Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

Where’s the Value In “Safety Day”?


safety day graphic

By Phil LaDuke

Next week I will be conducting the activities surrounding “safety day”. As leader and as a safety practitioner I was the logical selection. The notion of me getting up in front of a group of associates and trumpeting on about safety one day a year may seem laughable to some of my more loyal readers and downright hypocritical to my devoted detractors.

Years ago, as a relatively young man, I made myself a promise: I would never teach or promote something that I myself didn’t believe in or support. That has made it tough in some cases, as I have had a lot of bosses and customers—internal and external—who wanted me to present what at first blush seemed to be propaganda. It sucks having principles. I was true to those principles and pushed back and challenged the presentation sponsors until I was convinced of the value of the topic.

But “safety day”? I mean…come on, right? Doesn’t taking a day to focus on safety mean by implication that there are 364 days where we can take foolish chances, ignore performance inhibitors (thus making more mistakes) and engage in outright recklessness like some sort of misguided version of The Purge?

I’ve done a lot of soul searching and reflecting on the value of having a “safety day” and it may surprise you to learn that I happen to support safety days, health & safety fairs, and similar efforts provided they are done properly. I happen to think these events serve a number of wonderful purposes and can provide real value by:

  • Taking Stock of Safety. Whenever we pursue a goal we need to stop and take a look around every once in a while to ensure that we are making appropriate progress a safety day isn’t about doing something differently (i.e. working safely for a day) but about gauging the effectiveness of what we are doing better. Think of a well-executed safety day as a way of checking your organization’s pulse in terms of safety.
  • Clarifying your safety messaging. We often cling to safety messages that are either inane, soft-headed, or out dated. Having a safety day is a good way to review the messages are delivered and received. You can open a frank dialog about what messages the organization is hearing and compare that to what you had hoped to communicate. On safety day, people tend to feel more comfortable being candid about the real message being sent (“you tell us you want us to stop work when it’s not safe but then you gig us for lost production.”) Instead of arguing about the veracity of people’s opinions, you should listen to what they are saying. Don’t dismiss it as so much hogwash or griping or whining and recognize that when it comes to messaging perception IS reality irrespective of your view of the world.
  • Celebrating your success. Safety is an ugly business with the best news usually being pretty lousy “hey everybody, we didn’t kill anyone last year! Or our injuries are down, huzzah! Huzzah!” Even so, there is usually plenty to celebrate. By focusing not on injury reductions but on positive, proactive behaviors you can generally find something worth celebrating without being trite or contrived. Even if things are looking pretty dismal you can always celebrate your efforts to improve.
  • Recalibrating your tactics. Everyone plays a role in safety, but unfortunately there is no cast in stone recipe for making the workplace safer. Safety day can be a great time to take a look at your tactics and asking all who participate what is working, what is not working, and why? From hear you can recalibrate your safety tactics and, because most of the organization has participated in deciding what should be done, you will have greater buy-in then if the safety committee had made these decisions in a perceived vacuum.
  • Demonstrating commitment. I am giving up a BIG opportunity to make a series of sales calls so that I can lead safety day at my office. Why? Certainly sales are important, and sales I make have a specific and meaningful impact on my success, but I am choosing (as a partner, no one is forcing me to do this) to lead safety day instead. It’s that important to me. Demonstrating commitment is more than waiving your hands around the room and saying “see how much we value safety? We brought in lunch! We are paying you to be here. It’s about making tough choices and putting aside what might be great sales opportunity or an important client meeting to participate in a day focused on the organization’s safety performance and the importance of committing to people and their safety.
  • Modelling behavior. The world loves a hypocrite, and for whatever reason, people tend to take a hard look at safety practitioners for any sign of hypocrisy. I’ve always thought it was because if you could point out that the safety guy is inconsistent or doesn’t walk the talk it absolves you from ever listening to him or her. If safety truly is important than we have to live it, and living it means planning, supporting, and leading safety. Modelling behavior is so important because it tends to be what people end up doing when they are stressed, working unsupervised, or having to make the tough decisions. If people don’t clearly understand and believe that you value safety—above and beyond the other distractions in your life—then they will only value safety when it suits them; when it’s convenient for them.

So while it may surprise, even shock, some of you come Thursday, I won’t be working on client accounts, writing proposals, or flying off to exotic locales to pitch my wares. Instead I will be meeting with a group of people who I like and respect and having a frank conversation about leading safety.

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

The Expectation of Safety


fish

By Phil LaDuke

I hate the Darwin Awards. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the Darwin Awards are “commemorate those who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it.” Effectively people post stories about people who died doing something stupid. I admit that in the past, I have read these posts and chuckled at the stupid people who died, I’m ashamed that I once felt that way, and anyone who knows me knows that it takes a lot. The Darwin Awards are popular among safety professionals. We like to look down our noses (like I once did) and think, “well yeah, stupid people die don’t they.”

But are the people stupid? Unlucky? How are they different from the rest of us?

I find something about the ubiquitous “funny safety photos” equally loathsome, and here to I admit to having laughed at how many people took stupid risks. But think for a moment about the context in which that photo was taken. Either the photo is staged, in which case it is kind of pointless and not at all funny, or someone, perhaps a safety professional happened upon the scene and instead of immediately correcting the situation, he or she instead took a picture. In these situations seconds count. Every instant of exposure increases the probability that there will be an accident and perhaps a fatality. Let us suppose you are on a jury for this safety professional who instead of correcting the situation decided to take picture for his collection of whacky photos. How would you find on the charge of negligence or depraved indifference? I’m not judging, I’m really not; I wish I could say that I never laughed at these photos or even circulated them, but as a safety professional I had ought to know better.

Dying is Scary

“It’s the same with men as with horses and dogs, nothing wants to die”—Tom Waits

None of us likes to think about dying. Some people will wince at the merest use of the word “die”. Accidents kill people of all ages and walks of life. It comforts us to think that the people who get killed deserve it in some way; they are fundamentally different than us. They were asking for it.

People Die In the Workplace Because they are Stupid

They easiest way to differentiate between ourselves and others is to think that we are smarter than the other person, but that probably isn’t true. Joseph T. Hallinan book, Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average make a strong argument that while most people believe they are “well above average” in terms of intelligence the fact remains that most of us aren’t. We all fall pretty close to the norm.

All Because Some Idiot Got Hurt and Sued

Whenever I tell people I work in worker safety the conversation seems to invariable come around to “aren’t we going a little crazy with safety?” When I say, no, I don’t think we have gone far enough in regulating safety, people usually counter with some version of “I don’t know, have you seen all the stupid stickers and warning labels they put on something because some idiot got hurt and sued?” First of all, most warning labels aren’t the result of a lawsuit; in fact, slapping a warning label on a hazard could conceivably be seen as knowing that a hazard exists and inadequately guarding against it. In the US there has been a shift in this kind of thinking. Take for example the sign, “Beware of Dog”. There was a time when these signs were common. Now many of them were either taken down or replaced with “Dog on Premises”. What’s the difference? The first sign clearly warns of a known hazard, i.e. come near my dog and it may harm you. The second sign warns of a potential hazard, i.e. come near my dog and it may or may not harm you; it’s a dog after all. One could argue that in posting the first sign you know of a hazard but are not adequately controlling it while the second one could be argued as a simple courtesy of letting one know you have a dog and that it may lick you, get its hair all over your clothes, or hump your leg—inconvenient and unpleasant to be sure, but not life threatening.

But then I digress. As disappointing as it is for the “the world is going to Hell in a hand basket crowd” warning labels are neither products nor symbols of an over litigious society, rather it is borne of safety practitioners and product engineers doing their jobs. They do a Failure Modes Effects Analysis (FMEA) and essentially after they’ve done everything they can think of to reduce the risk of injury or misuse they slap a label on the things that they can’t. The more remote or ridiculous the danger the more likely it is to get a sticker. We Have the Right to Expect a Safe Workplace

Despite all the warnings and engineering controls, people get hurt. Not just stupid people, but capable people like most of you and I. In many cases we get hurt because we assume situations are safe when they are not. Before you cluck your tongue and say, “well I certainly don’t take anything for granted when it comes to safety” consider this. If you have ever travelled (or even left your house) you have probably done many of the following things. Stupid things when it comes right down to it. Things that seem pretty risky and even reckless when you think about it:

  • Eaten a meal prepared by a stranger, using ingredients purchased by strangers, from other strangers who bought them from still other strangers, served to you on dishes washed and manufactured by strangers, using utensils washed and manufactured by strangers, in a building designed, built, and inspected by strangers.
  • Ridden in an airplane designed, built, maintained, and piloted by strangers.
  • Slept in a hotel bed on sheets washed by strangers.

I could go on and on but I think enough of you get the point. We don’t pull the inspection records for elevators before getting in them. We don’t demand to see the building permits and blueprints before we enter buildings. If we did these things we would look like nuts. We assume things are safe because it is someone’s job to make SURE these things are safe. Is it so wrong for people in the workplace to assume the same; that the people charged with making sure a process is safe have behaved responsibly and done their jobs?

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

Baked: Dealing with the Growing Problem of Workplace Drug Use


drugs

By Phil LaDuke

Continuing my series of blog coverage of the EH&S Today’s Leadership Conference I wanted to point out another great session that I attended. In High Society: Substance Abuse Challenges in Today’s Workplace. This is a keen area of interest to me, since many of my clients are high-consequence industries, that is to say, one screw up and kill many.

Regular readers of this blog will recognize the importance I place on having clear-headed employees, particularly in the context of “performance inhibitors” (those things that increase a person’s tendency to commit errors, make poor choices, and engage in risky behavior). One would think that achieving a “drug-free” workplace would be far easier than achieving an-injury free workplace, but after attending this session I’m not so sure.

The session was a panel discussion with Fisher & Phillips LLC, partner Danielle Urban moderating. The panel initially was to be Doreen Shaw and Marilynn Zolanek both of the MYR Group Inc. and Shannon Dennis from Industrial Safety Solutions, Inc.

The session kicked off by asking what would seem to be a fairly obvious question, “Why should you care (about drug addled employees)” Ms. Urban dutifully read from a slide of fairly obvious answers, mostly the usual suspects and what you expect as responses that according to the National Institute on Drug Abuses “Employees who abuse drugs and/or alcohol are more likely to be:

- Absent

- Late to work

- Unproductive at work

- They also change jobs more frequently and file more workers’ compensation claims”

(Nice heads up findings there NIODA, seriously? Nothing on worker safety?)

Despite the obviousness of the slide, the accompanying commentary from the moderator and panelists was anything but obvious or trite. As the speakers pointed out, 23 states and Washington DC have legalized the medical use of marijuana and Colorado has legalized it outright. The use of marijuana has become so widespread that many companies have stopped drug-screening for fear that none of their employees would pass or that they would not be able to attract viable candidates were they to exclude pot heads.

It’s As Bad as It Seems

The speakers shared some pretty alarming statistics, particularly if you are purchasing goods or services from Cheech and Chong Construction or are walking in front of the Pineapple Express:

  • The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. estimates that prescription drug abuse costs employers $81 billion annually. (National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc.)
  • 70% of the estimated 14.8 million Americans who use illegal drugs are employed. (National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc.)
  • Marijuana is the third most popular recreational drug in the U.S. (presumably behind alcohol and nicotine[1] (NORML.Org.)
  • The nation’s fastest growing drug problem is the abuse of prescription drugs. (White House Office of National Drug Control Policy)

The abuse of illegal drugs in the workplace is fairly straightforward: most organizations have provisions in their codes of conduct that prohibit the use of illegal drugs while in the employ of the company whether or not the drug use takes place. Typically, such behavior results in the dismissal of the employee, but may also allow for therapeutic treatment for first offenders. Managing the abuse of legal drugs is somewhat dicier; approach the problem inappropriately and you may find yourself violating HIPPA or the American’s With Disabilities Act. In some states, (like Michigan and Arizona for example) employers are forbidden from disciplining employees for the use of prescription drugs under certain circumstances.

So what can employers do? Well for starters, I should point out that Marijuana is still illegal under U.S. Federal law so any claim a worker has for protection under state law probably won’t get very far. But the panelists did have some great suggestions for employers struggling with increasing drug use by their workers:

  • Try to Avoid Hiring Active Drug Users. While it is possible that people may develop a drug problem AFTER you have hired them, you stand a better chance of hiring someone who already has a drug problem (remember 70% of drug abusers are employed). Sure you can put applicants through a drug screen, but that won’t catch them all. Drug abusers may be easier to spot than you might believe, as the speaker’s pointed out, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, workers who report having three or more jobs in the prior five years are twice as likely to be users of illegal drugs (compared to workers with longer tenures.)
  • Revisit Your Drug Policy. The speakers had great information on how to craft a good drug policy. According to the panel a good drug policy should:
    • Clearly state the purpose of the policy. There is nothing wrong with spelling out the reasons why your organization has a policy against drug use, including the fact that impaired employees put the safety of others at risk.
    • Identify who is subject to policy provisions. The nature of some work may require a different standard of testing and screening. Make it clear who the policy covers and any exceptions that will be made to accommodate special circumstances.
    • State expectations and prohibitions. Specifically identify the types of substances that are prohibited. If your organization is going to prohibit the use of medical marijuana, for example, spell that out to workers; many may erroneously believe that a prescription entitles them to use a prohibited substance.
    • Explain how you will enforce the policy and the consequences for violations. Your disciplinary process must be clear and consistently applied to all employees. Explain your company’s disciplinary and Investigative processes.
    • Identify when and why testing will occur. Do yourself a favor and let your workers know when and why you will test them for drug use. If you are planning random, post incident, or reasonable suspicion testing workers should know this in advance to avoid any claim that they are being unfairly persecuted,
    • Testing procedures. Clearly detail how the drug tests will be conducted.
  • Focus On Fitness for Duty. Even states that prohibit employers from disciplining or discriminating against workers for using prescription drugs make exceptions for jobs or situations where the use of legal drugs would jeopardize workplace safety. The panel suggested that in some cases where a worker admitted using a prescription drug on the job it is wise to require the worker to get a letter from the physician that states that the doctor understands the job requirements and is confident that the worker can do the job while taking the medication. Ideally, this communication should identify any restrictions on the worker while under the influence of the drug.
  • Train Supervisors and Managers to Spot Drug Abuse. Nipping drug abuse in the bud is an important tactic in the battle against a drug-abusing workforce and to do this you should train your supervisors to spot drug abuse. Workers who abuse drugs may:
    • become more moody or have mood swings.
    • seem more tired, and have difficulty concentrating, or demonstrate uncharacteristic lapses in judgment.
    • neglect their usual responsibilities.
    • have an increase in performance or disciplinary issues
    • be more anxious or worried than normal.
    • unusual smelling clothes or body odor.
    • shaking, poor co-ordination.
    • exhibit changes in behavior and even engage in bizarre or violent behavior.
  • Implement Reasonable Suspicion Drug Testing. Having a clear definition of what constitutes “reasonable” suspicion is key to having a viable for-cause drug testing policy.

The message I took away from the session was that while drug use and abuse is increasing (particularly prescription drugs) companies still have many tools for combatting impaired workers jeopardizing safety. Perhaps the greatest tool is the same for drug abuse as it is for most policy infractions: focus on the behavior and be consistent in enforcement

[1] The drugs in order to popularity according to Listverse.com are 1) Cannabis 2) Heroin 3) Cocaine 4) Ecstasy 5) amphetamines 6) Barbiturates 7) LSD 8)Opium 9) psychedelic mushrooms 10) Solvents

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

Are We Imbeciles?


imbecile

By Phil La Duke

Each week I hammer out another missive on the state of safety and each week I worry that I may have exhausted the well when it comes to offering up suggestions for improving the safety function, something hits me. This week it was really simple: are we collectively, as a profession imbeciles? Before you answer consider this: 86% of safety professionals (in a poll conducted by S+H magazine) said that they believed that Heinrich was at least in part correct and that the primary cause of injuries was unsafe behaviors and yet instead of focusing our efforts on ensuring that unsafe behaviors don’t get people killed, we insist on focusing on changing people’s behaviors. Are we soft in the head? If we could change people’s behaviors on a wide scale there would be no crime, no war, and a host of other lingering problems that plague society. And even if we could change behavior to any meaningful extent would we be arrogant enough to claim that we could change basic human nature? Would we dare claim that we would be able to eliminate human error? That’s nonsense of course.

I’m not going again argue against Heinrich and BBS; it’s a tired conversation and one that degrades quickly into the bombastic bellowing of fanatics on both sides. I have neither the patience nor the energy for it. But for the sake of arguments I will grant you this: Injuries are caused by unsafe behaviors—if people don’t do anything they don’t get hurt and if they get hurt doing something what ever they are doing is, by definition unsafe. If this is true we have two basic choices: either we can alter human behavior or we can accept the fact that people are fallible creatures that inevitably make mistakes and take actions that will protect people from themselves.

The idea that we should protect workers from their own unsafe actions is no, I admit, a particularly revolutionary or new idea. The Hierarchy of Controls was developed for just such a purpose, as was Failure Modes Effects Analysis (FMEA), and a bunch of other tools, and yet we cling to the idea that changing behavior is the best chance we have of protecting workers.

If we aren’t mentally feeble, then why do we obsess on changing behavior? According to the Hierarchy of Controls eliminating the hazard is the best way to prevent an injury so if we were really serious about eliminating injuries it would make sense that we would expend most of our resources identifying, containing, and correcting hazards. There is more than a correlation between hazards and injuries there is cause and effect. When we eliminate enough hazards we reduce the probability of injury. The lower the probability of injury the better or safety performance and isn’t that what we are trying to accomplish? What’s more, if we focus more on eliminating hazards we can also lessen the severity of injuries. Once again, what I am saying isn’t particularly ground breaking, but we all know that there are limits to the Hierarchy of Controls and we all know where that leads: to the lowest and least effective controls. While the lowest control on the hierarchy is PPE, even PPE cannot be considered a control without the addition of administrative controls.

We the safety function are overly reliant on administrative controls and then we blame workers for getting hurting because they didn’t follow the rules. People are going to violate the rules (I’ve written two articles on this Fabricating & Metalworking magazine), people will forget, people will take risks, people will do stupid things, but WE continue to create these ridiculous codification of behavior as if people were perfect; it makes no sense.

I’m not saying that we should abolish administrative controls, far from it. Administrative controls are integral to creating a safe workplace and we need to have them. But we need to stop making administrative controls our primary means of protecting workers. Before you prepare me to shout me down as a heretic I want you to do something. Make a mental note of your administrative controls—you probably have a hundred-page safety manual, a several hundred-page HR policy manual, and maybe even an impressive training manual. Add to that all your Job Safety Analyses, and Safe Work Instructions. Now consider how many hazards were consciously identified and eliminated in the design process, how many engineering controls you have, and how many hazards your organization actively identifies in a year. My guess would be that most of you have an order of magnitude more administrative controls than all other controls put together.

I understand the obsession with administrative controls—they’re cheap, fast, and easy to implement. I also understand the need for administrative controls chiefly because we do a really poor job of anticipating hazards until we have little choice BUT to implement administrative controls.

We need to do a better job of managing hazards and actively work to push our organizations up the Hierarchy of Controls pyramid (the real mystery of the pyramids is why so many of them ended up in safety). We need to teach our leaders to anticipate process breakdowns and take steps to prevent them and mitigate the risks to workers when prevention fails, and most of all we have to stop reacting to violations of the rules with more rules. It’s a tall order. But the pay off is that we change the RIGHT behaviors and we have a safer and more effective workplace. This won’t be easy but it will be a hell of a lot easier than trying to prevent people from making mistakes, taking risks, and making dumb decisions.

Filed under: Hazard Management, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Importance Of Discipline


bullship

By Phil La Duke

Safety professionals take great pains to engage workers in safety. While it’s true that engaged workers tend to be more concerned about the safety of the workplace worker engagement can only take us so far. And while it’s unfair to blame the injured worker—a tendency far too common—I’ve seen a decide move away from discipline as a response to unsafe behavior.

The mere mention of discipline raises emotions on both sides of the spectrum. On one end there is a chorus of “here! Here!” spouting mouth-breathers who want to blame every injury on stupid workers who can’t follow directions or won’t follow the rules. On the other end we have a bunch of bleeding hearts that want to blame everything but the responsible party. The answer in most cases lies somewhere in between. The correct approach in most cases lies somewhere in between.

Without Discipline We Institutionalize Unsafe Behavior

We learn through experimentation; we try something and if there is a reward we tend to repeat that behavior and even push the boundaries of the behavior. If we engage in risky behavior that violates policy it’s usually because the risky behavior rewards us in some way. It creates a cycle of risk-reward-risk; we learn that the risks we take aren’t just acceptable they are desirable. We teach our workforce that working out of process is appropriate, acceptable, and desirable; disciplinary action disrupts this cycle.

What’s The Point of Rules that No One Follows?

Discipline, doesn’t just apply to individuals. Process discipline is the extent to which people perform the tasks according to specification; how closely the people adhere to the process. Process discipline is important because despite what some of my detractors seem to think we can’t adequately protect workers who are working out of process. Let’s face it, we build safety protocols around expected behaviors and we tend to expect behaviors that align with the standard operating procedures. When people deliberately defeat the controls we put into place to protect them they are at extreme risk because few organizations plan for that contingency, and that’s where people get hurt. We have to encourage process discipline and apply disciplinary action to those who willfully and deliberately violate the rules.

Guides For Applying Discipline

I’ve seen too many organizations that are too quick to pull the trigger on disciplinary action. Here are some questions you should ask for resorting to disciplinary action:

  • Was the infraction intentional? A lot of time people violate rules through human error; no one is perfect and punishing someone for something they never intended to do is unfair and unjust and likely to create greater problems (grievances, increased turnover, greater absenteeism, or even increased incidence of unsafe behavior).
  • Was the person who violated the rule properly managing his or her performance inhibitors? While you can’t hold someone accountable for something he or she didn’t intend to do, you can hold him or her accountable for managing the things in their lives that increase the likelihood that they will make mistakes—hangovers, troubled home-life, reporting to work unfit for duty, etc. Someone who is managing his or her performance inhibitors can be held to a different standard than someone who does not routinely reports to work in an unfit condition.
  • Were there extenuating circumstances that made the breach acceptable? A person who is acting to serve the greater social good and violates a rule in so doing should not be subject to disciplinary action. Writing someone up for being late for work when they stopped to save the life of an injured motorist is a good way to get featured on the local news or in a viral post on social media, and let’s face it, it serves no good purpose.
  • Am I addressing the infraction or punishing an employee for something else? Whenever I see public outrage over a teacher who posts pictures of her drinking wine or wearing something revealing, I think, “why did they REALLY get fired?” Too often workers aren’t disciplined for what they have done rather for a pattern of behavior. Employers often use discipline as the “gotcha” final straw, bulletproof firing, and typically those employers find themselves on the losing end of a lawsuit.
  • What have I treated similar infractions in the same way? A good indication that you are using discipline inappropriately is if you are reacting to this particular infraction more harshly than you have in the past. Lawyers and Unions fight and win many wrongful terminations simply because the firing manager didn’t follow past practice.
  • Am I reacting to the behavior or the outcome? Too often we react very differently to an infraction that produces an injury or near miss when the outcome really doesn’t matter. Behavior that jeopardizes the safety or well-being of a worker should have an appropriate consequence whether or not the action injures a worker. It’s the behavior we are trying to regulate not the outcome.
  • Am I coaching or punishing? Discipline should be a means of coaching behavior in hopes of developing a safer workplace not a means of retribution. If you find yourself seeking to punish a worker you really should reconsider your position.
  • Did the worker have a viable option to the infraction? Sometimes following the rules puts a worker in more danger than not following the rules. In other cases, the process may call for tools or conditions that aren’t available to the worker. Disciplining a worker when following the rule was impossible is in appropriate.

Sometimes we have no choice except to respond to harshly to unsafe behavior, particularly where an individual acted recklessly. Also, many times problems we attribute to “The Culture” are easily solved through even and fair disciplinary action.

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

Are Your Awareness Campaigns Just Trivia?


Awareness2awareness

By Phil La Duke

In the U.S. October marks national breast-cancer awareness month which manifests itself with people and products festooned in pink. There. Now you are aware of breast cancer. What changes will you make because of your new-found awareness? None? That doesn’t surprise me. Each month, somewhere on the planet someone is trying to raise awareness of one thing or another. It seems like a great idea but ultimately it does little to solve the problem.

Many organizations launch similar “awareness” campaigns and these campaigns also sound like a good idea. Unfortunately, too often they leave the audience feeling a bit confused as to precisely what to do with the information. Awareness campaigns can be an important tool in the safety practitioner’s toolbox but only if done correctly. Here are some ways I’ve found that make the difference between a useful awareness campaign and one that isn’t:

  • Recognize that awareness isn’t the ultimate goal. We want people to DO something with the information once they have become aware of it. I am aware of the dangers posed by working with asbestos but being aware of this isn’t enough; I also need to know what I should do to protect myself and others from these dangers. If the awareness campaign simply focuses on the dangers, or that focuses disproportionately on the dangers and short-shrifts the practical application of that awareness people tend to feel inadequately prepared to protect themselves from the danger. Building awareness is an essential part of making the workplace safer, but without a call to action awareness is pointless at one end of the spectrum and frustrating at the other.
  • Be specific. Too often awareness campaigns are so broad that they don’t really make people aware of anything useful. I have seen “work safe” campaigns that are basically cheerleading sessions. A much more effective campaign would be to identify ways to work safe, for example, the campaign could focus on fitness to work and provide a way for workers to assess their own fitness for work. Reminding someone to die isn’t the same as saving their lives. I recall an instance where a colleague was explaining the dangers of a particular situation where the worker was skipping some critical safety requirements on a task where if things went wrong a fatality was likely. The worker he was coaching looked at him skeptically and said, “yeah, but how likely is that?” My colleague looked at him for a moment and paused before he said, “about one in ten times”. The worker eyes got as big as saucers and he said, “I’ve done that at least ten times!” Okay this example fits more than just “be specific” (it was personal, emotional, and addressed issues that weren’t obvious) but I think it nicely illustrates that specific awareness is far more powerful than general awareness.
  • Address issues that aren’t obvious. An awareness campaign aimed at the dangers of drunk driving will probably fall flat, but an awareness campaign focused on the dangers of driving while using prescription drugs or driving while fatigued is more likely to generate interest. A good awareness campaign should invite the response “I didn’t know that” not a sarcastic “no kidding?” Years ago, comedian Jerry Seinfeld joked about sky divers wearing helmets. He asked if anyone really thought that wearing a helmet would protect someone if their parachute failed. It was a funny bit, and I shared it with a friend of mine who was a two-time world champion sky-diver; he didn’t think it was funny at all. “Let’s see how funny Jerry Seinfeld thinks it is when he slams his head against another skydiver going 80 mph”. He explained that the helmet made sure that a skydiver who bumped heads with another diver didn’t lose consciousness and be unable to pull the cord on his or her chute. In less than 30 seconds I was made aware of a danger that wasn’t obvious.
  • Focus on changing behaviors. Once someone is aware of a danger, we hope he or she will use that awareness to behave differently and encourage others to work differently as well. We want people to respect the dangers we have communicated to them and have their new-found respect for the danger drive changes in their lives. But as stated above, we want to encourage the right behaviors. Years ago I worked in nuclear energy as a contract security guard. The client company went to great pains to make us all aware of the dangers of exposure to radioactive materials. I left the session so afraid of being irradiated and dying a slow, horrible death that I quickly escalated my job search and left the site. Instead of focusing on the horrific effects of exposure to nuclear waste and describing in painstaking detail what happened to people who got careless about radiation the company would have been better served focusing on practical common-sense ways to protect myself from the dangers of radiation and focusing on identifying at risk behaviors that I should avoid and encourage others to avoid. Had they done this my life might have turned out very differently.
  • Make it emotional, but not melodramatic. Marie-Claire Ross authored a wonderful book Transform Your Safety Communication: How to Create Targeted and Inspiring Safety Messages for a Productive Workplace. This book is a guide for making safety communications better and I recommend picking it up. She makes a good point that emotional first-hand accounts from people who were affected by an event have the strongest effect. People have a natural tendency to empathize with afflicted people…to a point. Psychological studies have found that if the message becomes too powerful the audience will subconsciously suspend belief. Think of Charlie Morecraft’s speeches and videos where he tells his story. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Charlie’s story, Charlie is a survivor of a horrible workplace accident that resulted in him being horribly burned. Charlie has a genuineness about him and easy conversational style that makes him easy to listen to. In the right audience Charlie’s story is powerful and compelling. But his story is so powerful that in the wrong audience it can backfire. Charlie worked in oil and gas and by his own admission took shortcuts, violated procedures, and generally screwed up. I remember an autoworker commenting to me after he watched a video of Charlie’s story. “What am I supposed to learn from that screw-up?” he asked, “most of what happened to him was his own fault.” He went on to explain that anyone who took the chances Charlie did in an Oil & Gas environment was insane and reckless. Then he went on to explain how much different his own work environment was from Charlie’s. Charlie’s message was clearly too powerful for this man to process and so he looked for reasons why what happened to Charlie couldn’t happen to him. The awareness campaign for that man (although many people benefited from the campaign) was a colossal failure.
  • Have credible sources. One of the first things they teach you about adult learning is that you have to establish your credibility before anyone will listen to you and the same is true with any good awareness campaign. If you can’t answer “how do you figure?” with a credible source of the information you will not be successful convincing anyone that they should change their behaviors. An element of credibility is getting your facts straight. All it takes is one false statement or disputed claim—which happens a lot in the world of worker safety—and your credibility is diminished. If your credibility is diminished enough people stop listening.
  • Make it personal. A key component of any communication is the WIIFM (pronounced wiff em). WIIFM providing people with an awareness of things that they don’t believe will ever affect them is essentially trivia. For an awareness campaign to be effective the message must resonate with the individuals that hear it. If what you promise isn’t especially compelling it falls flat and people mentally checkout; the message doesn’t pertain to them.
  • Don’t exaggerate. Too often, in our zeal to create a compelling argument we tend to overstate the dangers of a situation. Driving is dangerous; it involves many people moving in concert doing stupid and unpredictable things. In fact, driving is probably the most dangerous thing that people do on a routine basis. But if someone told you that if you continued to drive you would ultimately be killed you would brand them a fool and ignore everything they said, even if they told you your fly was open and you could feel the cool fall breeze gentle wafting across your naughty parts.
  • Stimulate debate. A group’s capacity to remember key points is far greater than that of an individual. Your awareness campaign should get people talking to each other about it. Years ago I was asked to spearhead an awareness campaign for a suggestion program. Each suggestion that was made entered the contributor into a monthly gift card. Each suggestion that was implemented entered the person into quarterly drawing for a free, all expenses paid trip (up to $2,500). We began by putting up travel posters to various vacation destinations. We put them up without anyone’s knowledge (except the top executives) and offered no explanation. After 2 weeks my team went around with markers and vandalized all the posters, writing things like “yeah right! Who has time for that?” People were outraged, even people who normally would say and think those things thought that the vandalism crossed the line. And then we announced the program and it was an unprecedented success. Even months after the initial campaign people were still talking about how audacious the awareness campaign was.

Awareness without context, purpose, or action is trivia. What’s more, a poorly executed safety can do more harm than good—when people think you’re a blithering idiot they won’t listen to what you have to say, now or ever. First impressions are lasting and you only get one shot at it so take some time and do it right.

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Who Gives A Crap About Ice?


By Phil La Duke

This week I published my sixth article in Entrepreneur. In Adapt Or Die–Some Chilling Lessons From the Ice Industry I started out writing a piece on the importance of sustainability, my point being that not just companies but entire industries can succumb to external pressures that cause a mass extinction of businesses. Those of you who regularly read my blog or even my other printed articles may notice a significant difference in my tone and voice in these pieces and may wonder why    style is so different in these pieces than the irascible, iconoclastic, raw nerve style you’ve come to know and, if not love, at least expect. As one friend of mine said, “don’t get me wrong I don’t think these articles are bad, they just don’t sound like you; there is less of your voice in these pieces than in anything else I’ve ever read by you.” It’s a fair criticism but before people accuse me of softening or selling out I’d like to plea my case.

I’ve had my work published in ISHN, Fabricating & Metalworking, Facility Safety Management Magazine, Health & Safety International, and many trade journals and publications. For the most part these folks know me and don’t do too much in the way of changing my tone or softening the “madman swinging a bag of broken glass in a crowded room” approach I take to writing. That’s not to say that editors don’t do their jobs or put their own stamp on things. If you saw the stream of consciousness dreck that I sometimes submit you would wonder aloud how anyone could make sense of it and marvel at shear craftsmanship that these editors used to create a coherent piece without losing that anarchistic feel or raw emotion that comes through. These editors know me and my work and do excellent jobs in making my work come to life. The best things I’ve ever written have been published and edited work.

But Entrepreneur neither knows me nor are its editors especially fans of my work. That’s not to say that they hate (or even dislike) my work, rather the editorial staff at Entrepreneur want solid business writing that is accessible to the masses. That’s harder than it seems; the masses are imbeciles. My jagged-edge voice doesn’t mean squat to them. Entrepreneur readers aren’t especially interested in the author’s voice or personality; they just want something they can read in less time than an average bowel movement requires. They also want one or two useful tips that they can use in business.

So why write for Entrepreneur? Well for starters, Entrepreneur asked me to. One of the editors saw some of my worker as a guest blogger on MonsterTHINKING and MonsterWORKING and asked if I would be interested in pitching ideas. Dave Collins of Safety Risk fame was first to encourage me to expand my readership to a larger audience and with a circulation of 560,990 not counting on-line readers Entrepreneur afforded me the opportunity to reach a much larger audience. More importantly, Entrepreneur established me as a business writer instead of just a safety journalist. I would like to think that my work is the intersection between business and safety.

 

But why is my work for Entrepreneur so different from my other work? In this world of discussion threads, Facebook posts, and self-published books, people misunderstand traditional publishing. An article like this one (which is published) is considered eligible for citation, in other words, people can use cite it as a legitimate source in academic or other research. That’s because it really is a team effort, and prima donna authors like yours truly may get the credit, but there are half a dozen people working on the piece. Sometimes (actually most times) the piece is better for it and is a more polished version of the story the author originally intended.

Here is the anatomy of a magazine article:

1) The Pitch. I have to come up with a topic and pitch it to my editor. The pitch has to be more than an idea; I have to provide the topic and a sample paragraph.

2) The Response. My editor decides whether or not the pitch is right for the magazine. She (in the case of Entrepreneur) considers things like whether it’s news worthy, does it fit with the magazine’s editorial bent and agenda, is it too similar to other pieces that have recently run, whether the author is the right person to write it, and does it match with the tone and voice of the magazine.

3) The Decision. If you like rejection, stay out of the magazine business. Typically the editor will give you either a flat “no”, a “yes, give me # words on this by DATE”, or a “What I’m really looking for is more of a…”

4) The Assignment. At this point the author is able either accept the assignment or turn it down. I have turned down assignments because either a) I didn’t believe in the position I was asked to support b) felt that I didn’t have standing to speak on a topic or c) the assignment was more work than I thought it would be worth.

5) The Writing. Writing for publication is a lot different that writing for school or work. Editors expect an error free draft that is exactly the number of words they requested. They aren’t proofreaders and aren’t happy with an author who uses “their” instead of “there”. If it does have typos, grammatical errors or does not follow the editorial style (things like whether or not bullet lists are title case (every word capitalized except articles) or sentence case (only the first word capitalized) and literally a 1,000 other little nitpicky things that the magazine does a specific way the article is likely to be thrown back to the author with the brusque instruction to “fix it”. (If the author doesn’t, or submits slop routinely the article may be taken away and given to someone else to punch it up (which is why you see so many co-authors on articles)

6) The Fact Checking. The primary difference between self-published and published work is fact checking. The fact checker is a professional who challenges every fact the author puts into an article. If I say, as I did in the article, that by 1890 the average urban American consumed a ton of ice, I had better be able to provide a source. The drafts I submit look ridiculous (filled with footnotes and links) but the fact checker has to meticulously verify every one of those sources.

7) The editing. Editors are by far the real talents in the publishing industry. They cut out unnecessarily wording paragraphs, rearrange the paragraphs so that it flows better and generally improve the readability of a piece. They can take a mediocre piece and really make it masterful. They also may make changes so that the piece becomes a component of a larger theme in the magazine. Sufficed to say the story can be very, VERY different from the author’s original vision, but in my experience it is better than it would have been otherwise.

8) The copy editing. Copy editors are generally the people who title the article; I don’t think I have ever had one of my cool titles appear with my stories. The copy editor reads the article and gives it a title. Why have copy editors? Because copy editors consider the titles of other stories and ensure that multiple stories don’t have the same or very similar titles. They also prevent adjacent headlines from forming a new and weird sentence

9) The Publishing. After all of this, the piece appears in print. If it’s hailed as the greatest piece ever than everyone takes credit, but if it’s not great everyone points a finger.

So while many of my stories end up miles away from where I started or envisioned, I continue to write and I continue enjoying writing. But I still keep my blog going so I can sound off about what I really think.

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Reverse Engineering Safety Offerings


By Phil La Duke

I don’t have all the answers; not about safety and not about anything else. Furthermore, as much as it may seem to the contrary, I don’t even THINK that I have all the answers, but there are people in the world of safety who seem to think that they do. Several weeks ago I spoke at the National Safety Council in San Diego, CA. It was a hot, afternoon session on the connection between housekeeping and safety that about a hundred people endured. Thank you to of you who sweltered through a mediocre presentation.

When you speak at the conference, in way of a thank you, you are given free admission to the entire conference. It’s a nice perk; especially since many European conferences expect you to pay all your expenses, forgo a speaking fee, and PAY admission to the conference. I turned down speaking at Loss 2010 because my out-of-pocket expenses amounted to over $10,000 and I’m sorry, but it just wasn’t going to be worth it. (I didn’t realize the theme “Loss” would be applied so directly and acutely applied to me).

Those of you who have never attended the National Safety Conference Annual Congress and Expo you really should. The vendor hall is so large it takes more than a day to go through it all and the speakers present on a wide range of safety (of all aspects not just worker safety) that influences policy across the globe. The topics really caught me eye this year. I saw topics ranging from the very specific to the vague to the point of being almost meaningless. One topic got me thinking about how what people shill through their presentations represents what they think is the key to a safer workplace. I thought I would reverse engineer some of these topics to see what people believed were the true source of unsafe workplaces.

The first topic that grabbed my attention was something called Motivating People to Work Safe (or something similar). This struck me as odd. Are there people out there who aren’t motivated to work safely, in other words, are there people out there who would work safely, but can’t find a compelling reason to, after all, what’s in it for them? How absurd, patronizing, and arrogant is it to assume that workers aren’t already intrinsically motivated to work in a way that will keep them from getting killed. Certainly people seem to lack motivation for working safe, but I think that is more a product of our perception than the reality.

The second topic that caught my eye was related to the first topic: getting people to value their safety. One of the keynote speakers even went so far as to lay out the four secrets to safety that all, more or less, amounted to ways to get people to value their safety. PLEASE! Safety is one of the most basic needs on Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and Maslow believed that this need would be an intrinsic motivator until it was filled (Some in the BBS field openly criticize Maslow, but I don’t know of any who criticize the designation of safety as a basic human emotional need).

We should also be mindful of the fact that the primary role of the human central nervous system is to keep people from harm; it’s hard wired into our bodies to avoid things that will harm us. We even have the fight or flight reflex that floods our bodies with adrenaline to enable us to protect us from danger. I reject the beliefs that people either lack sufficient motivation work safely and/or people behave unsafely because they don’t value their safety. Both fly in the face of proven science and the less hard science of behavioral psychology. People are designed to keep themselves alive.

So why do people behave unsafely? Lots of reasons, actually, but off the top of my head here are some of the most common:

  • Human Error. People just plain screw up. They make mistakes without thinking. People forget to complete a key step, misread an indicator, or accidentally put themselves in harms way. Some believe that human error is our subconscious minds experimenting with the safety of rapidly adapting, but in any case, it’s not about motivation or not valuing our safety.
  • Poor Judgment. Sometimes we deliberately do something risky because we erroneously believe the risk is lower than it is. Why? Because:
    • We are acting on imperfect information—we thought something was true when it wasn’t or we thought something wasn’t true when it was. When we don’t have all the facts it’s tough to make a good call.
    • We’ve taught ourselves that something was safer than it is. Every time we do something unsafe and don’t get hurt we teach ourselves that the unsafe act is in fact safe; so we do it again and again, each time believing that it is less and less risky.
    • We’re Improvising. Too often we don’t really know how to do the job and are forced to figure it out on the fly.
  • Inappropriate Risk Taking. Generally speaking, people take risks incrementally.  People seldom take a huge, stupid, reckless risk before taking smaller less dangerous risks.  Little by little, people’s risk tolerance increases until either something happens that jars them back to better decision making or they cross the injury threshold and hurt (or kill) themselves or others.  Think about how you drive.  As you get more comfortable speeding, talking on the phone, texting, etc. you engage in these activities more frequently or for greater durations until you reach some line known only to you that causes you to rethink your risk taking.  It could be a ticket, or it could be a serious accident.
  • Weak Leadership. Leaders (including the safety practioner, who if not a leader should get out of the business) have the greatest influence on safety than any single individual.  And when it comes to safety, companies tend to get the level of safety that their leaders demand.  If the leaders look the other way when they see safety issues or infractions, or if the leaders roll their eyes when someone voices a safety concern the population will tend to mimic the leader’s and at very least try to act in a way that pleases the leader.

We have to be careful listening to the latest theory from the latest expert (myself not only included but singled out for special scrutiny). Theories are just that: theories, not facts. Theories are opinions irrespective of how loudly they are argued. We need to challenge and questions these assertions if we will ever grow in safety.

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WWPD (What Would Phil Do)?


WWPD

By Phil La Duke

One glance at that title and it would seem I am back in my full arrogant splendor, but I hope you will reserve judgment until you’ve read my explanation. After last week’s post, in addition to the outpouring of sympathy and support, I received a personal, private email. As you may know, it is not my practice to publish or make public things sent to me confidence, so I won’t go into detail about the letter except to say that the author asked the question “WWPD (What Would Phil Do)” The author explained that in many cases throughout the course of doing business he we would ask himself WWPD? He further elucidated that as much as he respected me it was often difficult to arrive at any meaningful answer to the “WWPD?” question. First of all, it is humbling to think that anyone would find my work useful enough to ask that question even once, but the thought that that someone might use it as a means of guiding one’s decisions relative to safety just floored me. At a time when I was considering hanging it up (not just writing, but safety as a profession) and openly questioning whether or not I made any difference at all this was something I genuinely needed to hear.

I have mentioned before my method for improving safety. It has worked consistently for companies large and small and across diverse industries, but I think sometimes I get so caught up in pointing out the misguided efforts so prevalent in our industry that the “WWPD?” gets lost in the cluttered landscape of “WWP Not D?” and so I thought I would once again share what I believe as it pertains to safety improvement.

Let me begin by saying “safety” is an outcome, or more specifically, and “output”. Every process is composed of three kinds of things: inputs (things you start with) transformations (things that happen to them in the course of your process) and outputs (the things you are left with). Whether your process is as simple as tying your shoe or as complex as smelting iron, every process has these three elements. When your process produces unwanted outcomes we call these things “waste” and injuries are precisely that, waste.

For hundreds of years our colleagues in safety have talked about having a “safety process” or “managing safety”, but I have come to believe that such activities have little to do with producing the outcome of safety; at least not directly. Because these activities don’t directly influence safety they tend to be costly and produce very little in way of return on investment. We have to manage the actual work processes to reduce the injuries and produce the state of safety.

The goal of managing a process is to return a consistent, predictable, and desired result. Managing processes involve controlling variability (and unpredictability) in five areas: manpower, machines, materials, methods, and environment.

Manpower

Manpower (sorry ladies this is an old term and I am not going to make it gender-neutral) refers to anything related to people. Ideally we start our process with an uninjured worker that is fit to work. As the process is completed the worker may be transformed (albeit probably not radically) by becoming hot, tired, sweaty, dirty, sore, etc. The change in the worker is not a desired outcome so it is waste.

Machines

Machines can be a simple machine (a screw, incline plane, wheel and axel, lever, pulley or wedge) or complex automated systems. When tools and equipment are worn out or damaged during the process they cannot produce a predictable result.

Materials

Materials refer both to the types of materials used and how they are delivered to the workstation.

Methods

Methods are the “recipe” that the process follows to complete a job. Policies and procedures (including Job Safety Analysis, Standard Work, etc.) are the methods by which we hope to get a predictable and desired result.

Environment

The physical working conditions of the workplace constitute the environment that we must manage to ensure a predictable outcome. Environment can include factors like heat, lighting, and humidity, the presence of exposure risks or biohazards, and similar physical conditions that workers work in and around.

There has been much debate as to whether behaviors are the primary cause of injuries; that’s not really something we had ought not debate. Injuries are most certainly caused by behaviors but so what? We can’t really influence (to any meaningful extent) the behavior of an entire population and pretending that we can has cost inestimable misery in the form of worker injuries and fatalities. But the 5Ms (hey, there’s an M in environment, I never said they STARTED with the letter M) are things that can be managed, and MUST be managed by Operations. It was out of that realization that I created my safety infrastructure framework. Safety can only be achieved by managing the 5Ms, with particular emphasis on:

  • Workers must be skilled in their core tasks and the closer they are to having mastery level skills of how to do their tasks the more likely they are to produce and predictable and safe outcome. Recently I was challenged by someone on this. “So what? Don’t you just need people to be competent to perform their tasks? What does mastery level mean?” Competence, like many things in industry is less a binary component and more a continuum. Much of our means of measuring competence, particularly in Union environments is binary, i.e. “Is the worker able to do the job or not?” We tend to measure whether someone has awareness-level, or a working knowledge of how to do their job instead of mastery. It’s about variation of skill. Someone who can do a job, but only marginally, tends to perform the job with far much more variation than someone who has mastered the job; i.e. someone who can complete a task with very little variation. Most training in core skills trains to the lowest common denominator and once a person has been qualified there is very little effort to assess that person’s skills after the fact. Most companies don’t do a very good job of measuring competency, in fact, few even try. For example, an industrial vehicle driver may receive refresher training, but unless he or she has repeated violations or been involved in multiple incidents little thought is given to whether or not he or she is competent. Furthermore, most companies don’t measure the effectiveness of training beyond a level 2 evaluation (pre- and posttesting, and many are loathe to even do this) which is often more a test of reading comprehension than of actual learning;   this is an issue because competency often degrades over time and there is no way of telling whether or not a worker has sank below the competency threshold. Then there is the related issue of physical competency; how are people evaluated on whether or not they are still physically capable of doing the work without injuring themselves or others? Most organizations address this through annual reviews which are almost entirely focused on performance and attitude than on skills degradation or physical competency. The only cases I know where the fitness to work is even considered are in return to work programs.
  • Process Capability & Discipline. There are two elements of “process” that are key to safety: 1) process capability (how able is your process to return a predictable and repeatable result) and 2) process discipline (how strictly do workers adhere to the process). Companies can really only protect workers when workers do their jobs according to a predictable and robust process. Again I was challenged on this. I was told that this was “clearly not real life—and frankly untrue that a predictable and robust process is the ONLY way to protect workers; there will always be nonstandard situations that need to be managed.” On the face of things this sounds like a fair criticism, but you must consider that while there will always be non-standard situations that need to be managed (in fact, while many companies are loathe to admit it, there are far more nonstandard situations than there should be), but they must be managed using a robust process for managing nonstandard work. We can’t protect workers from things we can’t predict and a process that is out of control makes it impossible to predict what might happen.. One of the keys to managing worker safety lies in having processes and procedures and the discipline for workers to work within these processes. The point of this statement is that companies that don’t care about process variation are far less able to protect workers than companies that work to continuously improve, and thus make more predictable and safe, their processes. We design work and the workplace to be as safe as we possibly can; we employ the Hierarchy of Controls to organize the means of protecting workers but we do so under the assumption that the process is robust and that people aren’t working out of process. This should not be interpreted as saying that we don’t have a responsibility to protect workers in all cases, rather it is meant to underscore the importance of a good process that people follow. When people are unable to follow the process they should not be encouraged to improvise, rather they should be rewarded for stopping work until a safe way of proceeding can be determined.
  • Hazard Incident & Management. Hazard reduction directly correlates to injury reduction. It sounds obvious right? Very obvious – yes? Yes very obvious, and yet one of the single most ignored elements of many safety management systems. Identifying, containing, correcting, and communicating hazards is central to safety; it’s obvious. The problem is that too many organizations treat all hazards equally and as carrying the same potential risk of injury. The risk of working on live equipment without the isolation of energy isn’t as risky as a blocked escape route (all other things being equal). Many organizations are blind to hazards. Without a simple means of managing hazards people become “normal blind” and things that would once have scared them silly now become part of the acceptable, normal landscape and are not only ignored but treated in such a cavalier fashion because “it aint killed nobody yet” that the risk is actually amplified. I don’t see a big distinction between risks and hazards. Clearly we direct need to focus more about controlling risks than on chasing injuries. Risk control is hazard management and vice versa and must be foremost in all safety management approaches, companies have to know the difference between being lucky and being good and to understand that difference one has to understand one’s risk.
  • Accountability Systems. In Just Culture there are three basic behaviors for which people are held to various levels of accountability: human error, risk taking, and recklessness. Human error is the unwanted and unplanned outcome from an unintended action-the honest mistake. Since human error is unintentional there is no point in holding someone accountable for something they can’t control. (I have seen research in healthcare and aviation that puts the number of mistakes the average person makes at 5 an hour). That having been said, there are certain things that individuals CAN control that for which we can and should hold them accountable. These things are conditions that have been demonstrated to inhibit performance and increase the likelihood, frequency, and severity of mistakes. Factors like fatigue, reporting to work ill, stress, drug or alcohol abuse, hang overs, prescription drug use—general fitness to work issues. Obviously, supervision plays a role in whether or not people are allowed to work while impaired by these conditions but in any case these conditions must be confronted and addressed. These performance inhibitors also can influence risk taking. Risk taking in itself is not unwanted. Organizations need people to take risks routinely, but these risks should be informed risks and workers should be coached on the limits to which they are empowered to take risks. When workers take risks because they are improvising they are more at risk for being harmed. As for the reckless, they should be weeded out of the workforce for their safety and the safety of others.
  • Employee Engagement. Workers must be intrinsically driven to make the workplace safer. To do this, workers must be capable of making sound business decisions not relative to safety alone. I think you misinterpret what we mean by making sound business decisions. This isn’t about business acumen as much as workers understanding how what they do impacts, not only their own safety, but the overall success of the organization. Studies have shown that the more highly engaged the worker the more safely the worker is likely to work. And it is tough to build engagement without building knowledge of the business. This knowledge enables workers to make informed suggestions for process improvement and to be a more productive and useful contributor. This takes safety away from being a functional exercise and creates a more holistic approach to safety.

So after all that, What Would Phil Do? This:

  • Invest in competency. This means putting some work into creating better job descriptions, recruiting people who have the grey matter and muscle to do those jobs, and training them to mastery level skill. Once someone has been hired, implement a system to ensure that their skills or physical abilities have degraded to the point that they can no longer safely do the job.
  • Collaborate With The Continuous Improvement Groups.  Not only are improved processes more effective and safe, collaborating with those who are working to make process improvements also make it easy for Operations to see the value of safety.
  • Demand that Leaders Enforce Requirements for Working In Process.  Okay, now sometimes we CAN’T work in process, for example when a manufacture is out of a given part and has to work without it.  But in these cases, Safety should help operations to assess the risks of working out of process and help to find ways to mitigate those risks.
  • Train Leaders.  Front-line supervision is the greatest resource in producing safe outcomes but from everything from core process training to training in Hazard Recognition to coaching workers on their performance this group goes largely ignored and are some of the most incompetent people out there.  They are often selected because they shut up and do their jobs but with no regard to whether they have the skills and experience to effectively supervise others.
  • Shift Focus Away From Injuries Toward Risk.  We spend so much time arguing about whether zero injuries is possible, or whether behavior causes injury or whatever.  We should make it real simple and look for ways to reduce risk in our lives every day.  In the workplace, during the commute, at home with our families.  We can do something about risk BEFORE we get killed or injured which, after all, is the point.
  • Implement A Just Culture System. Just Culture allows people to talk about risk and dumb decisions in a repercussion-less environment.  Until we stop trying to punish people for their mistakes and dumb decisions we can’t really focus on reducing risk.
  • Treat People Like Partners In Safety Not As Our Responsibility. People aren’t quite as stupid, lazy, crazy, careless, or indifferent to their safety as we often treat them. When we learn to respect the people with whom we work and stop treating them like our mentally handicapped children we can partner with them to make the workplace safe.

So…that’s what Phil would do.

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

Worker Injuries May Take Years to Become a Fatality


By Phil LaDuke

I have more than a couple of people question my motives in writing about safety. I have had more than a few criticize me for not being more polite, professional, or whatever euphemism for telling people what they want to hear you care to put to it. Despite having worked as a teamster delivering parcels, and an autoworker; building 1700 seats a day on a back-breaking assembly line, day-in-and day out working in demolition, tearing out stores in malls so another soulless retail outlet could try its luck in that space and having spent the past15 years consulting on safety in companies big and small that I don’t have standing to speak, that I am just some safety journalist, some academic, or some theorist who doesn’t know how the “real world works”. Many agree with what I have to say; just as many do not. That’s okay, it’s a free world. I scare a lot of people and scared people try to get other people not to listen. But safety isn’t just some academic exercise, some abstract that we can argue over brandies. Safety is personal. Workplace injuries or occupational illnesses have killed my father, both grandfather, my brother-in-law, a great uncle, my brother’s best friend, and many co-workers and acquaintances. I carry that with me every day. And yesterday the workplace claimed another one.

Yesterday I learned that another person close to me died as a result of injuries/illness inflicted upon him. My ex-father-in-law was found dead at his home; he was a month past his 69th birthday. Despite my acrimonious divorce from his daughter and bitter custody battle over his granddaughter, “Red” was always decent and even a friend to me. It’s not clear what killed Red. He had been on permanent disability for over 20 years. For the last 26 years we shared a bond deeper than marriage, the love of his two granddaughters.

Red was a boiler maker and as such worked around asbestos much of his career, and while that may well be what killed him that is only part of the story. 20 or so years ago read was working at a construction site when a supervisor dropped something (the details were always sketchy and my memory isn’t what it was, so I trust you will cut me just a bit of slack on the details) some said a tool, some said an angle iron, but what all agree on was that what was dropped was heavy and struck him with enough force to shatter on vertebrae and drive a second into a third. The doctors who examined him painted a bleak picture. If they did nothing he would soon die. If they did operate he would be in a body cast for a year after which he would probably never walk again. Red wasn’t one to take bad news lightly and when his buddy suggested he see a doctor who was experimenting with spinal surgery using cow bones, he quickly investigated. This doctor told him that if the surgery was successful he would be able to walk and live a fairly normal life, although he would have limitations. When the doctor told him that he would never be able to lift more than 50lbs, Red was characteristically nonplussed, “No lifting anything heavier than 50lbs? Doc, how am I supposed to take a piss?” That was who Red was.

The cow bone surgery was successful, but it left Red in excruciating pain that came and went, worsening over time. It wasn’t long before Red was hooked on painkillers, his physical limitations grew more and more debilitating and the pain more and more difficult to control; the life that Red once enjoyed essentially ended the day of his injury.

To all you BBS zealots out there: Red did nothing wrong. There wasn’t supposed to be anyone working above him and he was wearing the appropriate PPE (as determined by the company’s PPE risk assessment) the worker who dropped the object that would forever alter the course of Red’s life was, in fact, the site supervisor who was neither qualified nor allowed by the Union contract to be doing the work. So what good would it have done to have one of Red’s peers watch him work and provide feedback on his performance? None that’s what. And I can already see some of you smug bastards smiling that “aha, gotcha!” smile as they are about to say, “yes but supervisor behavior is still behavior” So what? If we only focus on the behaviors of the individuals and we ignore the larger context than it doesn’t matter whose behavior set things in motion. It becomes an intellectual exercise.

Red’s life went from bad to worse. His lawsuit against the parties involved went from a slam-dunk big money pay out to a far more modest settlement that was less than he would have earned in two years on the job. You see the site was a municipal project, funded by the government; one by one the plaintiffs were let off the hook. Payouts from Worker’s Compensation and medical social security (coupled with poor decisions and greedy third parties quick to step in and victimize a man with a lot ready cash that sapped Red of his settlement). Red lost his house and his life savings quickly dwindled. In the end his family is struggling to scrape together the $1500 for a basic cremation. There will be no fancy casket, no funeral procession, no memorial service; there just isn’t money.

Two years ago, Red was diagnosed with both lung cancer AND mesothelioma he declined treatment and was told that he had only months to live. And yet he did live, such as lying in bed whacked out of one’s head on pain medication can be described as living.

Red’s case is sad, of course, but the ramifications of his injuries go far deeper. His injury played a role in the deterioration and ultimate end of my marriage. It led to drug abuse not just by him but others around him. It created an epicenter of misery that sucked in so many people.

Red died on the job. Oh sure, he didn’t usher forth the death rattle on the dirty boards of a construction site, but his was a workplace fatality nonetheless. And all the arguing and squabbling between safety snake oil salesmen and safety theorists and those who would sell you this system or that failed Red, they failed my daughters, they failed all those who loved him; they failed me.

Just what any of us are supposed to do with this I’m not sure. It’s got me ready to quit safety. At the end of the day I’m just another guy who preaches safety to people who care more about arguing than they do about saving a single life. I’m tired of watching people die why smug safety practitioners’ brag about how injuries are down and fatalities are flat. I’m tired of the the inane arguments about safety versus system, and all the blah blah nonsense that passes for intellectual discourse in our field. But mostly I’m tired of grieving for people who did nothing more than go to work, a decision that ended up killing them.

The day after tomorrow I will take the podium at the National Safety Council, perhaps for the last time. For all the writing (published and blogs) I’ve done and all the speeches I’ve made I don’t seem to have made any difference, I don’t seem to have changed a single mind. I’ve stirred the pot but all the while knowing that eventually the pot will just settle back into its old pattern.

Footnote: There was a memorial service for Red last Friday.  The remnants of his shattered family gathered for one last bewildered goodbye.  I talked to his brother who told me that he too was forced to leave the boilermakers after 36 years.  “I loved my job for 32 of the 36 years I worked it” he told me, and then while looking away he added, almost shamefully “until I hurt my back and after three years I just couldn’t do it anymore.” We also talked about his other brother who preceded Red in death by a couple of years; he died of lung cancer. Job related? At this point, who cares?

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

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