Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

Has The Battle Against Distracted Driving Gone Too Far?


 

Photo courtesy of http://www.navideck.com/

Photo courtesy of http://www.navideck.com/

By Phil La Duke

In the United States April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month so you can look forward to a barrage of earnest and well-intentioned campaigns to ensure that drivers are aware of the dangers of distracted driving.  Is distracted driving an issue? You bet.  The ubiquitous nature of cell phones[1] and smart devices—not to mention GPS systems, car radios, and myriad other sources of distraction—in use today makes the dangers of a traffic accident much greater than it has been in the past.  According to www.distraction.gov “An estimated 421,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver, this was a nine percent increase from the estimated 387,000 people injured in 2011.”  The problem is compounded by some of the other statistics from the www.distraction.gov website:

  • 10% of all drivers under the age of 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crash. This age group has the largest proportion of drivers who were distracted.
  • Drivers in their 20s make up 27 percent of the distracted drivers in fatal crashes. (NHTSA)
  • At any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving, a number that has held steady since 2010. (NOPUS)
  • Engaging in visual-manual subtasks (such as reaching for a phone, dialing and texting) associated with the use of hand-held phones and other portable devices increased the risk of getting into a crash by three times. (VTTI)
  • Five seconds is the average time your eyes are off the road while texting. When traveling at 55mph, that’s enough time to cover the length of a football field blindfolded. (2009, VTTI)
  • Headset cell phone use is not substantially safer than hand-held use. (VTTI)
  • A quarter of teens respond to a text message once or more every time they drive. 20 percent of teens and 10 percent of parents admit that they have extended, multi-message text conversations while driving. (UMTRI)

Clearly some of these statistics are misleading, especially the ones involving teens.  When we read that teens are involved in the most accidents while distracted it can lead us to believe that the problem is those damned irresponsible teenagers.  The fact is that texting is a new communication vehicle and is disproportionately used by young people.  As these people mature, they don’t necessarily abandon the practice, rather young people become a smaller percentage of those who use texting to communicate.  Also, while headset cellphone use is not substantially safer than a hand-held device, that is only true during the conversation itself and a hands-free device is significantly safer when placing or receiving a call.  But all of this aside, the response from safety pundits seems to be, don’t do anything in the car except drive (I’ve even seen an ominous statistic about the dangers of having a conversation with a passenger while driving).  This works on paper, oh hell who am I kidding, this is a stupid idea even on paper.  First of all, none of us are going to do this. Imagine the car ride where you ignore everything except the tasks required to drive.  You sit stone faced while you and your passengers keep a solemn silence and you do nothing but scan the road, check your mirrors, and keep your hands at the ten and two position.

Some Distraction is Actually Valuable

Way back in college, when I was studying adult education they taught us about how the mind works.  As you can imagine, classroom distraction can seriously disrupt the learning experience.  Now it’s been a long time since I was in college, but at the time experts calculated the attention span of the average American at something like two and a half minutes. [2]  The thinking is that our brains take in information for about two minutes and then spend about 30 seconds processing it.  At the end of a cycle we are most easily distracted because the brain is actively seeking out new information.  This cycle continues for about 10 minutes before—unless interrupted—the brain starts to fatigue. In other words, if we concentrate too intently for too long we start to stress ourselves.  Changing things every 10 minutes or so sort of resets our brain and refreshes us.  After about four hours, however, even a proverbial change of scenery is enough to keep us alert and we quickly see a diminishing return at about six hours we become fairly rubber-headed and incoherent.

I was thinking about this the other day as I was making a four-hour drive home from a client site.  My company has a strict “no cellphone use while driving” policy and as a partner and leader I feel that I have to have a “no exceptions” standard of compliance for myself; if I can’t exhibit these behaviors myself, how then can I in good conscious hold others to this standard?  So there I am barreling along with the cruise control set (to ensure that I didn’t inadvertently creep up above the speed limit) listening to my iPod on auto shuffle so I don’t have to find another radio station or fiddle with selecting a song (I set it up to shuffle before leaving so I literally don’t have to touch or look at the device while driving.

Now this particular drive involved me driving for all but the last 20 minutes on a single expressway so I didn’t need directions, or the use of a GPS, or even have to think about things like where my exit was or how far away I was from my next turn.  Ostensibly this should have been the very safest driving experience (for most of my trip I was the single car on the road).

The lack of distraction meant that I soon started to feel very fatigued, I felt the beginnings of what they used to call “white-line fever” where the hypnotic pattern of the dotted white lane markers made me feel drowsy and made it difficult to concentrate.  I was in a particularly desolate area where pulling over and resting for 15 minutes or so seemed not only stupid but potentially dangerous.  And even if it was the smart move, I wasn’t about to stop for fifteen minutes an hour and extend my already long car ride for an extra hour.  I did recognize the danger however and, drawing on my experience as a trainer, I minimized my risk by introducing…distractions.  First, I turned off the cruise control and began checking my speed periodically.  Next I began counting the number of deer I had seen on my  trip home (13, in case you secretly wanted to know) and finally I would look at the mile markers and mentally calculate how long, at my current rate of speed it would take me to get home. When I got to the next exit that had a gas station I got out and stretched my legs, filled up the tank (because gas was relatively cheap there) used the restroom and stocked up on water and some snacks.

The result was I was far less fatigued than I was prior to when I was driving in a distraction-free environment.  I was no longer on auto-pilot and I believe I was safer because of the mild distraction.

For safety pundits to advocate that people drive without any distraction is the same old time-tested imbecility with which most safety professionals attack an emerging threat, that is, prohibition.  Prohibition is a dangerous and stupid approach to distracted driving.  Instead of telling people not to be distracted (which is like telling people to be taller) we need to encourage people to manage distractions.  After all, the distraction in and of itself is not dangerous, rather prolonged distraction is the problem. In fact, when we examine the examples of so-called distractions we’re really not talking about distractions, rather, we are talking about changing the primary activity from driving to something else.  www.Distraction.gov offers these examples:

  • Texting
  • Using a cell phone or smartphone
  • Eating and drinking
  • Talking to passengers
  • Grooming
  • Reading, including maps
  • Using a navigation system
  • Watching a video
  • Adjusting a radio, CD player, or MP3 player

Clearly texting is dangerous because the average time it takes to text is 15 seconds and let’s face it, it is exceedingly rare that one sends or receives just one text so the time spent with one’s eyes not on the road is likely best measured in minutes not seconds.  But what about talking to passengers? This has been around since the invention of the automobile and until the distraction hysteria has never been taken seriously as a cause of a significant number of traffic accidents.  In fact, how many times have you had a passenger interrupt the conversation by alerting the driver of a hazard? Two pair of eyes on the road is safer than just one. Using a hands-free navigation system is clearly safer than reading a map or cutting across three lanes of traffic so that you don’t miss an exit or the not insignificant distraction of being lost and not knowing how to get back on track.

What’s the difference between prohibiting distraction and managing it? Scope.  Whenever any activity replaces driving (or working at heights, or operating machinery, or assembling a widget, or operating a crane) as the primary activity we endanger safety.  Simply telling people NOT to do anything else except…hasn’t worked since the dawn of time (it only drives the prohibited behavior underground and does nothing to protect people) so we need to help people learn to manage distraction instead.  Clearly some of these behaviors (texting, reading emails, answering emails, reading a book) are just plain reckless while others (having a conversation, eating, etc.) represent mild risks that if managed properly can actually reduce driver fatigue and make the roadways safer.

Beyond this, however, is an underlying cause: the privatization of driver’s education.  Drivers are far less prepared, in my opinion, to acquire good, safe driving habits and driving skills when they learn to drive from a place that I wouldn’t trust me to sell me a lawn mower rather than our public schools.  We need to invest in driver training and do a better job of enforcing the laws on the books and worry less about telling people not to drive while distracted; this is just another way of telling people to be more careful and it won’t do anything but make us feel like we are doing something when we are not.

 

 

[1] According to the Pew Center for research 91% of adults now own cellphones (I have to guess that this is in the United States since the research wasn’t clear, but I know some estimate that worldwide there are more cellphones/smart devices than people on the planet; a claim I find dubious, but the fact that credible people are making it speaks to my point none-the-less

[2] Surprisingly, this number wasn’t markedly lower than other parts of the world and it seems to be the way the human brain was designed; a physiological rather than cultural phenomena

Filed under: Safety

Want to Make things Safer? Take More Risks.


tightrope

By Phil LaDuke

I don’t write for a living; in fact, all the writing I do I do for free. That has more to do with me retaining my rights to the intellectual property than it is to with any sort of altruistic intent. I mention this, because after over 50 published articles and around 250 blog posts I have created the impression that I am primarily a writer; someone who watches the industry and spouts largely academic opinions about work that I don’t really do, that I somehow l lack standing.

As surprising as it is to some, I actually DO work in the field. My particular niche lies in organizational change relative to worker safety and helping companies build a robust safety infrastructure (what point is there in implementing a safety change intervention if there is no means to sustain it long-term?) I begin the process of a safety change intervention (or infrastructure build) by talking to business leaders about their visions—what do they want to accomplish with their worker safety management system. Recently I have noticed a trend: business leaders tend to say they want to be the best, to be world class; and then they are almost obsessive about what “everyone else is doing”.

You Can’t Make an Omelet without Breaking Some Eggs

Becoming the best involves innovating, and innovation involves risk; a great deal of risk. But unless you take the plunge and move outside your comfort zone you will always be following the leader, and nobody ever won a race—or became the best at anything—by watching the leader and doing your best to match his or her every move. The people and companies that become the best do so not by following the leader but by experimenting with things that have never been done. Years ago I was working with a large international company who was at the forefront of culture change relative to safety. My working contact was something of a perfectionist who continually fiddled with the process in an attempt to get things exactly right. The executives above him grew impatient and wanted to implement what my contact considered a half-baked (and by that I mean mostly done, but not quite “there” yet) solution. When my contact protested that the solution wasn’t ready to be implemented, the executive responded by saying that we are operating in uncharted waters and even if we were to wait until the solution was perfect in our minds we couldn’t really know with any certainty if it would work. He said we needed to go with what we had and if it didn’t work we would try something different. My contact saw implementing too early as undermining the solution, essentially an opportunity to fail, but the executive saw failure as an opportunity to learn, and reasoned that the sooner we learned these lessons the better. I learned a lot from that executive.

Benchmarking Isn’t Copying

Years ago I taught classes in benchmarking, and I can assure you that benchmarking is one of the most misunderstood business concepts out there. True benchmarking involves taking a concept from outside your industry and applying it in a new and innovative way to what you do. People often mistake competitive analysis (the practice of evaluating the things you in comparison to the practices of others in your industry). The difference may not seem to be a big deal, but it really is. Benchmarking involves putting a new and different twist on a practice outside your industry or discipline but competitive analysis is another gradation of follow the leader. Benchmarking gets the creative juices flowing and spurs new ideas and breakthroughs.

The Journey is Sometimes More Important than the Destination

The trial and error of innovation can hone an organization’s problem solving skills, investigative abilities, and transform the culture from one asks “what is it?” to one that asks “what could be?” Learning from failure is becomes a habit in organizations that embrace risk taking and innovation and in safety we must learn from our failures to ensure that we don’t repeat tragedy after tragedy.

The Blind Leading the Fearful

So what does this mean for safety? I understand how ridiculous it is to expect safety professionals, who—not to stereotype, but let’s face it—tend to be a risk averse group to take more risks. But as Dr. Robert Long says, “risk makes sense”, and when it comes to safety we really need to stop reswizzling the same old tired snake oil and take real risks. We need to see what we can learn from management systems, lean principles, quality operating systems, and a host of other functions. We need to benchmark, and experiment, and generally turn safety on its ear. We will fail, and in failure we will learn a better way to keep our workers safe in our specific environments. Safety has plateaued in many respects and if we don’t shake things up we run the risk of losing ground.

 

Filed under: Risk, Safety, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What Can The Executive Suite Expect From Safety Professionals


By Phil La Duke

About a year ago, one of my Facebook friends, a nurse, posted a frothy meme about nurses.  “we’re not maids, we’re not you’re kids baby-sitters…” and it went on from there;  a post filled with vitriol and resentment for the patients and their families for which they serve.  I commented that if she felt such bitterness at her constituency perhaps she should choose a different profession instead of whining about it on social media.  I observed that the nobility of any deed is lost when one complains that one does not get one’s proper recognition, appreciation, and accolades.  She responded by “defriending” me; good riddance. I’ve seen similar posts from policemen, fireman, and teachers and the common thread—besides being whining malcontents—is the intense lack of judgment shown by people who publicly deride their constituency. I have never trusted people who define themselves in terms of what they aren’t; me thinks the lady doth protest too much.

While I haven’t seen anything posted on Facebook where a safety professional bellyaches about the lack of appreciation shown to him or her, LinkedIn threads are rife  with complaints from long suffering safety professionals about those that lead their organizations.  From the vague lack of support to accusations of ethics just south of Heinrich Himmler, safety professionals have a lot to say about the executives of their companies and most of it is bad.  One common complaint is that even the best-intentioned executive is a slobbering oaf when it comes to safety.  Safety professionals say they want more educated leaders but scarce little is done in terms of what the executives should be able to expect from their safety professionals.  So what should the executives be able to expect? What are the baseline things that business leaders should be able to count on from any competent safety professional?

Competency

At a most foundational level an executive should be able to count on the safety professional to have mastery level knowledge of safety regulations and compliance.  The safety professional should be expected to know and understand what must be reported, how basic regulatory metrics are calculated, how safety data should be interpreted, and where to find more in-depth explanations of the most common safety questions relative to the appropriate industry.  There are limits to what the safety professional should know, of course, after all they aren’t lawyers, but the safety professional should be keenly aware of his or her limits and be open with the executive as to where the safety professional’s skill set ends.

Honesty & Integrity

Safety professionals should always be honest with the executives—if it is a good idea to do something then that’s different from it being a legal requirement.  Safety professionals who use a liberal interpretation of regulatory requirements to push through a pet project are not to be trusted.  It’s this sort of moral flexibility that gets some safety professionals in trouble.  Executives need safety professionals to keep them on the right side of the law, not just compliant.  In some cases, the performance of the safety professional can be the difference between an executive being charged with a homicide.  The honesty and integrity of the safety professional must be above reproach.  Conversely, if a safety professional falsifies data, deliberately underreports, or otherwise subverts the law, then the executive may fined him or herself in legal hot water because of what the executive knew or should have known. Executives have the right to expect the safety professional will assertively point out when the executive is dangerously close to a legal or ethical breach.

Neutrality

Safety professionals should be dispassionately reporting the facts.  Executives should expect safety data to be free of commentary, sermons, melodrama, or pontifications.  The safety professional should be reporting facts, assessing risks, and professionally interpreting trends.  The safety professional should then be presenting recommendations that are free from personal agendas and editorializing. An executive needs a recommendation that clearly articulates the expected benefits, risks and rewards, and likelihood of success, not a lot of campaigning for a pet project.

An Informed Opinion

Executives count on experts to guide their decision-making and for that to happen they need the safety professional to distill, often complex data and safety trends into meaningful and useful chunks of information.  Too often the executive is given jargon-filled gobbledygook that he or she finds of little use. Most of all, the executive has the right to expect that the safety professional will always understand that no matter how informed the opinion it remains just that: an opinion. Asking one’s opinion is not allowing one the power to make a decision for you.

Professionalism

Professionalism must extend beyond the normal niceties of office etiquette and assertiveness and move into the realm of true professionalism; the safety professional has a specialized skill set that must be brought to bear in situations with a lot of unknowns and ambiguity.  Executives need skilled experts in worker safety not zealots and martyrs who believe that their job is more of a spiritual calling than a job.  Executives neither want nor can afford a softheaded boob at the helm of the safety function.

Business Savvy

Calvin Coolidge once said, ““the chief business of…people is business” but he’s often misquoted, as “the business of business is business”. However you interpret the quote one must agree that the primary goal of any business (heck any organization) is its own propagation.  The executive’s first directive is always to ensure that the business continues to exist.  Safety people often lose sight of this.  Hiding behind the self-righteous indignation and pronouncement that safety is more important than anything in all cases alienates executives.  And while nobody wants to risk people’s lives in favor of the immortal buck, executives have the right to expect that safety professionals will understand that within ethical and moral boundaries safety isn’t always the most important consideration and even in cases where safety may be the most important consideration it may not be the most urgent.

Respect

Often the executive will make decisions that aren’t especially popular with the safety professional.  It is not incumbent on the executive to explain his or her rational for making a tough call, in fact, the executive may not be able to legally or ethically disclose the “hows” and “whys” of a decision.  Executives have the right to make these decisions without the safety professional bad mouthing him or her behind his or her back.  Safety professionals who get sarcastic, rude, or pouty because the executive made a decision that was not to their liking lack the respect that the executive is owed and should not be surprised by the consequences.

A Clear Definition of “Support”

The biggest complaint I hear from safety professionals is that the executives don’t support them (or that the executive don’t “back them up”) but when I ask for details I seldom get them.  When I talk to senior leaders they tell me “I give the safety professionals whatever support they tell me they need”; clearly there’s a disconnect between the two worlds.  Executives tend to be reluctant to buy the proverbial “pig in a poke” and may actually believe they are supporting the safety function even though the safety professionals feel very differently. Clearly leadership is essential to a robust safety effort, but unless all parties can pinpoint exactly what “support” means one side or the other (or both) are likely to be disappointed.

Filed under: Safety, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Maybe You Weren’t Fired For Sticking To Your Principles


By Phil La Duke

“I was sad because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet; so I took his shoes.”

hung over mandrill

In case you were wondering, this is what I imagine a hung-over mandrill looking like

The other day I met a man who lost his job. His tale of woe may ring true for some of you; he squared off with a company leader over a safety issue. Things got heated and when things cooled down he found himself sacked…again. You might suspect that I would devote this week’s post to all the injustice associated with people, particularly safety professionals, who lose their jobs because they are forced to choose between their principles and their livelihoods, but alas, sadly you would, yet again be wrong. The person in question is a known hot head who, apart from being euphemistically described as “rough around the edges” has a penchant for going on rabid attacks. He is disliked by many and respected by few. I’d like to assume the best about people, but when you’ve lost your job several times because you’ve lost your cool…well at some point I’ve got my doubts.

If You Can’t Tell Who The Mark Is, It’s You

There’s a saying going around that says, in effect, and I will clean this up for those of you of delicate sensibility, that if you keep meeting “jerks” all day, than you’re the “jerk”. Speaking as a “jerk” of note I can attest to the truth of this saying. As it happens, I’ve also heard a lot of safety professionals bitterly complain about being fired, admonished, disciplined or otherwise pimp-slapped by their employers simply because they were trying to do their jobs. These, the wretched refuse of the safety profession, commiserate with each other, their shoulders sagging, spirits broken, kept upright only through the inflation of self-righteous indignation, decrying the injustice of it all. But is it really unjust? Or is it as likely that these buffoons were served their just desserts and found the taste unpalatable? Of course it’s true that there are safety professionals who have been unceremoniously relieved of their positions for no greater offense than advocating for safety. I only say this because I can here the murmuring of the pain-in-the ass contrarians that will inevitably throw up statistical outliers as proof that I don’t have standing to speak out on a subject. So while I make no claim of the universality of situation I will say this: a lot of safety professionals who believe they have been fired, censured, or otherwise have suffered unpleasant consequences have actually been fired because they have the interpersonal skills of a hung-over mandrill.

I’m Only Doing My Job

A lot of malcontented safety professionals will loudly protest that they got into hot water when they were only doing their job when in fact they were doing their job poorly. Maybe they did; history will judge them. The point being that, from the guards at Auschwitz to the surly safety manager, many people try to excuse some pretty reprehensible workplace behavior as merely doing your job. The more noble the calling the more likely one is to excuse dysfunction as a necessary, if not admirable part of the job. Safety professionals often believe that the fact that they are “trying to keep people safe” excuse some pretty awful “bedside manners”. It becomes more a matter of HOW the job is done than whether or not the job is done at all. It’s like the policeman who writes you a citation and throws the book at you while adding a little sermonette as he hands you the ticket. Even though you know you are in the wrong and that the officer is under no obligation to give you a break, you may still prefer that he keep the commentary to himself. And many policeman will be jerks to you when you get a ticket and—despite being jerks about it—puff out their chest and steadfastly refuse to apologize for “doing their jobs”. Now, suppose you are in a position to influence that officer’s career advancement? Are you going to be able to overlook the fact that he does his job while acting like a jerk? If so, you are a better man than I. If not you can probably understand where I’m coming from.

Life Without Consequences

It seems to me that there are many people—not just safety professionals, but workers of all stripes—who believe that they can treat others in the workplace (coworkers and even customers) however they see fit in the name of being plain-spoken, tough, or “keeping it real”; these people believe they can live a life without consequences. This idea is typically reinforced throughout their careers because their technical expertise makes them seem invaluable to the company. Some are legitimately bent—either functionally mentally ill or simply social maladroit—while others simply behave like bullies, fussing and fuming their way through life. Add to that the mistaken believe that some safety professionals have that they are the policemen of the workplace.

It’s Not Always The Jerk’s Fault

Loud-mouthed jerks typically remain loud-mouthed jerks because they are rewarded for it. They snarl at waitresses and get refills of hot coffee, they yell at coworkers and things get pushed through; special exceptions are made just for them. They come to see themselves as perfectionists, tough-but-fair, and no-nonsense. Meanwhile the bar tender is slipping a few drops of Visine in their meticulously specked Old Fashion. I’ve long thought that society in general would be more polite and generally more civil if more people had been beaten within an inch of their lives after some of the stunts they’ve pulled, but alas folks have just got too civilized I guess. What’s more, most of the biggest workplace jerks I’ve ever known—the type of people who throw tantrums the envy of a silver-spoon 4-year old, put like felt up prom dates, and generally act in ways that make you shake your head—have had numerous warnings and “one last chances”. If the behavior works why not stick with it?

The Things We Don’t Remember And the Things We Can’t Forget

I can already hear the murmurings from people who will accuse me of suggesting that safety professionals need to sell out if they want to keep their jobs. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, even a cursory read of my body of work will demonstrate my deep belief that safety professionals who remain passive in the face of gross violations, ethics abuses, or other attempts by employers to subvert their legal or moral obligations are cowards and thieves ; shirking one’s responsibilities to avoid conflict and even to save one’s job is tantamount to malpractice.

That having been said, today’s safety professional has to be persuasive and understand that his or her opinion, professionally informed not withstanding, just that: opinion. If people can’t hear past the dysfunction we cannot be effective in our roles . Maya Angelou said, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” I think this quote is the essence of what I’m trying to say. People will forgive us for being incompetent screw-ups who don’t know beans when the bag is open, but if we’re jerks, they will lie in wait for us to screw up. You don’t have to be popular to be an effective safety professional but it sure helps.

Filed under: Just Culture, Safety, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Creating a Culture of Safety Excellence


by Phil La Duke

There’s been a lot of yapping in the safety community about creating a safety culture and some of it has merit and some of it is just yapping.  In fact, there are a lot of people working in the safety profession who know as much about changing a corporate culture as they do about building an aircraft carrier.

A note about the photos in this week’s blog, I took these photos at the Detroit Institute of Arts, they are images from the mural painted in the courtyard by Diego Rivera.  A masterpiece you can only see in Detroit.

IMG_0209_1

Contrary to what many will tell you, a culture is more than just “how we do things around here” it’s the codified set of behaviors that keep us from killing each other.  People who study corporate culture and change talk about culture in terms of:

  • Norms. Norms are the accepted practices and methods of a population.  Norms determine what the population judges as “normal” and what is “abnormal”.  Norms form the foundation for etiquette and identifies what is polite or impolite.  To a large extent, norms determine an individual’s success.  When new people join a population there are strong incentives to learn and adopt the norms.  One does not feel comfortable until one is completely operating within organizational norms.
  • Habits. The secret to change lies in understanding how our habits to a very large extent determine how we live our lives and whether we become morbidly obese, change-smoking, degenerate gamblers. In his 2012 book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business” Charles Duhigg explores how, despite free will, most of us live our lives doing things that are self-destructive, unpleasant, and that inhibit our success merely out of habit. Duhigg believes that organizations, like individuals, operate largely out of habit, and while it may seem that people at the top of organizations are geniuses or imbeciles, much of a organization’s performance is rooted in habit.
    Habits can be helpful or harmful. Some habits, like getting up early to exercise, carry with them significant benefits, while others, like eating when you’re not hungry, can cause serious, long-term health problems; its no different with organizations and those of you who are looking to change the “safety culture” of your organization should pay very close attention to those habits that are having the greatest influence over the relative safety of the organization.
  • Shared Values & Taboos. Every culture is marked by a collective sense of what is important (values) and the things that are, without exception, unacceptable (taboos).  Shared values not only shape the key decisions made by leaders in an organization, but also make the actions of leaders more predictable which in turn reduces stress and uncertainty in the population.  Taboos make it easy for the entire population to know where the line is and to expect certain and uncompromising reprisals for those who violate a taboo. Shared values and taboos are often informal and unwritten and may well conflict (typically in dysfunctional organizations) with the expressed values or official policies.

Culture versus Climate

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A culture is a deeply embedded and codified set of expectations; its largely unconscious—people may aspire to change or direct a culture, but they are seldom successful except when those trying to change.  Cultures are how companies survive and thrive and, as such, it is deeply imbedded in the collective psyche of the population.  Climate, on the other hand, refers to the largely transitive state of the environment.  Climate change is most often driven by an intense outside force that is generally short in duration. The resulting change is typically rapid but it is rarely lasting and things quickly revert back to the old state once the outside force is removed or even lessened.

The term “safety culture” has become muddled by years of misuse and hype by safety vendors who purportedly bring culture change but bring climate change instead.  James Reason, the father of Just Culture, believed that before a company could move to a culture of safety it had to first create a culture of justice.  Throughout the years, a mixture of a confusion over Reason’s teachings and out and out misleading branding created the idea that somehow some companies had a “safety culture” while others did not.

All companies have a safety subculture, in that all companies have norms, habits, values, and taboos related to safety.  So essentially, “safety culture” is a subset of the overall corporate culture and is characterized by:

  • Safety Norms. The things that are accepted practice within safety.  Safety norms can be as simple as the example set by a veteran worker and emulated by new workers or as complex as the ways that workers interact with leadership and the safety function.  Norms are typically the unspoken and even subliminal acceptable ways we do things.  Organizations tend to reward those who follow the norms in safety and punish those who don’t, often without even being conscious of doing so.
  • Work Habits.  All organizations have a slightly different risk tolerance and one company’s killer job is another’s routine work. Risk tolerance is highly influenced by national culture as well as by safety norms and other subcultures.
  • Shared Values & Taboos about Safety. Every organization has an imaginary line when it comes to safety.  Once that line is crossed the individual who crosses it is judged to be reckless and to have taken an unreasonable risk.
  • Something Every Organization Already Has. As I mentioned, every organization has a safety culture, but every organization’s  is unique. Understanding how your culture views the safety of the workforce takes research and an open mind.  It is often extremely useful to have an outside set of eyes (not necessarily a vendor, it could be a customer, or someone from another location) to view your culture and identify the value it places on worker safety.

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The leader plays a pivotal role in worker safety and in shaping the culture.  Ideally, the leader’s behaviors are in alignment with the desired, norms, taboos, and habits of the organization, but when they are not, these leaders tend to be pressured out of the organization (although too often they create a great deal of dysfunction before they go).  There are two ways in which leaders influence the corporate culture: how they behave and how they manage.

The Shadow of the Leader

Strong leaders create such a powerful influence that their personalities can be seen in the attitudes and behaviors or those who work for them.  Bellicose tyrannical leaders tend to produce departments where individuals scream and bully other departments to get their own way, where leaders who exhibit a strong ethical sense and who reinforce the values tend to produce people who act likewise; it’s not magic, people have a very strong drive to conform.  So in a very real sense, leaders shape how the organization behaves and make decisions.

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Dysfunctional Management Breeds Dysfunctional Operations

It should surprise no one that organizations with poor systems tend to produce a great deal of chaos and a periodic review of policies and procedures is necessary to get better results.

Ultimately, the leader determines whether the workplace will be dysfunctional or productive, and whether or not people will make good decisions or take reckless chances.

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Mao said, “all change comes from the barrel of a gun” and I think there’s something to that.  Before people will even consider changing they will explore every option that allows them to keep doing what they’re doing. People will resist change even if they believe it will likely benefit them, why? Because of fear of the unknown. Why do we tell our children not to take candy from strangers when everyone knows that strangers have the best candy? Simple, subconsciously we play out a really simple and pragmatic decision making process: we must assume the unknown will harm us to survive. To foment change we must convince the population that it cannot survive and thrive if we continue to operate in the way we have been. We must make taking the candy from strangers the most attractive, or at least the least loathsome option, and that takes some doing.

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One of the best ways to foment change is the financial argument.  Injuring workers costs a LOT of money, and the bulk of the population is either convinced that all management cares about is money or is open to the possibility that operations that aren’t financially successful will be closed, sold, or face pressure to make brutal cuts in benefits and even pay.  Also, tapping into whatever your organization finds most important—whether that be productivity, tonnage shipped, or whatever—and expressing the costs in those terms (we would have to ship an additional hundred tons of cargo to recoup that cost.  It makes an impression.

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To some extent, there is, or should be, intrinsic dissatisfaction of the status quo if anyone is getting hurt on the job.  But in cases where there is a fair amount of organizational inertia, fomenting dissatisfaction can be tricky.  Even organizations that ostensibly are dissatisfied with some element of its performances may be fiercely resistant to change.  Dissatisfaction with the end result doesn’t always mean dissatisfaction with the status quo, and many organizations perish because, despite a deep and abiding dissatisfaction with its performance it is not particularly dissatisfied with its current tactics.

Why Does The Organization Have To Change

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Dissatisfiers must be compelling and easy for the average person to understand.  True dissatisfaction comes from the answer to the question, “why do we have to change?”  When it comes to worker safety the answers tend to be pretty simple:

  • Changes in Our Business Environment. Applying static solutions to dynamic problems lead to disaster and clinging to those static solutions until it is too late has driven many companies out of business.  The speed at which our business environment changes dictates the speed at which our culture must change to address the outside forces. In safety, the cost of worker injuries (both direct and indirect) are driving changes in our safety strategies and tactics.
  • Changes In Society’s View of Workplace Deaths and Injuries. Both my grandfathers died from workplace injuries. My father and brother-in-law both died of work-related illnesses. I lost a great uncle to a workplace injury, and I’ve lost count of how many friends I’ve lost to workplace injuries.  In many of these cases, people looked at what happened and said, “that’s a shame”. Today, these deaths may well have been prosecuted as homicides! The point is that while there was a time when workplace deaths were seen as unfortunate incidents, society now views them as completely unacceptable.Rising Insurance and Medical Costs.  Rising insurance and medical costs are big news.  For years these costs have sky-rocketed and now are at the point where companies with poor safety performance are finding it difficult to compete.
  • Growth. The business strategies for running a small company aren’t the same as those for running a midsized company which aren’t the same as for running a large company.  Organizations that understand the need to upgrade accounting, IT, and sales systems to accommodate growth often miss the very real need to upgrade safety management systems as well.

Making the Case For Change

IMG_0209_1 When creating dissatisfaction, you have to make the business case for change.  Often, leaders will adopt a “if it aint broke don’t fix it” approach to organizational change; this approach is often dangerous and irresponsible.  When making the case for change you should be able to articulate the answers to these questions:

  • What is it about the current state that is unacceptable?
  • Where would you like to take your organization?
  • What is the difference between where you are and where you would like to be?

The Cost Of Safety

The cost of safety (both direct and indirect) must be calculated and shared in a way that is meaningful to the organization.  Expressing the cost of safety in ways that reflect the corporate culture are key to making safety a priority.  For example, if your corporate culture places a high value on sales, then expressing the costs of safety in terms of the added sales required to replace the money spent on worker injuries is a great way for the organization’s leadership to connect the dots between sales and worker injuries.

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Also, it is important that you use actual cost figures and avoid averages, formulas, or other ways to calculate the “true cost of injuries.” These injury calculators use averages derived from figures across all injuries.  Unfortunately, the spectrum of injury costs vary widely and where your particular industry falls on this continuum (or where your company falls on the continuum within your industry) will rarely represent your actual costs.  It’s a lot of work to research and calculate these injury costs but the alternative is for an executive to (rightly) dismiss your figures as conjecture.  In many cases, your figures will be significantly higher than those calculated by formulas any way.  And if you’re figures aren’t particularly compelling (some companies don’t spend much on worker injuries, and may in fact not hurt many workers at all, until they have a catastrophic system breakdown that causes a fatality) you shouldn’t be focusing on cost and shift your attention to something more appropriate to your situation.

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Dissatisfaction with a compelling vision for success leads to frustration and dysfunction.

Why Create A Compelling Vision For Success?

Beyond the need for a vision for a better workplace you have to create a vision that makes sense to your organization and to do that you have to create a vision that details precisely what the desired behaviors look like.  In many cases, the desired behaviors are simply a reiteration of your expressed values; getting people to “walk the talk”. Creating a vision for appropriate behaviors should also address norms and confront norms that don’t match the corporate values (“we say we want “’X’ but we do ‘Y’  instead).  The vision should always be crafted such that it remains in the context of the dissatisfaction (“we are doing this because we don’t want “Y” any more”).  You can’t achieve change without changing your organization’s habits and norms.

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Creating a Compelling Vision of Success

A compelling vision of success answers the question,  “What do we want our culture to look like?”  While this may sound like an easy question, it can be difficult to answer.  In fact, you need to ask yourself what you need to do not only to create of vision of success, but also to make it reasonable, practical, and achievable? I  can’t answer that question for you; in fact, no one outside your organization can.  While outsiders can facilitate sessions that lead you to answers to these questions, no outsider will ever know your organization better than you do; beware and avoid those who think they know your world better than you do.

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Culture And Habit

Many of are norms are really just organizational habits.  In his 2012 book, The Power Of Habit  Charles Duhigg explores how institutional habits effect populations.  According to Duhigg, habits essentially burn a path in our brains which allows for automatic behavior.  This path allows our brain to have a sort of a subroutine that helps to automate behavior.  Duhigg believes that once a habit is truly formed it can never be erased.  The key, Duhigg says, is to overwrite a new, acceptable behavior over the existing undesired one.  Duhigg also believes that there is little difference between personal habits and institutional, or cultural habits.  Habits, according to Duhigg, form a loop.  They begin with a cue, for example boredom, followed by a routine, buying a snack from the vending machine and visiting with coworkers, which leads to a reward, in this case social interaction.  If an individual wants to lose weight and stop ingesting unhealthy calories will have greatest success by keeping the cue and reward the same, but substituting the routine for something healthy, for example walking around the block, while keeping the same reward (that is, social interaction after the routine).

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Of course to make these kinds of changes (in your personal life or in your organization) you need to become very aware of the cues and rewards associated with the habit, and this in itself can be very challenging. In my experience an organization’s bad habits around safety tend to manifest most frequently in what I call the Seven Pillars of Safety Excellence.

Focusing On Getting It Right

In safety, it’s easy to focus on the negatives.  Organizations tend to address worker safety in a series of “thou shalt not…” statements.  It’s easy, for example, to create policies that forbid working on energized equipment without first locking out. But these kinds of fiats aren’t all that effective.  People tend to pick and choose which rules they follow and which ones they ignore.  (in fact, I wrote an article on this subject Why We Violate The Rules  http://www.fabricatingandmetalworking.com/2011/05/why-we-violate-the-rules/ ).

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A better way of effecting lasting change is to work to instill values.  Many companies have their golden rules, or safety commandments, but in a few rare cases there are companies that have created an atmosphere where people behave in a way that truly supports worker safety and a brother’s keeper mentality.  So what’s the difference between the companies who have slogans hanging on the walls and those whose values are manifest in the workplace?   The successful companies make decisions from the top of the organization to the grass roots based on deeply embedded values that model the “right thing to do”.

To mimic these companies’ successes, you should:

  • Plan for Success. This may sound trite, but success is impossible without active planning and a whole lot of work.  No pun intended, but success in worker safety doesn’t happen accidentally, rather, it is the product of hard work on the part of dedicated and talented people.
  • Create a Compelling Vision of Success. I mentioned creating a compelling vision of success before, but it is important enough to repeat it.  A compelling vision of success isn’t a safety slogan or a lofty bit of prose hanging in the corporate headquarters lobby.  A compelling vision of success is a simple statement that clearly illustrates how the organization is going to approach keeping workers out of harm’s way; it’s the things people must do to keep themselves and their coworkers alive and unharmed.
  • Defining desired habits.  It’s not enough to write a list of things people need to do to stay alive, you must also tackle the habits that typically prevent people from doing these things. Using our lockout example, one might include a statement like “we always ensure that energy has been isolated and controlled before attempting maintenance” but unless you also seriously consider the reasons people might  NOT always do this your vision of success doesn’t ring true.  It becomes a platitude instead of a guiding value or governing behavior.  When defining the desired habits you need to take a hard look at “what about when…” statements or “except for…” conditions.  If you don’t address the cues and rewards that lead to dangerous behaviors your vision will fall on deaf ears.

Crafting Next Steps

Schein’s final element of change is next steps.  A dissatisfied population with a compelling vision for success is powerless and rudderless without clear and practical next steps.

I mentioned a moment ago that I would explain what I see as the Seven Pillars of Safety Excellence.

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Early in my career I was fortunate enough to participate in benchmarking the world’s safest companies and in so doing I discovered seven elements essential to achieving safety excellence:

Training

Training isn’t limited to safety training, in fact, the most important training for keeping workers safe is in their core competencies; workers who don’t have mastery of their basic jobs can’t do their jobs safely.

Process Capability

If your process isn’t robust and stable you subject your workers to risk of injuries

Hazard and Risk Management

Removing hazards before people get hurt is the key to a sound safety management system.

Incident Investigation

When we understand and correct the causes of injuries we can prevent them from recurring in other areas.

Strategy Deployment

Too few organizations have any real strategy for safety. Safety strategy involves taking a big-picture look at the safety of the workplace. Safety strategy development should establish periodic reviews of policy to ensure that anachronistic rules, policies, and procedures do not jeopardize worker safety.

Accountability

Accountability is different than blame.  Safety excellence depends on good systems of accountability that hold employees answerable for the risks they take.

Engagement

Workers at all levels must be empowered to make sound decisions and to take action to make the workplace safer, but beyond mere empowerment workers must be engaged. Empowered workers are entrusted with the right to make decisions but engaged workers intuitively know the right decisions to make.

These seven elements are typically where a company picks up bad habits.  It’s not that companies don’t do these seven things, rather, it’s HOW they do them that can make or break their efforts at making the workplace safer.

Create a Cultural Infrastructure: Embed Safety Into Your Operational Practices

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One of the Pillars of Safety Excellence that stands out for me is engagement.  Engagement at all levels is essential to maintaining a safe and productive workplace.  Engaged workers do things just because it’s the right thing to do. A motivated worker will work to get a reward or safety incentive, but an engaged worker will continually look for ways to make the workplace safer because making the workplace safer is the right thing to do.  It’s in his or her best interest to work safely; it’s in his or her coworker’s best interest to work safely; and it’s in the company’s best interest to work safely.

Never Underestimate the Importance of Empowerment

Creating a common-sense infrastructure around the Seven Pillars of Safety Excellence is the key to creating a safety management system that is not only sustainable, but can morph and grow as your business needs change.  I have helped companies create safety management systems almost ten years ago and not only are these systems still in place, but they are thriving.  In each case, these systems (built around changes to their approach to each of the Seven Pillars) look very different than the ones that I helped these companies design and build.  These systems grew and changed in response to (or in anticipation of) changes in the business climate.

The secret to the success of these systems lie not in what was done, but also what wasn’t done. Essentially, the approach was to sandwich new behaviors between existing, familiar behaviors. By maintaining as much of the existing infrastructure I was able to retain the cues and the rewards, and successfully replace the poorly performing routines with highly effective ones. Even so, the credit goes to my customers who took the time, committed the right people, and spent the resources necessary to identify the cues and rewards and trust in the coaching that they were provided. I learned on those projects that change is more palatable when it is surrounded by things that won’t change.

Filed under: 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

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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, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Forget Injuries—They Have Nothing to Do With Safety


 

Workplace-Injuries

 

By Phil La Duke

Last week I posted an article defending (to some extent) Zero-Injury goals that touched off a powder-keg of on-line debate.  I have gone back and forth on the idea (on one hand zero-injury (or zero-harm, or zero-anything) goals don’t work very well (for a variety of reasons that I don’t feel like getting into right now) and on the other hand if our goal isn’t zero than how many people can we kill in the workplace and still call it a job well done?) until I finally landed on a position with which I can live: who cares?

Now before you start rounding up pitchforks and lighting torches to drive me from the village, hear me out. We as a society have been using injuries as proof of an unsafe workplace and the absence of injuries as proof of safety and nothing could be further from the truth.  Is it safe to leave a toddler home alone? Is it safe to walk around an unfamiliar and bad neighborhood at night? Why? After all most toddlers wouldn’t be harmed and most people don’t get mugged, and yet most people I’ve talked to agree that many practices like this (or using tools with the guards removed) aren’t safe.

So if we can agree that there are many, many activities that aren’t safe irrespective of the outcome, why do we persist in using injuries as the chief criteria for determining what is safe and what is unsafe? In some organizations safety professionals claim credit for saving lives simply because they reminded people not to die. In other organizations safety professionals are hammered by leaders for injuries that they didn’t cause, but failed to prevent.  Nobody much likes the system, and nobody wants injuries and fatalities. And yet we persist in chasing numbers that don’t matter and juking stats that tell us nothing about the safety of the workplace.

The Measurement Craze

Industries’ fierce desire to measure every element of the business is a by-product of the quality revolution, and in many people’s eyes, if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, the Safety function directly copied the Quality function’s approach to measurement.  In some respects this makes sense, because an injury is not unlike a defect; both are the outgrowth of a process defect (and no I won’t be baited into an argument over whether or not the cause is procedural, behavioral, or systemic. I’m sorry to disappoint but it really doesn’t matter to a meaningful degree—unless, of course you are selling some new whiz bang approach and you have to differentiate it from the pack). In other respects it makes no sense whatsoever, since, as we’ve already established while there is a quantifiable relationship between the absence of a defect (the part either is within the tolerance limits of its standard or it is not) there is no such quantifiable relationship between a worker’s safety and injuries.  Let me put that another way: we have a good understanding of what constitutes a defect (since we also have a clear understanding of the specifics criteria for an acceptable product) but we don’t have a clear understanding of the specifics of safety, that is, we don’t really have a clue how much risk a worker faces at any given moment so it’s tough to measure safety in any meaningful way. Many organizations have become so obsessed with measurement that they are losing site of the real purpose of the safety function: to help both the organization and the individual to make better choices when it comes to safety.

It’s About Risk

When we talk about safety we’re really talking about risk, that is, how probable is it that our workers will be injured in the normal course of their work days?  The gross misunderstanding of basic statistics in general, and probability in specific, lies at the heart of the trouble so many organizations have in tackling worker safety.  I know it sounds like heresy but in a real sense injuries have little to do with safety and in fact often distract the organization from the real task of lowering operational risk.  Individuals who would never gamble with company funds blithely roll the dice when it comes to the safe execution of work. If we continue to concentrate on injuries at the exclusion of risk we lull ourselves into the false sense of security and when we achieve a year with no injuries we throw a big party and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, despite the very real risks that lurk unseen in our midst.

More and more companies are celebrating the hard work that seems to have paid off, when in reality, they don’t have a clue whether or not the results they are getting are a product of hard work, voodoo, divine intervention, or blind luck. As a friend of mine recently said to me, we don’t understand the real problem (process variation) so we invent a problem we can solve and call ourselves heroes.  Since we’ve solved the problem that we do understand (worker injuries) we no longer work to solve the real problem (process variation, i.e. risk of injury). The processes (and for the purposes of this post I am including both behaviors and systems in the word “processes”) continue to drift away from the standard and soon exceed the control limits.  Before too long we are operating completely on luck while congratulating ourselves for slaying the dragon of injuries.  By the way, it’s a myth that sooner or later our luck will run out; we’d like to believe it, and statistics support the belief that in most cases risk will catch up to us, but probability being what it is there is always a chance that the organization will keep humming along on a wing and a prayer and never have risk come up and bite it on the ass. It’s theoretically possible that an organization will survive on luck alone, but more often organizations who fight the injury battle continue to win (there is a lot of overlap between the efforts to end injuries and the efforts to reduce process variation) because of good luck will ultimately have a catastrophe that corresponds to some change in the workplace.  Those who understand risk know that given enough risk the probability of injury becomes so likely that for all intents and purposes a serious injury is certain, but the self-congratulatory organizations who trumpet their zero-injury achievements tend to ascribe causation to some external force that has nothing but timing to do with the spike in injuries.

Whose Job Is It Anyway?

Some argue it that the problem is that safety professionals don’t spend enough time “on the floor” or “on the site”. While certainly out of touch safety professionals that don’t understand the nature of the business can’t be effective, I doubt that’s the real issue.  Safety professionals need to be agents of change and continuous improvement, not safety know-it-alls who scurry through the worksite trying to “catch someone doing something safe”.  The front-line supervisor owns safety, which is not to say that that worker don’t have a role, in fact a central role, in safety. After all, it is their fitness to work, decisions, competence, commitment, and judgment that collectively create what we call “safety”.

But when speaking operationally, when everyone is responsible for safety (and that responsibility is not clearly delineated) effectively no one is responsible for it. Certainly the worker must be responsible for his or her safety, not just at work but everywhere. But the individual’s responsibility for safety does not obviate the supervisor’s responsibilities. As a former automotive production worker, trainer in healthcare, construction laborer, consultant, security guard, food service worker and more, I can honestly say that I had a tendency to focus on the rigors of my job and tried to do it as safely as possible. I took it for granted that other workers were doing their job safely, that my boss was ensuring that the equipment and facilities were safe to operate and work in and yes, that my boss was ensuring that my coworkers weren’t doing something that would get us all killed.

My bosses had the decision rights to intervene in unsafe situations that I flat out didn’t have (short of losing my job). I depended on my bosses to keep me safe from the things over which I had no direct control. Too many people believe that safety is the responsibility of the individual alone. Leaders play a key role in all of this and owning the safety of the area is far different from individual ownership of safety.

Consider this: Every day we as individuals go through life responsible for our own safety, and yet we take for granted that someone is acting on our behalf. Don’t believe me? I’m willing to bet that within the last month you (while firmly responsible for your own safety) ate a meal where: a stranger harvested the ingredients, another stranger delivered them to a restaurant, where they were accepted by a person we’ve never met who also decided that the ingredients were safe to use, another stranger prepped the ingredients for cooking, still another stranger cooked you a meal using utensils washed by another stranger who then placed the food on a plate (also washed by a stranger), it was then delivered to you by a stranger, and you ate it using silverware washed, yet again, by a stranger. If at some point you were to die (or merely get really sick) because there was some breakdown in the supply chain, would society have the right to say, “well you never should have trusted so many strangers so you deserve what you get”? of course not, and yet many people bemoan the worker’s lack of ownership of safety.

My point is that we often assume, as workers, that someone else has inspected the tools, made sure the machines are in good shape, checked to ensure my coworkers are fit to work, and in general has looked out for my safety, at least those things that I cannot practically do for myself.

I believe this is the role (primarily) of the first line supervisor. While everyone should have the right to stop work if they feel it is unsafe the front line supervisor often makes the choices that directly affect the safety of dozens of people.

Filed under: Safety, , , ,

Stop Worrying About Injuries: Defending Zero-Injury Goals


 

By Phil La Duke

Somewhere in the 500,000 or so words I’ve committed to print you will find me quoting Deming about the dangers of “zero-injury” goals.  I have been known to acknowledge the dubious value of the promotion of the pursuit of zero injuries—and I have even been an advocate of doing away with zero injury goals all together.  This week I had a conversation that changed my view of this topic considerably.  Let me begin by saying that I haven’t reversed my position completely.  For example I still believe:

  • The widespread confusion between the words “target” and “goal” creates serious and dangerous confusion in safety. 
  • Telling workers that anything short of perfection is unacceptable is demoralizing and counter productive.
  • When “zero-injuries” becomes a slogan and a platitude it diminishes the perceived value of safety professionals.

So while I still believe organizations have to be very careful not to create a climate of fear that promotes under-reporting I now have a deeper insight into why zero-injury goals are important. 

Traditional Ways of Measuring Safety are Deeply Flawed

Safety cannot be measured in terms of the absence of mangled bodies.  Yet, most of our injury statistics, the things that we gauge our performances against, are based on how many people we hurt (or didn’t hurt).  Let’s take something as simple as recordable incidents. If we had 15 last year and we only had 10 this year we saw a 33% improvement, right?  Not necessarily, in fact, maybe not in any likelihood.  Each injury is the result of a probability—there is some probability that workers will get hurt, in some cases workers beat the odds and other times they don’t, and when they don’t they get hurt.  Our traditional view of safety reporting is only accurate if the probability of injuries, the risk if you prefer, remains constant. 

Going back to our example, if we had 15 injuries but had the opportunity of having 100 injuries our score, if you will, would be 15%.  So in 15% of the cases workers didn’t beat the odds and got hurt.  If in the second year, we had 10 injuries but had only 15 opportunities for being harmed our score would be 75%, far worse than the year before where our workers beat the odds 85% of the time versus the 25% of the time in the year that had less injuries. In this scenario, the traditional measures of safety would lead us to believe we are improving when in fact the safety of our workforce is deteriorating at an alarming rate.  This false sense that we are improving often will continue until someone is killed, leaving the organization scratching its head as they puzzle over what went wrong when it was doing so good. Of course the formula that turns raw incident figures into rates is an attempt to normalize the data, but it doesn’t work, not really anyway.

As blasphemous as it sounds, injuries tell us very little about the safety of our workplace.  We want zero injuries, period; not only is this a good goal, it’s the only acceptable goal.

It’s Not The Goal That Has To Change, It’s the Means We Use To Try and Get There

I’ve also written that if zero-injuries isn’t our goal, than what is? If we say that zero-injuries isn’t our goal then how many people are we allowed to kill and maim and still feel good about ourselves? While it is ridiculous to think that any company would openly and knowingly be satisfied killing any workers, this shift in thinking is relatively recent.  In the not so distant past, worker injuries and deaths were built into construction budgets, so while it may seem unconscionable that organizations would take such a blasé view of the death of someone’s loved one that is a recent shift away from the way society viewed worker safety. 

We need to go further, and shift away from body counts to the relentless reduction of risk.  We need to measure safety in terms of risk levels; statistically, if we reduce the probability that people will get hurt we will reduce injury numbers.  If we take a cue from the Quality function, we will see that it wasn’t terribly successful until it took the focus off defects and instead focused on process capability.  Once the Quality function started focusing on reducing process variability (instead of focusing on worker behaviors) the quality of products rose exponentially and the age of continuous improvement (leave it to quality professionals to perpetuate a grammatical error to the point where it becomes part of the universal lexicon) was born. You don’t see signs that read “4054 hours without a defect” because nobody cares about that, they care that the product they purchased is defect free. In a similar way, we need to move away from incidents as the primary way in which to measure safety.  If there are any injuries than the workplace isn’t safe.  We need to recognize that until we deal with safety in terms of risk we will always be fighting a losing battle and that zero injuries can only come through the reduction of risk and by lowering the probability of injury to the lowest possible, practicable, and practical levels that we will ever make the kind of progress that the Quality function has made.

Filed under: Safety

If You Don’t Have Something Important To Say About Safety Then Shut Up


 

By Phil La Duke

Years ago I worked security at a power plant. I wasn’t a peace officer, far from it; in fact, I wasn’t even allowed to carry a big flashlight to protect myself. My job, plain and simply was to observe and report to actual peace officers, who would sort out the things that needed sorting.  The job, while not exactly cerebral, did serve as  a valuable source of life lessons, chief among them, that I never wanted to work in security again. Not to denigrate the security profession; it’s just not for me. One thing that the security firm for which I worked did particularly well was “roll call”.

Every shift began with a roll call; it reminded me of Hill Street Blues.  All the officers were required to attend, and the shift commander ran down the things we needed to know do safety and effectively do our jobs.

These sessions weren’t some lame safety talk; we talked all the things that were unusual that day; what to watch for, things to consider, special precautions we might need to take to protect our lives, that sort of thing.  Officers were expected to ask questions and we even talked about things that had happened at other sites and what the circumstances needed to be for something similar to happen at our site.  We were expected to be prepared at all times and for that to happen our leaders had to provide us will all the information we needed to do our jobs.

Contrast that to the average safety talk where bored workers take turns pretending to read a memo passed around before scrawling out a signature that “proves” that they had the information read to them and that they understood it.

Not all safety talks are this of course, but enough of them are that it constitutes a problem.  Even some of the best-intentioned and executed safety talks aren’t all that great.  Safety professionals tend to pick the topic of the month (and I am speaking literally here—this isn’t just a figure of speech) and prepare a presentation on it.  The problem is that the topic of the month tends to be either so generic that nobody cares, it elicits a, “gee, no kidding?” response that nobody takes all that seriously.  I once heard a safety talk that focused on cold weather.  The crux of the talk was that it is unseasonably cold, and that cold, as it turns out, can harm you.  In fact, it went on to say that being exposed to the cold for as little as 10 minutes can cause physical damage.  Is there anyone above the age of five that doesn’t know that cold weather conditions can harm you?  This safety talk, and to be fair, this was actually a local news broadcast “safety tip” but I’ve seen safety talks equally inane.  These kinds of safety talks might as well be telling seasoned construction workers not to stick their mouths on frosted metal; good advice but is it really necessary?

Good Safety Talks should be: contextual, practical, and specific.

Contextual

Too often safety talks lack any real context.  Telling workers to be careful because roads will be slippery isn’t nearly as useful as reminding workers that when they are leaving the site that there is a particularly sharp and sloped curve that will likely be icy and drivers should reduce their customary speeds by at least 10 mph.  By framing the warning in a context the workers can easily understand and to which they can relate the workers are more likely not only to heed the warning, but also far more likely to add to the discussion by drawing on their own experiences.  Using our example, workers might also point to other areas where similar dangers are present.

Practical

In some cases, the advice offered in safety talks just isn’t practical.  Workers are left scratching their heads about exactly what to do with the information offered.  I’m reminded of safety talks that remind workers to always tie off when working above 10 feet, but offer no solutions for situation where there is nothing to which one can effectively tie off.  These safety talks offer no alternative solutions for situations where the standard protections are available or feasible.  Impractical safety talks are dangerous because they leave workers to their own designs, and often the worker—faced with no practical options—may take uncalculated and unnecessary risks.

Specific

Telling me to be careful is like telling me you love me; it’s a sweet sentiment, but it really does nothing to protect me.  If instead of warning me to be careful because of high winds the safety talk should talk about the specific, extraordinary precaution workers should take when working at heights in windy conditions.  The safety talk should also clearly indicate how strong the winds can be before work must be suspended, and include a practical and simple way to measure the wind speed (workers seldom have sophisticated weather forecasting equipment and so they will need a common sense way to gauge when it is no longer safe to work.) And finally, the safety talk should detail the procedure(s) that they must follow if things do go wrong despite their best efforts.

The Harm In Talking About Nothing

Many companies require that each shift, meeting, or activity begin with a safety talk of some sort (a safety meditation, safety thought of the day, etc.) with the reasoning being that it can’t hurt to talk about safety.  I’m not against this practice per se, but as with so many other things that—when done poorly—do more harm than good, everyone should be more mindful of insuring that these events are done properly and add real value.  Talking about safety for its own sake desensitizes workers and when a real warning is warranted they are then too likely to turn a deaf ear.

 

Filed under: Safety

At What Point Does Safety Become Overly Intrusive?


By Phil La Duke 

With the rising costs associated with healthcare, an aging workforce more likely to require treatment for chronic illness, and the simple fact that people in good physical condition tend to injured less severely than those who are out of shape organizations are increasingly able to argue that what you do on your own time is indeed their business; but is it?

Off-the-job injuries often spill over onto the job and create sticky situations.  A worker how twists his ankle in a pickup game may claim the injury happened at work, or a worker who, eager to get home to weekend fun, may twist his ankle at work and not recognize the severity of the injury UNTIL the pick-up game.  Ergonomic injuries can be exacerbated by daily home activities, and even if the injury doesn’t ever cross over into the workplace, a worker crippled doing yard work is still a valuable resource lost.

On one hand, our life-style choices can have a profound influence—not just on our own safety but on the safety of those around us. On the other hand, few of us feel that a paycheck and medical benefits give employers the right to dictate whether or not we can smoke, drink to excess, or eat like Orson Wells at $4.95 all-you-can-eat buffet.  Clearly there is a line between an employer’s right (heck responsibility) to intervene in employees’ destructive habits even though they are on the employees’ personal time, but it is often difficult to find that line in a way that all parties believe it to be equitable and fair.

I know of a safety engineer at a construction company that used to instruct workers in the correct use, and importance of using, condoms; seriously, what does that have to do with job safety? And what of the “take safety home” campaigns? In some cases, these efforts to keep people safe off hours actually do more harm than good.  I once shared the speaker’s podium with an expert in hearing protection who got visibly agitated at the mention of encouraging workers to use hearing protection when mowing their lawns.  He told me that unless the individual was mowing his or her lawn for over 45 minutes the dangers of the loss of situational awareness were far more hazardous than the exposure to noise.  In fact, he recommended routine yearly maintenance on law-mowing equipment as an alternative; he said the biggest problem in yard work was damaged mufflers on equipment.

So at what point does a worker have the right to live his or her life as the worker pleases? Clearly there are already well-established limits to what we can do in our free time and still keep our jobs. After all, we can’t be out on crystal meth benders and show up for work after going three days without sleep, but what about those things that we have a legal right to do on our own time like washing down that fourth hoagie with a side of poutine and half a gallon of brown syrup water? Or smoking, or drinking a case of beer on a Saturday?

I’m Getting Too Old For This

The line used to be the physical condition that resulted from the activities.  If we were too fat or hung over or short of breath to do the job the employer fired us and hired someone who could do the job.  Some people thought that was fair and some thought it wasn’t, but generally speaking most people at least understood where the line was and irrespective of their feelings about the practice felt as if they had a choice, as if they had some control over their destinies. Now, however, there are all sorts of mixed signals about how intrusive employers can get.  In my home state of Michigan (one of the fattest in the U.S.) it is unlawful to discriminate against someone because of their weight.  Similarly, the U.S. federal HIPPA regulations protects people’s rights to medical privacy, and the American’s with Disabilities Act  (ADA) protects the rights of the disabled from discrimination. In effect, the law is on the side of the individual, and not just in the U.S. and yet increasingly, employers are pushing hard to regulate workers’ off-the-job behaviors.

Technology Makes It Easier

In the early days of the Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford hired private detectives to follow his workers to ensure they didn’t drink, smoke, gamble or generally live their lives in ways in which he didn’t approve.  As the company grew in size it rapidly became unfeasible—it just wasn’t cost effective to pay a team of detectives to tail workers.  Technology has brought things full circle—companies are doing random drug and alcohol testing (which for the record I believe is rational and appropriate) but technology has also brought tobacco testing. While I believe that you if you take a job with the understanding that you do not at the point of hire use tobacco and pledge not to do so throughout the tenure of employment the company certainly has the right to check to ensure that you are honoring your commitment, how long before companies start doing random cholesterol or blood sugar testing? Is it a stretch to believe that companies will require (or attempt to require) workers to submit to annual blood work to ensure they are controlling and avoiding “lifestyle illnesses”? Before you answer, recognize that a growing number of insurers are charging higher premiums for people who are over weight, have high cholesterol or similar risk factors and who refuse to make an effort to reduce the risk.

It’s Not Just Health Factors

I think it’s easy to point and the high cost of medical treatment and the costs incurred by employers and think that this intrusiveness is justified, even appropriate, and maybe it is, but what about off-the-job safety? Insurers routinely hire detectives to spy on the makers of dubious workers’ compensation claims.  Is it beyond the realm of possibility that this will continue to inappropriate extremes? At what point is it none of my employer’s damned business what I do on my own time?

Filed under: Safety

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