Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

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


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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.

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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.

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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.”

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

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

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

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

I’m Only Doing My Job

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

Life Without Consequences

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

It’s Not Always The Jerk’s Fault

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

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

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

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

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

Creating a Culture of Safety Excellence


by Phil La Duke

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

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

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

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

Culture versus Climate

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

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

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

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

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

The Shadow of the Leader

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

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Dysfunctional Management Breeds Dysfunctional Operations

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

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

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

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

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

Why Does The Organization Have To Change

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

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

Making the Case For Change

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

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

The Cost Of Safety

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

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

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

Why Create A Compelling Vision For Success?

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

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Creating a Compelling Vision of Success

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

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Culture And Habit

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

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

Focusing On Getting It Right

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

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

To mimic these companies’ successes, you should:

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

Crafting Next Steps

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

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

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

Training

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

Process Capability

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

Hazard and Risk Management

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

Incident Investigation

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

Strategy Deployment

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

Accountability

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

Engagement

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

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

Create a Cultural Infrastructure: Embed Safety Into Your Operational Practices

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

Never Underestimate the Importance of Empowerment

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

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

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

Breaking News: Events


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

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

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

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

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

Speaking Gigs You Might Not Want To Miss

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

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

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

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

For more information:

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

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

This presentation is also based on one of my articles:

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

and for more information on the Michigan Safety Conference:

http://www.michsafetyconference.org/

What Else?

Twitter

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

Health & Safety International magazine

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

ISHN

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

ASSE

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

National Safety Council Safety Conference and Expo

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

Guest Lectures

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

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

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

Private Keynotes

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

Consulting & Safety Services

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

Check us out at:  www.erm.com

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

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

The Folly Of Safety Reminders


 

Don't forget

by Phil La Duke

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

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

Human Error

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

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

Flawed Decision Making

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

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

Risk Taking

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

Carelessness

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

Recklessness

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

Incenting Safe Behaviors

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

Observations

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

 

 


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

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

If It Feels Like Blame and Shame…It Is


By Phil La Duke

Blame isn't pretty

Blame isn’t pretty

A few weeks ago, I posted “A @#$@ Storm In Texas” a commentary on how alarming it was that The Boston Marathon drew so much media and public attention while the explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas garnered almost no attention outside the professional safety community.  In the introduction that is required when sharing a link in a LinkedIn discussion thread I made the comment that it was time for Safety professionals to “step up or shut up”.  My comment was directed at those safety professionals who, for years, had been bragging up the decrease in worker injuries and “flat” fatalities as if they had single-handedly had ushered in a Golden Age of worker safety.  My contention was that if one claims credit for one circumstance (in this case safety improvements) one must shoulder the blame for circumstances that are disastrous.  I didn’t even imply that safety professionals were responsible for these disasters, and most safety professionals didn’t take it as an accusation.

The harder I tried to point out that if the mouth breathers had actually read the post with even them most rudimentary reading comprehension skills they would understand that I wasn’t assigning blame to anyone in this post. Still the outrage persisted; people who look to take offense will seldom be disappointed.

This is generally where an author writes some simpering apology detailing all the regret that his words may have caused some of the readers; screw that.  I stand by what I WROTE and bear no guilt for what someone infers from my writing, and frankly those who took offense did so solely of there own volition. Whether it be because of fragile egos, general neediness, penchants for drama-queen hissy fits, or legitimate guilty conscious, I refuse to plea mea culpa for something I neither said nor intended. This week, with its flood of crybaby hate mail helped me to realize a deeper truth about one of my favorite targets: Behaviour-Based Safety (BBS).

One of the strongest criticisms of BBS is that it “blames the worker”, this tends to be dismissed by BBS proponents as patently untrue and a construct of organized labour who, they contend, oppose BBS because it holds workers accountable for unsafe behaviours.  For the record, I don’t speak for organized labour, but their opposition to BBS goes far beyond the propensity, in its mind, for BBS to blame the workers.  Furthermore, it isn’t just organized labour that accuse BBS of fomenting a “blame and shame” environment.  So who’s right? I really struggled with this, because a) some really bright people who I respect immensely support BBS and they assure me that BBS doesn’t blame workers for injuries and b) I have first-hand knowledge of BBS systems that HAVE created environments where workers feel as if they are being blamed for being injured.

Intent Is Meaningless

The backlash from the Texas post taught me a lot about blame and shame, and, in so doing, taught me a lot about BBS and blame. First, and most importantly, if someone feels blamed and shamed, they ARE blamed and shamed.  Blame is something someone does, but the resulting shame is a feeling wholly originating within the recipient. We can’t control how we FEEL and if we feel that we are being blamed than our emotional reaction is the same as if we were actually being blamed.  So perception, not intention is key.  Whether or not I intend to blame someone for being injured—and this applies not just to BBS but to any safety system where workers feel as if they are being punished, denied reward, or ostracized for an injury—is effectively immaterial, what matters is whether or not the other person feels blamed.  It should matter whether or not we intend to create those feelings, but it doesn’t; if people feel persecuted there really isn’t any emotional difference between that state and instances where the person is indeed being persecuted.  It’s a bit like the old saying, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that everyone isn’t out to get you”; perception IS reality.

Right and Wrong Don’t Matter

Emotions are powerful, often ugly things.  Hit someone at a visceral level and you are likely to see a side of them you would have preferred had gone forever undisclosed.  Whether the person has correctly interpreted your words and intentions or is so far off base that they leave you wondering if they are from this planet, in the end it doesn’t matter if they are right or wrong in their conclusions, the emotion still remains and we need to deal with them.

Guilt By Proxy

People love incentive programs—I’ve seen grown men and women sink to the pettiest of indignities for a free baseball hat with a logo on it or some dopey trinket that they neither want nor need—but even the finest incentive program can leave feeling people left out, blamed, and victimized simply because they didn’t get a prize.  The person who blows the safety BINGO by being injured may feel blamed and shamed (irrespective of intent, stay with me people). Even the person who doesn’t get recognized for contributing a suggestion to make the work place safety may intensely resent the person who receives the award who eventually begins to feel blamed.

When Is Enough Truly Enough

Political correctness and sensitivity witch-hunts happen when an organization worries so much about the potential for offending a minority of the population that it takes ridiculous measures to prevent anyone from ever possibly taking offense.  Should we buckle under to the pressure to make sure that no one gets offended? It will come, I’m sure, as no surprise that I think people should grow up.  I am against any attempt to deliberately offend people for offense’s sake, but do we really have to shut down programs that the wide majority of the people in our organization like and enjoy simply because someone complains? I think not.  Sometimes people just need to feel the hurt and let it go.  The real question is how much inadvertent blame and hurt feelings can your organization tolerate? Emotions are powerful and difficult to defuse and they can lead to everything to strikes to workplace violence, so we can’t just decide to let the crybabies whine.  Where is the line between common sense and political correctness? I don’t know and frankly that is really for each organization to decide, but as is so often the case I don’t know where the line is until after I have crossed it.

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

Pulling Safety Out Of Its Rut: The Value of A Different Look At Safety


By Phil La Duke

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Let’s be clear, there is no such thing as a safe workplace. Sure we can slap each other on the back and brag to one another about the four years without a recordable injury and we can tell ourselves that we have achieved a Utopian risk free workplace but the reality is, there is always some probability that a worker will be harmed in the course of doing his or her job.

While the level of success in lowering the risk of injuries varies from organization to organization, its fair to say that we can all do better. (For you smug “I haven’t had an injury in my organization in 23 years” readers, I say look harder, do you have near misses? First aid cases? If you think the answer to those questions is “no” you are delusional. You might as well stop reading, because you will never understand the error of your ways until your next fatality; and believe me one is coming.) The problem isn’t just in the way we view safety, it’s also in the fact that for about 30 years the view of safety has remained largely unchallenged.  Consensus thinking on a complex problem leads to a convoluted mess, and in this case safety vendors—both the well meaning and the snake-oil salesmen—capitalize on the confusion to carve out lucrative livelihoods. When people make their livings off the status quo, they aren’t highly motivated to make substantive changes. In fact, most will fight like pumas to preserve their intellectual turf.

The problem with the same old thinking is that it implies that we have forever solved the problem. It’s as if safety is a static problem when in fact, safety is dynamic; every time there is a change in the workplace (which is constant—if nothing else every piece of equipment is getting older. Parts where out, workers get older and aren’t as physically capable as they were the day before. Without intervention, everything in the workplace is becoming more and more risky. Applying a static solution to a dynamic problem lies at the heart of disaster. Too many organizations miss this fact as they pursue improved worker safety. The approach most organizations take to making the workplace safer hasn’t really changed in the last 30 (if not 100 years). Effectively the solution is to modify the workers such that they are better able to interact with workplace hazards.

 “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”—Albert Einstein

If there is to be any sort of important, transformational innovation in workplace safety we have to think differently and explore radically different methods for reducing workplace risk; in short, we have to view safety in a revolutionary new way; we have to think differently.

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” —Albert Einstein

I understand that many of you don’t see the problem, after all, things are getting better—injuries are down, fatalities are flat, and in general the workplace seems safer, or at very least safe enough.  But people still get hurt on the job, people still die in industrial accidents. So perhaps you should consider that another approach is necessary.

“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”—Albert Einstein

It’s tempting to think that if we are getting good results doing what were doing then there is no real reason to change; if it aint broke, don’t fix it.  But emerging technology, slackening protections for workers, and socioeconomic changes relative to the business climate combine to create a drastically different workplace than we have previously experienced. We need to worry less about the procedural, less about the logical and more about the possible.

“Think Different”—Steven Jobs

Co-founder of Apple, Steven Jobs has had the greatest impact on our lives since Thomas Edison. When he returned to Apple he adopted the slogan, “Think Different”.  Others at Apple protested, “Think Different” they argued was grammatically incorrect, and should rightfully read “think differently, or think ‘different’”.  But Jobs had a specific meaning in mind. He wanted people to think “different”. Not differently from the way they were currently thinking, although that was certainly part of it. No, Jobs saw the credo as a call for thinking that was tangibly out of the mainstream. It was almost as he was calling for a visualization of exactly what the manifestation of what “different” looks like. It was more than a challenge; it was the defiant sneer of a mind that would change the world. If ever there was a place where thinking “different” is needed, it is in the world of worker safety.

Okay…So What?

It’s easy to hammer out a thousand words or so on the need for us to look beyond the traditional in worker safety, but without specifics how useful is the advice?  While the need for change in safety is considerable, the most critical changes need to come in these areas:

  • The Role of The Safety Professional.  Seeing the safety professional as the wizened old mage who is the arbiter of all things safety is outmoded.  Whether these sages are policemen or consultants, it’s time to imagine a completely different safety function. One where the decision making relative to safety isn’t housed in the safety office to be meted out by the safety engineer, rather where knowledge is widely distributed throughout population and decision-making regarding safety resides with empowered workers at all levels.
  • The View of Behavior As Causation.  Yes, unsafe behavior gets people injured and killed, but the BBS pundits have got to stop acting as if they have discovered the God Particle.  There is a dearth of understanding of sociology, neurology, brain function, group dynamics, anthropology, and even psychology underpinning too many BBS “solutions” (the only solutions offered by many BBS systems is to keep the providers well feed with full pockets). The question isn’t whether or not unsafe behaviors create heightened risk of injuries, but whether or not we can influence those behaviors to the extent that it will lower the risk of injuries.  If you considers other problems associated with populations—crime, poverty, war, etc.—governments haven’t had much luck solving these problems by modifying individuals behaviors; what makes us think we can be more successful in worker safety?
  • The View of Safety As A Discrete Element.  Trying to managing safety in a vacuum, that is, without considering Quality, Delivery, Cost, Morale, and Environment is like herding cats.  If you don’t treat the efficiency of your organization holistically, you will most likely shift problems from one area of the company to another.
  • Prevention. A couple of weeks ago I posted “Requiem for Prevention”. In that piece I talked at length about how we needed to siphon some of the effort that we currently put into prevention and refocus it on protecting workers when prevention fails.  We need to radically reinvent our view of prevention and how to balance it with contingency planning.
  • Treating Injuries As Somehow Different From Other Process Failures.  Safety professionals need to be re-envisioned as problem solvers and process improvement specialists; as utility players on the team. Safety professionals should be capable of making improvements across the SQDCME spectrum; more generalist and less specialized.
  • The View of Safety As A Sacred Calling.  Yes, safety is the right thing to do, sure it’s moral, yes…blah, blah, blah…admit it; we don’t save lives. We aren’t doctors, we aren’t searching for a cure for cancer.  The best we can hope to claim is that we might have saved a life in the course of our careers. We need to stop elevating what we do above the jobs of those we serve.

“You May Say I’m A Dreamer, But I’m Not The Only One”—John Lennon

I realize that a good number of you are bristling about what you’ve read here.  That uneasiness you’re feeling is the first stage to opening your mind.  You need to open your mind and stare into the abyss, because if you don’t you have no capacity to change. Those who have no capacity to change and adapt are on the express train to extinction. Open your mind, if you leave us too soon you’ll be missed.

Filed under: Behavior Based Safety, Safety, Safety Culture, , , , , ,

Can OSHA Survive the Fiscal Cliff?


By Phil La Duke

Two debates rage these days, one regarding the most appropriate response to the so-called fiscal cliff, and the other concerning the effectiveness and the continued need for worker safety regulations.  The convergence of these two debates makes the future of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) both as a law and as an enforcement agency.

For some, the real question is not “will OSHA survive?” but “should it?” The lessons of the rapacious deregulation—the housing crisis, the orgy of banking abuses, and the rape of the poor resultant from usurious payday loan businesses—go largely unlearned or ignored, by those who argue that OSHA is an anachronism.  In effective and bloated, they assert, it’s time for OSHA to go.

For others, OSHA is a sacred cow; to even suggest that OSHA needs to be reorganized is blasphemy. In their minds to dismantle OSHA is tantamount to abandoning safety to the unscrupulous businesses that use workers like chattel.  Without OSHA, they argue, a hundred years of safety will be unceremoniously unraveled.

Both the debate over the fiscal cliff and over the need for, and relevance of, safety regulations, belie deeper conflicts; both are expressions over values.  In the case of the fiscal cliff debates people are arguing if things we as a society are worth the money we currently spending on them, in other words, are we getting our money’s worth for the things we collectively purchase. For many, this debate is about a very basic principle: the role of government.  Some see the fiscal crisis as a golden opportunity to significantly reduce big government, while others see it as an essential battle to defend decades of social advancement. Add to this debate, international controversy surrounding whether or not safety requirements have become excessive and overly burdensome. At the heart of this debate is whether or not we believe that business, left to its own designs, will do the right thing in terms of protecting workers.

I won’t take a side in these debates, but I will say that OSHA is likely to be the big loser.  To some degree OSHA has been the victim of its own success. We just don’t see disasters on the scale of the Triangle Shirt Waist fire anymore.  The success of safety regulation and enforcement has created a global public opinion (far from the consensus, but with enough sympathizers to make it significant) that the workplace is safe enough, and even if isn’t there is scarce little that government can do about it.

OSHA currently lacks the resources to do much more than to respond to complaints.  It offers a myriad of valuable free services that most businesses refuse to use. I have actively promoted OSHA’s free products and services among my customers to whom I consult only to be told that I was crazy if I thought they were going to invite OSHA into their facilities. Each one ended up paying me to do what they could have received free from OSHA. If OSHA is to survive, it needs to proactively cut funding for VPP, training, and its other highly valuable and disappointingly under-used programs and reallocate a portion of the monies saved to investigation and enforcement. Doing so will not only create public good-will as it sees OSHA as actively participating in cost reduction; it will also raise public awareness of the programs.  Increased funding for enforcement will likely bring to light the true state of safety in business today.  Perhaps there will be public outcry at widespread abuses by business or perhaps it will confirm what many believe: that business in America today value safety and do a good job protecting workers. In either event, the public good is served.

For the many of the great unwashed (and uninformed) have been swayed by campaign ads that safety costs jobs. Politicians play free and lose with insinuations that workers had better toughen up and decide whether they want to safe at work or to be unemployed. And if safety costs jobs, it follows that OSHA is a government agency dedicated to eliminating jobs, forcing high-paying low-skill jobs off shores where foreigners do the jobs for pennies on the dollar. If you believe that OSHA does this then you believe that the government is essentially spending your tax dollars to screw you out of your livelihood. Forget whether or not OSHA can survive in this environment and worry can America survive in this environment.

Safety professionals haven’t helped OSHA’s cause.  The propagation of the belief that 90% (or more) of safety is behavioral has created (in addition to a cottage industry of snake-oil salesmen) a belief that OSHA is useless—after all, why have a government agency devoted to ensuring safety by dealing with only 10% or less with the things that actually cause injuries[1] when you can just kick the stupid, lazy, and careless workers in the ass? If one believes that the secret to a safer workplace lies in behavior modification, recognition and reward, and other carrot-and-stick policies that what relevancy does OSHA have? Would we expect OSHA inspectors to audit for motivation? Would it establish standards for recognition and reward?

For many people, OSHA is a vestige of days gone by. They no longer feel the pain of losing loved ones in the workplace and have convinced themselves that it can never happen again. If OSHA hopes to survive (in any meaningful and useful sense, let’s face it there isn’t a politician alive with the gut and gumption to truly end OSHA, but there is a fair chance that it will become so emasculated and underfunded that it will cease to be more than hollow symbol. If OSHA is going to survive and thrive it will have to reinvent itself even if it is only in the public.


[1] For the record I reject the premise that 90% or more of injuries are caused by unsafe behaviors and I understand that OSHA addresses far more than physical hazards and addresses (or seeks to address) behavioral choices through training and awareness.

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

Is BBS just BS?


By Phil La Duke

Recently I was contacted by a student who is earning his degree in preparation for a career in Environmental Health & Safety.  He was given an assignment during his internship to research why Unions oppose Behavior Based Safety (BBS). It seems that in preparing for the assignment he happened across some of my writings that are critical of BBS and he wanted to know why I was so critical of BBS when so much of what I criticized would never be a part of what he was taught was not part of an “effective BBS program”.

First of all, I must applaud the young man for contacting me and asking me to defend my point of view.  I find that the on-going polarization in the debate in safety makes it rare that anyone actually seeks out opposing points of view; it would have been much easier to denounce me as uninformed, a nut, or provocative for provocation’s sake.  That having been said, I was alarmed that so many professors are still teaching BBS as undisputed fact.  This young man described me as one of the few opponents of BBS  he could find.  This is troubling on several levels.  I know of a growing number of people who are increasingly disenchanted with BBS but they openly tell me that they will not publicly criticize it because of the fanatics who shout down all other opinions or research that does not support their world view. In my writing, I admit that I have used very basic criticism of BBS because most people don’t even understand this very rudimentary criticism.

I believe (and I am not by any means alone in this) that BBS is inherently flawed; it’s a dead technology—even in its current state.  Its foundation is based on the erroneous and misleading statistic that 95% of injuries is caused by unsafe behavior.  Most experts that I know doubt the methodology that drew this conclusion. Along the same lines, the methodology Heinrich used to build his pyramid was species and is generally thought to be little more than one man’s opinion (that he reached after asking supervisors for their opinion with no scientific method to back up). Heinrich’s theories are on the periphery of BBS, but I believe there are substantial parallels in methodology.  Anecdotal data isn’t reliable.  Before you cite further studies, I will tell you that I have no respect for research conducted by companies and pundits who have billions in revenue at stake.  How likely are we to ever see the findings should the research prove that BBS is bunk?  I understand the argument that I have criticized older methods; I have heard that over and over again. But given that any criticism I make on a basic level draws, “that’s not the way we do BBS anymore” I remain unmoved. This response is like someone telling me the reason I don’t like eating squirrel and opossum anuses is because I just haven’t had them cooked right. After a while it gets to be like hitting a moving target…forgive me if I don’t continue to seek out the perfectly cooked and seasoned squirrel anus.

And despite the apparently underground outpouring of support for BBS, critics persist. Many companies famous for advocating BBS continue to be accused of encouraging under-reporting of injuries.  BP was once the shining example of BBS successes, do I really have to trot out its safety record?

Too many people continue to make corrections to there BBS as it fails; it’s flawed. It’s time to move past it, salvage what works, and discard the rest.

In other writings, I’ve said the following before, but just to be clear:

  • BBS is based on behavior modification.  When I say this, I either get one of two responses: “so what?” or “you’re over simplifying it”. Most behavior modification experiments ignore how people behave in populations, and safety is about how populations behave, not individuals. Nobody has ever satisfactorily answered this criticism and generally dismiss the statement by telling me that I don’t know what I am taking about.  Illuminate me.
  • People make mistakes; it’s a biological fact.  The reason people make mistakes is NOT because they are being careless. Current theory on mistake making is that the brain deliberately causes us to subconsciously test the safety of adapting by making little experiments.  Sometimes we call them discoveries and sometimes we call them mistakes.  All the observations, and reminders, and training, and all elements of BBS will not change the fact that people make mistakes, but we spend a fortune trying to; it’s misguided.
  • People take risks, and that’s a good thing.  People get up in the morning, they drive to work, they take short cuts, they take risks.  Taking risks are a necessary part of the workplace and BBS tends to pretend that it isn’t.  We need to do a better job of training workers to take risks appropriately and stop telling them to not take risks when we know that they will.
  • People wander away from the standards.  As we perform routine tasks we drift from the standard, BBS tries to address this, but does so amateurishly and ham-fistedly that it is difficult to take it seriously. Basic exercises designed to teach the difficulty in maintaining a standard easily demonstrate the impossibility of sticking to a standard when faced with variability in human behavior.
  • There needs to be a greater focus on protecting people from mistakes. Instead of trying to shape behaviors, organizations should manage the things that tend to cause people to make more mistakes. This approach would not only improve safety but would also improve productivity and quality and other factors as well.
  • One-Size Does Not Fit All.  BBS tends to take a one-size-fits approach, there isn’t an industry, environment, or population that the fanatics won’t claim that BBS is the answer, often before they even know the question.

All that being said, I think that there are elements of BBS that can be useful, but not as long as fanatics keep proselytizing BBS at all costs. There is such a strong population who will not listen to anything that does not proclaim the sanctity of BBS that most of the critics of BBS (and there are lots of us) have stopped talking.

Did you enjoy this blog? Did you find it thought provoking? Why not share it on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn or by sending it to friends and colleagues via email.  I would sure appreciated it and I’m sure they would too.

Filed under: Behavior Based Safety, Loss Prevention, Safety, , , ,

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