset should forewarn the safety professional against seeing a hazard condition in a vacuum or without context, which sadly many behavior based safety programs actively encourage.

Parkinson’s Law

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

Perhaps the most destructive force operating in the workplace, and safety, is Parkinson’s Law.  Parkinson’s Law holds that any task will expand to the time allotted to perform it.  Wasting time eats at productivity like a cancer, and yet Safety professionals gleefully choke the organization’s calendar with some sort of safety dog and pony show.  One and half hour weekly safety meetings, safety BINGOs, safety talks, Job Hazard Analyses, and…well the list goes on and on. Safety professionals need to be mindful of Parkinson’s Law and reduce both the number of tasks and the length allotted to that time.  Time is money and every task performed in the name of safety had better see a threefold return on the time it consumes.

Occam’s Razor

“We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.”

Occam’s Razor has been bastardized and reconstituted to the point where many people believe it to be “the simplest explanation is usually correct”. Safety professionals need to heed the advice as originally written and shun the adulterated version.  Basically safety professionals need to draw no conclusions and stay focused on researching the root cause of injuries and suspend any preconceived notions about the situations;.


[1] Actually this is NOT Murphy’s Law (Murphy had numerous laws and “ everything that can go wrong will go wrong” is in fact a direct quote of the older and lesser known Sod’s Law but most people wrongly attribute it to Murphy so this gives me the opportunity to pander to the great unwashed while still being a pedantic know-it-all jerk.

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

Who Needs A Safety Guy?


Last Week I Covered the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) and as is always the case I ran into more than a couple of earnest looking safety professionals who, with a straight face, claimed that they were trying hard to work themselves out of a job.  It’s a lovely sentiment but it’s also hogwash.  Safety professionals love to propagate this steaming pile of propaganda; it’s the kind of gooey, sappy sentimentalism that we use to promote our sacred mission of saving lives. No offense to those among us who legitimately feel that our jobs our more a calling than a career, but I think for many of us, it’s just something we say.  It doesn’t require a lot of thought and it doesn’t carry a lot of weight.

I’ve been giving this statement a lot of thought in the last week or so and it occurs to me that maybe safety shouldn’t be its own discipline.  Maybe instead of merely giving “working ourselves out of a job” lip service we should take steps to make things happen.  Can we as safety professionals be brave enough to envision a world without us? What would happen if we eliminated the position of safety professional? If that idea scares you, you’re not alone.

The initial response I get when I ask a safety professional to picture a world without safety professionals is shock: how could I even suggest such a thing.  But given that so many safety professionals collect paychecks without really changing things year after year I fail to see how industry would suffer any great tragedy if the profession ceased to exist.

The next response is to argue that if there were no safety professionals that Operations leaders would run amuck, violating rules and breaking laws.  My response to this argument is based on the belief that safety professionals are supposed to be the safety cops and without them people would be victimized.  If this is the case, the safety professionals have failed to make a compelling argument for safety as efficiency and have failed miserably.  Industry is well rid of these professionals.

Some argue that safety professionals are integral to ensuring governmental compliance and maintaining records.  To these professionals I say that they can be replaced by an administrative assistant of average ability.

But what if the safety, quality, lean and continuous improvement functions were combined, would that be so bad? One of the first things taught in Lean principles training is the first rule of process change is to make the process safer. And certainly since injuries cost money, any serious effort  to make the workplace safer would constitute a continuous improvement project,  Finally, the goals of Quality are parallel and overlaid  with each other—both look for the root causes of a process inefficiency that results in waste.

If we were truly interested in working ourselves out of a job we would be looking for ways to consolidate our departments with other departments and to leverage the work of others in the organization to save money and make the workplace not only a safer place to work, but a more efficient and profitable organization.

If you enjoyed this blog, check out the Rockford Greene International blog http://www.rockfordgreeneinternational.wordpress.com

 

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

What Will The Rising Tide Against Organized Labor Mean For Workplace Safety?


Organized labor world-wide is losing the battle for public opinion.  Governors in Ohio, New Jersey, and Wisconsin have openly stated their intentions to change the law to weaken the rights of workers toward collective bargaining. Many safety professionals take great pleasure in the seeming waning influence of organized labor; those that do are wrong.

Organized labor stood at the forefront for the fight for worker safety.  At the risk of sounding melodramatic, many protections for workplace safety were forged in the blood and misery of early organizing efforts.  But what does one have to do with the other? It’s not like organized labor is the reason  that workplace safety regulations exist, or is it?

As recently as six months ago a national politician in the UK openly asked publicly if the laws in his country that held managers and business owners liable for workplace injuries weren’t too over reaching, and many governments are reconsidering safety laws and wondering if these laws don’t, in fact, make it too hard to do business.

Somewhere in this mix seems to be the idea that because it is so expensive to injure workers that government’s had, in these tough times, roll back some of these protections in favor of lower fines, and less severe penalties for work place safety violations.

I want to be clear, my intent is neither to support nor oppose organized labor, rather, I hope to raise awareness among safety professionals that these attacks on workers’ rights to organize and collectively bargain, if successful, will have a profound detriment on worker safety world-wide.

I completely understand the argument that worker injuries are expensive, inefficient, and undesirable, but easing these restrictions and lessening the penalties for non-compliance is not the answer.  In light of the mining disasters, oil and gas deaths (and unprecedented environmental fallout) and even the response to the Japanese nuclear plant one would think that worker safety would become more of a priority not less so.  But in a climate where soaring unemployment and sluggish recover have people looking at their neighbors and asking if they don’t perhaps make too much money, it’s easy to equate workplace safety with job losses and generate public support for safety rollbacks.

Safety professionals and unions have long had a love-hate relationship.  Many safety professionals resent what they categorize as unwarranted defense of unsafe behaviors by organized labor while many safety representatives dismiss their management counterparts as puppets  for the company.  In many cases, neither side can get past their differences and the safety committee meetings degrade into gripe sessions.

And we need to face facts, in many workplaces the cost of sustaining safety incentive programs, safety observations, and dozens of safety meetings a month have made the cost of prevention disproportionate with the risk of worker injuries.  And yet, if businesses suggest abandoning safety bonuses or exploring low cost alternatives to existing safety programs they are accused of not caring about worker safety or (shudder) caring more about profits than they do about human life.

The reality is this problem is big, and promises to get bigger.  The 1990s and millennial decade saw unprecedented growth in safety prevention as a business.  As businesses realized they had to reduce the cost of injuries a cottage industry of safety providers sprang up seemingly overnight.  In flush times, safety professionals were able to implement safety prevention programs that added heads, and made more and more demands on the resources of the organization.

The danger goes deeper than companies feeling the financial pinch and unions fighting on other fronts.  Cut backs in the enforcement arms of regulatory agencies make it less likely that companies that openly defy the law are far less likely to be found out and almost certain to avoid any meaningful punishment.

So what’s the answer?

For starters, safety professionals, both union and management, need to look for ways to do less with more.  Incentive programs that offer cash and prizes for workers not getting hurt (or more likely reporting injuries) need to be scrapped.  As one manufacturing vice president once said to me, “I refuse to pay extra for something everyone should do intuitively” and as one union bargaining chair put it, “they think we’re stupid and careless.  For them to pay a bonus for not injuring workers is insulting to us.”  But discontinuing a financial incentive when so many people are struggling  for every nickle is likely to be met with fierce resistance.

Next, take down the safety posters.  A cutsie safety poster has never saved a life, and while children’s poster-contests may be popular and tug at the heart strings, it’s not likely that someone who disregards safety rules will suddenly be shocked into responsibility because of a crayon drawing.

And finally, we need to recognize the costs associated with watching workers complete tasks and telling them to work more safely.  Programs that require supervisors to spend significant time observing workers are inefficient.

That’s not to say that we should concede the fight and give up trying to protect workers, but we need to be pragmatic and sensible.  Safety professionals of all stripes need to take a hard look at the efficacy, cost, and value of the way they are doing business and look for ways that not only protect workers, but lower operating costs (like reducing downtime, employee turnover, or defects) and increase overall workplace efficiency.

There are a lot of people counting on us.  Yes, hurting workers is expensive, so we need to stop doing it.  But the answer can never be discount the penalties for skirting the laws or openly flouting worker protections.  If safety professionals don’t step up to this fight, who will?

Filed under: Loss Prevention, Regulations, Safety, Safety Culture, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Are Government Regulations Getting In The Way of Safety?


As experts chide safety professionals to be more proactive and to think of safety in terms of the potential to harm instead of the incidence of harm, governments around the globe still measure safety using reactive, lagging indicators.

Is this bad? Isn’t governmental oversight of the workplace a good thing? Do we really want to consider rolling back government regulations and risk horrible tragedies? Well…yes, yes, and no.

Despite over a century of laws and enforcement aimed at protecting workers and a wealth of improvements in worker safety, there are still high profile safety, environmental, and public health disasters that renew the cry for greater action from the government.  It’s unfair to suggest that government regulations aren’t effective.  But using an ever increasing threat of fines or even criminal prosecution isn’t the answer to making the workplace safer.  Sure some business owners and managers will begrudgingly make the bear minimum investment to meet governmental requirements but do we really want business to make the workplace safer out of fear?

When a business only improves the safety of the worker because it fears fines because of a governmental inspection it believes its compliance justifies it’s inaction beyond the bare minimum.  Smart Operations managers will improve safety not because it’s the “right thing to do”—there are a host of things in business that are the right things to do—but because it’s the smart thing to do.  As long as the government keeps its standards based on lagging indicators (incident rates, first aid cases, days away or restricted, etc.) it perpetuates the idea that any work place that hasn’t killed anyone lately can be pronouced “safe”.

We need to be practical.  Nobody ever died because a fire extinguisher wasn’t hanging at the proper distance from the floor, and simply having Material Safety Data  Sheets locked in a drawer may meet safety regulations, but it hasn’t  saved any lives either.

In defense of government regulators, we have to start somewhere.  In many parts of the world, industry has shown that it cannot be trusted to safeguard its workers or its communities.  So safety regulations are necessary.  And safety regulations aren’t broken, the philosophy behind them is.  Safety regulations start with the idea that safety is quantifiable, that is, it believes that one can pronounce a workplace either “safe” or “unsafe”. While it would be nice if this were true, the fact is that no workplace can be pronounced completely safe.  And perpetuating an audit system that pretends that it’s possible to certify a workplace as devoid of risk is wrong-headed.

Certainly, audits are important and valuable, but they are problematic as well.  Auditors inspect a facility and ostensibly find and record all violations.  After the audit, the organization resumes business as usual under the reasonable assumption that everything else it is doing is not only safe, but endorsed as safe by the government.  The organization believes that it doesn’t need to lift a finger to do anything to further protect workers, after all, it has just received the government’s seal of approval.  Unfortunately, safety doesn’t work that way.  Why?

Auditors Miss Things

Even the best, most diligent auditor will occasionally miss some violations.  Some of these violations are big, some are small; some are harmless nuisances and some are lethal.  But because the facility passed the audit, it believes that it has done all it has to guarantee worker safety.  Internal safety officers and labor reps can talk until they are blue in the face but their arguments will likely fall on deaf ears because the government has already told them that they are doing all that is required.

Regulations Target The Wrong Things

Most governments require fire extinguishers be on hand, annually inspected, hung at a proper height, identified through signage, etc., but far fewer require that anyone be trained in when and how to appropriately use the fire extinguisher.  Using the wrong fire extinguisher can make the situation far worse, but we still do a half-baked job of regulating them.

Safety Is Relative

Safety is not a binary condition.  Life is not as simple as a facility being “safe” or “unsafe”.  Regulations should be updated to reflect that safety is relative. A facility can be seen as safer than another facility that is similar to it.  Or a facility can judged as safer than it was when it’s baseline was established. Or a host of other comparisons that would be meaningful and would encourage businesses to do more  than the bare minimum.

Some regulators have tried to do this kind of comparative analysis.  In Ontario, Canada, the provincial government provides businesses with a Workplace Wellness Score.  Companies with high injuries and low workplace wellness scores face higher taxes than similar companies with lower injury rates and better scores.  Even so, Ontario’s system needs significant redesign to be most effective.  For example, injury rates and employee complaints are given far too much weight to make the program effective. Workers can shut down production by asserting that the work is unsafe to be performed.  Work stops until a Minister of Labour representative can investigate and pronounce the work safe. While in many cases this regulation is used in good faith there is widespread abuse of this law has turned safety into a negotiating tactic.  People are playing dangerous games with the law.

Audits Are Static Workplaces are Dynamic

Recently I was asked to begin reviewing the covers of a safety magazine.  The job seemed simple enough: I was to look at a proposed magazine cover and determine whether there was anything unsafe portrayed (no publisher of a safety magazine wants a cover that shows an unsafe condition on the cover).  Before agreeing to take the job, I made a point of making the disclaimer that a) nothing can ever be pronounced completely safe, and b) I was looking at a static photo without context so I couldn’t really say that the workers in the photo were working safely, but conversely no one looking at the same photo could say definitively that the worker was behaving unsafely.

The exercise got me thinking,  Safety is a dynamic characteristic that is highly dependent on context and yet audits are snapshots of a moment within the highly fluid and dynamic world of business.  However valuable that snapshot is, however much is uncovered in the audit, it’s just a snapshot.  The highly volatile and ever present variability in human behavior will always create problematic situations.  In short, no matter how thorough the audit, significant threats to worker well being can materialize literally as the auditor drives away.

How Can We Fix This?

Fixing the problem is going to be difficult.  In the U.K. politicians are openly asking if the laws designed to protect workers are too restrictive.  In the U.S. congressmen repeatedly claim that safety regulations are too strict and place an undue onus on businesses. And what’s worse is 40 years of BBS snake oil has safety professionals themselves reinforcing the believe that workers are largely to blame for their injuries.

We need to evangelize that safety is about reducing the risk of injury, and the severity of those injuries that we failed to prevent.  Safety needs to be a criteria for success not an after thought.  Safety regulations need to change from quantitative measurements to qualitative measurements.  And finally we need to make people understand that improving safety is not about cost, its about cost reduction and cost savings.

 

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

Blogroll

broadcasts/podcasts

La Duke in the News

Presentations

Press Release

Professional Organizations

Publications

Safety Professional's Resource Room

Social Networking

Web Resource

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 408 other followers

%d bloggers like this: