Come to Work High, But Come to Work

IMG_0167by Phil La Duke

Many of you reading this are probably under the influence, and that’s okay. Most of you who are reading this while under the influence are using a legal yet potentially lethal substance that was either prescribed for you by a physician or that you purchased over-the-counter at your local pharmacy.  If any of you are using illegal or recreational drugs while reading this…well all I can say is that you’re doing them wrong.

Now think for a moment about the side effects of a decongestant or cough syrup. Read the warning on the box “may cause drowsiness. Do not operate heavy equipment”. We routinely ignore these warnings and encourage workers to do these exact same things.  If a worker calls in sick because his or her medicine might his or her ability to safely drive to work and to safely do his or her job, the most likely response is either to tell the worker to get his or her ass to work or to discipline them according to the attendance policy.

Attendance policies are a tricky business. I once worked at a global manufacturer that had no attendance policy for salaried workers.  The philosophy was if you are sick stay home. (There was another policy for hourly workers that I always found hypocritical.) Of course your boss could always ask for a doctor’s excuse but that was seldom an issue.  Company-wide salaried employees took .5 sick days a year. What’s more, when investigated, 95% of all absences came from one department and the head of the department was worst offender.  After years of belly aching about no attendance policy the executives acquiesced and people were given 5 sick/personal days a year.  (When supervisors would whine to me about no policy, I would tell them “there’s no policy against me crapping in your waste basket but if I did it, you’d find a way to make me stop.”  I always thought they were using a lack of a rule for not doing their jobs.)  Once the new policy was implemented the average sick days taken by salaried employees ballooned to over 4 days!  Before, people had been treated like adults, but once the policy took place people felt they felt entitled to taking these days off.

In many workplaces coming to work sick and/or doped up on medications is passively encouraged. For many workers the choice is to come to work sick or stoned to the gills on medication or lose their jobs.  Sick workers are far more likely to commit human errors, doped up workers are far more likely to commit human errors. And yet we persist. We encourage unsafe workplaces with our “come to work or else attitude.”  Some of you are thinking, “so someone comes to work on NyQuil? So what?” okay, what about the person who comes to work high on medical marijuana? (the height of hypocrisy—I recently watched as a group of badly aging Baby Boomers passing their “medicine” around while they huddled around the dumpster behind Veteran’s lodge; apparently all five suffered from a debilitating fear of spiders. So we tell our workers come to work high.  Weather so bad it’s not safe to drive? Too bad get your ass to work.  High on heroin? Too bad get your ass to work.  And all the while we festoon the walls with safety slogans reminding us not to die, to be safe because there are people who love us (not the people who put up those posters mind you, but people).

The problem gets worse when we consider the opioid epidemic in the U.S. Many heroin addicts started out on prescription opioids to which they were prescribed after a workplace injury or a surgery required from a workplace injury that happened years prior.  Worried doctors abruptly stopped prescribing the medication for fear they would lose their licenses leaving the patient turned addict to buy those meds on the street for as much as $100 a pill. Heroin on the other hand works just as well or better and costs far less (heroin.net says that the average cost of a dose of heroin is $15-$20 in Ohio, but you have to go to Ohio to get it so you have to figure in the cost of travel if you are paying over $20 bucks). Heroin is so much cheaper than black market OxyContin that even a heavy heroin (say a $250 a day habit) user could finance his or her habit for the price of a single pill.  If employers who hurt workers didn’t create this epidemic they sure as heck contributed to it.  (Note: I lost my ex-father-in-law to a heroin overdose.  Not only was he completely disabled and racked with constant pain from a neck injury that shattered two of his vertebrae, he also won the mesothemia lottery and would have died of that in a matter of months anyway.)

So we talk out of both sides of our mouths: work safely but don’t miss work no matter what. Brave inclement weather, come to work stoned on prescription or over the counter drugs, but come to work.  Oh but don’t come to work drunk or on opioids cause we’ll fire you for that.

DOES THIS MAKE SENSE TO ANYONE?

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The Politics of Stupid

by Phil La Duke

Good morning, afternoon, or evening.  It’s difficult to process the fact that people from all over the world read my blog.  For me it feels more like writing to an audience of one, and I guess when I think about it many of you have told me that you feel like I am talking directly to you when you read my work.  Over the past 12 years I have been hammering out blogs that have provoked, enraged, and hopefully entertained you, that’s approximately  624,000 words.  People seemed to like my work and I was invited to speak at international venues and to write for dozens of magazines. I was for a time the belle of the proverbial ball. But recently things have shifted.  A colleague was asked for his advice on a speaker for the leaders at one of his clients, and they recoiled in revulsion at the merest suggestion when he proffered my name up.  What if I said something…controversial? What if I said (as I have to other groups) that what they were doing was wrong?

The National Safety Council has effectively blackballed me ostensibly because of audience feedback that said I while I was an excellent speaker my topics weren’t all that great.  Keep in mind I would send as many as 40 abstracts from topics ranging from the safe and mundane to the truly outrageous and provocative and THEY selected the topic.  I think it has more to do with criticisms I have made privately and publically about keynote speakers who are more infomercial than technical and that speakers standing at the podium schilling their latest books.  Their staunchest competitor, the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) doesn’t seem to have any particular beef against me, but year after year my abstracts get rejected. NOTE: I received word at 10:52 a.m. that I will be speaking at the 2018 ASSE Show in San Antonio. They notified me last November but like a fool I put down the wrong email.  Last year I spoke at a conference in Ireland and promised to share the video they were going to make, but it will be year in March and I’m no longer holding my breath.

Even publishers have cooled to my work.  I used to write three articles a week for Entrepreneur, a monthly column for Fabricating and Metalworking, and contribute to ISHN, and a list I’m too lazy to make of other high quality, high circulation magazines.  Now I am lucky to be asked to stop writing letters to the editor.

It would seem that once again people want to hear that things are great in safety and they aren’t. I would love to cater to your desire to be validated as the special creations of God, but I can’t.  I can’t play the politics of the stupid.  I keep trying to argue logic with people who will only make emotional statements and it’s exhausting.

None of you may have noticed, but I haven’t posted for over a month.  I am not in a depressive funk or in an existential crisis over whether I’m still relevant.  But what I have come to realize is that while my message has been the same for over a decade the safety industry doesn’t want to turn over the rocks that I do.  They don’t want controversy they want complacency.  They want me to tell them that things are going swell. Well they aren’t.  In the U.S. highway fatalities have been essentially trending flat for 20 years even though roads and cars are far safer than they were even five years ago. But nobody cares if a worker commuting to or from work dies because it’s not the company’s problem.  The coworkers still have to deal with the loss of a friend or colleague, the family is still impacted, and was it not for the commute to work the person would still be alive. Let me be clear: I am not saying that companies should start tackling the problem of safety fatalities, but let me ask you this: when was the last time your company shut down a shop site because the road conditions were unsafe for workers to drive on? Sometime last never, I’m betting.

We play all kinds of games with or safety metrics from the overly zealous case manager who fights like a badger to keep a legitimate work injury from being a Workers’ Compensation case or an OSHA recordable to the bureaucracy that recently removed two worker fatalities from its numbers because it “didn’t have jurisdiction over the industry that killed them”.

So I’m back (my month off was spent on a piece on culture—the blame d’jour for ineffective safety professionals to shield themselves.  Sometimes the culture does suck and sometimes it really IS the problem, but it can’t be the reason by default. “Gee I don’t know Al,  we tried a children’s poster contest, and given them pizza and that didn’t work, the culture must be broke, because it’s clearly not the fault of anything WE did.”) Long story less long I kept retooling it until I just got frustrated and quit it (for now)  And that for me is in itself a problem.  It’s not that the industry needs another big idea, we just need to start putting competent people in the right roles.  And before you get your boxers in a wad, I’m not just talking about safety practitioners, but middle managers, site leaders, and executives.  Hurting people at work because you did something you shouldn’t have or didn’t do something you should have is wrong and you are culpable for that, maybe not to me, or the family, or the law, and maybe not even to some higher power, but to someone or something.

I’ve never been good with the politics of stupid, and I have never been able to celebrate the fact that injuries are down.  Take a hard look at that data. Are injuries down or are reported injuries down?  Are you making the workplace safer or just getting better at swindling workers out of their disability checks? My theory is that injuries are falling while fatalities stay fairly static is that it’s tough to case manage your way out of a death on the shop floor but there are dozens of skeazy tricks one can pull to avoid injury claims.  Take China for example where many companies immediately fire injured workers (before a report is filed) presto perfect safety records. Or Mexico where a team scoops the gorey remains of a worker off the floor and slurps him into an ambulance where he officially dies, so it doesn’t count as a workplace fatality. Recordable or nonrecordable ALL INJURIES MATTER.

So I will remain controversial and before you say, “I could never take anyone serious with that shoddy grammar, or his disrespectful tone” ask yourself, is it that what’s really bothering you or the fact that I am saying it, it applies directly to you, and I am exposing it for the whole world to see.

Why So Many People Believe the Hierachy of Controls Is A Joke

sign-slippery-wet-caution

Phil La Duke

This morning I used the restroom at my local greasy spoon, as I stood at the urinal fighting the urge to retch at the sewer smell I noticed one of those yellow “wet floor” signs. The floor was dry (at least before I got there, after all, “wet floor” is a command, not a warning.) and I thought to myself, this is why the Hierarchy of Controls is such a joke: here we have a situation where the most effective solution (elimination of the hazard) is relatively cheap and easy to implement (don’t TELL me the floor is wet, dry the damned floor). The administrative controls in our lives are absurd, from the signs in Michigan warning that the bridge might be icy in 100° weather in mid-August, to beware of dog signs on the gates of homeowners whose dog has long ago shuffled this mortal coil, to the small packet of desiccant placed in a box of electronics with “do not eat” written on it. At the risk of getting off on a tangent, who in their right mind opens up the latest gadget finds the packet and says, “I’m gonna eat this”? I have used this example many times in training sessions and every once in a while someone will point out that a pet or a child could eat this material and become gravely ill. Fair point. How many of your pets and toddlers can read? My dog is very smart, but even she moves her lips when she reads so I doubt that she fully comprehends the message and is just as likely to eat it. My other dog only reads for entertainment and would gulp down the desiccant scoof without so much as a hazy concept that might develop into an action.
The point is that in these cases and others more too numerous to mention, we are taught that many warnings are stupid, inaccurate, or just plain lies. In the workplace as in life, we are forced to determine whether the danger is real, probable, and severe enough to worry about.
If after this split second analysis we judge the warning or rule to be unnecessary we will violate it. Take for example a “Don’t Walk” signal. Many good people, including more than a couple of safety practitioners, have looked around and seeing nary a vehicle for miles in either direction, have made the bold decision to cross against the light.
My point, albeit a circumlocution, is that PPE and Administrative controls aren’t just the least effective way of controlling a hazard they are also in many cases the product of lazy safety engineering. In fact, I will go so far as to say that there are a lot of instances where using administrative controls are downright criminal. Administrative controls is safety done on the cheap. Heck, why don’t we just make a rule against getting hurt. Oh, wait, in many companies we’ve done just that. We fire or discipline people for getting hurt when in fact WE failed to control the hazard. In fact, there are some countries where people who have been injured are immediately fired so that the injury doesn’t show up in their records. I know of several workers pronounced dead in an ambulance even though their corpses were so badly mangled it took two trips to put them IN the ambulance.
If employers believe that eliminating a hazard is too cumbersome (read expensive) they will just outlaw getting hurt. And since violating a safety rule is a bulletproof way of firing someone without repercussions administrative controls is a great way of protecting the company despite putting workers at extreme risk. It’s a nice system for companies, but less so for workers who end up as the guest of honor at a closed casket funeral.
What’s worse is we can do better. We know that administrative controls (excluding training) don’t work very well and unlike an engineering control, when an administrative control fails we default to blaming the “stupid, lazy worker”. It’s a fair conclusion; a stupid, lazy worker is to blame, but the stupid, lazy worker is the person who put that control into place and thought that it would work. This kind of lazy incompetence is rife in the safety function and people get maimed and blamed because of it. I find it odd that nobody ever asks why the organization depended on such an ineffectual control to keep workers safe, and furthermore never held the person or persons responsible for their ineptitude.
The Hierarchy of Controls is one of those sacred cows of safety, and when used correctly, can be a powerful tool in creating safer work processes. But many of us don’t use them properly, we accept the excuse that eliminating the hazard is impossible, that substitution would be too expensive, and we accept that PPE and administrative tools will be enough to protect workers when all we are protecting is our own ample asses. A perfect illustration of this is a contact of mine who dismissed awareness programs by saying, “I was aware of breast cancer but I got it anyway”. Too bad getting breast cancer wasn’t against the rules, it might have saved her a lot of grief.

Doing the Right Things Wrong

imbecile

by Phil La Duke

It takes a while before a concept sinks into my thick head.  For years I have been saving companies tens of millions annually by building what I call a safety infrastructure, and when I finally brought my system to a wider market and explained what I did I usually got some version of the same response[1] “were already doing that”. No amount of salesmanship could convince these people otherwise.  Of course I was beyond skeptical, after all if they were doing the same thing they would be getting the same incredible results and yet they were not.

And then one day I learned something that shook me to the core: they WERE doing those things.  This sent me into an introspective and somewhat depressed funk.  If what I had developed was already common place in industry why where people doing so poorly.  But then a company hired me, not to save money, but to change its culture around safety.  My methods clearly had set in motion profound changes in culture and I began the arduous year-long (I would always get the question, “can you do it faster?” to which I would explain that change at a faster pace would only change the climate and would only remain as long as I remained adhered, tick-like to the organization’s soft underbelly).

I was horrified to learn that this company indeed did everything I was intending to teach them until I did the first phase of the project and found that they were doing all the right things but they were doing them wrong.  They would do safety tours, but the information collected was the worst kind of pencil-whipped checklists and what made it even sadder was that all that information on hazards went directly and squarely into file cabinets without anyone even looking at it let alone interpreting it and looking for trends in the data.

They DID do weekly safety meetings, but these meetings were more like a family squabble over a holiday meal than any semblance of a meeting that looked at safety data, like how many hazards were found on a tour, how long a tour lasted, or even if the tours took place.  They didn’t seem to know or care whether or not sometimes gravely serious hazards were contained or corrected. There were no agendas or notes taken, and it was as if previous meetings had never happened.  All the members produced in these meetings were noise, carbon dioxide, and occasionally methane.  The meetings, while the right things to do, were done so poorly I saw no value in them. And yet this particular organization used “participation in safety meetings” as a leading indicator of safety! I honestly couldn’t see any correlation between a safer workplace and this miasmic circus.

Likewise they had a monthly meeting with senior leadership, but far from being a safety strategy meeting this meeting covered all the SQDCME and safety was given a scant 5 minutes on the agenda.  The meeting itself seemed more akin to an interpretive dance class with poorly prepared presenters gliding lithely around the podium while equally inept team members danced around them frantically looking for a key slide or document for distribution and immediate disposal.  It was beautiful in its own way but it didn’t do much to create a safety strategy and like most dance recitals it went on WAY too long. (Having a daughter and a half, I have been to enough dance recitals, and plays to know that nobody walks out shaking their heads complaining that the event was too short.)

Of course they ostensibly linked safety to the continuous improvement group but since the two groups hated each other and got along worse than pit bulls in a dog fighting ring this too fell flat.  The CI has its scientific approach to process improvement and many safety groups still believe in pixies, curses, and just plain hard luck.

Finally, they all did incident investigations but the inevitable but specious conclusion was always that the operator screwed up.  In this imperfect world in which we live I am continually astonished that while operators never fail do disappoint us with their half-witted screw ups, engineers, managers, team leads, supervisors—everyone EXCEPT frontline workers perform perfectly and error free. Amazing.

So in almost every case where the culture is being blamed it is really the lack of a cohesive infrastructure that connects hazard and injury information to each other. The information doesn’t flow from one activity or another and in those rare cases that it does it is seldom analyzed to the point sufficient to formulate strategies for lowering risk.

Haven’t had injuries in two years great?  Haven’t killed anyone for almost a year?…well giving credit where it’s due, better than killing two workers a year I suppose. So that’s what I do.  I teach people the right way to do the right things and when they learn that the culture changes because they see value in safety.

I also get asked, “why can’t we do this ourselves?” That’s a good question, to which I answer, “who made this mess? Do you have the skills to thinking differently? I’ve been doing this for 20 years and it’s hard as hell, but yeah, why can’t you do it yourself?” The answer is you can.  You don’t need me. Well except while people will eventually accept change they seldom forgive the person who bought it.  Oh, and I don’t report to a site manager, I am answerable to an executive, and I leave after a year.  So sure do it yourself.  I think that it will be a disaster, but then I see things through a vendor’s lens.

Just remember, when people are dying you get no points for trying.

[1] Except for  one executive who said he wanted to only be “safe enough” and another that said “the cost of safety is a drop in the bucket, nobody cares about lowering the cost” by which both responses left me stunned speechless and it takes a ton to shut me up.

There are no magic bullets

Bullets.jpegBy Phil La Duke

Forget what you think you know about me. Most of you have never met me and never will.  In the past few months I found myself more and more frustrated with my writing here and elsewhere.  Then serendipity struck.  My daughter moved out of the house and was divesting herself of many of her possessions and as she did she would ask me if I wanted this or that.  She handed me a book that I have read many times and though I have my own copy I took the copy she offered. Opened the book, On Writing Well, at random and read (and I’m paraphrasing) “Don’t write for your readers or you will find yourself pandering to the passing whims of people who don’t really matter—they can neither validate you or your writing. Don’t write for your editor or you will start to sound like every other person he or she edits.” I’m sure my paraphrasing isn’t even close to the actual excerpt, but I tried. The message concluded by saying that the only really good writing is the writing you do for yourself. So…despite having colleagues who read my work religiously looking for a reason to betray me, or the loons who threaten to kill me, or the condescending jerks who read solely to justify why they hate a stranger I am going to write for me.  If you find it enjoyable great, if it makes you think even better, but what really matters is whether or not I have written something that I can look at and be proud. Something that addresses the things in safety about which I am concerned, the things I think need saying. The gloves are off.

Several days ago I was thinking about a former employer who moved from the traditional gopher-like cubeville to a new building that was the much touted “open-environment” made famous by Google.  We were given a number of points that we could use to “purchase” coat hangers, file folder holders, mini whiteboards, etc. We were told that we would have to limit our personal possessions; it was very minimalist and unpopular.  For my part I liked it. My previous work area was an ad hoc addition to a row of existing cubes. In my short tenure there my ad-hoc cube was subdivided twice. By the time we moved to the open environment in a new building my cube was so small that I could not even fit a standard office chair in it.

What does all this have to do with safety? You be the judge.  As I thought about this standard workplace and the turmoil it created and the pushback it received, it made me think about how important a standard work area is and how hard it is to keep a workstation within the specifications for which it was designed. When it comes to safety, variation is the enemy. Variation—those things that aren’t supposed to happen, or be there, or the things that are supposed to be there but aren’t.

Variation creeps into processes; it’s a never-ending battle. As trivial as it seems, process variation is a contributor of most if not all injuries.  Given that barring some sadistic employer or a gross miscalculation from the design engineer, your process is not designed to hurt workers. If it’s true that your process isn’t supposed to hurt workers and it is a viable process with the failure modes appropriately identified and controlled, then the probability of injuring a worker is fairly remote.

So safety is as simple and complex as controlling process variation, Controlling variation is simple: just have a tightly controlled process and a concerted effort to keep the process in control. Conversely, controlling process variation is extremely difficult: saw blades dull, tools break, presses move out of tolerance, and people? Well, we all know people do stupid, reckless, and wildly unpredictable things.

The job of safety practitioners is to control the uncontrollable, to manage the unmanageable, and in some small way to figure out a way to lower the probability that someone will get hurt on the job.  It’s rare when seen in retrospect to look at a serious injury or fatality and not wonder why someone didn’t foresee the carnage that would ensue, and yet we do.  The job is made so much more difficult when we have to sift through the snake oil so many people shill.  I’m hard on people who churn out this pseudoscientific bull excrement. If you sell counterfeit medicine and people die you go to jail, but if you perpetuate anti-vaccine articles and diseases that were virtually extinct there are no consequences.  The people who peddle junk science in safety are killing people and no better than the anti-vacers or the counterfeit pharmaceutical salesmen.

There is no magic bullet for safety.  At the end of the day creating a safe workplace is about helping people to make safer choices and better decisions. It’s about educating people about the processes in which they work and the things to watch for that might indicate that the process is moving out of control. Safety is not a passive, theoretical exercise. For us to accomplish anything of any importance in safety we have to take action and remain ever vigilant.

I am beginning to think…

I am beginning to think I have lost all relevance

4 Tips For Engaging Millenials in Safety

By Phil La Duke

It can and has been said that a little of me goes a long and tedious way, and I suppose that’s true.  I just wrapped up a 2300 word beast of an article for Health & Safety International, a collaborative effort on working at height.  It’s the third article I’ve written for the publisher in just over a month and the whole ordeal has left me a bit beleaguered and not particularly interested in anything remotely connected to safety.  I want to run through a crowded shopping mall snipping scissors in both hands or swing a bag of broken glass in a crowded room of hemophiliacs; in short I need a break from writing about safety for a while.

Entrepreneur provided me a nice outlet where I could let my hair down a bit and take the leash off.  After 80 articles, over 70 of which were written in just 14 months, my editor either got tired of defending why he was publishing what could best be described as the lunatic rantings of a seriously deranged and dystopic freak or he himself just got plain sick of my articles.  I went from three a week to barely two a month, not that I didn’t put in the work—I have somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 articles in the limbo of the Entrepreneur contributors page about half unread, and all of which highly unlikely to ever see print.  Ostensibly the reason is that the water-heads and mouth breathers that read the book don’t read me in enough number to justify giving me space that earnest young writers with 5 Tips for Hiring Millenials; it’s a fair criticism.  I don’t get a bunch of indignant safety drones frothing at the mouth over my business writing and writing is a numbers game.

So it’s within in this context and against that backdrop that I give you this weak’s (sic) blog post.

  • Stop killing their family and friends and bragging about how great a job you’re doing. An alarming number of these spoiled little crybabies actually think that getting their digits torn off by poorly guarded equipment is a bad thing.  Hell when I was their ages you weren’t even considered a real worker if you could count higher than seven on both hands, and real men couldn’t count to 15 even when completely naked. Try telling these delicate porcelain dolls about how worker injuries are trending downward and your much-earned self-praise will fall on deaf ears (and not even deaf ears caused by years of exposure to high levels of industrial noise—their deafness is metaphoric.
  • Pretend that their Workers’ Comp claims are real. I know I will get push back on this, but the new hipster thing is to not fake injuries. These craft beer swilling, beard waxing, prima donnas think that their college educations mean that we don’t know that for the most part all injuries are fake.  I once witnessed a man stage his own decapitation and apply for WC claiming he was disabled because he couldn’t wear a hardhat! Does he think we’re simple?!?!? If you want to keep these delicate flowers called millenials involved in worker safety you have to bite your tongue (which, for the record you better not claim as a job-related injury) if one of them gets hurt, and play a long even if the injured youth is clever enough to actually qualify for disability.
  • Allow for injury causes that aren’t the fault of millennial behavior. We’ve known for almost 100 years that over 85% of injuries are because some jackass did something stupid.  We know this because a statistician and eugenics enthusiast said so, and he had it on good authority because he asked the injured workers’ supervisors.  We know this even though he lost his (or took no) notes. We know this despite growing evidence that he never even left his office at the insurance agency, but especially we know this because the National Safety Council reaffirmed this sometime in the 1980s and our pantheon of safety heroes and gods grew fat of profits from Behavior Based Safety; somethings you just gotta take on faith. (Not the effectiveness and relative safeness of vaccines or the moon landing, of course, but SOMETHINGS). But the voice of entitlement rings out of the mouth of babes; they greet on about mechanical failures, process failures, about lightning strikes and acts of God.  It’s as if they never even heard of Heinrich and his pyramid!
  • Do more than remind them not to die. I can’t tell you how many times my life has been saved because I saw a crayon poster slathered on the wall reminding me not to die.  The wisdom of a child’s drawing begging daddy not to die at work is all but ignored by the young whelps in the workplace today.  This spoiled, entitled, generation of special, special, snowflakes want their employers to do more to protect them than having safety BINGOs and pizza parties when they go a month without dying.  By the way at what point did pizza become the currency of safety? Is it because pizza looks so gory? That makes some sense.
  • So there you have the secret to engaging these young workers: stop hurting them, don’t treat them like liars and thieves when they do get hurt, stop funding the retirement funds of the greedy behavioralist authors who slap a different label on 100 year old junk science and sell it to another generation of the lazy and foolish.