Safety: The View From The Outside In

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Photo by Eneida Nieves on Pexels.com

By Phil La Duke

I never wanted to work in safety. Despite, or perhaps owing to, the fact that my father dying of mesothelioma, my brother-in-law being  cut down in his prime from silicosis, my brother’s friend dying after less than a month on the job, a friend of a friend who died at twenty when he fell in a vat of acid, and both grandfathers and a great uncle being  killed on the job, I honestly didn’t see it as being all that effectual, and if anything, I saw the safety people as being complicate in those deaths.

I also had my own negative experience with a quack doctor in the medical department at the factory in which I worked who was more concerned about getting people back on the line than in treating injuries.  When I reported safety issues nothing happened, nobody responded and the issues remained hazardous pieces of the jagged landscape the was my workplace. I had to fend for myself.

Later, as an organizational consultant, I met safety professionals who literally cared more about whether or not I tied my shoes and used the handrail than ensuring that no one died (which at least three did) on the job. These puffed up and sanctimonious boobs spent most of their time in their offices doing…well God knows what.

When I was offered the opportunity to interview with a firm that was working to make a company “the safest company in the world”  I turned my friend and ex-coworker down flat. The safety professionals I had encountered were more interested in being seen as important than making the kind of structural changes required to become the safest company in the city let alone the world.  No thank you, I was not interested in dealing with a bunch of change adverse people who were stuck in the position because they were politically connected but were as useless as the nipples on the tits of a ceramic bull.

Eventually, I relented and the project was a huge success and much to my surprise I met safety professionals who were ambitious, hard-working, and smart.  They actually CARED about people and when someone was seriously injured or killed they grieved and to it to heart; all the while wondering what they could have done differently to have prevented the tragedy.

When the company and Union consented to allow my employer to create a similar offering for other customers, the Union lead on the project said, “I’m not going to play politics here. If it saves lives it should be shared.”

So for the next five years, I went on to work my magic and helped to transform companies from death traps to continuously improving companies who cared about safety.

But even though I could demonstrate case study after case study it was a hard or even impossible sale to make. I had so many safety guys waste my time by having me come in only to brag about what a great job they were doing in safety. It felt like being invited to dinner and then being ambushed with a pitch to sell Amway.

Now I’m on the inside, and I can see many of the kinds of safety guys who killed my dad and brother-in-law; feckless bags of flesh who expend ten times the energy explaining why they can’t do their jobs as they do trying to actually DO their jobs.  To be sure, I’ve met many absolute superstar training professionals, but that’s not the people who are shaping the view from the outside in.

The outsider’s view of the safety guy is important because too often safety is seen as existing outside the business.  The executives support the concept of safety without truly understanding it or owning responsibility for it. Middle managers continue to see the safety departments as the rat squad akin to the police department’s  Internal Affairs. Front-line supervisors are forced to please their bosses or the safety guy, and finally, the frontline workers see the safety practitioner as a schoolyard snitch, and we all know, “snitches end up in ditches”.

This problem isn’t going to go away until safety is so deeply integrated that it is no longer seen as external from Operations, and I am seeing some companies starting to get there, which is great, but in many others, the safety function is completely content to be the long-suffering victim; unappreciated and unwanted; the last kid picked for kickball.

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Cognition Versus Muscle Memory

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By Phil La Duke

My romantic vis-a-vis works as a seamstress making hot air balloons. The work is hard especially for people just learning to operate an industrial sewing machine, pulling heavy fabric into position and using the tools of the trade. She was telling my a while back about a new worker who was struggling because she was trying to cognitively override her muscle memory. You see, while the work is never easy, you’re muscles and brain get into sort of a familiar rhythm and when you think too much it muddles things up and makes the job harder.

It’s funny when you think about it. We spend so much time trying to get our workers to be aware of the hazards around them and to think about what they are doing, when in some cases thinking is our worst enemy.

It’s a bit like becoming aware of your tongue. It sits in your mouth all day minding its own business and you don’t think about it and then suddenly you become aware of your tongue and it’s torture; okay maybe that’s just me, but I have experienced first hand the power of muscle memory, work hardening, and the danger of cognition in a repetitive process.

When I worked the assembly line way back in 1980, Safety really hadn’t taken hold. OSHA had been around for over 15 years but it wasn’t really clear to many employees what had to be done to meet regulations. I wasn’t required to wear safety glasses or steel-toed shoes (although I did—even then I was a safety nerd), in fact i was discouraged from wearing them by my coworkers who spread myths about PPE (how I was better off without steel toed because if I got my foot run over by a fork-truck they would cut my toes off. I judged that dropping one of the 15 pound metal parts on my foot was a far more likely scenario, and that if I got my foot run over by a fork-truck it didn’t much matter what footwear I had on at the time.

My work was physically demanding and the boredom of doing the same tasks over and over again was greatly fatiguing. My job consisted of at least ten steps that I had to do the exact same way, once every 55 seconds. My job was to attach a seat lock(the metal club-like plate) to either a recliner mechanism or to the base of the seat. Recliners were tougher and required more steps. In less than an hour the cotton gloves I was given to handle sharp metal parts were both filthy and shredded, but it was absolutely forbidden for anyone to have a second set of gloves (heaven forbid the company might have spent an extra $1.50 keeping me safe. So I performed between 10 and 15 steps making 850 sets of seats a day (1700 individual seats).

My first 90 days (significant because that was the probationary period before I was officially in the Union) were hell. I would come home filthy, blowing metal shaving from my nose multiple times an hour, coughing up the dust and grime that I inhaled for 8 or 9 hours. We were never told when “line time” (the time at which we could go home) was until 1:30 and my heart always sank when the loud speaker would sputter Line time for today…9 hours across the board. Talk about stressful conditions. But worst of all, when after showering and washing my clothes I would lie down and try to take a name, but the room seemed to be rolling past me like an assembly line. Throughout those 90 days my hands would lock up on the weekends and I would literally have to pry them apart. I was miserable but I wasn’t going to give up that kind of money after working so hard to get the job.

Eventually my arms started to look like Popeye, my forearms bulged, and my biceps gave the cheap t-shirts I bought wore once and threw away a run for its money. To this day I have to be careful not to crush someone’s hand when I shake it because the screw gun required me to squeeze an oversized trigger some 4250 times a day, more with overtime. Even so I came home tired and sore and hated every bloody moment of that job. But I did it well. I could do it half asleep, I could do it drunk (drinking on the line was rampant but I rarely partook, the last thing I want to do after a couple of drinks was hump an assembly line), I could do it hung over, I could do it miserably ill with the flu and each time to spec and at rate; so nobody much cared what condition I was in. I was able to do all those things without thinking, but if someone threw a monkey wrench into the works and I had to THINK about what I had to do it slowed things down, introduced a high probability of defects and injuries. It was in cases like this that I would get injured.

If you (or me from the future) would have lectured me about making safe choices or some nimrod suck up would have “observed me” things would have gotten real in a hurry. In my world of that time, you don’t get to lecture me, or observe me or tell me much of anything until you’ve done that job, and not for a cycle, or an hour, or a day, no do it for a week and then tell me I’m not doing it safely enough for you.

Of course I could have been better trained. Of course I could have had proper equipment, but I played the cards I dealt and if I didn’t think about things I could do my job just fine. I wonder how many jobs like that are still out there.

Spitting on Forest Fires

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By Phil La Duke

My battle for the safety of my neighborhood continues.  One would think that my request that heavy equipment stop plowing through stop signs at 20+ mph adjacent to a popular park would be a no brainer, and in a way it is.  The people involved seem to have no brains at all. This has got my brain twisting and turning with questions. Why do otherwise reasonable people fail to see the risk endemic to this situation? Why do people defend their reckless behavior in an environment where there is most certainly not going to be any meaningful consequence? Beyond the questions it’s got me thinking about courage and cowardice.

I don’t ask for much from the readers of this blog, but I am going to ask you to indulge me a bit this week as I meander away from the edge of the topic of WORKER safety and into the world of safety as a whole.  

You see I met some friends at my local watering hole.  It’s a faux Irish bar with the only real irritants being the occasional Journey or country music song on the jukebox and me of course.  It’s a largely homogeneous crowd where everyone looks like they belong there. You might get the occasional stranger from the Elk’s lodge across the street, but for all intents and purposes you can tell who’s there for a drink and who is up to no good.

Into that mix, a couple of minutes apart walked two parties, an aging drug addict (believe me having an ex-wife who died of a drug overdose after a decades long downward spiral) accompanied by a young girl of about 11 or 12.  They sat at the bar looking like a turd in a punchbowl, and immediately caught my eye. The bar was crowded and the people who ordinarily would have quickly interceded were too busy to notice. About five minutes later, a man who looked like someone had sent down to central casting for a child molester came in and sat next to them.  The adults chatted in conspiratorial tones and the woman and child moved to a table near the door. The man kept manufacturing reasons to go to the door, each time stopping to chat briefly while looking around to see if a bouncer, or cop, or for all I know a rhinoceros. This went on for 10 minutes or so. I brought it to the the bar owners attention and she said she was monitoring the situation, but I knew she was just too busy to do much about it.  Soon the woman and child left. Moments later the man got up and followed and I was tight on his tail. When I went outside I saw the woman and the man negotiating something so I walked up and asked flat out if there needed to be some police involvement. “In what?!?!” The man screamed in alarm. I told him I would let them suss that out. Then I did something that I did often. I took his picture and those of his companions. The man nervously asked what I was going to do with that and I said, “well that depends on how all this turns out.” They quickly went their separate ways.

Was the safety of that young girl my responsibility? Did I do anything but forestall the inevitable? Should I left it to the police? I don’t know.  But I do know this: intervening isn’t easy, and most people won’t thank you, especially if you point out that what they are doing is wrong. But not intervening is cowardice, and I have always been too quick with my mouth and my fists. I’ve learned better ways, and that as one coworker once said of me (referring to the staggering amount of work that I am able to produce in such a short time) that I cannot hold people to the same standard I hold myself to.

Recently I met a safety leader and truly remarkable thinker who turned me on to the Hummingbird Effect but in a simplified form that could be applied to safety.  Now bear with me because I am creating this from memory as I can’t find the original text. Here is a link to a version https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A42Cp_RUJdQ

The crux of the the story is this:  The animals of the forest are awakened to a fire that was raging out of control and threatening to consume their home.  They all fled to safety and stood idly by as the only home they had know their whole life was engulfed in a fiery holocaust.  At some point they noticed that a hummingbird was flying from the lake and take a mouthful of water and flying to the fire and spitting the water onto the flames.  The other animals were incredulous and asked the hummingbird what it hoped to accomplish; that it’s efforts were too little and could not possible work. The exhausted hummingbird said, “I’m doing the best that I can.” The other animals, perhaps shamed at their own reluctance joined in the effort and ultimately extinguished the flames.

I thought back on this story as I contemplated the what ifs of my intervention both with the people in the bar and with the construction workers who are indignantly and unabashedly hostile to safety. I talked to my romantic vis-a-vis about it.  I was troubled that my efforts amounted to nothing, that like the opinion of other animals watching the hummingbird my efforts were futile, pointless, and even stupid. Keep in mind that my dad used to say to me, “you get no points for doing your best; I can get a baboon in here to try hard. What counts is results.” (My dad knew that without his prodding I would half-ass every task given me.) But what my romantic entanglement said to me, made me think better of things.  She said, “you did what was appropriate, you did enough. People like that (she was speaking of the people in the bar but might as well been talking about the construction ninnies) count on the fact that no one is watching; that no one will say something and once they recognize that someone is watching and that people WILL confront them things will change.”

I think maybe we ask too much of workers and people in general.  We throw all the world’s problems at them and tell them to fix them.  We create lofty ideals and visions of a Utopian safety culture and leave them helpless in the face of the enormity of the problem.  Maybe we had instead ask them to do just a little bit to make things safer. Maybe it’s as easy as asking them to consider the example they set to new workers and colleagues who respect them, Maybe we can just ask them to do what they can.

Refuting Forward Facing Parking

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by Phil La Duke

The National Safety Council Driver safety course recommends that when parking one should pull through a parking space and into the adjoining space such that your vehicle is facing forward. The claim made by this course, and to be fair many safety professionals, is that forward motion from a parking space is safer than backing out of a parking space.
This is the kind of reasoning on which every urban legend is built; it sounds reasonable, credible it makes perfect sense, but just as it bears the characteristics of an urban legend it likewise bears the fatal flaws that reveal the lack of veracity of an urban legend.
This is not a condemnation of the course overall; in fact, there are so many horrible drivers on the road (and according to asirt.org/initiatives/informing-road-users/road-safety-facts/road-crash-statistics 1.3 million people are killed in car accidents each year. Moreover, my personal experience with the Allen Park Department of Public Works has convinced me that public safety as it pertains to the driving habits of its contractors is of no concern.) So while I think that defensive driving courses are a necessary part of any comprehensive worker safety program, I am going to pick a nit when it comes to parking forward-facing parking.
I have some personal experience in this regard. Long before I took the National Safety Council course I took a competitive course that also recommended the forward-facing parking practice and I adopted it as common practice.
One day I parked my mid-size passenger car in the parking lot. It was early and there were few cars in the parking lot. I easily pulled through the parking space so that I was forward facing with no other vehicles around. When I went to leave at the end of the day the lot was crowded and I found that two pickup trucks large enough to leave no doubt as to the insecurity of the driver’s masculinity. My view was blocked in both directions and I had no choice but to inched out slowly forward. Before I could establish a clear line of sight, a speeding motorist slammed into my front end. She narrowly missed striking the truck and fortunately, no one was injured but my car was damaged.
I went over the situation with a friend who also teaches problem-solving and why did a situation analysis on the contributing factors. We recognized that while theoretically forward facing parking is safer, it negates three important safety devices that make backing up (despite the lessened visibility) safer than forward facing.
First of all, the premise that forward-facing parking is safer is predicated to a large extent on the fact that you have greater visibility than if you are backing out. This is often completely outside the driver’s control. When I parked I was able to see for miles and I had absolutely no control over who would park next to me and this often as a profound effect on the driver’s visibility. So giving the advocates for forward-facing parking the benefit of the doubt in a perfect world, where large vehicles don’t park next to you forward-facing parking may well be safer, but again, it also negates several engineering controls.
The first engineering control is brake lights, which act as visual warnings that a driver is backing out of the space. When a forward facing parked vehicle enters traffic the brake lights are not visible and therefore while the driver entering traffic arguably would have greater visibility (again assuming it is above the surrounding vehicles) the car entering traffic is LESS visible. Furthermore, while it is foreseeable, even probable that there will be traffic that one will encounter when leaving a parking space (and the driver MUST yield the right of way) it is less foreseeable and probable that a vehicle will be pulling out of a parking space; add to this that a forward facing vehicle is more likely to enter traffic more quickly the absence of brake lights can be a deciding factor in whether or not there is an accident.
Similarly, the second engineering control, backup lights, are also neglected, and in addition to the visual cue that it provides to approaching traffic, unlike brake lights that indicate that the vehicle has stopped or is stopping, backup lights indicate that the car’s transmission is currently in reverse, providing additional information to approaching traffic.
The negation of these two engineering controls reduces the reaction time of oncoming vehicles.
There are other safety features that are nullified by forward-facing parking, most notably rear collision alarms and back up cameras. Of course, not all vehicles are equipped with these devices, but if they are, they further deflate the argument that forward-facing parking is intrinsically and safer than pulling into a parking space.
So in the final estimation, drivers should make a judgment call when parking and like in so many other circumstances use good common sense instead of blindly adhering to conventional wisdom.

It’s Hard to Help People Who Refuse To Help Themselves

 

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Note: I wrote this last weekend and screwed up the publication time so sorry if you were waiting with baited breath for this week’s

by Phil La Duke

“It’s difficult to help the poor because they make so many poor choices”

—Bishop Ken Untner

Last week was a weird week for me.  It started with a mentally ill stalker writing a comment on my blog that consisted of the lyrics of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road not once but twice. It was the lunatic ramblings of a man who if he were well would still be worth more to society in parts (a kidney here, a liver there, he could save a lot of lives).  I tried, despite the warnings of people I know and respect, that this man is deeply mentally ill (manic-depressive and Lord know what else.) and potentially, if not probably a danger to himself and others, to engage with him in a meaningful way. I tried to show compassion and patience and was repaid by being placed on his enemies list, all because I refused to acknowledge his supposed genius enough.

Early on I made a commitment to publish all comments sent to me, a policy this festering boil of a man made me modify.  With all that I have going on—writing a book, working on a highly important and groundbreaking project for work about which I will disclose no details because that is the property of my employer.  I will say that it is hard work, mentally and intellectually taxing, and extremely important (read high stress) and of course meanwhile I am fighting with city hall about the ineptitude and indifference to safety they have shown in a recent construction project. On top of all of that my romantic entanglement got a Facebook invite from a loon with whom I used to be friends who is also manic-depressive but refuse to take his meds.  I warned him that if he remained unmedicated I would unfriend him and block him. I can’t have phone calls at 3:00 a.m. asking when we are going to go to Vegas. I sympathize with the mentally ill to a point, and that point is when they are medicated I feel for them and try to help them, but when they refuse treatment I can’t have that in my life.

But let’s take a look at the men behind the illness.  One flies into a rage if anyone disagrees with him. Medicated he is a narcissist who believes his opinions can only be right if everyone else’s is wrong.  There are a lot of pompous asses in this business. I know, I’ve met them, and even more send me poison pen letters telling me how great they are and how much I suck. C’est la vie.  But this guy is such a self-absorbed ass-hat that he attacks anyone who disagrees with him about anything. Medicated he’s a teardown, but unmedicated he should be put down like a rabid coyote. The other has always just been a jerk; thinking it funny to promise that if I went water-skiing with him he would have me back in plenty of time for my afternoon shift and then laugh when he would drop me off without enough time for me to drive to my job let alone shower, put on my work uniform, and arrive to work on time.  I could go on with the many stupid things that he did but thought were funny—but just thinking about it makes me angry.

This could be a blog about the responsibilities we have toward the mentally ill or a better discussion would perhaps be whether or not one is entitled to be a dysfunctional jerk just because one is mentally ill?   

All of this makes me acutely aware of how frustrating working in safety can be.  You deal with high emotions, the mentally ill, and too often just plain jerks. I am growing increasingly sympathetic to those of us who have thrown up their hands and said “screw it” I’m done trying. Of course, we can’t just give up.  For the record, I have worked with many mentally ill or emotionally broken people who, while challenging, are able to do their jobs, very well. So I tend toward the opinion that if you are mentally ill, and most of us are to one degree or another, you don’t get a free pass.  It’s like diabetes. If you are diabetic and choose to eat nothing but hot fudge sundaes and drink shots of maple syrup all the while refusing to take your medications and forgoing exercise in favor of bing watching The View, you can’t expect a lot of sympathy. You aren’t to be pitied (except for watching The View), although I can honestly say that I have never taken any solace in the fact that my current predicament was entirely predictable and I had no one to blame but myself. But this is beside the point.  The real question is how much responsibility are we to take for the poor choices of others?

When someone decides, despite the warnings and with the full knowledge of the risks to work on energized equipment, how much culpability are we to take? Certainly, we have to take action in a case where we witness such actions, but what about when we aren’t there? And how about instances where the person’s management is complicit in the violation? At what point has our relentless intervention enough?

The answer is, of course, never.  As safety practitioners, we are like the doctor who treats the patient who refuses to quit smoking despite developing heart problems.  They own the car, we are merely the mechanics. We don’t get to be sanctimonious or whiny about it; there will be no self-pity here. And while we might have the lofty goal of zero harm, we need to realize that we aren’t in this alone, and if others refuse to get on board with the program people will continue to get hurt.  Again, we are like doctors. What doctor would have anything less than zero patient deaths and zero complications as a goal? Certainly not one to whom I would want anyone (with the possible exceptions of my stalkers) to go for treatment.

We can never openly say, “there are some people who just can’t be helped” and frankly even if we believe that we cannot stop trying.  At some point, we may reach them and if even if they insult us for trying to help them secretly our words might just sink in and they may be moved to make a  better decision. And if they don’t at least we can look ourselves in the mirror in the morning and know that while our best may not have been good enough, we did our best and therefore have no cause for regret.

 

When Experience Isn’t the Best Teacher

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By Phil La Duke

It’s said that you can’t fight city hall, but that’s not right.  You CAN fight city hall, it’s just that if you do you will deal with people so proudly stupid and belligerently ignorant that any victory no matter how great will feel pyrrhic.  Such was the case in my recent dealings with the city of Allen Park, Michigan, when I made numerous complaints to the city about heavy construction vehicles speeding, running stop signs, and other serious violations.  I started my one-man campaign after watching an elderly pedestrian scramble for his life when a 20-ton vehicle blew a stop sign and turned right without looking and nearly striking a man whose only unsafe behavior was living in a city that doesn’t properly manage its contractors.

Before I continue, I have to apologize to some of the safety practitioners and policemen who I have called lazy dung heaps, sloths or worse for not doing their jobs. Although I have, I admit, a skewed view or workplace safety because people don’t tend to hire safety consultants because everything is going great.  I have seen too many safety people who aren’t doing their jobs and blaming it on leadership. I have said and will continue to contend that if you are unable to do your job because leaders won’t cooperate the ethical thing to do is to get out of that organization. And I have turned down work with organizations that I felt wasn’t serious about safety, or that just wanted to be “safe enough” to keep regulators from closing them down. While I don’t condone accepting a paycheck for not doing the job for which you’ve been paid, I now clearly understand how someone can, in frustration, surrender to the futility of fighting a battle he or she clearly will never win.

So back to city hall.  As I mentioned, I had issues with the safety (or lack thereof) of the drivers of heavy equipment on my second call with the mayor, I told him that I watched as a payloader gunned it down the street, blew through a stop sign, and when I confronted the driver he just said “so?!?!”  The mayor’s response was typical of a small town politician: “you gotta understand sometimes they HAVE to do that”. Hmmm… I was skeptical. For the record, I have never driven a payloader but I find it difficult to believe that you have to get a 3/4s of a block headstart to dump gravel into a dump truck. (Please if there are any drivers out there and I’m wrong set me straight).  Anyway, after three phone calls the head of (Doesn’t Produce Work) DPW set up a meeting between him, the contractors, and I.

I was ushered into a sort of a break room where everyone responsible for the crews was assembled.  It was a motley crew of people who weren’t burdened by a lot of career choices (bull semen collector at a breeding ranch, rodeo clown, Walmart greeter’s assistant, etc.) whose sole qualification seemed to be having a relative on the city council.  

I walked in loaded for bear.  I had researched the number of deaths associated with pedestrian and heavy equipment interaction, I researched the weight and stopping distance required for the exact makes and models of the vehicles they were using, I calculated the stopping distance for each of the vehicles, and I even found a study by the Department of Transportation (DOT) report loaded with safety statistics.  I printed each of them out (a total of over 50 pages). It was unnecessary. One of the “subcontractors” was an expert in all things save hygiene. “I don’t need to read that crap, I was a driver for 20 years.” It was then when it occurred to me that he may well be illiterate.

No matter what I said, this guy refuted it.  When I told him the stopping distance of one of the vehicles he scoffed and said, “it doesn’t take that much”  so I asked him how much time it DID take, to which he replied derisively, “I don’t know but it ain’t THAT much” he reiterated that he had been a driver for 20 years.  I told him in exasperation that this was PHYSICS but he just waved his hand like he was shooing away a fly. On and on it went with them constantly trying to turn the table on me by saying I shouldn’t have called the mayor, and I shouldn’t confront the drivers, and I shouldn’t…the man who drove for 20 years actually said, “we’re just the engineering firm, it’s not our responsibility for the contractor’s safety”. I told him that as the ‘host company” he had a joint responsibility for the safety of the workers with the contractor, he just said, “no I don’t” when I said OSHA would disagree, he got angry and said I that I was wrong.  The department head said I had no business calling OSHA, the mayor, or the police or anyone but him.

When Mr. Know It All smugly asked me what proof I had, I showed him the video I had taken with my phone demonstrating two drivers running a stop sign, he acknowledged that they had indeed done so.  

All of them howled that they can’t watch their guys every minute, and when I suggested that they wouldn’t have to if they were better at people management that set them off into another frothy rage.  They don’t need ME to tell THEM how to manage people.

So what did I learn:

  • No amount of pestering, nudging, cajoling, or pleading with this coterie of fools was going to change their behaviors.
  • You can’t introduce facts to someone so stupid as someone who believes that they know everything.
  • People who engage in high-risk behaviors but manage to avoid killing people will convince themselves that this behavior is safe and are likely to take even greater risks.
  • If a supervisor, manager, and department heads (so-called leaders) are indifferent or outright hostile to safety, so too will the workers.
  • When basic no-@#$%l, any-idiot-knows-you-have-to-do-that! rules are ignored with impunity those rules will be ignored with regularity
  • Apparently driving for 20 years makes one an expert in physics, employment law, safety, and everything except hygiene

Did I accomplish anything? Maybe; maybe not.  But I put them on notice that people are watching them, people are holding them accountable, people SEE what they are doing and don’t accept it.

I sincerely hope to God that these idiots don’t kill someone, and statistically, they probably won’t.  But if they do, I will be in court recounting in painstaking detail my meeting and what was said.  They won’t be able to plead ignorance or excuse their culpability in the death, and may God have mercy on their souls.

 

If You Want to Save Lives Be a Lifeguard

pexels-photo-114997.jpegby Phil La Duke

I’ve worked in safety to one extent or another for 30 years.  In fact, This June will mark my thirtieth year in a profession that isn’t all that much older than me.  And in that time I’ve met all kinds of safety professionals, from the useless goofballs that the organization felt obligated to keep (the plant manager’s brother-in-law), to the lazy, on-the-job retirees who sit in their offices and do nothing but produce carbon dioxide and occasionally methane, to the safety fanatics (usually someone who has been personally and viscerally effected by tragedy), to the know-it-all safety cops, to the flavor-of-the-month safety version of the helicopter parent.  And of course I’ve met many good, reasonable, intelligent, wise, and hardworking safety professionals (which makes things worse actually, knowing that so many people form an image of the safety guy (by the way “guy” is a gender neutral term—look it up) not from interactions with the many excellent safety guys, but by the water-headed, mouth-breathers of whom there are far too many.

But for me the most irritating safety guy to me has been the sanctimonious life-saver.

When I say that safety practitioners don’t save lives it creates such a hullabaloo that I have to wonder if these people are trying to convince me or themselves. The statement draws the pedantic boobs out of the woodwork (the least desirable boobs in my opinion) and I get the long rambling emails about how they saved someone’s life.  But it is, let’s face it steaming piles of bull excrement. Most safety people’s claims to have saved a life fall into one of two categories: the “I saw a person on the stairs and reminded them to use the handrail” life saving claim, or the “I save lives indirectly by reminding people to work safely” claim.

The first claim is crap, I have said it before and I will say it again, “reminding me not to die is not the same as saving my life”.  Now I myself have intervened many times and reminded people of a hazard, but safety is about probability, risk tolerance, and choices.  I remember I was working on a platform that was over 10 feet in the air and had no guard rails (the reason for that was a good one and the particular industry wasn’t bound by OSHA regulations for this particular scenario.  I was the assigned the highly cerebral role of human guard rail. I watched as a worker nose deep in his phone walked toward the edge. I bounded out like a ball boy at the U.S. open and stopped him before he walked off the edge.  He was grateful in a condescending way, thanking me and telling me that “I know you are only watching out for my safety.” I told him, that with all due respect I was looking out for my resume—if he died my resume wouldn’t be worth the construction paper and crayons it’s made of and frankly a good share of my resume is questionable as is.  He had a good laugh and I asked him to try to remain stationary and situationally aware when using his crack-pipe of a smartphone. He laughed again and went on his merry way. A short while later, I saw him intervene with a colleague. He saw me watching him and he yelled, “you see Phil? I’m looking out for your resume.” Now I could claim that I saved his life but that just isn’t true.  What I did was help him to make an informed decision so that he could make a safer choice. There are so many outcomes to that scenario and his death was far from certain. To be sure he definitely put himself at great risk, but my intervention did nothing to reduce that risk—HE made the decision to modify his behavior, but even had he chosen to ignore me and proceeded, there is no guarantee that he would have fallen off the platform—he may have self-corrected, someone else may have intervened, or he may have finished the business on his phone and put it away.  But let’s that but for my intervention he would have fallen off the platform. Here again there is no guarantee that he would have died, he certainly, might have died, he might have been severely injured, he might have fallen on debris below the platform and escaped unharmed, or with a relatively minor injury, or he might have fallen into a puddle of mud that cushioned his fall. So if I claim to have saved his life…well either I am either delusional or a liar or that all too common combination of the two.

The second position, that ““I save lives indirectly by reminding people to work safely” claim is equally dubious.  Sure some people will forget a key element of a safety element, but this position implies that were it not for the constant and ever-present vigilance of the safety guy people would be dropping dead right and left. To me this claim is a bit like me claiming that I reduce crime by not robbing liquor stores.  Certainly an argument can be made that if I were robbing liquor stores crime would go up, but the fact that crime statistics stay static cannot be reasonably attributed to my not robbing stores, and the neighborhood policeman cannot claim responsibility for the drop in crime because he stopped me while I was walking my dog and reminded me not to rob the liquor store or by praising me by catching me “doing something good” and giving me a free pizza for not robbing the liquor store. Years ago I read that it cost over $50K a year to keep a person in prison in Michigan and I considered writing to the Governor and promising to stay out of trouble for $35K a year.  I never followed up on it because that kind of letter tends to get you added scrutiny and that is something I have NEVER needed, plus I didn’t think the cheap SOBs would go for it, and let’s face it, staying out of trouble has never been my forte.

So we don’t save lives? So what? Where is the harm in some drooling half-wit walking around telling people he works in safety and by gully HE SAVES LIVES? Groucho Marx once said, In a telegram to the telegram to the Friar’s Club of Beverly Hills (to which he belonged), “Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member”. That’s the danger of incompetents (who may be the minority but they are an extremely vocal minority). If you could see some of the email I get from these cheese-and-sawdust filled vacuous dolts you would understand.  A group of colleagues and I were talking about the irritating tendency of strangers talking to us on a plane after a long and tough stint in the field. One of them piped up with, “I don’t have that problem, if someone wants to talk and I don’t, I just tell them that I work in safety and that shuts the conversation down.

So if you want to save lives become a nurse, or a doctor, or an EMT, or …hell waiters probably save more lives administering the Heimlich Maneuver than the average safety guy.