Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

Sustaining Culture Change by Building A Safety Infrastructure


By Phil La Duke

Over the past couple of weeks I have criticized the mad rush of snake oil sales men from BBS to the new –found goldmine of one form or another of “culture-based” safety.  I like to alternate my posts from the critical, to the (hopefully) helpful.  Much ado is made about the holy grail of injury prevention, but scant little has been offered around sustaining change.

Creating the will to, and vision for, change is tough enough, but sustaining it can feel all but impossible, and, as with all safety solutions there will be companies out there who will attach themselves tick-like on the soft white underbelly of your organization all in the name of sustaining safety and the more you pay the tighter they will burrow their tiny fangs into the flesh of your organization. The key to sustaining safety gains lie in making substantive changes to the infrastructure in which safety is managed.

A compelling vision without a clear roadmap for achieving the desired state does not create lasting change as much as it will appear otherwise. In fact, a strong vision without clear next steps tends to lead to climate change rather than the more lasting and desirable culture change.

Building a safety management infrastructure requires client’s to develop a project plan focused on closing the gap between the existing state and the desired states of  what I call the seven pillars of a robust safety management process:


For workers to perform their jobs safely, they must achieve mastery level competency in the core skills required for their jobs. Beyond this need for workers to possess the core skills required of their jobs, training is also essential for workers to participate in problem solving, understand the subtle nuances of their jobs, and to truly internalize the risks associated with their jobs. This plan should evaluate the efficacy of its training strategy and tactics. In general, I’ve found safety training woefully inadequate to protect workers (in fact, I’ve written several articles on the shortcomings of training relative to worker safety, so I won’t revisit them here).  When determining what training needs to be improved consider:

  • Orientation. Increasingly, companies are loath to hire a worker outright, preferring instead to have a sort of a on-the-job interview where workers are in employment limbo—some of the practices by major companies are absolutely shameful (no set hours or schedule, work when called, no benefits, none of the traditional things associated with the employee-employer relationship. Too often this extends to training.  Irrespective of how you feel about this practice it puts workers at risk, and what’s more, the first 90 days of employment are the most important for imprinting the new culture on new hires; it’s a incredible opportunity that is wasted.  What is even more troubling is that after the new employees are converted to full-time workers going back and properly training the workers is often neglected.
    A good orientation servers multiple purposes. First, it teaches new hires what the company expects of them and what the workers can expect of the company.  Orientation should focus on more than just safety, but the safety of the workers should be a key part of the orientation.  Most orientations that I have seen do a poor job of this, preferring instead to focus on the circumstances in which the workers would be fired.
  • Contractor Training. In most municipalities, there is a shared responsibility between the employer of record and the host company for safety training. Even if the training is a simple session that identifies the company expectations coupled with awareness-level presentation on the esoteric dangers of the host company.
  • Compliance Training. Most companies understand the potential consequences for not keeping up with compliance training, but compliance training could do so much more than just allow companies to check a box.  Investing in compliance training that is embedded into a richer context that is specific to the company and its working environment can yield valuable results. For example, confined space training that is part of machine specific maintenance training or that is part of a course on excavating will be far more powerful than a confined space training course offered in isolation and out of context.
  • Hazard Recognition. Create a specific focus on hazard recognition so that all workers can vigilantly approach the identification and containment of hazards in their work areas. This too should be contextual and should be part of core competency training.
  • Leadership Training. Additionally, an important competency set that directly affects worker safety is leadership.  Unfortunately, many leaders are not selected because of their leadership skills and abilities; rather they are selected because they have high-level technical skills.  When developing your infrastructure you need to determine where the skills gaps exist and provide first-line leadership training  (and perhaps senior leadership) in the following areas as appropriate:
    • Coaching,
    • safety leadership,
    • hazard observation and recognition,
    • safety data analysis and trending,
    • incident investigation,
    • problem solving and causation identification,
    • safety strategy development and deployment,
    • managing performance inhibiters, and
    • decision analysis

Process Capability

Too many companies draw a line of demarcation between the safety function and process capability, but in the broadest sense it is variability, not behavior that causes injuries.  It’s also true that variability weakens the organization’s ability to sustain safety improvements. A process that isn’t robust and stable subjects your workers to risk of injuries. Building a safety infrastructure requires you to evaluate the extent to which your organization’s process improvement efforts interrelate to its safety improvement efforts. Process improvement efforts like 5S, Total Productive Maintenance, Kan Ban and Poke Yoke must completely integrate safety within them.  This is also a good time to evaluate your safety metrics and to determine which leading and lagging indicators will most appropriately meet your needs. Many companies miss this step and the results can be catastrophic; you have changed significant portions of your organizations and you must ensure that your business systems that directly relate to safety are changed as well.

Hazard and Risk Management.

Almost all successful changes in a culture that result in safety improvements shift the way (often radically) the organizations view and manage hazards. A revamped approach to hazard management is essential, because for an organization to assess its risk of injuries it needs sufficient data to analyze trends. Hazards need to be identified, contained, analyzed, trended and tracked. This effort typically requires a multi-disciplinary team which continually reviews hazards and looks for patterns and trends that provide insights into the overall robustness of the business.

Removing hazards before people get hurt is the key to a sound safety management system. Whether the nature of workplace risk lies in unsafe worker behaviors, lack of process capability, or physical hazards, the elements of hazard identification, containment, and correction collectively are the cornerstone of any effective safety effort. Building the infrastructure will identify the gaps in the existing hazard and risk management processes/procedures and provide guidance on how to close them.

Hazard management begins with the supervisor’s in-depth understanding of the jobs in the area for which he or she is responsible. This knowledge is initiated by basic skills training, but also requires the intimate and holistic knowledge of a process that can only come from work experience. Once that knowledge of the job exists, supervisors need a systematic approach for recording findings/hazards and tracking them to completion.  Typically, an organization will need to customize its own IT systems such that it can successfully track hazard closure.

Incident Investigation.

When your organization understands and corrects the causes of injuries it can prevent them from recurring in other areas. You should assess the efficacy of your existing incident investigation process to ensure it is rooted in the understanding of how the process works and where the risks of process failures lie. Effective incident investigation mirrors hazard management in its ability to feed the organization the information it needs to make tough choices and to draw inferences about the risk of injuries workers face from process failures.

Read-Across is also an important element of incident investigation. Read-Across is the practice of determining where an issue that caused an injury may exist in other areas. By sharing the findings of an incident investigation with representatives of another area, the overall safety of the organization can be exponentially improved. It’s essential that your communication methods and tactics accurately conveys risks and opportunities to learn from other areas (even across locations) of the organization.

Strategy Deployment

A key component for ensuring that an organization does not apply static solutions to dynamic safety issues is the development and deployment of a sound safety strategy. A key to sustaining your gains and preserving culture change lies in taking a big-picture look at the safety of its workplace. You must ensure that the team responsible for safety strategy development establishes periodic reviews of policy to ensure that anachronistic rules, policies, and procedures do not jeopardize worker safety.


Systems for accountability are essential to a strong and positive safety culture, but leaders must be made to understand that accountability is different from blame.  To achieve safety excellence you must ensure the collaborative development of good systems of accountability that hold employees answerable for the risks they take, but also for identifying the best way of avoiding future missteps.


Empowerment is different from motivation.  While a motivated employee will work to earn a reward, an empowered worker is intrinsically motivated to do what he or she believes is the right thing to do. Workers at all levels must be empowered to make sound decisions and to take action to make the workplace safer. Its important to develop empowerment initiatives based on respect for the workers at all levels of the organization.

Getting Help

There are plenty of vendors who can help with the development of a sound infrastructure for sustaining positive changes in a culture; some good and some bad.  What’s most important is that you have a clear understanding of the plan and how exactly the process being offered works.  Without a clear roadmap for sustaining change you are likely to spend a kings ransom on a climate change that will only last as long as you continue to pay the vendor (if that).

Filed under: culture change, Safety, , , ,

Mouthing Off About Safety


By Phil La Duke

There’s a lot of talk about safety.  Safety talks, reflections on safety, safety reviews, safety observations, LinkedIn discussions, forums, blogs and…well the list goes on and on.  There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of talk about safety, but does talking about safety change anything?

In 2011, Harold D. Stolovitch published the book, Telling Aint Training a book that I confess to having not read—no judgment here, I read voraciously but just haven’t gotten around to reading this particular book. Why mention a book I haven’t read? Simple: the title intrigues me (apparently not enough to shell out $17.50 for the book, or even enough to drive the approximately one mile to the public library and at least ask about checking out a copy, but that’s neither here nor there.) I’ve known for years that people, at least adults, don’t learn from having things told to them, rather the deepest learning comes from drawing from their own experiences and adapting things they have learned from experience and applying these skills to new circumstances and situations. So what good are safety talks where we find a 6956th way to say “be careful” in broad and ambiguous terms.

Adults need to draw from their own experiences and want to learn things according to their own timetable and in a style that they prefer. In 1956, a team led by Benjamin Bloom, created “Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning”.  Bloom, et el, postulated that there were three “learning domains”:

  1. Cognitive: mental skills (Knowledge)
  2. Affective: growth in feelings or emotional areas (Attitude or self)
  3. Psychomotor: manual or physical skills (Skills)

Blooms taxonomy

According to Bloom, and several generations of researchers since, adults learn by building higher-level skills by building on the things they have learned at lower levels.  Too often in safety we ignore a wealth of research and knowledge of how people learn and pursue behavior modification techniques instead.

So what are we hoping to accomplish through these safety pleasantries? Awareness? What adult isn’t aware of the connection between unsafe behavior and injuries? So why do we devote so much of our safety messages to the lowest domain (knowledge)? Do we really believe, for example, that workers are injured in slip and fall accidents don’t know the connection between trip hazards and falls? Or that by removing those hazards likely to cause a worker to trip they can significantly lower the risk of a slip, trip, and fall injury?

Take the well known but growing problem of texting while driving (or walking for that matter).  The dangers of texting while moving are well known by just about everyone, and yet, a significant number of people continue to engage in this reckless activity; why?  Texting provides immediate gratification—we get an endorphin rush from receiving text and you have to send them to get them. Diverting our attention away from a routine and fairly boring task like driving to a task we find of interest (whether it be texting, changing a radio station, or composing an opera in our head) seems like a rational thing to do, given the presumption that our attention will only be diverted for a microsecond.  Except the facts as I have stated them aren’t exactly accurate.  Texting doesn’t just take a microsecond, in fact, it takes enough time to create a real traffic hazard; but people already know this.

The problem is that texting (as with most safety issues) isn’t rooted in a lack of knowledge or skills; people know very well that it’s a dangerous activity but choose to do it otherwise.  People perceive the risk as no big deal.  Similarly, the problem isn’t psychomotor—the danger isn’t rooted in a driver’s lack of manual dexterity; it’s not dangerous because the driver lacks typing skills.  The danger of texting while driving is that while drivers know that the behavior is unsafe, they simply don’t care. No amount of safety talks will change the fact that most unsafe behaviors begin with poor choices, and these poor choices are rooted in an undesirable attitude about safety.  This undesirable attitude toward safety lies at the heart of the so-called safety culture.

How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?

Changing an attitude is more difficult than it seems.  For starters, you can’t change an attitude by telling someone that they have a bad attitude and need to change…or else. Attitudinal change comes from within, and as answer to the old joke says, “only one, but it has to want to be changed?” It keeps coming back to the Edgar Schein model for change, where dissatisfaction + vision + next steps must be greater than the resistance to change. I’ve written enough about that already so I won’t waste any more precious space on it here.  Sufficed to say, if someone believes that his or her current state is serving them well they have no incentive to change; and before anyone goes out and starts buying gift cards and throwing pizza parties that’s not the kind of incentive I’m talking about.  People need a strong, WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?).  If an adult doesn’t believe there is sufficient WIIFM, or that the supposed WIIFM isn’t worth the effort they will continue to resist the change.  Change is personal, and as a Organizational Change practitioner for many years, I have learned at great pains that unless you understand that change will only happen when enough individuals feel that the pain of not changing is greater than the pain of changing.

Shame And Blame Doesn’t Change Anything

Some people try to shame and blame people into changing, and it doesn’t work.  Whether it be children’s safety poster contests (which if you’ve read much of my work, you know I hate…what kind of sociopath introduces the possibility that a parent might die at work to a seven or eight year old?) or “It happened to me videos” or out and out, “you monster, don’t you care about safety…” lectures, these ham-fisted external attempts to force change don’t work.  People start to dislike you for blaming and trying to manipulate them and you become less effective as a safety professional, so perhaps I should say, nothing positive changes.

Building the Inner Driver for Change

Ultimately the way to change is a) get people to want to change, b) give them tools to change and c) support and encourage their efforts to change.

I could write another 1,000 words on building the case for change, but I’m not going to, at least not today.  Besides, if I told you everything I know, who would hire me to consult with them?

Filed under: Safety, , , , ,

Should We Be Applying “Ethical Buying” To Safety?

Ethics scale

By Phil La Duke 

Recently I was introduced to the concept of “ethical eating”; for those of you who are, as I was, ignorant of the concept, ethical eating is the practice of avoiding certain foods because you believe the animals were treated unethically (presumably swindled out of their life’s savings, I’m guessing.)  Actually, it turns out that “ethical eating” is just the latest pretension that has been around for decades—call it vegetarianism, veganism, or whatever the hipster-come-lately superiority complex.  As someone who was raised on a farm and an animal lover, I both eat meat and believe that animals should be treated humanely. I reject the idea that someone is morally superior simply because of his or her diet (who picks the aphids off the broccoli they eat?) It is, as my daughter is fond of saying, “a first world problem”—people who struggle to get enough to eat rarely wrestle with the moral conundrums associated with the rare meal they manage to acquire.  But the idea got me thinking.  Why are so many people ready to apply economic and political pressure in defense of animals while ignoring the very real plight of the people who grow and harvest our food, make our clothes and computer goods, deliver our mail, and generally provide the goods and services that make our lives possible?

Let me be clear, I’m not advocating a course of action here. Rather, I am merely asking a question: “Should we be using our considerable economic power to influence how organizations feel about safety?”  Is it right to continue to buy goods and services from companies that have shown a wanton disregard for the safety of their workers?

Economic boycotts are hardly a new idea, and even boycotts designed to pressure companies to provide better lives for their workers have been around for many decades (I date myself in doing so, but I would point to the Caesar Chavez call to boycott grapes as an example of such an action).  But as effective as economic boycotts can be, they are seldom—if ever—directed at a company because of its safety record.  Some would argue that if we truly care about worker safety we should avoid doing business with companies that hurt workers at all costs.  Are they correct? Before you answer, consider:

  • It isn’t easy to get a good picture of a company’s safety record.  It’s fine to say that you aren’t going to do business with a company because they have a poor safety record, but unless the company is embroiled in a public scandal regarding its safety it can be all but impossible to determine the kind of job a company does in protecting its workers.
  • Just because a company doesn’t injure a lot of workers doesn’t mean it does a good job in worker safety.  Safety is about lowering the risk of worker injuries, a company that doesn’t hurt a lot of workers doesn’t necessarily mean that it does a good job managing and lowering risk, in fact, it may not have a lot to do with good safety management and a lot to do with good old fashioned luck.
  • Just because a company hurts a lot of workers doesn’t mean it is guilty of depraved indifference.  I make my living teaching organizations how to change their corporate cultures and the customers I have dealt with over the years have run the gamut—from organizations that hurt many workers but don’t know how to stop the trend to organizations that take huge risks and are lucking enough to avoid catastrophe to organizations that do a good job but that want to do a great job. I’ve learned that it is wrong to assume that just because an organization hurts a lot of workers that they don’t care.  Sure there are companies that honestly don’t care whether or not they hurt workers—they see workers as a consumable commodity that get used up and replaced—but these companies are relatively few and far between.
  • Punishing a poor safety record really doesn’t do much but make you feel better.  In many respects, boycotting a company that has a bad safety record is much like “ethical eating”; it makes you feel morally superior but it really doesn’t change anything.

Should We Just Give Up?

If things are going change they have to change at the business-to-business level and fortunately things are changing.  Many companies use prospective vendors’ safety records as a criterion for selection in the bid process. This trend is encouraging but it’s only a start.  If you’re serious about using your economic power to affect change in workplaces you can get involved.  First, talk to your company’s purchasing department and ask to what extent the safety performance of potential vendors is used in the selection process.

Make The Case For Safety

If your company doesn’t use safety as a criterion for doing business suggest that it start.  Safety is more than a moral issue; it’s also a business issue. Organizations that ignore safety tend to fail at other things as well; things like quality, customer services, reliability, and cost. In short, companies that don’t care about safety tend to cut corners or are just so unsophisticated that they can’t function as reliable business partners.

It’s fine to give lip service to caring about worker safety, but until we get personally involved we really aren’t doing anything praiseworthy. On the other hand, most of us haven’t quiet removed the splinter from our own eye, so maybe we needn’t worry, just yet about the plank in the eye of our vendors.

Filed under: Safety, , , , ,

Safety: We Can’t Apply Static Solutions to Dynamic Environments


By Phil La Duke

“I’m over the hill, I know it, but it CAN happen to you. Every year you get a little older and a little slower; it happens to everyone.”

—Butch Cassidy to the Sundance Kid,
Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid

One of the most difficult things associated with creating a safe workplace is that the workplace keeps changing, and—at least in many organizations—our safety solutions don’t. Some of you are reading this and already throwing up defenses.  Of course safety changes, after all we do Job Safety Analysis on tasks where an engineering change has been made, we review our safety policies annually, and we do continuous improvement workshops designed to make the workplace safer. It’s fair argument but too often the pace of change outstrips the organization’s ability to update—and indeed sometimes overhaul—it’s approach to safety.

The workplace—any workplace—is continuously changing: bearing wear out, lanyards fray, people get older and everything, and I mean everything, is grinding it’s way toward the end of its useful life.

But our safety strategies seldom acknowledge or address the magnitude of variation in our system. In many respects, safety is a static solution to a dynamic problem and that can be dangerous.  If our policies, procedures, and controls are designed to protect us from a static problem but that problem is dynamic the very measures designed to protect us may not only fail to do so but may in fact subject us to greater danger.

The problem is difficult to manage and far from limited to safety; all of the SQDCME are effected by this constant march to mortality, and because the problem isn’t exclusive to safety we can leverage tools from other disciplines, not only does that help us manage the problem, but it helps us to forge bonds and make in-roads into the other functions and these may prove to serve us well when we need to enlist their help.


The first, and potentially the most useful, tool at our disposal is Total Productive Maintenance or TPM as it is commonly called. TPM was created in Japan in the early 1970’s to improve machine reliability by anticipating maintenance needs and planning maintenance before originated in Japan in 1971 as a method for improved machine availability through better utilization of maintenance and production resources. TPM is operator focused rather than maintenance focused and operators are expected to make basic checks of the worthiness of their equipment according to a carefully designed schedule.  The idea driving TPM is that the operator knows the equipment better than anyone and can tell, almost intuitively when a machine is about to malfunction. I use the word “malfunction” instead of “breakdown” because in this instance context, that of TPM, the operator should be so in sync with the equipment that he or she knows that something is amiss long before it actually breaks down.  A good analogy, or at least one I think many to which many of us can relate is driving our car.  We know when something is wrong by the way it steers, whether or not the brakes feel soft, if it is making a funny noise, or something doesn’t smell quite right. We are far more capable of knowing that something is wrong even if a mechanic is more qualified to identify the cause of the problem and repair it.  Anyone who owns an automobile or major appliance probably knows that it is generally cheaper and more effective to keep the equipment running well than it is to pay to have it repaired once it has broken down.  This goes deeper than simple preventive maintenance, but also speaks to how the equipment is used (To continue the analogy—from not overloading a washing machine or driving a car in a way that protects the transmission or engine.)


Another useful tool safety can leverage is 5S.  I’ve written extensively on how 5S relates to safety, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here.  In general terms 5S is another Japanese methodology for making the workplace more efficient.  In the original Japanese, 5S used five words that each began with the letter S (seiri, seiton, seiso, seiketsu, and shitsuke) but because there is no direct translation you will tend to see variation in the exact words (so nitpickers looking to find fault will be disappointed here) used as English equivalents.  Perhaps the most common are: Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain. Some companies have added “safety” to the mix but it really isn’t necessary since the 5S activities will nearly always result in a safer workplace. In broad strokes the continual nature of 5S makes it an ideal tool for managing the ever-present changes that are going on in the workplace. Sorting materials and tools not only make it easy to keep excess stock from accumulating in, and blocking, exits, pedestrian walk-ways, and aisles, but it also helps reduce damage to dunnage and tools which otherwise might cause injury. Setting in order (sometimes called “straightening”) helps us to continually check the condition of our tools, workflows, and facilities. Shining, and people often scoff at the idea of scrubbing down the work surfaces until they sparkle but, at least in my experience, it really helps.  Clean floors, tools and work services eliminate trip hazards, and can expose previously hidden hazards like frayed wires, and damaged walking surfaces. Standardizing helps ensure that procedures are in place and up to date and may also ensure that chemicals are properly stored, flammables are in appropriate cabinets and so on. But the final S, Sustain, lies at the heart of addressing the dynamic work environment. Only through continual sustainment efforts can we hope to create a dynamic solution.

There are certainly other tools that can help the safety professional to build dynamic approaches to the ever deteriorating and degrading workplace but to some extent safety professionals need to seek out the tools and solutions that best fit their industry, their segment, and their organization.

Filed under: Safety, , , ,

Tilting At Windmills: The Madness of Near Miss Reporting


By Phil La Duke


 “There is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of man.”

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick


Perhaps the quickest and surest way to lose credibility with workers, if not the entire organization is to ask for information and then do nothing with it. Ask a worker for a suggestion for making the workplace safer and then (at least seemingly in the eyes of the worker) ignoring it, or dissecting it to the point that everyone has long since caring about it.

Collecting data for collection’s sake happens a lot in worker safety.  We love to gather information, hoard it, report it, and sometimes even analyze it. The unrelenting pursuit for near miss reporting is the great white whale that compels otherwise sane and reasonable safety professionals to a fool’s errand, the Seven Cities of Cibola of safety just out of grasp and wanted so desperately by safety professionals.  Why?

Recently I was discussing the latest retread of Heinrich’s Pyramid with a handful of overly academic and painfully earnest theoreticians who work ostensibly in the service of safety. The subject at hand, a crudely scrawled graphic of an iceberg splattered with PowerPointless mental salver, as if some virtual vandal had tagged it with inane graffiti.

The pictograph in question is the new metaphor for teaching the great unwashed the relationship between the number of hazards, first aid cases, recordable incidents, serious injuries, and fatalities. It’s another, “no kiddin’?”, ” hit ‘em over the head” condescension that safety autocrats trot out every so often to demonstrate how much smarter they are than the “ordinary” mortals of the shops, warehouses, wards, mills, mines, and shipping docks, who pushed to it, would admit that they care not one whit about the theories of safety.  Most workers would rather not die horribly in the workplace; that’s their primary concern safety theory, for them is just a lot of hot air from a lot of people who don’t work all that hard for a living.

The injury berg is more a cautionary tale about the unfettered access of safety professionals to clip art, than any useful or meaningful tool.  Hey safety professionals, listen up: we get it: if there are enough hidden hazards eventually someone will die. Well not really, it’s all about probability and if we’re going to talk about probability, we had ought spend a moment acknowledging that most of us (statistically speaking) won’t die in the workplace.

But this particular graphic abomination belies one of the most foolish pursuits in the world of safetydom: near miss reporting. On the surface, near miss reporting seems like a noble pursuit, but it is as misguided as Ponce D’Leon who might have gone down in history as a great explorer like Drake, or DeSoto, or Marquette, but instead became synonymous with a fool chasing after a ridiculous faerie tale. 

I should pause here and allow time for shouts of “heretic” and “blasphemer” among the safety true blue.  Near miss reporting is as cherished a part of a safety management system as injury reporting or root cause analysis. We take it for granted that in not gathering information on near miss reporting we are missing a crucial part of the safety puzzle. How can we reduce risk without reporting near misses?  Near miss reporting is a relic and we need to abandon it, at least in its current form.

Why? Don’t we want information on our near misses? Doesn’t a near miss portend a mystical connection between mishaps and gruesome fatalities? In fact, it doesn’t at; least not very often. Even though many in the safety community are coming to realize that safety is a complex system and that there isn’t necessarily a continuum on which a near miss is just a failed fatality.  Recent research has shown (look it up) that there really isn’t a statistical correlation between near misses and recordable incidents or fatalities.  They often have significantly different causes and since they originate from disparate sources the supposition that spending precious resources investigating near misses is likely to magically prevent fatalities is forced.

Near Miss Reporting Serves No Good End

If we accept Heinrich’s Pyramid or Nameless Goofball’s iceberg there will be a 300 (or more) to 1 ratio of recordables to first aid, and another 300:1 ration of first aid cases to near misses, so we have 9000 near misses (and don’t get hung up on the ratios—they’ve all been largely disproved (or at least called into question) so if you are going to try to shout me down by dying on that particular hill I should warn you, I’m not taking the bait.  So pick your poison, in any scenario you are likely to conclude that there are anywhere from tens of thousands to several million near misses that are happening in your workplace annually. Let us assume that tomorrow everyone reported every near miss.  Far from being a coup d’ gras for safety, few organizations are equipped to deal with this influx of information.  It cannot be processed so we can’t do anything with it.  Near miss reporting, if successful rapidly collapses under it’s own weight.  What’s worse if we asked for this information and people provided it in good faith. Yet again, we asked workers for information and then did nothing of value with it.

A Near Miss is Not A Near Miss

A big problem with near miss reporting is it creates another category of information that sounds like a logical grouping when it is nothing of the sort. A near miss that results in someone almost tripping isn’t the same as a near miss that almost gets someone killed.  One of these events is significant while the other is notable but probably benign.  By lumping all these near events into a single category we end up Pareto charting them—we have quantitative data when only qualitative data is useful.

So We Should Ignore Near Misses Then?

Near misses should be managed like any other hazard—contained, investigated, prioritized, and corrected.  We need to contain those conditions likely to injure workers, investigate the causes and contributors, prioritize those conditions so that we are able to focus our efforts on the those conditions that are most probably going to result in injury and those that are highly likely to produce an injury that is going to be severe.  We don’t need to worry about having a special name for these conditions—they are just hazards.  The fact that they are “near misses” are no more significant than whether they are behaviors or unsafe conditions.  It’s time for Safety to simplify its approach and to stop tilting at windmills.




Filed under: Safety, , , , ,

The Biggest Threat To Worker Safety Might Be You and Me

Mr. Chicken old photo

By Phil La Duke

As efforts to improve worker safety become more sophisticated so too have the dangers that workers face.  Much has been written about the role of the individual worker’s behavior in workplace safety, and much has been written about the role that a lack of leadership commitment plays in worker injuries.  But for a moment I would like you to consider perhaps the most serious threat to worker safety: the attitudes of the safety professionals themselves.

These attitudes range from the “defenders of the faith” to the “backslappers” and each poses a significant threat to the safety with which we work.  I would like to take a brief look at these attitudes and ask you to take a hard look at yourself and your peers and ask how closely that attitude aligns with your personal beliefs.

Before I get into the individual attitudes that put us at risk, I think that it’s appropriate to discuss change, and why we are programmed to resist it. In  biological terms, change is bad.  If you are a white crested tern, and you live in an environment that affords you a bountiful supply of food, good mating prospects, temperate weather, and few predators then all change can bring is ruin.  The human animal has evolved keen defenses against change and resists it at an almost molecular level.  Yet, on some level nature also knows that an inability to change results in the inability to adapt and an inability to adapt leads to extinction.  It puts us in a pretty tight bind.  If we change we die, but if we can’t change we also die.  It’s a tough row to hoe.  And the safety profession is the organizational personification of this dichotomy.  But before you look to lay blame for the inadequacies of your safety system on some unsuspecting victim, take a look at these attitudes of safety professionals that are doing more harm than good and ask yourself “am I my own worst enemy?”

Defenders of the Faith

I’ve seen a lot since I started working with safety almost 10 years ago.  Let’s be clear, I’ve worked “in safety” for a lot longer than 10 years, but for the last 10 years I have been working diligently to effect change in safety and that has not been easy.  Bringing change—sometimes radical change—to people who by their nature are extremely cautious individuals is tough. Add to that, the fact that many of these same individuals report to Human Resources departments that view themselves as keepers of the status quo, defenders of the faith, and you will perhaps get some sense of what those years have been like.  Defenders of the Faith are the safety professionals who ostensibly espouse a desire for radical change in the way we approach worker safety, but, in fact, most of these professional don’t want change at all.  The Defenders of the Faith will outwardly admit that change needs to happen but then chip away and passively resist change.  These individuals never tire of the blame game and have umpteen excuses for why they aren’t successful, but meanwhile people continue to get hurt. The primary motivation of the Defenders of the Faith is to ensure continued employment and deflect any negative attention from themselves.


Luther Heggs was the character played by Don Knotts in the film The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Heggs was a cautious to the point of being afraid of his own shadow, and there are a lot of Luther Heggs working in safety today.  I am not trying to be ironic when I say that safety professionals are a cautious lot.  The profession attracts more than its fair share of individuals who enjoy regulation, rules, and formulas.  As a rule, these individuals don’t like change and actively (or passively) seek to subvert it.  Whether they realize it our not, these individuals would rather continue a course of action that consistently fails than to adopt a new (and in their minds risky) course of action.  These individuals will only embrace corrective actions that have been time tested and proven effective beyond a shadow of a doubt.  They will make all sorts of excuses as to why these process changes are inappropriate to their situation.  Heggs don’t understand process, and haven’t a clue at the deeper implications and underlying organizational flaws that injuries represent.  In their minds the job of the safety professional is to count bodies as they bear witness to the carnage.  It’s not their fault that people are getting hurt, nor their jobs to fix it. If you find yourself reluctant to accept a new idea until there has been years of research on its effectiveness before you consider it you might be a Hegg.  Unfortunately and ironically, the caution shown by the Heggs actually increases the risk of injury.

Bandwagon Jumpers

Opposites of the Heggs are the Bandwagon Jumpers, and they are every bit as dangerous.  Bandwagon Jumpers have never met a dumb idea that they didn’t love, especially an idea that absolves them of culpability of a failed initiative.  You can find Bandwagon Jumpers at every conference eagerly jotting down notes in the professional development sessions or loading up on the newest fad literature in the bookstore.  This attitude is dangerous because even when the Bandwagon Jumper happens into a good idea he or she seldom gives the idea time to work before scurrying off to the next hair-brained scheme.  You can spot a Bandwagon Jumper by his or her love of jargon; they jabber on for hours spewing meaningless crap that they really don’t understand themselves. Operations leadership seldom respect the Bandwagon Jumpers because the leadership expects and values results, and for all the sound and fury generated by Bandwagon Jumpers very little gets done; it’s all activity and no meaningful consequences.

Snake-Oil Salesmen

I’m fond of the old adage, “when you sell hammers, all the world is a nail”, and never was this more true with the Snake-Oil Salesmen.  These safety professionals glommed onto a scientifically dubious safety process years ago and like a terrier with a rat in its mouth they just refuse to drop it.  Some of these people learned a methodology that worked for them in a very narrow scope and continue using it even though it creates an infrastructure that is too costly to sustain.  Others paid to get certified in a given methodology and admitting that it is of questionable effectiveness erodes their Curricula Vitae; these people understand that allowing the possibility that their methodology is bunk is, by inference, calling their qualifications into question as well.  You can’t blame one for preserving one’s professional values but it becomes problematic when one places more value on one’s own credentials than they do on the safety of the workplace.  It’s easy to be a Snake-Oil Salesman without meaning to—after all, every conference hosts seemingly inexhaustible populations of people who make their living selling processes, methodologies, and ideas that don’t work.  You can find the Snake-Oil Salesmen shouting down each other in LinkedIn chat rooms and on-line safety forums.  Snake-Oil Salesmen are adroit at using a statistically insignificant sample size to refute the evidence that their malarkey is junk science.  They will seldom support their arguments with any research done in the last 50 years, in fact, most will just keep repeating their own opinions until the opposition dismisses them as idiots and walks away.


Without a doubt, Backslappers are the most dangerous attitudes in safety today.  Backslappers are content with what they’ve already done and brag about how safe their workplaces are.  By using industry averages, dubious rates and trends, and antiquated views of safety (as the absence of injury instead of the reduction of risk) Backslappers congratulate themselves for a job well done, at least until there is a serious injury or a fatality.  Backslappers feel that they’ve conquered worker injuries and they don’t have to worry anymore, their jobs are done.  Safety professionals who are Backslappers can’t wait to show the new boss what a terrific job they’re doing, and will waste vendor’s time by inviting them in the guise of learning more about the vendor’s offerings when in fact, they only want to brag about what a swell job they are doing.  Backslappers are the most dangerous of these attitudes because it belies the misconception that we can ever relax or let our guards down when it comes to workplace safety.  When complacency becomes the safety strategy the risk of serious injury grows unchallenged and unchecked until a the probability of a fatality rises to virtual certainty.

So What Can We Do?

I’d like to think that these posts do more than deride a particular fault I find in something and that I also offer something constructive that one can use to correct the undesired state. In that spirit, here goes…

  1. Ask operations if, in their eyes, you fit any of these attitudinal types.
  2. Investigate the trends your safety against national trends; you really need to discount improvements that are part of a national or industry trends.  You also don’t need to congratulate yourself too much for being “better than average”.
  3. Actively seek to improve the safety of your workplace by getting engaged and partnering with Operations.

It takes a lot of courage and moral fortitude to be an effective safety professional, but then this is the career we chose.  If we can’t challenge our own belief-sets, if we can’t call our own attitudes into question, how then can we effect real, lasting, sustainable change?

Filed under: Safety, , , , ,

A @#$# Storm In Texas

by Phil La Duke


“Who takes all the glory and none of the shame”—Elvis Costello


As safety professionals all over the civilized world continued to congratulate themselves on the swell job they’re all doing, someone had to piss on the picnic and blow up a fertilizer plant.  Thankfully, it didn’t get much news coverage what with the Boston Marathon, and who can blame the media? There won’t be a cherubic face on the Texas blast, and the glamorous backdrop of the Boston Marathon, and if there are stories of selflessness and heroism, we won’t hear them.  As for far as most people are concerned it’s just a bunch of dead, working class Texans, and what are 40 dead Texans more or less?

The bombings at the Boston Marathon had a lot to get us excited about, at an estimated 500,000 people involved in the event, it’s New England’s most watched sporting event, and it’s undeniably a big deal.  And this event had all the pageantry of an Ian Fleming novel before a parade of increasingly bad Bond film turned his work into cerebral pabulum. A big sports event is attached by rogue former USSR denizens, a small boy dies, a massive man hunt, gun fights, throw in a contrived love story, and Matt Damon and you have it all.  As I type this, I imagine there are numerous celebrities championing the victims of the Boston Marathon, collections will be taken, kudos heaped on the brave. Memes posted on Facebook from political whack jobs from both extremes blaming Obama for not doing enough or extolling him for doing so much better than Romney would have done. ”Repost this if…” as if anyone gave two tenths of a crap what anyone reposted on Facebook. I’m not denigrating the gravity of the situation, or of the heroics of those who ran to help when good sense should have sent them scurrying.  I know that at least a score of you mouth breathers are already so outraged that you struggle to read through furrowed brows and the labored breathing of the deeply offended.

Save it, yet again I am unimpressed and unswayed.  It’s been more than a week since the explosion in Texas and they still don’t seem to know exactly the death toll (up to 15 dead? When did news (I refuse to call the excrement that the modern hackneyed purveyors of “newsertainment” produce “journalism”) get so sloppy? We expect and accept fatalities in the workplace.  Sure the West, Texas explosion shook and alarmed business owners a bit, but things have already settled down, like mud sinking to the bottom of a sullied stream, clearing the waters of collective consciousness. Since the Texas explosion there have been industrial explosions at on  barge at a dock in Mobile, Alabama and at an Oil Refinery in Detroit, MI.

We’ve learned to expect and accept workplace fatalities as a cost of doing business. It sickens me that we chip away at worker safety in the name of case management—exactly what percentage of disability claims are in entirety fraudulent? And yet we treat all as if the are liars and cheats.  Politicians boldly decry the over protection of workers? When was the last time a politician died doing his or her job save for the assassin’s bullet, a bad liver, or the hyper excitement of a woman’s ministrations?

We sit and congratulate ourselves because injuries fall—we take all of the credit, we cheer and high-five, we proudly proclaim ourselves the saviors of the workingman. Yet when things go wrong we deflect any blame or accountability—“If the idiots would only follow the rules” “operations leadership doesn’t support me”.

We can’t have it both ways; these are two diametrically opposed standpoints. Either we save lives and butcher workers, or there is no relationship between what we do and whether or not people go home safe.  To paraphrase Yoda, (I won’t mimic the goofy Muppet syntax that Frank Oz compulsively adds to all characters making them sound like Fozzy Bear after he suffered a stroke) either you do it or you don’t, there’s no “try”. As my sainted, departed father used to tell me (after I defended a half-assed attempt with “I did my best”) “I can get a damned baboon in here to try hard, you get no points for being stupid.” That may seem harsh, but losing a loved one in an industrial explosion is also harsh.

Should we be more concerned about terrorism than we are about industrial explosions, the release of lethal gas into our communities, or wildfires that erupt from lumber yards? Well, certainly it’s not a contest, but WAKE UP people, the thing that will kill you is far less likely to be a mad bomber at a crowded public event than it is to be the chemical plant, grain elevator, refinery, or barge that explodes in your neighborhood. These are workplace accidents that aren’t just killing workers, they are killing first responders, and our neighbors, and people blissfully unaware of the dangers until it’s too late.

This isn’t an indictment of any particular industry.  While it’s true that the closer an industry is to harvesting raw materials the dirtier and more dangerous it tends to be

So safety professionals either step up or shut up. If you aren’t going to take responsible for these catastrophic breakdowns than shut your gaping pie hole about saving my life. If you did your best and this still happened than do us ALL a favor and get the hell out of the business. And for those of you, who are sitting there thinking that it can’t happen to you, know that those who suffered these disasters likely felt the same way.

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

Phil La Duke is Full Of @#$%


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, , , , , ,

The Greatest Threat To Safety Might Be Your Safety Training



By Phil La Duke

To assert that most safety training sucks is to reveal no great insight; it’s practically an O’Henry short story: training professionals steer clear of safety courses for fear they might miss some important point and imperil the learners and safety professionals lack the requisite knowledge of knowledge of adult education to construct an effective course. The result is well-intentioned organizations wasting millions annually on weak safety training that not only doesn’t protect workers; it puts them at risk.

There are a couple of basic things you have to decide whether you believe or not before you can draw any accurate conclusion. First, you either believe that safety training protects workers or you do not. (It’s something of a mute point, because in most countries Safety training is required.  It’s not required to be good mind you it’s just required that people complete it.) Second, you either believe existing safety training is sufficient or it is not.

Researchers in adult learning paint a fairly bleak picture of training in general.  Research has shown that up to 85% of the skills learned in training courses is lost before it ever has a chance of making it to the workplace, and further research shows that no skills taught in a class are retained unless the skills are applied within 48 hours of the course.

Before we continue I should make something clear. I use the term “training” not “learning” not “teaching” and not “education”. I know some people bristle at the term, “you train dogs, not people” but I was taught the difference between teaching and training through the following analogy: “you might be in favor of your sixth grade daughter receiving sex education in school, but you probably don’t want her getting sex training”.  Some of you might be offended by that example (lighten up) but I think it creates a visceral mental image of the precise difference between training and teaching.  As far as I’m concerned, education is learning ABOUT something and training is learning how to DO something.

This distinction has profound implications in worker safety.  Safety professionals pull their hair out in frustration, concoct elaborate schemes, and tilt at ludicrous organizational windmills in an effort to influence, motivate, coerce and cajole workers into working safely, when I put it to you these workers were never taught to work safely, they were taught ABOUT working safely.   This might sound like I’m playing semantic games here, but think about it.  What do people learn how to DO in a hazard communication course? That’s not to say that safety education isn’t important, and awareness too, while were at it, but if we want people to change how they behave—and despite whatever position you take on behavior and its relationship to safety I think we can all agree that safe behavior and good decision making is an essential to a safer workplace—we have to first give them the skills they need to behave safely.

This distinction also lies at the heart of why so few safety professionals, academics, and consultants have any real credibility with workers.  Credibility is only really gained when a person knows how to DO the job, irrespective of how much the person knows ABOUT the job.  This creates a problem for safety training; many decision makers assume that subject matter experts will make great trainers because they will have so much more credibility with the learners.  Of course not all grizzled veterans are horrible trainers, but many are really bad at teaching people the skills they need to do a job.  Any time I have endured a training course on any subject where the instructor takes pains to brag about his or her having spent 87 years doing blah, blah, blah…I knew I was in for long, pointless class.

The secret to better safety training starts with a professional designed course. I’ve explored that topic in greater detail in previous articles and blog posts so I won’t go into it much here, except to say that a well-designed course is like having a concrete plan for imparting the skills; a “learning road map”, if you will. The development of the course requires two kinds of expertise: expertise in the content, and expertise in adult learning.  There are no short cuts to this formula. If you try to cut corners you will end up not only wasting time and money, but potentially putting workers at risk.

But a professionally developed course is only the start.  The delivery of quality safety training is every bit as specific and important a skill as any other. Just because someone LIKES to present in front of a group or that fancy themselves a trainer.  A good safety trainer should be an expert in the discipline of training. Of course the instructor has to have credibility in the content, but that doesn’t mean that the instructor has to have complete mastery of the subject and have 150 years doing the work.

In the best classes, either a subject matter expert has been given training in presentation skills or is teamed with an experienced trainer.  But too often those charged with ensuring that courses are delivered simply trust the subject matter expert to “pull together a course” or worse yet, trust them to deliver the “course” they’ve been regurgitating for years.

As I’ve said in so many other posts, the best safety training isn’t the regulatory training most of tend to think of when people mention safety training. Rather the most important safety training is effective core skills training. Unfortunately, this training tends to be even worse than regulatory training and is even less formal than the worst regulatory training out there.  This is where things get dangerous, if we don’t provide quality training in how to do the tasks required of a job the workers will figure out a way to do it, and the way they find to do it will be the most lasting learning.  It’s tough to unlearn something that you learned from your own experience and even tougher to change those behaviors.

Filed under: Performance Improvement, Phil La Duke, Risk, , , , ,

When It Comes To Unsafe Behaviors There’s Plenty Of Blame to Go Around

By Phil La Duke

scissors 2

If you’ve made even the most cursory read of my articles and blogs you probably already know that I don’t hold much stock in Behavior Based Safety (BBS).  I believe that except for the odd statistical outlier nut-job, nobody WANTS to get hurt and unless they were designed my the Marquis De Sade you processes aren’t intended to hurt people.  If those two things are true no amount of behavior modification—whether it be incentive programs or telling people to be more careful—is going to change much of anything.  But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe unsafe behavior is the single largest cause of injuries, and if so, we have to manage those behaviors.

Before we can manage unsafe behaviors we have to understand the context in which the behaviors occur.  We can’t take effective action unless we understand precisely why people behaved in an unsafe manner.  A couple of days ago an acquaintance told me about how he had been injured on the job during the third week of February on two consecutive years (he was nervously praying for the first of March to come so he could relax a bit).  “It was my own fault,” he explained, “I was rushing to get things done because my boss was standing over my shoulder saying ‘we gotta get this order out’”.  Unsafe behavior? sure;  the fault of the worker? I don’t think so. Most traditional BBS programs focus on the unsafe behaviors of workers. Productivity is sapped as millions of hours are wasted insisting that supervisors watch people work and coach them on their unsafe behaviors.  Don’t the people whose unsafe decisions and insistence and encouragement of unsafe behaviors bear any culpability in worker injuries? I think they should.

Here are some incredibly unsafe behaviors (attitudes + action) up-stream in the process that organizations need to address:

  • “I Don’t Care How; Just Get It Done.” Whether it’s manufacturing, or construction, or mining or oil and gas there are supervisors, and site managers, and even executives who reward the people who ignore safety protocols and procedure to “get things done”.  This sends a strong message to the workers: you will get rewarded for violating the rules.  Ask these leaders about this behavior and you will likely get a sermon on how they will never tolerate unsafe work and a worker has a right to go home in the same condition…blah, blah, blah.  But when the rubber hits the road and they are faced with falling behind schedule and giving a nod-and-wink “work safe” while telling the workers that the job must get done by Thursday at all costs.  Workers aren’t stupid; they know that they can take risks and nine times out of ten nothing bad will happen.  They understand that probability favors them not getting hurt and if they “get the job done” they will be seen—and more importantly treated—like heroes.  It’s the guys who get things done who get promoted, get the plum assignments, and get fat raises.  They will take unnecessary risks because they are rewarded for doing so, while the people who work safely are punished.  A pizza party at the end of the month for zero loss time injuries can’t compete with the raises, opportunities, and job security afford to those who “get things done”.
  • “I Don’t Care If the Safety Rule Makes It Impossible to Do the Job You Must Follow The Rule.” This behavior is most prevalent among the “command and control” safety professionals who neither know, nor care to know how the work is done.  It’s an ignorance borne out of laziness.  Workers are told they can’t do the job in the most expeditious and efficient manner because doing so is unsafe, are given an unworkable solution, and an expectation to perform to standard. Faced with this choice they take unjustifiable risks, and why wouldn’t they? We can cluck our tongues at the violations of the workers but really whose unsafe behavior is truly to blame for the hazardous situation?
  • “What Can I DO? I Can’t Make Them Work Safely.” In the grand scheme of things there is no such thing as working completely safely.  Sure we can work in ways in which we minimize our risk but even the best set of rules can only protect us from hazards that have been anticipated. It’s tough to anticipate every conceivable hazard in a dynamic and rapidly changing environment.  Too many safety professionals act like institutional eunuchs, trumpeting their emasculation to anyone they think might listen.  The lack of a safe behavior can be the same as an unsafe one.  When safety professionals or supervisors turn a blind eye toward hazards—behavioral or physical—the effect is every bit as dangerous as the unsafe act itself.
  • “I Don’t Have Time”. The lack of time has become the rallying cry for every aspiring martyr. Where the quality of a person’s work was once the measure of his or her performance now, in many organizations, bellyaching about how little time you have has become the new hallmark of an employee’s contribution.  I have heard so many safety professionals, supervisors, and operations managers whine about their lack of time to get everything done that I involuntarily roll my eyes when I hear it.  What am I supposed to do with that information? Praise you for doing a half-assed job? Sympathize because you can’t manage up? Studies have shown that people tend to do work in the following order: tasks they enjoy, tasks that are easy, tasks that are fun, and then everything else.  If you don’t have time for safety—from the maintenance managers who can’t find the time to maintain equipment or repair facility issues to the safety person who can’t find the time to do a proper incident investigation to the materials manager who doesn’t have time to get stock out of the aisle ways, to the site manager who padlocks emergency exits because he doesn’t have time to discipline the people who are using it inappropriately, to the supervisor who doesn’t have time to inspect the work area to ensure it is free of hazards—you need to either reprioritize your work or get out before someone get’s killed.
  • “They Wouldn’t Get Hurt If they would Be More Careful.” Blaming the injured is a staple of many Safety Management systems. I have heard safety professionals describe workers who have suffered repeat injuries “frequent flyers” and plant managers insist that workers are hurt “primarily because they take short cuts to get more ass time”.  I have heard that safety is everyone’s job so many times that I want to vomit.  If safety truly is everyone’s job then where is the culpability for those of us who make decisions who jeopardize the safety of others?

So maybe behavior is a key component in worker safety, and maybe we bear some responsibility for our own behavior.  If safety truly is everyone’s job than there is blood on our hands every time someone gets injured on our watch.  We bear as much of the responsibility for the gore and carnage as anyone. Maybe it’s time we take a hard look at OUR behavior before we start pointing fingers of shame at the injured worker.  Maybe it’s time for us to ask ourselves what did we do TODAY to help worker’s make safe decisions? Maybe it’s time to turn the lens of judgment on ourselves and ask what we could have done to prevent the injury that took the life of a coworker, and how we will change our OWN behavior to help workers make better, safer choices from now on.

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



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