Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

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.


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.


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.


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

Never Trust Anyone Who Claims Safety Is Their Number One Priority

Safety Priority

By Phil La Duke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Spirit of Festivus


image courtesy of

By Phil La Duke

Today marks the fourth anniversary of my blog; well sort of. I started my blog when a former employer ordered me to blog.  A fresh-faced, recent college grad and manipulative smirking-know-it-all convinced my then boss that we HAD to have a presence in the blogosphere.  I was against the idea from the onset.  I have always viewed blogs as poorly written self-indulgent crap. I was a publishing snob, believing that the only things that offered value were those that were peer-reviewed.  I should qualify the term “peer-reviewed” I use the term in a very broad way: a published article that is accepted as a source for citation in academic, scientific, or journalistic pieces.  In that respect, what you are now reading is not a peer reviewed work, as if you use it as a source some pedantic turd of a college professor will gig you on your grade because a blog is an opinion piece.  While my published work (even, interestingly enough my guest blogs for is ostensibly proofread, edited (not just for factual accuracy but also for bias), and fact-checked (fortunately I avoid having many actual “facts” in my work, having learned a long time ago to use words like “many” and “few” instead of words that are easy to quantify as correct or incorrect.

My boss at the time made it a condition of employment, and once my writing started to get noticed he insisted that he have one of his dim-witted henchmen read my work before I published it and ultimately forbade me from writing altogether that, and he claimed that everything I wrote was his intellectual property even though it was work that I did on my own time, using my own equipment, and for which he had not paid me to do.. (I flatly refused and this probably had more than a bit to do with our parting of the way.) I had to (successfully) defend myself against ethics charges  when a withered toad of a Subhuman Resources claimed that my work constituted moonlighting (karma is, as they say, a bitch, as this mouth-breather was accused of abuse of power and had to defend himself against, in this case just, charges.)

So roughly speaking I have produced about 170,000 words of content on the blog (plus another 40,000 or so in writing my column during that period, and another sundry 40,000 in articles that I submitted to Facility Safety Management, ISHN, and a hodgepodge of trade magazines collectively).  So I produced roughly quarter million words in print for which I received no compensation beyond the edification of the safety community or, lacking that, the satisfaction of knowing that I shook up a bunch of uptight safety codgers, and that put me in hot water with at least two employers.

So why do it? Last year alone, this meager blog attracted readers from 150 countries.  Impressive until you consider I get a fair readership of dying foreigners who are looking for a trust worthy lad to whom they can leave their millions.  In fact, I may be a Nigerian King, if emails are to be believed (of course if that’s the case I am a cheap, lazy, overweight and impotent loafer who likes to buy counterfeit drugs on the internet.

And apart from disrupting my weekends, getting hate mail from all over the world, and being threatened by safety boobs because my barbs, while clearly not directed at them personally, hit a little too close to home, what difference has churning out this load of…well I guess the next word is really yours to decide?  I don’t see much change out there in safety land, at least not any to which I can lay claim.   But truthfully, I didn’t start this blog because some boss ordered me too, and certainly not for the good of mankind. No, I started this blog to get some things off my chest, and even though I have cranked out a library full of content there are still some things that really bug me about safety.  So in that spirit, I would like to begin my next four years with a good old, Phil La Duke, fire and brimstone blog about the evils of safety.  Call them New Year’s Resolutions, call them the rantings of a self-important blowhard—I really don’t care, but in the spirit of Festivus, I have some real problems with some of you people. Let me preface this by saying that if you find yourself getting all sweaty and outraged because “not all safety professionals do these things” than you are exactly the person I am writing this to.

Grow The @#$% UP!

I am active in LinkedIn and by active I mean I belong to and participate in around 50 groups.  The groups are generally related to either safety, process improvement, or training (or one of these things are a subset of the topic to which the group is devoted) and while I have met my fair share of bright and open-minded safety professionals I have met just as many who are an embarrassment to the profession.  So I say again, “grow up”, if you don’t like safety get out of the business. Many openly whine about their jobs mainly because it isn’t what they thought it was going to be.  Thought safety was going to be easy? Guess again; thought it was going to be a position of power? Guess again; thought it going to be respected? Guess again. And if it were fun, they’d charge admission instead of paying you. Safety is just a single cog in the great machine that is your organization and if you thought you were somehow doing something more noble and deserving of the adulation and gratitude of the organization then you thought wrong.  We are paid to do a job—just like quality, and materials, and HR, and engineering, and…well you probably DON’T get the picture but we’ll stop there.  Our job is no more or less important than any other. When I worked in manufacturing I used to say that engineers believed that everyone would be an engineer if only they were smart enough. And when I worked in healthcare I said that nurses believed that everyone would be a nurse if only they cared enough, but safety professionals? Safety professionals believe that everyone would be a safety professional if only they cared enough, had enough vision, were moral enough, and were self-sacrificing enough.  Well I say, “enough’s enough”. You get out of a job what you put into it, and if you do your job with pride and professionalism and stop worrying about what the rest of the organization thinks of your job you will get the respect you whine about not getting now.

Stop Blaming Leadership For Your Inadequacies

I can hear some of you bleating, “yes but if upper management doesn’t support us we can’t…” No shit Sherlock.  What function can be successful if upper management doesn’t value and support it?  As much as anything your job is to sell your leadership on your ideas.  But before you can do that you have to stop chasing every softheaded fad that crosses your email.  Good business leaders respond to and support things that are good business.  If you have a good business idea you should be able to articulate it in a way that appeals to executives, but if you can’t make a business case consider that your idea much just be dumb.

Enough With the Martyr Routine Already

If you don’t feel appreciated, maybe it’s because you’re not.  Let’s stop playing the game where you are the thin red line between workers and a horrible death of disfigurement; YOU’RE NOT.  When things go well you take credit for saving lives and when people get hurt you’re quick to deflect the blame because “they won’t do what we tell them”.  I’ve said it before, and will likely say it again, our jobs aren’t to protect workers, our jobs are to help the company and the workers to make better decisions that will ultimately help to make things safer; we can neither claim credit or blame for changes in safety.

Blaming The Culture is Like Blaming the Boogieman

Too often safety professionals deflect criticism by blaming the culture, the system, or some other intangible force; they might as well be blaming pixies, elves, and sprites and the mischief they make.  Control what you can control, influence what you can influence, and leave the rest to people with the specialized skills to do those things.

I should close with a disclaimer to the effect that I am not talking about all safety professionals, and in fact, I have met many hardworking, long-suffering, under appreciated safety professionals.  But you know what? The people who truly are safety professionals don’t need this gutless, don’t-hate-me-cause-I’m-just-saying kind of cowardly shield.  Like I said, if you are offended by this, and are getting huffy by my “sweeping generalizations”, then you are most probably EXACTLY about whom I am talking.  Feel the hurt and let it go cause sending me your poison pen letter may not get you’re the result for which you are looking.


Filed under: Safety

What Would Speech Would You Like Me to Make?

As I prepare abstracts to propose speaking topics for the 2014 National Safety Congress in San Diego, I’m hoping for your help.  Each year I submit around 30 abstracts and have 1 or 2 accepted.  I thought it might be useful to ask for your input.

Filed under: Safety

Changing Your Organization’s Safety Habits

By Phil La Duke

Happy holidays.  I would blame the lack of a post last week on a “holiday hiatus” but the truth is my idea for a New Year post kept bumping up against my ideas for last week until posting it on Thursday seemed to be kind of pointless.  Since this is a completely free blog, (I neither do it while on a clock of any sort nor do I receive any compensation (direct or indirect)) I guess we can chock it up to “you get what you pay for”.

New Year is a time for resolutions and people start thinking about making changes, primarily in those habits they find less than desirable.  Last year at around this time I posted my “New Year’s Resolutions for Safety Professionals” ( ) and for those of you looking for more of the same, I’m sorry to disappoint.  After reviewing the post in question I didn’t see a whole lot of things I would change; sure there are things I’m tempted to add, but I doubt making the post longer would make it any better so I will leave it alone for now.

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.

According to Durhigg, there is a “habit loop” that turns deliberate behavior into a sort of an automatic sub-routine in our brains (see figure below).  I am oversimplifying Durhigg’s book, but since this is neither an academic paper nor a book report, I think I am within my rights.  Read the book; it’s worth it. There are some absolute gems in the book, real pearls of wisdom.  For example, research has found that the best way to effect change in a habit is by sandwiching change between the familiar, and this is something that safety professionals can really use.

Slide1The key to changing habits (personal OR institutional) is to keep the cue and reward while changing the activities.  What that means for safety professionals is that we can stop trying to force change through revolutionary efforts and can focus on evolutionary strategies instead.

Anyone who has tried to change the organization—whether by implementing an innovation or reengineering a function—can relate to the difficulty of introducing too much change at once.  Too much change and the organization will buck, but not enough change may mean decades of dysfunction. The baby bear solution (just right) is to keep the cue, replace the routine, and keep the reward.

This is the point you need to be careful not to over complicate things.  Durhigg says that you first need to understand the cues—but I don’t think that’s necessary here.  In most cases we already understand the cues, or the cues really don’t matter.  Take for instance one activity that is often fraught with bad habits: Observations.  What is the cue? for most organizations it’s a requirement. Similarly the reward remains constant,  getting something off your plate.  So while if you are looking to change a bad habit (Durhigg is adamant that once a habit has imprinted on your brain it’s there forever; you can never eliminate a habit merely overlay a different habit on top of it) in your hazard observation you need to change how you do them and when in doubt, simplify things.

I’ve written about the importance of creating an infrastructure for sustaining organizational change, but a strong infrastructure around key organizational activities can not only sustain changes but also can facilitate and even drive change.

The table below shows the key areas where a strong infrastructure is necessary for a robust safety management system.

Activity Retain Consider Changing
Hazard Management Regular hazard identification activities


Regular meetings on hazard and risk management lead by operations



Tracking of hazards from identification, through containment, and ultimate correction


“You find it you own it” philosophy

Peer-to-peer observations

Behavioral observations


Safety meetings that are thinly veiled gripe sessions filled with hidden agendas



Overly complex, fad-of-the-month, or otherwise dim-witted practices



The safety police state

Incident Investigation Incident reports at the safety meetings delivered by the appropriate first line supervisor






Complete and holistic investigations

Incident investigations conducted and reported by safety professionals.



Findings that aren’t turned into meaningful change in the workplace


Poorly executed investigations that identify and address a single “root cause”

Process Capability Integration of safety into the core process activities



Linking safety to layered process audits and continuous improvement efforts

Safety as a function that is independent from operations.
Training Core skills and regulatory training Training for training’s sake


Over emphasis on regulatory training at the expense of competency training

Safety Strategy Deployment Safety strategy as a subset of overall operations strategies Complex strategies



Employee Engagement Involvement of Front-line workers in safety improvements Ham-fisted employee reward programs


Children’s Poster contests and other patronizing safety incentives

Accountability Systems Accountability systems that appropriately hold workers at all levels responsible for worker safety Punishment for injuries

There’s a lot more that could be said about specifically what needs to change in each of these infrastructure elements, but how can I responsibly say that you need to change this or that without knowing what you are currently doing.  That having been said, if you are still operating under significant risk of hurting worker you need to change something,  and the key to change seems to be less about what you change and more about the things associated with your habits that you retain and nurture.

Filed under: Safety

Why The Death Of George Robotham Matters

George Robotham

Vale “George” Robotham

By Phil LaDuke

For many of you, the name George Robotham is meaningless, and the fact that he died doesn’t mean all that much to you.  When George died suddenly last September his passing was barely noted even in his native Australia but as I face the coming year I, like many of you, take time to reflect. So who was George Robotham and why does his passing make a difference?  Because in a time when safety professionals can’t jump on the lastest fad wagon fast enough and the carneys of our professions—the card sharks and snake oil salesmen, the well intentioned imbeciles, and the quick buck artists—concoct truly odious rip off schemes, George was one of the rarified few who could decry the emperor naked.  George could sift through the excremental messages of the living commercials of our field to call safety as he saw it; George was one of the true great ones.

George was a plain-spoken Aussie with more certificates and degrees than most tenured professors. But in an age when fame is measured in tweets and hashtags, George didn’t make much of a ripple. If you look up “George Robotham” online you will find a lot of his work on Dave Collins’ Safety and Risk Management blog  but other than that, you won’t find much.  In fact, the Wikipedia article on George Robotham isn’t about him at all (it is in fact, about a Hollywood stuntman and minor character actor who played a henchman in the Adam West Batman movie).

Apart from who George was, what is more important is what he stood for.  George stood up to the rising tides of charlatanism in safety, even as those tides rose again and again.  And while George’s common-sense approach to safety attracted converts, his ideas weren’t the kind of grand schemes that made for getting rich quick; anything George had he sweated and toiled for.

George had a way of putting things that made sense to people, but also didn’t threaten the fanatics.  His practical approach and easy to understand advice could have easily been seen as an attack on the ubiquitous sea of snake oil, but somehow George’s disarming way of putting things soothed the bruised egos of even the most mercenary rivals.  George said things like, “Whatever you do make it SIMPLE & EASY, if it is too much like hard work, it will not happen;”  that’s hard to argue with, but if you’re selling safety and it looks simple and easy, people are reluctant to hire you.  I don’t pretend to know George, he and I eye corresponded a bit in the comments sections of articles one or the other of us had written.  Always supportive, George knew I was a loose cannon and always came to my defense when some sulky fanatic would fly off the handle and shower me with insults.

“Communicate your expectations and react when they are not met”

George was generous with advice and was never shy about telling people what he thought. As the quote above shows, not all of his advice was limited to safety applications.

I became a fan of George because despite working and living a world apart (he in Brisbane, and I in Detroit) we came to a lot of the same conclusions about safety.  George once said, “Use a quality management approach to safety, with a continuous improvement philosophy”. When I read that statement I thought, heck that’s what I’ve been telling people for 15 years.

“Define the scope of any project before you start it, you cannot meet needs if you do not identify them.”

There are a lot of self-loathing safety professionals out there, but George wasn’t one of them. I guess for some, George wasn’t all that profound, but for me, advice like, “Do the things that give you the biggest bang for your buck” or “Minimise[1] the bureaucracy and bull s—t.” is true wisdom.

Much of what George stood for and what he learned over his nearly 40-year career might seem like common sense, for example, he often advocated that people give and expect regular feedback, and while that is certainly sage advice it is so woefully lacking in business today, and supervisors at so many levels of the organization are so loathe to do so, George might as well have been discovering cold fusion.

George believed that “Visible leadership from the top of the organisation1 is the key to success” but he was quick to chastise the whiney would-be martyrs of our field, George was impatient with belly achers and believed people should bring him solutions, not problems. George was a fellow critic of Behavior Based Safety and was a firm believer in investing in people,

 “When it comes to employing people remember ‘If you pay peanuts you get monkeys‘ he warned.

A believer that safety could drive change and that culture change should be left to experts in culture change, perhaps George’s best advice was, “Whatever you decide to do, do it in bite sized chunks, trying to do too much at once may lead to unrecoverable failure.”

George led his own consultancy and while he leaves behind an impressive body of work, most of it he distributed for free.   is a store house of free resources from George’s pen.

So George Robotham was a great man who worked tireless not for the almighty buck, but for the betterment of the safety profession.  But so what?  Good people die every day and life as we know it goes on.  What is it about George’s passing that makes a difference?  Every day, there are more and more people out there selling hair-brained safety schemes to unwitting or dimwitted customers without George there is one less person questioning the pseudopsychobabble and one less voice of reason.  I suppose one could argue that while the fact that George will no longer write about safety, exposing its warts while offering practical and sensible alternatives is no more a tragedy than the loss of anyone who was loved.  But for me losing George is like losing Steve Jobs.  Both men cut down in their primes with, presumably more great work to be done.

People who are peddling their nonsense will always speak louder than those who truly love the craft and are passionate about making our profession better.  Heck I can think of one guy in particular who can’t answer a question on any topic without turning it into a commercial for his latest book or video.  George left some pretty big shoes to fill and it’s time for one of you to step up to it and fill it.  So do this for me: Stop reading this blog and spend a day or so reading George’s work.(You can find it here  Find some kernel of wisdom, something that speaks to you and resonates with you in your particular mine, or factory, or oil rig, or…well you get the picture…and post it on the workplace walls, preach it to the masses, and make George’s life work a reality.

[1] Dear nitpicking frustrated editors, George, being Australian, used the King’s English spelling of the word

Filed under: Safety

Safety By Any Other Name

By Phil La Duke

For the record, I’m against euphemisms; I believe masking the inadequacies or social stigma of one state by calling it something else is wrong-headed and pathetic.  I’ve been called a lot of things, but politically correct isn’t one of them.  On other hand, I’ve always been in favor of calling things as I see them and I do firmly believe that words matter.  Many words carry an emotional charge to which people react viscerally, without really understanding why they are reacting so strongly or violently to something that has been written or said to them.

In my blog and in my articles for publication I use words to incite, to prove points, to shock, and hopefully to stimulate debate. The one word I have been struggling with lately is “safety” and I think it’s time we stop using it to describe our profession.

We aren’t, after all, safety professionals.  Safety, as defined by is “the state of being safe; freedom from the occurrence or risk of injury, danger, or loss.” This is clearly not what we are expected to do, and in my opinion the state of being safe, i.e. being free from all risk of injury, danger, or loss is impossible.  Life carries with it at least some (often much) risk.  We as professionals cannot and will not ever succeed in eliminating risk.

Let’s look at our profession, Worker Health & Safety, and see this appellation for what it is, a prelude to failure.  Few of us do much to keep workers healthy. Sure there are industrial hygienists who work to protect workers from harmful exposure to toxins and chemicals, and others who worry over pandemic response and contingency plans but few of us are actually charged with keeping workers healthy.  For that matter, I’m not sure it makes sense to task a department to keep workers healthy when so much of the worker’s health depends on his or her lifestyle, heredity, and sundry other issues that can cause people to become ill.  Additionally, many workers resist attempts by employers to improve the overall health of the workers; smoking cessation and physical fitness campaigns are often met with indifference or even outright hostility by employees; but that’s neither here nor there—I don’t see many people all that interested in that debate. So if we can agree (and six years of blogging has taught me that this is seldom the case) that the word “health” doesn’t belong in our titles, what then of the word “safety”? Does it accurately convey what we do for a living? I have my doubts.

I think that a better description of our profession is “Injury Prevention”; isn’t the elimination of worker injuries precisely what we’re expected to do? What difference does it make? What possible benefit is there to changing our title from “Worker Safety” to “Worker Injury Prevention?” For starters, the name change helps us focus on our ultimate goal (okay, some might argue that our ultimate goal is to support operations by eliminating process failures (behavioral, procedural, or administrative) associated with worker injuries, but that is way too long a title to put on a business card).

Changing the name of Safety to Injury Prevention carries with it the added advantage of clearly identifying what we do to laity.  Gone will be the days when we tell people we work in safety and they don’t really understand what we do.  Tell someone you work in worker safety and they envision the safety cop dishing out useless advice and telling operations what they can’t do instead of advising them on how to do the job with a minimal uninformed or uncalculated risk.  “Injury Prevention” speaks for itself.

Could we call ourselves something else, maybe something that better conveys our commitment to risk reduction? Of course, but in so doing we chance confusing our vocation with risk management.

The name change would be more than a cosmetic exercise.  By changing the name of our profession we would be continually reminded of our course purpose and would be less likely to be distracted with bureaucratic tasks and activities.  We might even get Operations leadership to ask questions like, “what does planning the company picnic have to do with injury reduction?” or, “why do we have a ‘injury reduction’ day? Isn’t every day ‘injury reduction’ day?” In short, the name change will cause others to view us differently and when others view us differently we begin to behave differently.  The name change will increase the organizations expectations of us and we in turn will have the opportunity to truly contribute to the overall success of the organization.

A name change alone won’t get us where we need to be, but it’s a good start.  Even if tomorrow the organization started thinking of us as championing worker injury prevention that only opens the door to greater professional respect.  We have to behave distinctly differently.  We have to pare down the function to its most crucial elements and discard the things that cost money, consume time and resources that we are currently doing.

It won’t be easy.  Professional organizations like the National Safety Council and the American Society of Safety Engineers would have to spend a fortune changing their letterheads and branded materials. And I don’t even want to think how many tax payer dollars would be spent changing OSHA materials, but I believe it’s a small price to pay.

A name change may seem like an inconsequential, even futile gesture, but I believe that a name change is the first step to a substantial shift in how we view ourselves and how others view us. 

Filed under: Safety

What To Do: Updating Vestigial Practices

Phrenology copy

By Phil La Duke

 Several weeks ago I posted “Ending Vestigial Practices In Safety” an article in which I pointed out that organizations looking to rapidly change their cultures run the very real risk of creating vestigial practices, that is, practices that don’t make any sense but linger around sucking up time and resources as safety professionals continue, zombie-like, to go through the motions.  In response to that article, a long-time reader challenged me to focus on what safety professionals should be doing instead.  So in response to that comment I thought I would take this week’s post to do just that.


Let’s start with the one vestigial practice that the mere thought of giving it up caused so many of you so much heartburn: audits.  A careful read of the original article will show that I wasn’t advocating for giving up audits, but I do think that their needs to be substantial re-engineering the way we conduct audits and how we interpret the data that we glean from doing them. Audit results are lagging indicators, and lagging indicators have been vilified by a lot of safety professionals. This criticism of lagging indicators is largely unfair. Lagging indicators tell us whether or not our strategies are working.  Think of an audit as analogous to stepping on the scale.  You can do all the exercise you want and change your diet, but unless you step on the scale once in a while you really can’t tell if you’re doughnut and ice cream diet is working, or if your 4 squats a day is enough to make a difference. Lagging indicators (not just audits but most lagging indicators) can provide us with critical information on our progress and can tell us (if properly interpreted) where we need to adjust our tactics to get better results.

Sadly, most audits conducted today focus almost exclusively on compliance to the exclusion of performance and, more importantly, risk.  While compliance is important, it’s not the only important element of our safety management system.  Audits need to be more balanced and more focused on the practices that put people at risk, irrespective of whether or not a law has been broken.  When I am conducting a performance audit too often people ask, “what’s the rule?” or “what is the government requirement?” These people are missing the point, it is more important to understand the areas of the operation that pose the greatest threat to worker safety than it is to check the compliance box.  Compliance audits are lagging indicators, but performance audits are both lagging AND leading indicators.  The amount of useful information gleaned from performance audits are exponentially higher than audits that focus too heavily on compliance.

Body Maps

I don’t have a lot of good things to say about body maps.  In a one of the books on human error that I read recently, (I honestly can’t remember which of the four books I’ve read in the last two week) the author described the colorful images produced by MRI’s as “brain porn” and dismissed many of the findings of the researcher’s as over-reaching speculation.  Even in doing so, the author admitted that brightly colored images of the brain tend to impress people and lend credence to the researcher’s claims.  I think there is something similar going on with body maps.  A map of the human body with little red dots where injuries have occurred really piques the interest of those who see it.  To an unsophisticated operations manager or site leader the body map creates the illusion that the safety professional knows more than he or she does.  It is a collection of data points that leads to a specious conclusion—most injuries are to the hands so we need to focus our efforts on the hand.  Unfortunately, since the severity of the injuries isn’t included, the conclusion that we need to focus on hand injuries isn’t quite right. (Yes, I get it, it COULD be, but we can’t make that call based on the information before us.)  If we use the body map in this way we risk channel scarce resources to protect workers from scrapes and bruises on their hands while allowing the occasional decapitation. Clearly no organization would be happy with this kind of trade off.

So what can we do to the body map? Well, it would be a lot of work, but if we are hell-bent and determined to use a body map, why not have three (or even four) body maps: one for first aid cases, one for recordable injuries, one for lost-time injuries, and one for fatalities.  Creating multiple maps would allow individuals to delineate between the truly serious injuries and those that are relatively minor and that carry far less risk; it’s more work, but without it the body map doesn’t really tell us much, in fact, it often misleads us.

Area Maps

Area maps are another practice that takes far more time to build than it could ever hope to provide in terms of a reasonable benefit.  Frankly, I’ve never seen one that is particularly well done from a graphics perspective (a pie chart is a better graphic, is far easier to create, and can be used to provide the same information.) Unfortunately I don’t have a “do this instead” tip for you; if you stop doing area maps I seriously doubt that anyone would notice or miss them.  As for what could you be doing instead? Virtually anything would add more value.  Some of you will continue to defend the area map, but to you I say this: if you need an area map to tell you where your trouble spots are then you probably don’t know your business well enough to be effective.

There are plenty of good ways to occupy your time instead of making area maps, one is to track the location of injuries by the type of work performed, or by individual job families. Knowing that you have 35% of your injuries during welding operations, or that 65% of your injuries are traffic related is far more valuable than having a fancy graphic to show that information.

This is not to say that knowing where on the site injuries happened isn’t valuable, quite the contrary, knowing that vehicle-pedestrian interaction is a particular problem at a given intersection can be vital information, but again, I’m not sure an area map is the best way to learn this information.

Green Cross for Safety

Okay, this practice really needs to be dumped.  I never saw any value in it; it’s one of those warm fuzzy, cutesy relics from the early 1990’s that seemed to helpful but in the final estimation provides no value whatever.  Instead of posting the Green Cross for safety why not chart the number of hazards found in the area, the average time to correct hazards, and containment measures? at least these measures shed some light on the relative risk level of a department. If we want to keep people focused on safety, isn’t it better to keep them focused on doing something positive in pursuit of safety?

Safety Observations

Safety Observations may be the single biggest waste of time in all of safetydom. Safety Observations cost a lot—we pay someone to watch someone else work.  The person observe changes his or her behavior because he or she is being watched and if the individual has the brains God gave geese the person does his or her best to do the job safely.  The observer than provides feedback on what he or she has observed.  It’s a pointless and futile gesture.  Instead, organizations should observe the work holistically.  First line supervision should be asking questions like “what is different today than it was yesterday?” or “what is out of process?” or “what could go wrong?” This kind of departmental observation is far more valuable than merely watching someone work, because it identifies issues beyond safety.

Root Cause Analysis

Certainly we need to analyze the cause of injuries, but I’m not so sure that Root Cause Analysis is the best way to do it.  Root Cause Analysis tends to presuppose that there is one (and only one) “root” cause. A root cause is the singular cause from which all other causative factors spring.  Root cause analysis is a wonderful tool for eliminating a single cause. Unfortunately, injuries seldom result from a single root cause.  Instead of using root cause analysis consider using situation analysis or a similar tool.  Situation analysis is used to determine multiple, inter-related causes that grow over time (the kind of causes that create an elevated risk level which can cause numerous injuries.) This may seem like I am making a semantic argument here, but I’m not.  Different problem structures (in this case specific and broad) with different structures (in this case sudden occurrence versus gradual occurrences) require different tools.

So there you have it, my attempt at “what to do” instead of “what not to do”  I’m sure it will still be unsatisfying to some (no harm/no foul you can’t please everyone) and even more sure that many of you will continue vestigial practices.  But consider this: as budgets get tight and you are forced to fight for every penny, shedding vestigial practices or re-engineering them so that they are useful is a good way to save money while making progress.

Filed under: Safety



La Duke in the News


Press Release

Professional Organizations


Safety Professional's Resource Room

Social Networking

Web Resource


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 408 other followers

%d bloggers like this: