Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

Are You Practicing “Nod & a Wink” Safety?


by Phil La Duke

There are two extremes when it comes to safety practitioners: overly protective simpletons who see certain death lurking around every corner and those who practice “nod-and-a-wink” safety. The former are the much maligned safety cops who seem to have the singular goal of eliminating risk by eliminating work and putting the company out of business; we hear a lot about them, mostly well-deserved criticisms. The latter however, don’t get much ink, and they are perhaps even more of a threat to the credibility of the safety function than anything. Nod-and-a-wink safety practitioners manage to turn a blind eye to some seriously dangerous activities that they KNOW pose significant risk to workers and even the general public.
If You Can’t Come Up With A Solution Why Try?
Nod-and-a-wink safety isn’t necessarily an evil plot; in most cases it’s not. These people are depravedly indifferent; in most cases they just don’t have a viable alternative to the current state. How many of us, when criticizing something has been asked, “do you think you can do any better?” It’s a fair question, but it doesn’t address the concern. It’s a way of shouting down the criticism without really engaging in a meaningful dialog; a way of bullying your way out of an uncomfortable or awkward conversation.
“Sure it’s not the best way to do it but it’s all we got”
Safety pundits, myself included, (at least to the extent that I can be called a pundit) have been preaching about the importance of the safety function enabling business instead obstructing it and the nod-and-a-wink set have taken this to heart. It’s easy to justify doing nothing in the name of cooperation. If I don’t have a safer way to do the job, it’s easier to walk away then it is to be put in the position where I alone am responsible for solving the problem. The overly zealous will fight to stop the practice even if there is no viable alternative, where as the nod-and-a-wink practitioners ignore the issue all together. A better solution is to say, “no, I don’t have a better solution, but we can’t just ignore the dangers here. Let’s work together to find an answer.”
Surely Not I?!?!
Too many reading this doesn’t see themselves as nod-and-a-wink practitioners when they are. It’s tough to recognize yourself or your organization when you have been looking the other way so long that it’s tough to recognize the danger any longer. Consider the following dangerous working conditions that are largely ignored by some companies:

  • Distracted Driving. I’m sure were all good and tired of hearing about distracted driving. We know dangers of distracted driving and yet many companies turn a blind eye to it. In fact, in a recent National Safety Council study, over 70% of the people responding said they’d ignored or violated their company’s distracted driving policies. I acknowledge that this policy is difficult if not impossible to enforce, but while this is true, consider the demands we place on people when they’re on the road for protracted periods of time. Sales people are expected to respond to emails, texts, and make phone calls when they’re in transit. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t expect quick response times and distraction free driving; when we do we are practicing nod and a wink safety
    Worker Fatigue. A far more insidious and potentially more deadly problem is worker fatigue. No worker or is immune to the effects of worker fatigue—we’ve all worked long hours at one point or another in our career. But nod-and-a-wink safety practitioners allow, and sometimes even endorse, long hours followed by long commutes that place the worker at significant risk. This issue has been a problem in the workforce since the workforce existed. People have been asked to work double shifts (and then return to work their normal shift), work long hours seven days a week, work swing shifts, and generally work longer and harder than we expect. On top of that, we forget that the workers have to get home somehow. When calculating the work day we seldom include the worker’s commute, and even a short commute can be deadly
    Contractor Training. As I was walking my dogs the other day I watched aghast as roofers worked on a neighbor’s house. I mentally counted at least ten major hazards that put the workers’ in harm’s way. I did mention to the crew leader some of the more egregious violations and he thanked me and I walked away. The next day the crew was right back at it, nothing had changed. Much the same goes on in the workplace. nod-and-a-wink practitioners are often deliberately ignorant of contractor behavior and when the contractors screw up, it’s not always them who get killed.
    All of these situations have something in common: the workers, safety practitioners, company and customers have a vested interest in not taking too close a look at the situation. In effect, they collude to perpetuate these dangerous situations. The worker may not enjoy long hours, but many are generally willing (or even eager) to work the overtime to earn extra money, the company wants to get the job done, the customer doesn’t want to pay the added cost associated with adding more workers and doesn’t want to delay the project, and the nod-and-a-wink safety practitioner will go along to get along. These issues are so pervasively ignored that worker fatigue or distraction are seldom identified as causes in incident investigations.

What’s the Solution?
If these issues are going to be solved, we need engagement at all levels. Senior leadership needs to understand that there’s a connection between distraction while driving and the demands the organization put upon drivers, to understand that overworking the workforce has a cost, and to recognize the interrelationship between contractor safety and overall safety in the workplace. Safety Professionals need to try to minimize the risk by proposing better solutions that are practical, and workers must take more active role in their own safety. Getting engagement starts with respect; preaching isn’t the same as teaching and awareness is the same as commitment between two adults.

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If A Temp Dies On The Job, Does It Count?


By Phil La Duke

 “There’s a sense that a new guy’s life isn’t worth as much cos he hasn’t put his time in yet.” Chris Taylor, Platoon

“Temp” as in temporary; a temporary person. The designation shows how much value we tend to place on those in the workforce who won’t be around very long. It doesn’t make much sense to throw away money on something you don’t intend to keep, and so it is for the safety of a growing number of temporary workers and contractors who, in the eyes of so many employers (and too many of their safety professionals) don’t count as much as long-term employees.
Increasingly, companies have been out-sourcing the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs to smaller firms and replacing full time workers with contract employees or temporary workers, “temps”.
I urge you to watch the attached youtube video. It tells the story of a young worker, Larry Daquan “Day” Davis, who landed his first job as a temporary worker at a Barcardi plant in Florida. Spoiler alert: he is killed 90 minutes into the first job he has ever had. The video is brief, and it isn’t overly melodramatic and won’t try to manipulate your emotions by tugging at your heart strings.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNcsTRQNZLE 
Who’s to blame for young “Day” Davis’s life? An executive who refused to invest in a safer workplace? maybe. A plant manager who failed to correct a known hazard? maybe. An over-zealous operations manager who valued production at all costs? maybe. The foreman who sent Davis into harm’s way unsupervised? maybe. The human resource manager who decided that Davis didn’t need adequate training (and before someone sounds off that I don’t KNOW that he had inadequate training, let me just say that if you are placed in a position that can kill you 90 minutes into your first job you probably haven’t been trained well enough. I will even go so far as to say that if you get killed on the job in this way you don’t have the skills to even be on a manufacturing floor, let alone crawling around in a machine’s blind spot.) maybe. Or even an indifferent safety professional who figured he or she had enough to do and didn’t have time to worry about the safety of a “temp”? maybe.  I don’t know that any of these things were true on that fateful August day, but I DO know that these attitudes toward tempory workers and contractors exist in enough workplaces to make this a problem; a big problem.

It Was An Accident
No one, at least so far as can be ascertained, set out to kill young Day Davis on his first day of work, not even two full hours into his first shift on his first job. Never-the-less, Davis died horrifically before he even got his first paycheck. This happened, August 16, 2012, and the fallout wasn’t exactly earth-shattering. OSHA cited Barcardi with 12 violations and recommended a fine of $192,000; the price you pay for ending a young worker’s life. There was no public outcry, no one organized boycotts against Barcardi, no criminal charges were filed; when it comes to temps nobody seems to care all that much. The death of a temp is a shame and little else.
Because Contractors “Don’t Count”

Years ago I was talking to a safety professional about the death of a contractor at one of the facilities for which he was responsible. When I asked about the fatality he said, “it was a contractor, so it didn’t count” he said before catching himself. I won’t beat up on him, he felt worse about the death than a lot of people would have, but his immediate reaction is telling. We as safety professionals (and companies) have become so concerned with measurements and statistics that we are losing touch with the human side of safety. When our first reaction at the death or serious injury of a contractor is relief that it doesn’t count against our body count we have lost our way; we are seriously out of touch with all the safety slogans, and philosophies, and zero-injury goals that plaster the wall.
It’s easy to see how the idea that contractors and temps “don’t count” developed. Laws against “co-employment” muddy the waters regarding just who may be legally trained without violating the tax code and who may not. For the record, as I understand it, employers have a shared responsibility for training temporary workers and contractors on safety. What then, constitutes safety training? I doubt that Day received the basic training required by law, given that he was killed less than two hours into his career, but suppose he had? Would Hazard Communication and Right-To-Know or some hackneyed safety orientation have saved him? I doubt it. But if he had been given training such that he would have understood how the equipment worked and what it did he might have recognized the dangers and been able to save his life.
The Client-Company Must Step Up
Too often companies hire contractors and hope for the best, when it comes to worker safety. They count on the employers of record to meet the government standards for safety, but too often the contract house or temp agency lacks the resources to provide adequate training to their workers, and many and more couldn’t care less. The contract employment business is a cut-throat industry where clients squeeze margins tighter and tighter and temps and contractors are increasingly forced to cut costs just to survive. What’s more, many contractors have few enough employees that many government regulations may not apply to them. The end result is that increasingly, young workers, immigrants, and working poor are put at severe risk.
While I don’t let the temp agencies and contract houses off the hook they don’t often know the specific working conditions in which one of their workers will be placed. In many cases, minimally trained recruiters race against the clock to get workers placed in their client’s facilities. And the worse the safety of the client the higher the turn over, creating a churning of workers; it’s a perfect situation for disaster.
It’s A Matter of Ethics
Some will argue that temp workers and contractors fill a valuable niche and that some industries would be unable to compete were it not for these workers. I say that companies who employ temps to avoid becoming employers of record, or who churn employees every 89 days to prevent them from becoming full time, or who otherwise look for the cheapest labor and balk at even the smallest investment in safety should be run out of the business.  Many temps work in a climate of fear so pervasive that the merest mention of a reluctance to work in an unsafe situation brings the threat of dismissal.  A worker (not a temp) once told me, that we have to get our safety under control or the company will move our jobs to a country that doesn’t care about safety, but in the minds of temps they already live in  a country that doesn’t care about their safety.

If You Don’t Act Who Will?

Before you dismiss this as more of my ranting and outrageous provocation consider the fate of your children, or grandchildren as they enter the workforce desperate for work and grateful for their first jobs. Imagine your pride as you see them go off to what will be the first step towards a long and successful career, and then imagine them dead on a filthy factory floor, crushed to death like Day Davis. Imagine them killed, because in the minds of too many employers they were nothing more than temps, who, after all, just don’t matter.

p.s. Bacardi’s fine for the death of Day Davis was since reduced by $80,000; temp agency fine was $0.

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Why We Violate the Rules Revisited


 

By Phil La Duke

I thought I would close out distracted driver awareness month with a bit of a tangent, because frankly, I’m probably even more tired of writing about it as you are of reading about it. But as tangential as this post is, there is indeed a connection to driving while distracted.

Several weeks ago I spoke at the Michigan Safety Conference on Why We Violate The Rules based on an article I wrote for my column in Metal Working & Fabricating. It was a popular article and it has become a widely requested speech.  After the presentation, one of the true thought leaders in worker safety and a very accomplished safety professional whom I admire and respect asked one[1] of the best questions I have ever been asked and it was related to driving while distracted: how do you enforce an unenforceable rule.  The context was relative to a conversation that grew out of the answer to a previous question and the discussion centered on enforcing rules that prohibit the use of smart devices and texting while driving.  I read a statistic recently that over 70% of the respondents admitted to violating or ignoring their companies’ rules limiting or prohibiting texting or cell phone use.  My answer was quick, as is my nature, and extemporaneous which is fairly characteristic of me, and I’d like to think, pretty close to on the money. I said that if you want a rule to be followed irrespective of the possibility of enforcement the rule has to be value-based.

Values-Based[2] Rules versus Compliance Based Rules

There are two different kinds of rules[3]: Values-based rules are the guiding behaviors that are an outgrowth of the population’s shared values.  We tend to follow these rules because we believe that not following them is morally wrong, outside our cultural norms, or otherwise intrinsically distasteful.  While I’m fond of saying, jokingly, that the only thing keeping some people alive is the laws against killing them, I believe that most people would not commit murder, or rape, or assault if it were legal.  These are rules that are values-based and we follow them because we judge doing so as the right thing to do.  Compliance-based rules are different; we follow them because we don’t want to risk the unpleasant consequences.  Many people exceed the speed limit, drive like they have been pithed or violate any number of traffic laws; and yet few of these people feel like they have done anything morally repugnant. So either most people who violate traffic (or parking laws) are sociopaths or, and I think more likely, they are merely complying when they fear enforcement is imminent.

Violating a values-based rule can turn a person into a social leper and a pariah but violating compliance-based rules can turn an individual into a folk hero. The basic and essential difference is we care very deeply about values-based rules and really don’t give a rip about compliance-based rules[4].

Is a rule really a rule if there is no reasonable expectation of compliance?

Can we really say that something is a rule if over two-thirds of the population ignore it with impunity? There is some precedence in English common law that could be interpreted as saying that if the law (or for our purposes the rule) is neither followed nor enforced that it is, in fact, not a law at all.[5]  In organizations an employee disciplined for violating a rule that over 70% of the company also violates could construct a pretty solid argument for selective enforcement[6].  So why have a rule that people aren’t going to follow? Well for one, it makes us feel better.  It appeals to the three-year old in all of us who is going to run and tell.  It also appeals to the cranky old man in us who shakes his craggy fist at the sky and rails about how there oughta be a law! Like so many other things in safety it makes us feel like we are doing something of substance when we aren’t really doing anything at all.  And before you say that it “covers your…assets” consider that the widespread failure to comply and likewise failure to enforce opens you up for potential asset damage.

Making the compliance-based value-based

My first instinct is to say, throw out rules that are merely compliance based unless the compliance is rooted in the law. If you’re employee handbook is choked with rules because some vacant suit in the executive suite went off his meds and had a conniption fit because someone committed the sin of committing one of his pet peeves or atavistic rules that try to preserve the good old days of polio you are better off getting rid of the rules.  But if the rule is something like “don’t use your cell phone or text while driving”, you have to change the rule from being a compliance-based rule to a values-based rule; this can be tough with rules like this because the rules are lagging behind societal norms.  A reasonable person (hell a completely unreasonable baboon) could have predicted that texting, reading emails, dialing phones, and any of the other things associated with driving while seriously distracted would lead to disaster, and yet we missed that.  We had to wait until people started dying at an alarming rate, until railroad engineers had to derail the trains they were driving killing scores of people, in short, until the problem had reached epidemic proportions.  Even so, many of us did these things without killing anyone, or even almost killing someone, so the behavior continued until it became socially acceptable.  I don’t have the space this week to offer suggestions on how to make the socially acceptable socially unacceptable, but I promise to revisit the topic and share some tips.  I warn you though, reversing the course isn’t easy once the genie is out of the bottle, but then, what choice do we have?

[1] I say this not to suck up, but to establish that this wasn’t just some crackpot trying to play stump the speaker and I’m not going to name drop, especially since he doesn’t know I am writing this.  Not that I am above name-dropping mind you, but only if it suits my purposes.

[2] Technically this should probably be “value-based” instead of “values-based”; the change is deliberate. I want to distinguish between values as in those deep-seated beliefs that govern our decisions and behaviors versus a rule that we place some sort of contrived value.

[3] I’m sure if I gave it enough thought I could come up with a metric ton of kinds of rules, but for today’s purposes let’s just deal with two.

[4] I think it’s worth noting (and essential to ward off the mouth-breathers) to point out that the two types of rules need not be mutually exclusive.  One can follow a rule because it is deeply ingrained in one’s values AND because one fears enforcement.

[5] I’m not a lawyer, I have no license to practice law, (although I often lie about being a lawyer to impress women) and anyone who construes this as legal advice is so stupid they are probably worth more to society in parts.

[6] The practice of using the rules to persecute individuals who you dislike or to mask discrimination against a protected class.

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All Distractions Are Not Created Equally


 

By Phil La Duke

Continuing my series on driver distraction (April is National Distracted Driver Awareness month in the U.S.)

I’m alarmed at how cavalier U.S. drivers have become about risk. I travel via car a lot and have seen some really recklessness on the road. While much of that recklessness is related to driver distraction I am also alarmed at what I see is a knee-jerk reaction to the risks of driver distraction. The use of smart devices while driving, even when using hands-free devices, present a significant risk to driver and pedestrian safety, but it seems like the safety pundits have extrapolated that ALL distractions while driving pose approximately the same risk; and this is just another example of the kind of reactionary thinking that creates unenforceable and irrational policies.

Most People Ignore Smart Device Policies

A recent poll by the National Safety Council found that 70% of respondents admitted that they knowingly violate their companies’ policies regarding the use of smart devices while driving. This is an alarming statistic until you really think about it. Ask yourself have you ever sent a text while waiting at a stop light? Does that constitute texting while driving? I don’t really have a dog in this fight. My company has a policy that forbids the use of smart devices while driving and it is very specific in its wording, so I know that texting at while stopped at a traffic light is forbidden. I follow our policy, but it wasn’t easy at first. I found it irritating and distracting that I couldn’t check my email while stopped at a light, and I was irritated by the time wasted in long drives where, I reasoned, I could get more done if I could just talk on the phone. But my company culture is very strong on this issue and because I was new to organization, the drive to conform was strong. I soon found that complying took a lot of stress out of my day and that my car rides were less stressful.

The Cry Goes Out Against “Other Distractions”

And so the witch hunt against driver distractions begins. What about conversations with passengers? What about gawking at an accident? What about a pretty girl in a short skirt? What about playing with the radio? What about GPSs? What about…just about anything you can think of that can distract you? There are already companies with initiatives underway to ban all driver distraction. With these efforts there is a renewed question in the minds of the organization: are safety professionals naturally soft in the head? It’s a fair question, when people see policies that ban everything from reading a book while driving to changing the station on the car radio it begs the question “how far out of touch is the safety function”?

Driving While Distracted Remains Dangerous

There has been a spate of recent studies that confirm that distracted driving is a serious threat to public safety, and the findings are troubling:

  • Studies have shown that driving while distracted is roughly as dangerous as being moderately intoxicated, but this is a dubious finding.
  • Further studies have shown little to no difference in driver distraction while using hands-free devices instead of traditional cellular devices
  • There are even studies that show that talking to a passenger is as dangerous as being distracted by phone use while driving.
  • Finally there are studies that find that numerous other distractions pose significant risk—from the use of global positioning systems to fighting children.

So if we combine these findings we essentially conclude that driving with any amount of distraction is as dangerous as driving while impaired by alcohol use. Unfortunately, this conclusion is completely wrong, and here’s why:

  • Distractions that cause the driver to take his or her eyes of the road are far more dangerous than distractions that don’t. Studies (I know AGAIN with the studies) have shown that the dangers of texting while driving are INCREASED by laws against texting. Why? Because the prohibition didn’t stop the behavior, in fact, people who ordinarily used to text while holding the phone such that they could keep their eyes on the road would now text while holding the phone down to avoid detection. The unintended consequence was that incidence of texting while driving did not fall the dangers associated with it increased.[1]
  • The amount of time distracted is more of a hazard than the distraction alone. According to the National Safety Council it takes, on average, 15 seconds to send a text message and roughly the same amount of time to receive and read one. Imagine closing your eyes for 30 seconds while driving 70 miles an hour. I’ll do the math: 70 mph=.58 miles in 30 seconds=103 feet per second, or the length of a football field for ever text processed while driving. Compare that to looking over at a passenger while you converse with him or her. If your passenger is sane and you look at them for 30 seconds while going 70 miles an hour they are likely to yell, “watch the (expletive) road you (expletive) maniac”!! I don’t have a study to support this assertion, just a proverb, two sets of eyes are better than one. I think it’s irresponsible for pundits to perpetuate the idea that talking to a passenger in a car is as dangerous as texting.
  • There is always some level of distraction; we have to pick our battles. Before we had phones and GPS systems that could provide us turn-by-turn directions we had Mapquest (and before that Triptix or the good old fashion maps) There aren’t any studies to tell us how much more dangerous reading directions from a piece of paper are as compared to operating a GPS or using turn-by-turn directions. The base line data was never collected because people reasoned that maps on paper where the only way people were going to get to an unfamiliar location. While I’m sure that there were numerous accidents caused by people reading maps there is no way to support that turn by turn directions are safer. I will say that turn by turn directions require the driver to take his or her eyes of the road far less frequently than a paper map and intuitively I believe it to be safer.

Instead of fighting driver distraction beyond texting and using a phone without hands-free capability I say we begin a campaign against driving like an ass. Over the last ten years I have seen a marked increase in drivers who don’t use turn signals, make illegal turns, speed, follow too close, cut off other drivers, and generally drive like a drug-addled baboon. They weren’t distracted; they were inconsiderate jerks who live without consequences. As long as we remain silent instead of notifying our local police departments that more people need to be stopped and ticketed for these behaviors the problem will only get worse.

[1] This is not to say that texting while watching the road was a safe or smart practice but it was marginally less unsafe than before the law was passed.

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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

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

Six Simple Ways to Change Your Life


by Phil La Duke

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

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

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

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

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

Your Success May Hinge On Your Alignment With The Organization’s Maturity


misalignment_pics_small

By Phil La Duke

In recent weeks I have used this forum to explore the rift between business executives and safety professionals.  This disconnection between the two parties is a serious issue facing many of today’s safety professionals and one that promises to get far worse before it gets any better. In the course of my considerable work in safety transformations and safety organization change consulting[1] I’ve spent considerable time working with members of both sides of the argument and I can see real validity to the opinions of both the executives and the safety professionals.

The Argument Is Seldom About The Problem; It’s About the Solution.

When you consider the collective complaints of safety professionals about executives or vice versa, the parties seldom disagree that there is a problem—if workers are getting injured neither party is happy—rather the parties quibble about the details: how big is the problem? what is the best course of action? how urgent is the problem? It would seem that these details would be fertile ground for compromise, unfortunately the roots of the argument over approach and details are deeply philosophical and neither side is likely to give up ground without a vicious fight. The answer to each of these issues is imprinted by both sides’ philosophical approach.  What’s the best course of action? Leadership may believe that the bare minimum compliance is the best, and most fiscally responsible course of action, whereas the safety professional may advocate in favor of a more involved and costly approach that will address not only the symptoms but will serve to build a foundational model that will be applicable to other functions as well.

It’s Not A Question of Right Versus Wrong

A colleague of mine at ERM has done truly terrific work in organizational maturity mapping.   Organizations mature along a predictable pattern in all their management systems; they tend to begin in chaos move toward event-driven and compliance focused, on to behavior-driven and a process focused, and ultimately mature into organizations that are enterprise-driven, and performance focused. Unfortunately, not all functions mature at the same pace.  Sometimes the safety function progress far slower than the rest of the organization, and this misalignment typically leads to the swift replacement of the safety leadership in favor of personnel more closely aligned with the overall organization’s maturity level.  In other words, if the executives are behavior-driven and process focused, but the safety function tends to remain event-driven and compliance-focused the executives will tend replace key safety personnel with people who have ideas closer to their own.

What’s far more common is a safety function that is enterprise-driven and performance-focused in an organization that is lagging behind in maturity.  Imagine an organization where the leadership remains focused on compliance and driven by events but where the safety function is pushing for an enterprise-wide approach that is performance-focused.  The leadership, convinced that the organization is safe enough and that any further investment to take the organization beyond mere compliance is unwarranted in the best case and wastrel in the worst.  The safety professionals begin to see the leadership as shortsighted or even uncaring.  The executives, for their part, start to see the safety professionals as softheaded spendthrifts. Both sides begin to harbor resentment until one party (usually the safety professional) bubbles up in frustration and does something stupid and unprofessional like cussing out a colleague or becoming openly disrespectful to the other party.  This type of event may or may not lead to the dismissal of the offending party.  More likely than not, the event will seemingly be ignored (but not forgiven or forgotten) until some other event (like a reduction in staff) makes it easy to dispose of one side or the other without confrontation of unpleasantness.

Expediting Organizational Maturity

While it’s impossible to skip a step in the organizational maturity continuum, it is possible (and important) to understand where your organization currently stands and, with guidance, one can expedite the move towards a more mature organization; I won’t get into that (why provide any more free consulting than need be?), except to say that trying to push organizational maturity without sufficient expertise can be dangerous to the safety professional’s career. People will eventually accept change, but they seldom forgive it.

When Culture Conflicts With the Individual, Culture Wins

If you’re a safety professional misaligned with the corporate culture you have some decisions to make. If you can be happy working in an organization that is behind you on the maturity continuum it’s no great effort to do the job and do it well.  The key is to understand that the current state is neither permanent nor dependent on the current leadership.  The organization will evolve and change when it is ready to, and (lacking outside intervention) there is nothing to do but patiently wait.  But if you are a safety professional who cannot stand waiting for the organization to catch up to you, you would be better served by seeking an organization more closely aligned to your particular philosophic approach. Staying on and throwing tantrums or becoming completely disengaged doesn’t do you or your organization any good.

Misalingment between the maturity of the safety function and the overall organization is one of the most common sources of frustration and animosity  in workplaces today. The adage, “a house divided against itself, cannot stand” has never been more true than when safety and leadership have different visions.


[1] I understand the fact that I actually work in the safety profession comes as a shock to many of the mouth-breathers who assume, without fact one, that I am merely a safety blogger and journalist.  Never under estimate the stupidity of some people.

Filed under: culture change, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

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