Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

What Can The Executive Suite Expect From Safety Professionals


By Phil La Duke

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

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

Competency

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

Honesty & Integrity

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

Neutrality

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

An Informed Opinion

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

Professionalism

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

Business Savvy

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

Respect

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

A Clear Definition of “Support”

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

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

The Swindle Continues


snake-oil (1)

By Phil La Duke

Last week I made my eighth speech at the National Safety Council’s Annual Congress and Expo. In consideration of my speaking at the event I am given a full conference admission, which affords me access to the exhibit hall and sessions.  I usually help cover the show for Facility Safety Management by posting a story or two; this involves me attending technical sessions that I might ordinarily avoid like a diuretic rat.  This year was no exception and no surprise.  What WAS surprising however, is the shear volume of snake oil salesmen who have seemingly dropped the Behavior Based Safety in favor of “Transformational Safety”.

All the familiar faces were there each spouting “it’s all about culture” and “it’s about leadership commitment” where once they hailed behavior as the single largest cause of injuries.   They’re right of course, the key to safety does lie in culture change, but do any of these companies that until now shouted down anyone who dared question there sacred belief of behavior as the holy grail of safety and behavior modification as the magic bullet that would magically deliver companies from the injury bogey man?

Before we get into this troubling development, let’s set a couple of things straight.  Behavior is in fact the largest cause of injuries.  People make human errors, take chances (informed and uninformed) that result injuries, people are careless, reckless and make poor choices.  That has never been in dispute.  In fact, if you trace any injury back far enough you will absolutely find some behavioral cause.  No, what I (and others far smarter than I) have always criticized about BBS is the junk science and misapplied psychology that concluded that it would be easy and would provide a quick fix.  Manipulating an entire population such that it no longer makes human errors, takes chances (informed and uninformed) that result injuries, and behave carelessly, recklessly and stop making poor choices is patently absurd.

Now so many of the old BBS providers are suddenly abandoning their old party line and pushing culture change, or transformations.

As for “management commitment” being the key to a safe workplace well that falls into the “so obvious as to be insulting”.  What corporate initiative has any chance of success if management—at any level—doesn’t support it.  The concept that management can remain on the sideline and the change will somehow take hold is so stupid that it doesn’t bear mentioning.  Except the sessions that I attended the speakers mentioned management commitment in the same hushed whispers and reverential tones that they once reserved for BBS.

Culture Transformation approaches to safety are sound and effective approaches to increasing the overall effectiveness of an organization—not just in safety, but in quality, delivery, material control, productivity, environmental, and management systems.  In fact, Lean Manufacturing, World-Class Management, Six Sigma, Kaisen, are all culture transformations to one extent or another.  But the question is this: can the people who were selling snake oil a year ago be trusted to know anything about culture transformations? I don’t think so, and neither should you.

The question is not whether the culture needs to change, rather, do the people who until recently were hawking BBS snake oil qualified to deliver a viable methodology for achieving a sustainable culture change?

For my part I am deeply skeptical of the snake oil salesmen’s newfound religion.  I believe that this is just a shell game; that the methodologies currently being hawked by the neo-culturalists is simply a rebranding of the same old crap. (I attended one session on culture where the speaker said so many incorrect things about culture, the origins of the concept of “safety culture”[1] that I walked out in less than five minutes; that was all I could stand.  I don’t blame these companies for trying to survive and spokespeople from both the National Safety Council and American Society of Safety Engineers told me (after I asked them what type of presentation abstracts they wanted to see) “any thing but BBS—people are sick of it.  Now if you’re livelihood was threatened how would you respond? Might you not be tempted to rebrand your products to fit what the buyers want?  Of course it would be far more ethical to actually LEARN about the new methodology instead of just slapping a new label on the same old schlocky crap, but different strokes for different folks. These people are playing with people’s lives, limbs, and livelihoods—it’s a disgraceful place to experiment.

I’ve confronted the safety sentimentalists—openly scoffing at their sanctimonious “I save lives” and their sophomoric  “we love you go home safe” sentimentality—so at the risk of sounding like one of the very people I have so often condemned as making all us safety professionals look like simpering goofballs I so often attack, let me ask you this, don’t we have a higher calling? We aren’t selling candy bars, we aren’t trading sock, or doing tours, or performing any service that —while important and valuable—have such important consequences.  We have a responsibility to confront the snake oil salesmen who talk a good game but at the end of the day produce nothing lasting, nothing of meaningful value.

There are good providers of culture change interventions and maybe even some of the people who spoke at the congress, but it can be difficult for executives to know the difference between the snake oil salesmen and the providers of sound transformational services. I certainly am not in a position to tar all of these people as liars, cheats and thieves, but if we don’t expose the frauds in our field who will?  We need a healthy dose of skepticism when dealing with this herd of crap-merchants rushing tired retreads to market. We need to do something and do it quick. As long as we continue to let charlatans sell us crap we put people at risk, and putting people at risk is the very opposite of our jobs, and our vocations and should not be the legacy that we leave.


[1] James Reason coined the term in  1990.

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

Legitimizing Risk


goldfish jumping out of the water

By Phil La Duke

Several days ago the United States celebrated the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the first step toward its becoming a sovereign nation.  It was an event marked in the state of Michigan by the irresponsible and dangerous use of fireworks by drunken amateurs with no training.  Michigan shortsightedly recently repealed a decades long ban on these types of explosives.  Michigan also recently rescinded a requirement that motorcyclists wear helmets while riding.  These two important laws designed to protect people are just the most recent erosion of public support for safety.  I’ve written at length about the alarming shift in public opinion toward the belief that at home or at work we have gone overboard with safety, so I won’t repeat myself.  Instead, I thought I would focus on how legalization (whether in the traditional legal sense or in the relaxation of work rules) endorses and legitimizes unsafe practices—if something is allowed most people assume that it’s safe.

In a similar vein, if we have rules and regulations to which we turn a blind eye we are effectively sending the message that the rules don’t matter; that they don’t really protect us, they are just a means to keep order in the workplace.  This further reinforces the idea that disregarding a safety regulation isn’t really putting anyone in harm’s way. When people believe an activity is is safe they are more likely to take risks while engaging in said activity.  If we believe that a shortcut puts us at less risk than it in fact does, we sharply increase both the probability (if you believe that the amount of interaction increases the probability) and (perhaps) the severity of the injury (if for instance, emergency response equipment is not maintained, or if the requirements for drills are ignored).

My intent is not to wax political, in broad strokes I don’t care if the law requires helmets  or outlaws fireworks, but the legitimization of  hazards seems, at least to me, to be a growing problem—both internal to the workplace and external to it.  As companies pull themselves out of the economic hole it has been easy to let maintenance issues accumulate.  This in itself isn’t a bad thing; I’ve said for ages that the safest companies are those who went out of business because they were foolish with their spending and unable to prioritize expenditures.  But I’ve seen a rise in complacency and a lack of operational discipline that puts lives and livelihoods at risk.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

As workers and companies become more comfortable with hazards the hazards cease to motivate them to take reasonable care.  Why is it now necessary to ensure that industrial vehicles are checked for defects and taken out of service and repaired when it was no big deal a year ago, after all, nobody has been hurt in all that time?  The fact that companies were forced to take risks (putting off maintenance, removing unsafe tools and equipment from service, letting training slide longer than one should, etc.) and suffered no meaningful consequences (governmental budget cuts have meant that, for many locations, surprise visits from regulators—and their subsequent findings—have been exceedingly rare) has left many wondering if those safety protections were necessary in the first place.

The company isn’t alone in its cavalier attitude toward workplace hazards; workers are also more likely to take more and greater risks in this climate.  Even as companies diligently try to create more of an empowered approach to safety and improve their safety cultures, five years or more, of neglect for respecting hazards has greatly increased individual’s risk tolerances.  This increased tolerance for risk manifests in individuals doing things they might ordinarily have avoided.  When we think of individuals taking risks, it’s natural to think of front-line workers, but there are others taking risks whose faulty decision making is far more dangerous.  When crew chiefs, foremen, supervisors, and others whose decisions can have severe consequences for a large population the danger to workers becomes exponential.  A single flawed decision from an Operations leader can lead to catastrophic chain of events that kill multiple workers and become international news.

Denial Isn’t Just A River In Egypt

For many companies the problem just isn’t that bad. In the mind of some leaders the fact that nothing bad has happened yet is pretty good proof that it will never happen.  These organizations have been living in a collective denial (it’s difficult knowing that you are operating at heightened risk simply because you can’t afford to fix things and it’s comforting to believe that nothing is likely to happen, and if something DOES happen, it most likely won’t be serious.)  Unfortunately, risks tend to grow and unless there is some form of intervention hazards will continue to build until they reach a threshold where injury is all but certain.  And years of under-reporting borne from fear of job loss, corporate programs aimed at reducing “recordable” injuries instead of reduction of risk and the elimination of ALL injuries, has reinforced the idea that companies have things under control when, in fact, they may not.

Reversing the Trend

For most organizations the problem of legitimizing risk did not happen over night and unfortunately it needs to be rapidly reversed. One solution is a performance audit.  A performance audit is different from a compliance audit in several important ways. While a compliance audit is designed to determine the gap between what is legally required and the current state of an organization a performance audit goes far deeper.  The purpose of the performance audit is, in part, to assess the organization’s tolerance for risk and to present—often in jarring terms—the areas where immediate action must be taken.  Performance audits can open the eyes to hazards and unseen risks and reverse decades of incremental complacency and underestimation of hazards.  Performance audits are often pricey, and many organizations balk at the cost, especially as they are just beginning to limp out of the red and into the black, but these audits remain the best and most effective way of quickly breaking the trend toward legitimizing risk.

Filed under: Phil La Duke, Risk, risk management, Safety, Worker Safety, , , , ,

Phil La Duke is Full Of @#$%


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By Phil La Duke

On Tuesday of this week I will be presenting Hardwiring Safety, Seven Tips for Changing Culture; it’s a topic I know well, having spoken on it in one form or another for the last nine odd years (if you know me, you understand how odd these years have been).  I thought that given my familiarity with the topic I would blow it up here and see what new insights I might be able to glean from it.  Too often safety pundits keep parading out the same old tired schlock in a marginally different package.  Not me; I’d like to think that I’ve grown over the last decade and a half (my waist-line sure suggests it) and so here is my attempt to tear down all I’ve said on the subject and start anew.

The Values of A Safety Culture

In my original speech, some years ago I prattled on about the values of a safety culture; I was an ass. The term “safety culture” is a misnomer.  At best safety could be a subculture, but it is not—in even the broadest sense of the term—a culture.  A culture is the codified set of shared values, rituals, rules, and taboos of a population.  In simple terms (and I am over simplifying it here) culture is how a group of people with common interests view various topics, like, for instance safety. So every organization has a safety culture to some degree—some have cultures that think safety is a bunch of nonsense while others feel it is the only true measure of their success.  Furthermore, changing a culture is more than just about changing the way a population does things, it’s about sharing what it values.

Changing the Culture Is More About Understanding Change Than it Is About Understanding Culture

Noted thinker on the topic of culture change, Edgar Schein developed a simple formula for organizational change.  Shine believed that change could only come when:

D + V + N > R

In this model D = Dissatisfaction, V = Vision, N = Next Steps, and R = Resistance.  In real terms, Shine’s model suggests that we can only exact real, lasting change by increasing dissatisfaction; creating a compelling vision of the ideal state; creating practical and easy next steps, and/or reducing resistance.

So throughout this discussion we will explore how my previous presentation matched up with this model, I suspect it will do so poorly. Before we move into the values, I should note, without realizing it, my efforts were aimed at vision-setting and viable next steps.  And I’ve never failed to change a culture, in fact, I was so wildly successful that many of my customers mistrusted the numbers, even though they gave them to me.  Of course I cheated.   I wouldn’t take on clients who weren’t already deeply dissatisfied with the performance of their safety efforts, so I didn’t really have to do too much to increase dissatisfaction, but if you are going to change your culture you likely will have to create some serious dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Value One: All Injuries Are Preventable

I’ve written several times on the hypocrisy and condescension of slogans like “Safety Is Our Number One Priority” and “Safety First”.  Such platitudes are disingenuous and the people who perpetuate them are either liars or fools or both. For some reading this, this is fairly obvious, while others will furrow their sub-simian brows and hammer out an angry email filled with mouth-breathing outrage.  So why revisit it? I am continually surprised at the shear volume of safety professionals who continue to self-righteously lie about this to his or her constituency.

This particular value conceals a prevalent belief that “that’s nice to say, but that’s not how it works out here in the world”.  I have since come to believe that this value should really read: “Accidents are inevitable, but injuries are not”. Things go wrong all the time, but with enough information about how workers are hurt, we can prevent injuries.  This seems tough, and mainly because most safety professionals work on the probability side of things instead of the severity.  Organizations often overlook the very real human drive toward expediency, and as a result they are surprised when people remove guards, take dangerous short cuts, and in general recklessly put themselves in harm’s way.  If organizations channeled that energy into reducing the severity of contact with a hazard, far more injuries would be prevented.  And while we’re on the subject, let’s not forget that safety is merely a relative expression of probability.  When we say something is unsafe we are describing something that has a high probability of in jurying someone.  There is no such thing as absolute safety, because for that to exist the probability of injury must be zero, and that is never the case.

Value 2: Compliance is Not Enough

Compliance is a poor measure of workplace safety.  Nobody was ever saved by compliance, but a company that doesn’t value compliance as part of an overall safety strategy is unlikely to be successful.  The idea that “okay is good enough” or that the bare minimum as defined by a third party that doesn’t understand fact one about your business, your operating climate, and your work constraints is a pretty good indicator that your organization’s leadership has its head stuffed in an orifice that would make a master yogi green with envy.  Companies need to build a foundation of compliance.  Compliance is a good place to start, and a useful argument to make for those reluctant to do the right thing as it pertains to safety, but making the argument that we have to do something because OSHA requires it is akin to having to convince someone not to torture and kill a child because its illegal.  No, we comply with the law because: a) we aren’t criminals, b) because following the spirit of the law is in the interest, not just of our workers, but our business overall; and c) because if we aren’t able to do the bare minimum how can we ever hope to do better? People who are satisfied with mere compliance have no business working anywhere; the aspire to mediocrity they are the static noise that interferes with the clear signals we try to send to the workers.

Value 3: Prevention is more effective than correction

This value is beginning to seem trite to me. If someone were to come up to me and say, “We’re world-class because we believe that prevention is more effective than correction” I might not laugh in his or her face, but I would almost certainly roll my eyes and make fun of them behind their backs.  I’m not disagreeing with the sentiment, but it seems so painfully obvious that it’s tough to take the speaker seriously.  When I hear some of the things that I’ve said about this in the past, I just want to say to myself, “no kidding? You just figuring that out now?”  The problem is that for this to be a value, instead of a tired platitude, this has to spur some operational behavior.  The response I would have for those (including myself) who spout this rhetoric, would be, “congratulations, now what are you doing about it?” Values have to be more than sentimental aspirations; they have to be the kind of non-negotiable absolute truths against which the quality of the leadership decisions is measured.  They have to be the acid test that tell us whether or not we are ethical or cowards.

Value 4: Safety is everybody’s job

The fact that I every preached this dribble is embarrassing beyond words, but I’ll go on for another couple of paragraphs anyway. Safety isn’t everyone’s job, well at least not the way that people think.  It’s nice to say while you polish the seats of cheaply made office chairs with your ass and think of what a swell job you would have if those idiots out in the field, or on the shop floor, or wherever their jobs take them would just step up to safety and stop hurting themselves.  Yes, I will acknowledge that we all have some responsibility for keeping ourselves safe, but the role the worker plays in keeping themselves safe is minuscule compared to the responsibility borne by the supervisors, engineers, and decision makers who blissfully think that the one thing that all injured workers have in common is that had ought be a damned-sight more careful.

I’ve written about how everyone plays a role in workplace safety, and certainly the worker has the responsibility for following safety rules and doing the job as specified, but many injuries are caused because the operation is working out of process.  I think that everyone has the right to expect that his or her employer has exercised reasonable judgment and taken appropriate measures to ensure that my job is not going to kill me.  A lot of people decry the rise in frivolous lawsuits, but they lose sight of the reason we have the right to bring action in civil court: it keeps people from killing people who have wronged them. Seems like a good system, but then I still pray, “if I should die before I wake…avenge me”; it doesn’t rhyme but then I’ve always been more interested in justice than in poetic meter.

Certainly this value applies to leaders who believe that they don’t have the time or inclination to protect workers from their own stupidity. Show me a safety system that promises to hold workers accountable for their own culpability in injuries and I will show you a system that sells, and a line of drooling consultants with the greedy pinched faces of ferrets and the amoral spiel they intuitively sense in lazy executives.

I think this value should be updated to: “Everyone plays a role in safety, and the organization takes pains ensure that everyone understands their roles and is accountable and engaged in fulfilling the role requirements.” It more wordy I grant you, but do you want it short or accurate?

Value 5: Safety is a strategic business element

I believe this value more now than I did when I first wrote it. People get to wound up in the emotional side of safety. Yes injuries are tragic, yes it leaves people horribly maimed and scarred and yes, it creates widows and orphans. Stating the obvious doesn’t really do anyone any good. And telling people “safety is the right thing to do” is condescending and insulting. In saying it we are implying that but for the intercession and wise advice we would turn the workplace into a site of such carnage that it would leave Pol Pot sleeping with the light on for the next decade.

Beyond the obvious moral and social benefits of safety, it is the smart business decision to make.  I speak to a lot of C+ executives (as in CEO, COO, CFO, somewhere along the line it became cute to call them “C+” executives…get it , they have a “C” + some other letters.  Clever.  I’ve found that in a fair amount of cases the C+ appellation is more appropriate in the grading system before grade inflation meant students got 4.9 gpas (what does it say for the state of mathematics where a student can get a 4.9 on a 4-point scale?) for trying hard and sucking up.  No, I like to think that a lot of C+ executives are just that, slightly above average, but not willing to put in enough extra effort to move that grade up to a B –. I realize I’ve wandered off track a bit. But even a C– executive can understand that hurting workers costs money, a lot of money.  In fact, I’ve never met an executive who said, “I’d love to hurt more workers, (especially that sonofa so-and-so Cranston he’s just begging for it) but I just can’t afford it.

When we are able to quantify in real, honest terms exactly how much it costs to hurt workers we are talking serious money, and that wasted purchase of human suffering gets even the thickest executive’s attention (well, not the thickest, I once met with a healthcare Human Resources Vice President who said that it didn’t cost them anything to hurt workers because they treated them on site.)

Value 6: Safety is owned by operations

It’s heartening to know that I wasn’t completely wrong about everything.  Safety absolutely has to be owned by those with the greatest control and clout in an organization and that is Operations.  Operations, for lack of a better definition, is how the organization makes its money. When Operations leadership say job, typically the rest of the organization says how high on the way down. Only Operations can create the sense of urgency needed to effect real, sustainable change.

So there is the value setting portion of the equation. As for the next steps, well I think you have to figure that out for yourselves, or better yet, hire me to help you find it, but anyone who promises you a universal solution without even asking question one about your organization is either a fool, a liar, a thief or that all too common combination of the three.

Hardwiring safety into all activities cannot be achieved through sermons and scoldings. Hardwiring safety requires a reimagining of the nature of safety itself.

For some safety professionals, the role of the safety professional is cheerleader;  a perpetually perky advocate of all things safe.  Unfortunately, this kind of safety professional typically has only the most superficial understanding of what it takes to make a workplace safer.

Other safety professionals see their roles as parental, eternally haranguing a petulant workforce into straightening up and flying right.  Command and control approaches to safety don’t require much more awareness of the nature of safety than that required of the cheerleaders.

Some safety professionals are witnesses to business.  They walk around the workplace worrying over charts and counting boo-boos.  These safety professionals are too busy looking at what happened that they can’t ever internalize the true nature of safety. In most cases they don’t really care about the nature of safety. They content themselves with passing charts to Operations.

Until safety professionals can see safety as an expression of risk and can advocate for risk reduction through coaching Operations can safety become imbedded into all our activities. Safety has to be more about removing variation from our processes and protecting people from injury when things go wrong and our processes fail.

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

Sailing The Seven Cs of Change


Sailing The Seven Cs of Change

Photo courtesy of Asmundur

Photo courtesy of Asmundur

By Phil La Duke 

More and more safety professionals are coming to the conclusion that real, lasting change can only come as a result of a change to the culture.  For some, this means relabeling the same old schlock and positioning the same tired method as a new, “culture transformation”.  This trend concerns me.  While there are a handful of good (in fact, really good) change professionals out there, there are far more conmen out there whose only experience with change is nickels, dimes, and quarters.

For the record I am not against entrepreneurs making an honest living. But if we aren’t careful we can really screw up and have an uncontrolled and unplanned change with dangerous and unpredictable outcomes.

In my experience, change comes in distinct phases that sometimes overlap and may even move forward and backward.  These phases can be conveniently described using words that begin with the letter C allowing me to make my title pun.

Crisis

It’s said that change only happens when the pain of not changing exceeds the pain of changing.  Organizations, like people, tend to actively resist change. Even positive changes that they know need to happen. Change, biologically speaking, is stupid and dangerous. If you are an organism that is flourishing—you have amply food and shelter, good breeding grounds and prospects, and low predators—changing even the seemingly most insignificant element can lead to extinction. Our central nervous systems are designed to resist change because it puts us in unpredictable situations. Of course we also live in a dynamic environment that is constantly changing and remaining static in a rapidly changing environment leads to extinction.
Organizations tend to resist change until the dissatisfaction with the status quo hits a critical level.
Not all change, is as Mao said, borne out of the barrel of a gun, but the more disruptive the circumstances the stronger the drive for change.

Creation of Vision

Unless leaders can construct a compelling vision, change will be stifled and obstructed. Change grows out of dissatisfaction with the current state, but change that is driven by dissatisfaction alone creates environment where the organization can go from bad to worse. An environment where change is made without a clear vision of the desired state leads to chaos and confusion and can quickly devolve into organizational anarchy. That may sound melodramatic, but in companies that I have seen fail, the failure tends to come gradually as systems breakdown and processes stop working. People still come to work, there is no reign of terror with the aristocracy being dragged to the guillotine, but there is a perceptible shift in work ethic. The good and capable leave the organization and the population reduces to incompetents who are too fearful to leave.

A compelling vision of a desired state focuses the population on a singular purpose, a common cause and an understanding of what they as an organization is trying to create.

Commitment

Legend holds that Hernando Cortez burned his ships when he arrived in the New World to demonstrate to his men that retreat was not an option. Irrespective of your feelings toward Cortez, his actions, however apocryphal, are an excellent example of how commitment to a goal can drive change. Faced the with the choice of either achieving the goal or certain death, it’s fair to say that Cortez’s men were deeply committed to change. Obviously, change can’t always be driven as ruthlessly or aggressively as Cortez, but leaders must aggressively push change by figuratively burning the ships, i.e. they must make it unmistakably clear that anything shy of  100% support for the vision will not be tolerated and those who can’t change attitudes will be forced to change jobs.

Communication of Vision

It’s not enough to have a vision; leadership must make a compelling argument for the vision and inspire passion for the desired state among the population.  Communicating a fierce vision that inspires the population is paramount to a successful organizational change.

Chaos

As the chances are implemented the organization quickly devolves into chaos. As theories become practices the numerous glitches make the change impossible and frightening. It’s easy for leaders to falter in there commitment to change when all seems lost.  Unless leaders are courageous and stick to the course they will not last long enough for the change to put down roots and grow.
Connection

As people struggle to create the new normal out of the howling chaos, they begin to see successes and reasons to hope.  At this point in the change, people start to connect these successes with elements of the vision.  They begin to connect with the desired state as something tangible and real.  These connections begin to forge the foundation of the new processes, tools, mores, and values on which a new and better corporate culture can be built. People tend to fiercely protect these newly forged connections and build norms around them.

Capability & Confidence

Slowly these connections and new practices start to yield real, tangible results and the population’s confidence rises. The organization becomes more capable as it repeats the new practices.  The reliable results that come with organization and personal capability builds confidence and the two form an improvement spiral, which ultimately makes the desired state a reality.

The desire state rarely comes to fruition exactly as envisioned or expected (remember change takes time and the vision often evolves and is refined as time elapses.) This isn’t a bad thing, often the ultimate state far exceeds the organization’s wildest expectations and desires.

 

Filed under: Organizational change, Safety Culture, , , ,

Stop Trying To Do It Alone: Why Culture Change Takes Collaboration


By Phil La Duke

Image

The approach d’jour to improving worker safety is to change the organizational culture to one that is more supportive of worker safety. The idea is so pervasive in the market place that many of those who recently were purveyors of Behaviour-Based Safety (BBS) have quickly switched to “cultural interventions” despite being thoroughly unqualified to provide such services.  It seems that every consultant that has read a book about culture is now promising to build a safety culture and solve all your problems.

The basic idea is correct; an organization’s culture can either make or break the safety function’s efforts. Furthermore, if an organization is going to change it has to do more than rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, it has to reengineer its foundation; it needs to change at a molecular level. It requires transforming the mission, shared values, and norms of the organization.

There’s a very simple flaw in all this: as a rule, safety professionals don’t lead change of this magnitude and no mater how great their desire attempts by safety professionals to effect real permanent change will fail.

Timing Is Everything

Culture change must be pushed from above and getting that level of buy-in is likely to require a level of dissatisfaction that goes far beyond worker safety.  Culture change typically is driven by a larger business need for change. For example, all organizations have a maturation cycle—they begin as entrepreneurships, evolve into professionally managed companies, and so on until they reach the point of philanthropic organizations.  Every time a company transitions from one stage to the next, it must reevaluate its values, mission, and vision.  Another opportunity for cultural change is when a company is facing bankruptcy and must drastically revamp its business model. In either of these cases, the larger business need for change affords a wonderful opportunity to include safety in the new agenda.

Collaboration Is Key

If the safety professional is going to capitalize on the changes being driven for other purposes he or she must be prepared and ready for the transformational push, and positioned such that safety is more than just an attractive addition to cultural intervention, but an essential one.

The key to this preparation and positioning lies in collaboration.  Safety professionals need to make a concerted effort to partner with other functions. The first relationship that safety professionals should cultivate is with the process excellence group.  A proven track record of collaborating with the process improvement group, positions the safety function as key resource in organizational change. Even the simplest changes will likely involve the process excellence group, and big organizational changes will most certainly employ these professionals.

Another essential collaborative relationship should be between Safety and Legal.  The legal department will likely be significantly involved in the architecture of change, and the more closely Safety is involved at the beginning of the intervention the more likely Safety can insinuate itself into the organizational changes.

Get On Board Early

Beyond collaborating with other functions, safety professionals need to understand the big picture of why the change is necessary, and what the change is expected to bring in terms of benefits to the organization.  A safety professional who understands the goals of the intervention is far more likely to make worker safety a part of these goals than one who is not sure of the role safety will play in the new order.

Climate Change Versus Culture Change

I’ve met many safety professionals who sit around congratulating themselves for already changing the corporate culture to one that values safety.  Hogwash. In most of these cases they have been successful in changing the climate—something important, and an accomplishment in its own right, but not the same as changing the culture. Culture change isn’t dependent on personalities, enforcement, or policies, but climate change is.  It can be difficult to see a meaningful distinction between culture and climate, but the most important difference is that climate change is typically a temporary change that is easily disrupted by a change in leadership.

Changing the organization’s view of safety is challenging and doesn’t happen over night. In fact, the process of changing a corporate culture such that it values safety can take years.  But with the right positioning and partnerships, safety professionals can play a pivotal and valuable role in culture change.

Did you enjoy this?  Hate it? Find it offensive or troubling? If so, I hope you will share it. The icons below will allow you to share this via Twitter, Facebook,  posting it to LinkedIn Groups or individuals, and even email it to individuals.  I maintain this and http://www.rockfordgreeneinternational.wordpress.com without direct compensation to promote Rockford Greene and my published work.  I’d sure appreciate it if you would help to pass the word to your fellow aficionados and or detractors. Thanks in advance, Phil

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

You Say You Want a Revolution


“If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you aint gonna make it with anyone anyhow”—John Lennon

There are a lot of people in the safety world that are calling for change.  Typically this call for change is articulated in fairly gentle and vague terms. “We need leadership commitment” or “communication is key” leads the parade of platitudes.  This is harmless but it doesn’t accomplish much beyond making the safety professional feel and, to a lesser extent, sound engaged.  All these calls are likely to change precisely squat.

Changing from a culture where safety is for wimps, safety is too expensive and disruptive, or that safety is in any other way undesirable can not be an iterative process; in short this kind of change takes revolution, not evolution. When Deming first promoted his 14 points for Quality, he was far from universally accepted

Revolutions sound scary—the word conjures up images of guillotines and firing squads. But the business world has seen the quality revolution, the Lean Revolution, and the information revolution all brought exciting possibilities with them.  But even these weren’t bloodless coups.  As a new philosophy takes hold the business axioms they replace fight like wounded badgers for survival.

“All Change Comes From the Barrel of A Gun”—Mao Tse Tung

While the Utopian view of safety that many safety thought-leaders espouse sounds nice, few in the workforce see a compelling reason to change how they conduct themselves relative safety and without a compelling reason there can be no lasting change. As a former colleague used to put it, change comes when the pain of not changing exceeds the pain of changing. Or as noted culture expert, Edgar Shein, put it in his first fundamental law of change, “Principle 1: survival anxiety or guilt must be greater than learning anxiety” So in other words, nothing is going to change as long as people are either satisfied with the way things are or are too scared of what the future holds. A few worried safety professionals hunched over computers arguing over the finer points doesn’t foment the necessary discontent with the status quo to change a $10 bill let alone a culture.

Shein’s formula for organization can be loosely stated as:

D+V+N>R

where D=discontent, V=Vision for the Ideal State, and N=next steps and R=Resistance

Fomenting Discontent

Fomenting discontent in the organization means walking a line between being an agent for change and being a discontented and uncooperative turd who is unable to play well with others.  Additionally, organizations like organisms tend to have built in systems for defending themselves.  Changing a culture requires fortitude; it doesn’t take many missteps for the organization to turn on the fomenter of discontent.

Cast the Vision

Fomenting discontent without articulating a clear and compelling vision of how things could be, but are not. Casting a vision of a future state requires leadership, creativity and courage.  Unless one can question one’s most cherished beliefs, one’s most deeply held values, one can never hope to change a culture.  One has to look into the very eyes of God and call him fraud before one can honestly craft a vision of any real validity.  Casting the vision takes guts, in questioning the status quo one risks making blood enemies, because it’s one thing to question one’s own beliefs and values, but quite another to question someone else’s.

Articulate the Next Steps

A vision for what must happen and a healthy level of discontent alone can not lead the population to the Promised Land.  A leader must communicate a clear and reasonable roadmap for moving from the current state to the desired state.  Unless a leader can do so, the population will judge the change too risky and decide against adopting it.

Changing a culture is relatively easy to the far more daunting task of building an infrastructure for sustaining it. The safety snake oils are often able to fob off a climate change with a culture change.  Unlike a culture change, which the population typically defend a climate change will only last as long as the antecedent remains present. (Think of a climate change as exemplified by the speed trap.  Traffic slows because drivers know a policeman is laying in wait, but once the policeman is no longer present, the drivers resume speeding.) Culture change consultants love climate change because if the parasitic relationship between consultant ends so too does the change; it’s as if the consultant is able to repossess the services rendered.

The ability to sustain a culture change—without adding a complicated and expensive infrastructure or dramatically adding headcount—is what separates a good culture change initiative from a sham, climate change, smoke and mirrors.  Millions are spent on shoddy, junk science solutions that merely mask the problems in an organization and create climate change.

One must be prepared to topple the regime to effect change, but regime change isn’t the same as culture change. And a failed coup usually ends in the termination of those who attempted it.  Safety professionals who attempt to change the culture (even if they are successful) seldom survive the change.  Who needs revolutionaries after the revolution has succeeded?  While people will eventually accept change, they seldom forgive the person responsible for it.

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

Mind Your Own Business: The Far From the Last Word On Building A “Safety Culture”


photo of the Diego Rivera Mall at the Detroit Institute of Arts taken by Phil La Duke

There is a nearly ubiquitous conversation ragging in the safety forums: how can one create a “safety culture” within my organization. This debate is troubling from a couple of perspectives.  First, there really isn’t any such thing as a “safety culture” the fact that people blather on about this topic shows a very deep ignorance of organizational culture.  Every organization of more than five people has a culture. In simplest terms, a culture is the codified collection of the norms, shared values, and rules of an organization. Cultures evolve to protect the organization’s interests and to determine what is acceptable behavior. In so doing, corporate culture makes it possible to govern the organization.

In some organization’s the corporate culture is so strong that changing from within is almost impossible, in fact, it is far more likely that a new hire will adopt the corporate culture rather than change it, no matter how strong the desire or ardently the new employee works for change.

I’ve studied corporate cultures and worked in OD for years.  I won’t bore you with a lot of pedantic excrement filled with a lot of jargon and theory, but if you want that, believe me there are plenty of people out there to fill your head with it.

Cultures are made up of shared values—kind of shared opinions of how important something is relative to the other elements of an organization.  Organizations tend to have a value of safety, that is, the organization places some value on safety relative to the other activities on which it can expend its resources.  Some cultures view safety as unimportant while others view it as of paramount importance, but all cultures place some priority on worker safety, and therefore, all organizations have a “safety culture” albeit some have a strong safety culture while others have a weak safety culture.

Even if a safety culture could be achieved (at some point it becomes a purely semantic argument) such a culture would neither be advisable or desirable.  A safety culture would mean that safety would be prioritized above all other business elements. Customer satisfaction, productivity, profitability, quality, and profitability all would take a secondary role over worker safety.  It sounds great, but in practical terms,  it doesn’t exist, nor should it.  No company exists primarily to ensure the safety of its workers.  In fact, most companies exist to make money.  This isn’t a bad thing; the safest companies in the world are the ones who went out of business because they didn’t make any money. Pursuit of a safety culture is a mish mash of Polly Anna idealism, cheap sales talk, and excuse making. (“I’ve done all I can; the culture is broken”).

As for the larger issue of a culture change, that may be necessary but that isn’t the job of the safety professional.  There are people with degrees in Organizational Behavior, Industrial Psychology, Organizational Development (OD), or other advanced degrees that qualify them to create culture change interventions. These people have years of Organizational Development experience before they are able to lead such a change; they aren’t safety professionals who have read a couple of books or attended a couple of speeches at a safety conference.   It’s been suggested that the skills of the safety professional and the organizational psychology field aren’t mutually exclusive; perhaps not. But just because someone read a couple of books about airplanes and has a flight simulator on his PC doesn’t make him a pilot. And frankly I would prefer a cardiac surgeon perform my coronary by-pass surgeon to a butcher, but effectively they share as many skills as a self-important puffed up safety huckster who believes—however earnestly—that he has the same skills as a professional skilled and experienced in OD.

So let’s shut up about creating a safety culture; it makes us seem even more out of touch than we already do.  We should however, foster an environment where safety is valued, but that isn’t a culture change, it’s a change in values.

Changing the values of an organization doesn’t take a whole lot of special skills.  A tenacious and conscientious safety professional can immediately start creating a heightened sense of value for safety within his or her organization.

Engage Leadership

I have written and spoken extensively on ways to engage leadership so I will just quickly summarize the key points here. In organizations that place a low value on safety professionals tend to have little or know credibility with the senior leadership in an organization.  Building credibility begins by speaking the same language and relating safety to the things that senior leadership find most compelling.  If the organization values sales above everything else, the safety professional should express the cost of injuries in terms of the amount of additional revenue it will take to replace the money spent on worker injuries.

Run the Safety Function Like a Business

Every safety function that is run like a business (i.e. the primary purpose of the function is to provide some service that is of quantifiable value) is much more likely to survive and thrive than those that are manage like overhead.  When the safety function sees itself as a for hire service provider it is far more likely to instill the kind of confidence required to build demand for safety.

Position Safety As a Partner In Improvements

For far too long, the safety profession has seen itself as serving a greater good that the rest of the organization, while the other departments busied themselves making money or improving quality, or making materials flow more efficiently, Safety saved lives. And while that is beyond important, it positioned safety as a parent and a policeman, but never a partner.  Safety became the smug outsider in the organization and then wondered why nobody trusted it.

But it doesn’t have to be like that, the Safety function plays an important role in bolstering operating efficiency (worker injuries interrupt production and make the operation less efficient), increasing profitability (worker injuries cost money), and creating a lean workplace (injuries are  waste).

Lead

Day after day I interact with safety professionals who deride leadership of their organization as indifferent or even hostile to safety.  These sad sacks talk in “us versus them” distinctions that make me wonder why they have jobs at all.  If safety professionals want to effect real change in how much value and priorities they have to be credible leaders not whiny crybabies who feel powerless to effect change.

People listen to those who have something to say, they learn from those who have something to teach them, and they follow people who are going to take them someplace better.  If you can’t these things for others there’s probably still important role you can play in worker safety, but shut up about culture; you don’t know what you are talking about.

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

More Deming on Safety: Adopt the New Philosophy


Deming’s second point is “Adopt the new philosophy. We are in a new economic age. Western management must awaken to the challenge, must learn their responsibilities, and take on leadership for change.” In writing this point Deming could well be describing safety.  For years Japanese companies have viewed the worker as a resource, as the best source of ideas for improvement, but also long-term partners in business; certainly a wise organization would do everything in its power to preserve and nurture something so vital to its success.

Adopting the new philosophy in safety manifests itself in several important ways.

  1. Injuries are waste and need to be managed as such.  Far too many safety pundits are still preaching that “safety is the right thing to do”, they continue to preach about moral imperatives for companies to protect worker at all costs.  Whether or not companies have any compunction to protect workers is between them and the workers.  That having been said, organizations need to protect their competitiveness, their profits, and their efficiency and all this begins with a relentless pursuit of waste reductions.
  2. Stop worrying about changing the culture and start worrying about changing your processes.  Too often safety professionals stick with what they know and don’t venture too far beyond it. Unfortunately, safety professionals typically don’t know all that much about organizational development, transformational change, or organizational psychology.  Even so, that doesn’t seem to be sufficient to stop safety vendors from shilling half-baked culture change solutions to organizations. Nor does it stop internal safety professionals from championing initiatives of which their sole qualifications are limited to reading an article in the odd safety magazine or attending a session at a safety conference.
    That some organizational cultures inappropriately undervalue safety is indisputable, but making the leap that the Safety function is capable of changing that on some grand, enterprise-wide scale is laughable. On the other hand few safety professionals understand process mapping, value stream analysis, and the other tools and methods necessary for process improvement.
  3. Integrate the Safety Into Other Business Functions. The days where Safety is a separate business function are rapidly coming to a close.  Maintaining a safety infrastructure with Safety professionals must end.  Just as the Quality function evolved into a vehicle for process improvement so too must safety.  As long as Safety professionals see themselves as discrete from the overall operations and somehow able to operate in isolation from production it will always be at risk of being dropped from the corporate team.
  4. Leadership Must Advocate for Change. Leaders are often maligned by safety professionals. Too many times safety professionals blame their own failures on a lack of leadership commitment. In this case Safety professionals are right:  Leaders SHOULD be visible and outspoken advocates for safety and organizational change that supports it.  That’s not to say that safety professionals shouldn’t play a role in this initiative.  Safety professionals should provide expertise and guidance to leaders, many of whom, don’t know how to begin to advocate change.
    If safety professionals are going to be trusted counselors to the leaders there is much work they need to do:
    1. Quit pretending to know more than they do. Safety is an area of expertise that requires practitioners to have a deep understanding of a diverse range of disciplines, but there are limits to even the most learned safety professionals’ curricula verities.  There is a natural tendency (bordering on compulsion) for safety professionals to advise far beyond their knowledge base and once labeled a vacuous windbag it’s hard to been seen as having any opinion of value to offer.
    2. Research and Analysis. Perhaps the most useful service a safety professional can offer is comprehensive research coupled with razor-sharp analysis on the best way to leverage the things uncovered by the research.
    3. Offer Guidance, Not Advice or Opinions. One of the most important thing that I recently learned is that offering guidance is tough. Frequently, what we see as guidance is opinion or just plain butting in. Guidance is marked more by listening than by advising someone as to what they had ought to do.  Guidance is invited; advice or opinions are not.  Safety professionals need to transition to trusted counselors than pouting eunuchs that huff and sigh when they don’t get their ways.  But offering guidance requires trust, and trust takes time to build.
  5. Recognize the Realities and Challenges Endemic to the New Global Economy.  Deming developed his 14 points over 50 years ago, yet even then he was able to recognize that even then we were in a new economic reality.  Even as safety comes under increasing government scrutiny the scarcity of resources available for workplace safety continues to plague safety professionals.  The stark reality is that while the number of demands placed on safety increase, the resources are shrinking or trending flat.    
  6.  Improve the quality of safety training and ensure its efficacy. My background is in organizational development and training and I will say unequivocally that the most safety training is wholly inadequate for anything except for checking the compliance box.  The biggest opportunity to transform the safety of the workplace lies in the improvements that can be made in training.  The better a worker is prepared in the tasks associated with his or her job the safer that worker will be.  I wrote an article on how safety training could be improved, What’s Wrong With Safety Training and How to Fix It so I won’t revisit it here.

Deming’s work remains the quintessential guide to quality, but the lessons one can glean and apply to safety are timeless and substantial. In studying Deming’s thoughts on quality we can transform safety and in so doing our industries.

Footnote: Phil La Duke will be speaking at 1:30 p.m at the National Safety Council on October 31, 2011

About Phil La Duke.  Phil La Duke is a contributing editor and safety columnist for Fabricating and Metal Working magazine, an editorial advisor and contributor to  Facility Safety Management magazine, and a contributor to ISHN magazine.  La Duke is a highly sought after international speaker and author whose brash style and often controversial take on emerging issue is a favorite of the international safety community.

Filed under: Loss Prevention, Near Miss Reporting, Phil La Duke, Safety, Safety Culture, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

People Don’t Respect You Because You Act Like An Idiot


Somewhere, right now, in a LinkedIn discussion group someone is posting the 245th  opinion on “Should a Company considering itself world class have the right to fire employees for their private unsafe behaviors? For example, if employees are seen during lunchtime jaywalking, or riding a motorcycle without a helmet (where legal), using stairs without handrail, etc. How about during the weekend at a non-mandatory Company picnic? Do you think a “world class” company should be protected from lawsuits when letting go these employees? Or, is the Company going too far?” As simple-minded as this topic is, it has generated a mob-mentality thread where people seem to shout out opinions without reading the other posts.

At the risk of offending my esteemed colleagues this thread is what is wrong with safety these days.  As governments chip away at safety regulations in the name of saving jobs, as businesses actively order shortcuts that undermine workplace safety, and as 50 years of progress in worker safety is threatened to be rolled back, THIS is how safety professionals choose to spend their time. THIS is the problem that they decide to commit time and energy.  I’m stunned. For the first time in history, safety professionals from all over the world can virtually gather and discuss the most compelling issues in worker safety.  We can share ideas and debate the best methods for solving lingering problems.  Manufacturing can talk to Oil and Gas, Energy and Utilities can share the wealth of experience with Logistics and Aerospace and yet time after time we see threads like this.

Earlier in this blog I used the term “simple-minded” to describe the thread.  That was unkind; true, but unkind none-the-less. Before any of you wet yourselves allow me to break it down and tell you exactly WHY this debate is so stupid.  Let’s start with the first bit, “Should a Company considering itself world class have the right to fire employees for their private unsafe behaviors?” I’m going to ignore the capricious capitalization of the word “Company” (it is not a proper noun so it should not be capitalized), the lack of a hyphen in the word “world-class”, not because I think it’s acceptable, but because I routinely butcher the English language not out of ignorance, but from sheer laziness, arrogance, and indifference. Let’s focus on the fact that the asker doesn’t tell us for what the company considers itself “world-class”.  If the company in question considers itself an overly controlling corporate douche bag, then I would have to agree. But if it considers itself a world-class safety organization, I would have to say that they are perhaps a bit misguided. Without knowing exactly what context in which the company is considering itself world-class, no one can proffer an intelligent response (which by the way, didn’t stop me from posting not once but multiple times).  And what precisely, does considering oneself world-class at anything have to do with whether or not one should be protected from lawsuits?

The next part of the question is an attempt to clarify the asker’s point: “For example, if employees are seen during lunchtime jaywalking, or riding a motorcycle without a helmet (where legal), using stairs without handrail, etc.” The asker really doesn’t get into substantive examples here.  What company would ever consider firing someone solely for lunchtime jaywalking? Sure they may use this as an excuse but show me a company who fires workers for something this petty and I will show you a company about to unionize.  As for riding a motor cycle without a helmet? Well I guess if I was the Human Resource director and some half-baked safety manager came to me with this, I would be questioning the competency of the safety manager, not the motorcycle rider.  And not using the handrail? Please. I used to work in construction and I was told by people who design and build structures that hand rails are not in place so people can hold on to them every time they walk up or down stairs, they serve to protect people by giving them something they can grab to break their fall.  To even suggest that someone would fire an employee for not using a handrail, and while on their own time and off company premises is beyond stupid.  When I read this topic heading I was embarrassed to ever to have been called a safety professional.

The author goes on to ask “How about during the weekend at a non-mandatory Company picnic?” the more he asks the dumber the question becomes.  A non-mandatory company picnic? Okay, so apparently there are now companies out there somewhere who are mandating picnics—but then I digress.  Finally, the author asks,  “Do you think a “world class” company should be protected from lawsuits when letting go these employees? Or, is the Company going too far?”  On what legal basis would there be any expectation of protection from the company? How could any rational person believe that the company is doing anything but going too far?

What is more troubling than the simple-minded question is that it elicited nearly 250 responses so far and the count is still rising.  To paraphrase the Social Network they did this instead of doing what? The fact that so many safety professionals felt compelled to weigh in on this topic is bone chilling (made even more upsetting were the numerous safety professionals who thought the company had every right to behave this way.) When I asked, on several occasions, exactly what company had the resources to engage in off-work  surveillance of its workers, I was ignored; why let logic torpedo a good conversation? I also asked how many of the respondents knew of any company that had the safety of its workplace so completely under control that it thought the only way to improve was to meddle in the personal lives of its workers.  Again, the silence was deafening.

But the issue here isn’t about worker privacy rights.  The larger and more disconcerting issue is that hundreds of safety workers think that this is something that is worth discussing (some of which I think we can safely assume were doing so during work hours).  I hear safety professionals bemoan their lack of stature in their organizations, that Operations leadership doesn’t take them seriously, and that in general, no one listens to them.  Well if this is the kind of dreck that you find worthy of your time and the kind of dreck that you want to talk to leadership about, well… no wonder people think you are a fool; you most probably are a fool.

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

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