I Watched A Man Die Today

Grim reaper

By Phil La Duke

I watched a man die today. I was going to write this week’s post on ways to energize the workers around safety, but then I watched a man die today. I also considered writing about an ad that was turned down by H+S Magazine because it was too sexy (a safety ad that was too sexy?) but then I watched a man die today. I also considered writing some combination of the two topics, but then, as I said, I watched a man die today.

I didn’t see the accident that killed him, and truth be told I probably didn’t actually witness the 24-year old motorcyclist’s last moments. But I watched as police stood around helplessly walking in numb circles, two of them holding a large blanket in a vain attempt to block the gory view of the body from the slowly growing throng of gawkers.

I was gathering my phone, keys, and wallet and headed to get a haircut when I got a text from my stylist. There was something going on in front of the shop and traffic was a mess. So I left early to avoid being late because of the traffic. About 10 minutes later I noticed the police had stopped traffic directly in front of the salon so I took the back alleys behind the shops and wound my way to the shops parking lot. The entrance to the street was blocked with crime scene tape. I got out of my car and saw him. Sprawled on the street in a massive puddle of blood. Details are sketchy as they always are in this kind of a scene whether it be in the workplace or on the highway.   Some said the motorcyclist was speeding and weaving in and out of traffic when he struck a car that was pulling out of a private drive. Others said that the elderly driver pulled out without looking and struck the motorcyclist. Either way, two lives (and many more) were forever changed. The elderly driver will likely never drive again—in any of the scenarios I heard he will be judged at fault for failing to yield the right of way; he may even face vehicular homicide charges—but even if he is allowed to do so, he will live for the rest of his life with the knowledge that he took the life of a 24 year old.

“I was drinking in Havana, I took a little risk. Send lawyers, guns, and money; dad get me out of this.”—Lawyers, Guns, and Money, Warren Zevon.

It Only Took A Moment

The lives of two people on autopilot intersect only for a split second leaving one dying on the pavement and the other badly shaken and perhaps having a heart attack is speeding in an ambulance to the nearest hospital. Was this preventable? Was this predictable? What platitudes will ooze out of the mouths of safety practitioners in response to this? What lessons are there to be learned from this?

“Maybe you got a kid maybe you got a pretty wife, the only thing that I got’s been botherin’ me my whole life”—State Trooper, Bruce Springsteen

As I got my hair cut I my friend and stylist and I talked about the decedent; a person we didn’t know. 24 years old. Was he married? Did he have kids? What would this do to his parents? And we talked about the horror of killing him accidentally, and how we would feel if we were in his situation.

“Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave, no one was saved.”—Eleanor Rigby, The Beatles

By the time I left the salon the body had been removed, and a fireman began spraying a fire hose unceremoniously washing the copious amount of blood into a storm drain. The water quickly turned from clean white to a mottled dark red; not the crimson color you see in movies. I watched sadly for a long time, quietly mourning a person I never knew or would know.

I know that there is a lesson in all this about risk tolerance, and the fragility of life and the uncertainty of life for all of us. I wanted desperately for some good to come out of all this, something that I could share with each of you, but I just can’t summon the energy. In the days and weeks to come I will learn through news reports about the lives effected by this tragedy and maybe then I will have something meaningful to say about how all of this relates to workplace safety. But until then only one thing counts: I watched a man die today.

How I Killed The Safety Trade Show


By Phil La Duke

NOTE: Don’t be alarmed, I know this week’s post is early, but I have a busy weekend ahead of me and I didn’t want to have to worry about slopping something together just to meet arbitrary deadline.  I hope you enjoy it and tell me what you think.

It’s been awhile since I shook the trees and rattle the teeth of my faithful readers, so I guess I’m due. Yesterday I made my 10th consecutive presentation at a Safety Conference.  I had a great audience the message was well received.  This is the only public presentation I will be making this year, which is a bit disappointing because I have been averaging four a year kicking it off with the Michigan Safety Conference in April and generally finishing it off with an appearance at the National Safety Council.  This year I had all of my 26 abstracts shot down by the NSC.  They took their time giving me any explanation—and maybe I’m being arrogant for expecting one, but after being accepted for nine consecutive years[1] and ranked either “good” or “excellent” on my speeches (although I admit the topics—chosen by the conference organizers—weren’t always that popular I figured at least SOME reason was in order.  I was told that while my individual session evaluations were very good, when compared to the other speakers I wasn’t AS “very good” as the others in five out of the eight speeches I gave.  In what soft-headed world does this pass as constructive advice? This from the group that parades Scott Gellar and Charlie Moorecraft every year to present what is in my arrogance believe is the same message in different words.

As many of you know I have been wondering if I’m still relevant; if after 106 published articles, scores of speeches, and ten years of blogging anyone can read my work and not think that I am just rehashing things I’ve already ranted about. I’m ashamed to say this but I have been a coward and a fraud. I have never asked if magazine articles (especially specific magazines called out by name) or trade shows provide any worth; why? Because I knew if I pissed them off they wouldn’t have me as a speaker or publish my materials.  It was wrong, and borderline unethical and I feel that I owe each of you a heart-felt apology. So many of you have applauded me for being outspoken and honest when in truth I held back because I was selfish; I put my own needs in front of the needs of my readers.

So let me make up for some lost time here. First of all, the National Safety Council should have stopped having me as a speaker a long time ago.  Even though my talks were always fresh topics after a while who wants to go to a conference where the speaker’s line up looks like Mt Rushmore, the same old grey faces with nothing much new to contribute.  I have to hand it to ASSE, they give you a ridiculously short time to turn around an abstract, limit speakers to one abstract apiece, and send you a form letter that is basically a politely worded message that says, “a lot of people submitted better abstracts than yours; do better if you want to speak here.” Harsh, but in a way, comforting.  You don’t go around wondering why they didn’t accept it you know it’s because they thought it sucked and you probably would suck as a speaker. Frankly they should send the rejection letters (and they have enough class to send it via the mail) postage due.  I was mad at the ASSE for a while because several division leaders asked me to submit an abstract on something I had written.  So against my better judgment, I submitted abstracts that I didn’t think were my strongest efforts, but hey, they ASKED for them so I was guaranteed a slot, right? Wrong.  They sent me the same, “we appreciate you did your best, but your best sucked” form letter. I was furious, but now I feel like, “good for them”.  It least they had the guts to say, “we don’t care what two division chairs think, we decide what constitutes a good conference and you aint it.” Of course I was so over confident that I turned down two other speaking engagements because I was so certain ASSE was a lock, so I think you can forgive me for being a bit miffed.

While conferences are judicious in selecting speakers, they are less so with their exhibitors; you see the same venders shilling the same products year after year. How many glove manufacturers do you need? The recession hit conferences pretty hard and the exhibitors were hardest hit. At the Michigan Safety Conference, there were no fewer than five exhibitors selling “electric massage devices” I bought one last year at the NSC (don’t even stop at these booths because the pressure they put on you to buy the product is intense (one rep was so pushy he almost talked me into murdering his wife); it makes a used car dealer from 1972 look subtle) to evaluate it; it worked pretty well until the connections got a little worn and now I use it to build my resistance  to being tortured by a Central American despot; this thing, if not carefully and properly applied  HURTS.  I felt like RP McMurphy after his electroshock therapy.  One company with an exhibit is one thing but five or more is just obnoxious.  Speaking of obnoxious, how many booths do we need of people promoting degrees, each show seems to have more and more Universities offering, what I gotta believe, most people at the show already have.  It’s like going into a shoe store and selling…well shoes; most of these booths are unmanned which makes me wonder what exactly the point is.  Why shell out money for a boot and then put out pamphlets in case someone happens by.  These are universities for crying out loud, doesn’t it occur to them that they have a bunch of students who they could force to work there for free?

There tends to be less exhibitors giving away less cool stuff (I was never a trick-or-treater, but I was always interested in what companies gave away.) 8 years ago I would have vendors offering me free fire resistant coveralls, Px safety glasses, gloves, and even name brand safety boots just to evaluate because I deal with so many different companies, now I’m lucky if I’m offered a free pen that won’t write long enough to sign my name, I’m suddenly Phil~p La~~k~.

The exhibitors look like the walking dead. The recession has made it so that many exhibitors only send one or maybe two people, who after a half a day are exhausted and bored and are sitting there talking to each other, or are on the phone, or are eating their lunches.  Seriously, who is going to approach these people?  Two thirds of the exhibitors at the average show make less eye contact than Rain Man, and are less likely to say hello.

As entertaining as this rank has been (or hasn’t been) my point is this? Are trade shows still relevant? What would make YOU interested in visiting the exhibit halls? What topics do you want to know more about and who do you want to hear speak on them? I can’t quite shake the feeling that these shows are dying (by the way the Michigan Safety Conference was still going better than ever and they did a first rate job as always) and I’m a big part of why they are dying. Yes Scott Gellar, in my opinion, hasn’t had a fresh idea in 15 years, and yes Charlie Moorecraft is a hell of a nice guy, but he too has really been riding the same gravy train for 15 years. But aren’t I as guilty of doing the same? Yes I talk about a wide range of topics, but half the people come just to see if I’m going to say something shocking our outrageous, and I always do.

I think to save the safety trade shows we have to reach beyond safety for speakers. Get Dr. Paul Marciano to talk about engagement, or Charles Duhigg to talk about habit, or a neurosurgeon to talk about how people learn.

[1] Note in 2010 my employer, knowing he was going to lay me off in 2 weeks refused to allow me to make the speech so I was accepted but was unable to make the speech.

If You Didn’t Come Here To Be Liked You Came To The Right Place


By Phil La Duke

NOTE: If you are reading this, thank you. The fact that you took the time to read this and maybe even reflected on these points before making a comment either here or on LinkedIn means a lot to me. Maybe there’s hope for us all after all. Sorry for that interruption so without further delay…

We have a lot of disagreements in the world of safety, but the one I find most interesting is whether or not the organization likes the safety professional. For my part, I would like to think the population should like the safety professional. What’s not to like, this is a person whose job it is to ensure to the extent possible that the place where we work won’t kill us. To others, being hated by the population is a badge of honor; some so much so that they mistake hatred for respect.

Some time ago I sat through a course on hazard recognition, and while the content was very good the instructor well…at one point he turned to the plant safety professionals and said with a simpleton’s grin, “you will be the most hated men in the plant”. More recently, a safety veteran told me that he tried not to get too friendly with the workers because it could compromise his effectiveness when he had to “get on them about wearing PPE or some other rule infraction”.

It gets to a “chicken or the egg” situation, do people dislike the safety professional because he or she does his job well, or is the safety professional able to do his or her job more effectively because he or she is disliked.

There are two ways to look at the job of safety professional: as a key resource for making the organization more effective, or as the hammer that enforces the rules.

At the heart of the argument is this: are safety practitioners little more than safety cops—jack-booted thugs doing the bidding of Human Resources? Or is there job to focus not on rules and enforcement but on making the company better, not just at safety but overall.

I don’t think a person can be effective in the safety role without being three things: liked, capable, and fair. If I am hated for these things, and I’ve worked for a couple of places over the years who thought I was too friendly (no I wasn’t dragged into HR, get your mind out of the gutter) but I have always put myself in the worker’s shoes and when some puffed up, self-important safety goof drunk on his supposed power told me to do something I would ask myself two questions: 1) can this ass-clown fire me? And 2) does this drooling idiot have my best interest in mind or is he just trying to show me he’s the boss? Well guess what, you can’t MAKE me do anything. I’m an adult and I will decide what I do and live with the consequences. Write me up? I’ve been written up before—it doesn’t mean squat. Fire me? Well then you just went from a guy with some meager financial control over me to a man I intensely dislike and who fired me. Just a guy. A guy I might meet at a gas station, or a supermarket, or a bar. Just a guy who took pride in the fact that people hate him, and now he’s face to face with a guy who hates him. Or maybe he won’t be face to face, maybe he’ll be jaywalking and someone he was once so proud to be hated by will be driving down the road. Just a guy. Or maybe I’ll just hate you, do EXACTLY what you say in my finest passive aggressiveness and patiently undermine everything you try to do until they fire you and can go find a job and make a whole new workplace hate you. Either way what have you accomplished besides being thought of as various body parts to which people don’t like being compared? Nothing. You have done nothing but puff up your ego. You can tell yourself you saved lives but we both know you added more risk than you subtracted.

Personally, the best safety professionals I’ve ever met, (and for the record I have met many exceptional, dedicated, fun, and all around great human beings who work in safety, but just like the chocolate covered roach in the box of Raisonettes all it takes is one to make you view the entire population with a hint of suspicion and distaste) tend to be liked and respected by the population; they’re not seen as tyrants or cops, but as pretty cool people who are watching your back and making sure (as best they can) that you work you do doesn’t kill you or make you sick; they’re the guys[1] who are there for you. If I like the safety guy and he or she knows me I am more likely to listen to what they are asking me (not telling me) to do. They will tell me why I need to do it, what the potential risks are for not doing it, and often ask me to help them out by complying. If I have a friendly relationship with the safety guy I am likely to comply just because I know that at least in his or her mind they only want what’s best for me. And if by chance there comes a day when he is just a guy I meet in a bar, well chances are pretty good I’m going to be glad to seem him and buy that man a beer; because he’s just a guy who spent so much time looking out for me and I appreciate it and I like him.

Now, which guy do YOU want to be?



[1] The word “guy” is a gender neutral term; look it up.

#attitude, #behavior-based-safety, #culture-change, #phil-la-duke, #safety, #worker-safety

Recent Articles in Print

By Phil La Duke

Given that I likely won’t be doing much speaking this year (not really—these things have a way of popping without a lot of notice— I have devoted myself to doing more work for publication. Recently the toad of an editor I used to have left Entrepreneur and she was replaced by a great lead editor who quickly chewed through the back log and I saw three articles hit print in less than two weeks.  They aren’t about safety, they are about succeeding in life and in business, two skills I personally happen to think are pretty important to safety professionals.  I hope you enjoy them and spread the word (I won’t be posting this in groups in LinkedIn—It posts to my status automatically—but if you think them worthwhile please feel free to do so, but Entrepreneur asks that you include ” This column was originally published on Entrepreneur.com on DATE HERE” with the original link.

The Only 2 Answers You Need to Figure Your Next Move  (Originally published on Entrepreneur.com on April 15, 2016) This article is based on some really solid advice I received from one of my mentors who is both wise and business savvy. This advice worked so well for me that I decided others might benefit as well.

5 Business Lessons I Learned From Surfing (Originally published on Entrepreneur.com on April 11, 2016) Is an article I have wanted to write for almost 15 years but honestly didn’t think anyone would publish it.  I am the world’s worst surfer, but being out on the waves in sun and solitude really clears your head and gives you time to think.  Thank you to Entrepreneur for finally giving this a home by printing it.

6 Questions Customers Ask Themselves Before Making a Major Purchase  (Originally published on Entrepreneur.com on March 14, 2016) Grew out of the fact that I have sat in both chairs—both the seller and the buyer and I am continually amazed at how out of touch sellers can be (they act like preadolescent boys trying to screw up the courage to ask out a girl) since nobody I work with seems to care or see the value in my experience I thought I would share it with you.

Confined Space Challenges (Originally published on 15th Feb 2016 in Health and Safety International ) Is a mammoth 2,500 behemoth of an article dealing with confined space issues (obviously this one IS about safety) and has less of my snarky charm than you might have become accustomed, but it is a comprehensive look at the dangers of confined space. H&SI is based in the UK and this magazine was designed to target a European audience but much of the content is universal.


Safety Is a Thankless Job


By Phil La Duke

On April 19th I will make my 10th consecutive speaking appearance at the Michigan Safety Conference in Grand Rapids Michigan; this speech quite likely will be my last public appearance (it most certainly will be the only public appearance I will be making in 2016).  I have already have either submitted or am writing my 100th published article (I have 96 currently in print, ISHN has 4 as yet unpublished works, and Entrepreneur another 2, and I am working on a piece for Health & Safety International), and this is my 188th blog post.  That’s represents approximately 300,000 words in print, and (when coupled with my speaking engagement) close to a million hours of effort without compensation. Pro bono work offered in hopes of bettering the Safety Function. These milestones will go largely unnoticed and certainly uncelebrated within and without the safety community.

This sure sounds like it’s shaping up to be a mopey, “woe is me” “no one appreciates me” crybaby  post;  I can assure you it won’t be.  I titled this post, Safety is a Thankless Job, because there are plenty of famous wind bags and snake oil salesmen out there who have published just as much and spoken just as often (albeit for profit) who in their arrogance genuinely believe that they did it alone, and that their geniuses go largely under appreciated.  To be sure I am an arrogant son of a…well uncharacteristic decorum doesn’t permit me to finish that sentiment…but I am not so arrogant as to think I could have accomplished this alone.

So in the spirit of gratitude I want to say thank you to anyone reading this, including the pompous puss-bag to whom I affectionately refer to as “Crank Cox” who reads my work religiously, only to bad mouth it and personally attack me on LinkedIn. Over the years I’ve questioned some of Safety’s most cherished practices and challenged safety professionals to rethink some of the things they do and hold true.  Without the blithering idiots who attack my work, I wouldn’t have the thousands of devoted readers.  So love me or hate me, my first thank you has to go out to each and everyone of you takes time out of your life to read my work.

But my work wouldn’t exist at all without some notable people who deserve special recognition. (If I left someone out it’s either that I honestly forgot or I’m not all that grateful for their “support”).

I have to start with Rick Vlasic, the Chairman and  CEO of O/E who told me that he wanted me to start blogging.  I refused telling him that blogs were the inane blathering of people too untalented to get legitimately published and that blogs were nothing more than “self-indulgent bullshit”. He insisted that it was part of my job, so I did it because it wasn’t worth fighting over.

Barb Fleming, has been a dear friend and supporter who not only introduced me to The Michigan Safety Conference, but also organized (along with Laura Martin) my first speech at Automation Alley. A venue that got me national attention and made it easier to get gigs at places not only like ASSE and the National Safety Council, but also at the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, and several prestigious international conferences.

Speaking of international venues, I have to thank,  Erica Toms who literally saved my life on more occasions than I can count, and encouraged me to keep writing when I was so sick of the aggravation that I would have easily quit. It was Erica and I who found out how to use key words that robot clipping services looked for and how to use them to feed the Google algorithm to get my work published.

Brett Radlicki has been a friend and supporter from day one and even contributed the illustration for my very first published magazine article, “What’s Wrong With Safety and How to Fix It.”

And then came the editors. It was Mike Riley,  who first recognized that my snarky style and willingness to take on the sacred cows of safety was something his readers either wanted or needed to hear.  Mike was infinitely patient as I blew deadlines and submitted work so rife with typos it looked like it was typed by an arthritic orangutan. Mike had enough confidence in me to give me a monthly column, The Safe Side but more importantly Mike let me explore whatever I wanted to in safety, and was honest with me.  His opinion of my work ranged from “brilliant” to “bland and repetitive’. Sadly the column was dropped after around 45 articles, Mike felt that the pressures of a monthly deadline were preventing me from doing my best work.  Then the magazine was sold and while I have six stories in the can, they will likely never see the light of day.

Perhaps the best creative collaboration I have ever had was with Chris Sanford, the executive editor of Facility Safety Management magazine.  When I met Chris at a trade show and talked to him about the writing I had been doing, he said, “why don’t you write something for me; if it’s crap I won’t run it.”  Chris is an old school editor and perhaps the best thing I’ve ever published, 4 Reasons 8 Lessons, was a disjointed and muddled piece until Chris took his red pen to it.  Chris has always been able to artfully  convey what I was trying to say even when I struggled.  Alas,  the magazine has knuckled under to the belief that the average reader can’t digest  more than 500 word articles, and complex safety concepts don’t always lend themselves to sound bites.  In the event that all my dribble is ever published in a book form I hope that Chris will consider editing it.

Perhaps the two people who are most responsible for you ever seeing word one of my work are Dave Johnson and Dave Collins.  Dave Johnson has published my blogs, added me to list distinguished thought leaders and up and comers in safety.  Dave is one hell of a fine journalist who looks beyond stories of industrial accidents but foments debate,  and tries (tirelessly and often in vain) to help his readers make sense of the soup of chaos that is worker Health & Safety.  His work is uncompromised by advertisers and his editorials ask questions that safety practitioners need to hear.  Dave makes ISHN one of the freshest and most important safety media outlets.  But more than all of this Dave understands the emerging and ever increasing importance of social networking and blogging in  the emergence and refinement of safety thought leadership. As media changes, Dave Johnson will always be at its forefront.  Dave Collins approached me to guest blog for his http://www.safetyrisk.net/  I was  reluctant but Dave’s persistence is without peer.  Dave is the king of safety bloggers—with a million hits a year I defy anyone to challenge this statement.  Dave shy’s away from traditional views of safety and his blog makes mine look like an insignificant speck in the blogesphere.  He is taking safety to new frontiers and bringing safety thought leadership to a true global audience.  He has frequent contributions from Dr. Rob Long who manages to proffer insightful opinions based on research and his own storied experience.  Rob is well on his way to taking his place on the pantheon of thinkers like Dekker, Drucker, and Deming.  What I find remarkable about Rob is that he can defend his positions without responding like a pissy crybaby like some safety cult leaders  I could mention, but 1 part professionalism and 9 parts not wanting to get sued prevents (read cowardice) me for calling out the imbecile by name.

This is getting to sound like an academy award speech  and I can hear the music coming up so I will rap it up, certainly Hilda Koskiewicz who has helped me be successful in speaking at the National Safety Council. Dr. Jim Leeman, who has been a friend and mentor and who allowed me to guest lecture to his master’s students at Tulane. Dr. Judith Erickson who along with many is a devoted reader who never fails to further the sometimes contentious discussions. Peter Jan Bots who leads the largest Safety group on LinkedIn who made me one of four feature bloggers and introduced my work to thousands of people (most of whom hated it) and finally Dr. Paul Marciano a friend, early and eager supporter and best selling author whose work while not directly about safety has profound implications for making the workplace safer.

I promised to wrap it up, but I would be remiss without including Mark Donnelly who is perhaps my most avid and devoted reader.  Mark, like me, has an interesting take on safety, has been mocked and insulted for speaking his mine, and has a God-given gift for pissing people off.

There are many others, others not mentioned here, who in there own ways have shaped and molded my body of work over the past ten years, I don’t mean to diminish these contributions in any way.

Perhaps I give myself too much credit here, but as I look at these people and what they have contributed to the world of safety  I’m both humbled to be in their company.  What’s more, as I look at these people it feels like I am looking at the beginning of a new age of safety, a renaissance if you will.  As I reflect on these people and what they have meant to me, what they have meant to the safety function I feel like we all owe them a debt of gratitude, perhaps too great to express in this crumby blog.  Many of these people are frustrated and burnt out, they feel like asking questions about traditional safety practices or offering a better way is a bit like pushing a rope up hill.  I hope they never give up and I know that history will vindicate them and make the Crank Coxes and the Snake Oil salesmen look like Cotton Mathers.




It’s Just Candy


By Phil La Duke

The safety is well known safety lore, how old man (Éleuthère Irénée) du Pont was a pioneer in worker safety because he a) manufactured dynamite and b) employed family and friends. As much as anyone, up to an including,  Herbert William Heinrich, Du Pont has come to symbolize safety, particularly Behavior Based Safety (BBS).  I (along with many others, including OSHA) have openly criticized BBS for its failings, not the least of which is the tendency of BBS to encourage people to under-report injuries and for…well not working  very well.

I’ll warn you, this will sound strange coming from me, but it occurs to me that while many of the most devoted BBS fanatics are soft-headed, mouth-breathing, imbeciles one or two of them may not be that far off. Stay with me. Let’s say you are a 19th century manufacturer of dynamite, using rudimentary, pre-modern manufacturing techniques.  Your business is basically cooking up a batch of goo that you dry into a power and package into explosive sticks, that—if you are lucky—won’t blow up before you get them to the customer. If everyone involves doesn’t do exactly as they are supposed to the whole operation literally blows up.  This isn’t a case where if someone messes up we have a near miss, or a first aid case, or even a single fatality, rather someone messes up and we’re scrapping chunks of uncle Pierre off a church steeple 2 miles away.  So people are careful.  REAL careful, the supervisors make sure everyone is careful, the managers make sure people are careful, and the workers themselves remind each other to be careful. Why? Because in the words of Tom Waits, “It’s the same with men as with horses and dogs, nothing wants to die.”

Things are much the same, or at least they should be, in high consequence industries. If a single error can result in another Chernobyl or Texas City or Deepwater Horizon then it makes sense that every creature with a pulse at the facility has a vested interest in making sure nothing goes wrong and causes an international disaster. So yeah, if you are in a one strike and everyone within a 20 mile radius is out kind of industry, maybe some sort of BBS makes sense.

Except most of us don’t work in those kind of industries and so our corporate cultures are a lot more tolerant of risk; I used to build seats for General Motors (I literally screwed for a living and came home sore) on the assembly line. If I made a mistake nobody much cared.  Sure if I created scrap (like if I tore the fabric on a seat—which incidentally I never did) someone might chew my butt out for ruining a $30 part, but everybody knew that it was just a piece of cloth and that GM could spare the $30 bucks).  The idea that I could screw up and get someone hurt was pretty laughable, and the idea that I could screw up and kill 30 or so co-workers was beyond absurd; and even in the most bizarre, science fiction scenario a zombie apocalypse was thousands of times more likely that a mistake I might make in the assembly of the front seat of a Cadillac would wipe out Southwest Detroit.

And yet the safety pundits want us to treat building seats, transporting parcels, driving busses, and erecting sky scrapers with the same scrutiny and care as if we were cooking 19th century dynamite.

There are cultures out there where worker’s safety matters. Not out of self-preservation but out of genuine decency (there are far more out there that pretend  that they value workers because it’s the right thing to do, but in general that is a steaming heap of freshly squeezed bull excrement).  I’ve seen these places and they are remarkable, but I’ve seen far more hellish landscapes where pride is an alien concept and safety is just something management talks about.

I used to work in Organizational Development, and in the course of that phase of my career I had the pleasure of meeting and working with some genuine screwballs. It was a fantastic experience that made me the person I am today.  There are two incidents from those days that resonate with me (and by resonate, I mean in the true sense; they echo through my mind sometimes loudly, sometimes barely audible they ebb and they flow, but they are always with me.  The first is when a woman who came out of healthcare came to work with us.  She was all business but a sweet and generous woman, but the work weighed heavily on her.  Until one day the burden seemed to have been magically lifted, a friend asked her what precipitated this transformation and she smiled softly and said, “ I realized last night that if I make a mistake nobody is going to die.” You see, she had worked for many years training nurses and other clinicians in the tools and techniques of medicine and surgery.   If, for example, she inadvertently left out a step, or forgot to mention a certain critical task a patient could die.  But the work we did was different, we were writing supervisory skills training so the worst case scenario if we made a mistake was a crappy supervisor remained a crappy supervisor.  In fact, it wasn’t even THAT consequential.  If we made a mistake and left something out, 95% of the course remained effective, so in a way the worst case scenario was that a crappy supervisor might still greatly improve.  For all intents and purposes if we made a mistake not only would nobody be harmed, but in most cases most people wouldn’t even notice.  The second incident was related to me second hand by someone whose friend had worked in a candy factory.  This friend of a friend was something of a perfectionist and she believed that her training had to be 100% correct; perfection was the only acceptable goal and it was killing her until one day it occurred to her: “It’s only candy”.  As I have said, I often think of these two scenarios and I think it applies to safety: the stronger the probability that someone will die from even the smallest deviation from the process the greater the discipline to that process must be.

I’m not saying that we should become cavalier about our jobs and not worry about predicting and preventing injuries, but I AM saying that we can’t live in a safety bubble. Just because du Pont (the person, not the company—I’m not looking to get sued here) did something and it worked doesn’t mean that it will work for us, or even if it will for us that it is worth the time and expense to pursue it.  I’m not defending “save enough” approaches to safety, but every redundant safety system we put into place costs us money. Those of us who have to have a hardscrabble, knock-down drag-out fight for a $50 expenditure knows that it is getting harder and harder to justify every purchase so if we are looking to make our workplace as safe as it should be we need to spend it smarter and more effectively.  And by the way it wouldn’t kill you to spend some of it on me; I work too hard not to get paid for what I do.

So ask yourself this, am I making dynamite or candy, am I building seats or teaching someone surgery? Does this approach to safety REALLY fit my environment? Stop trying to turn you’re organization into the dynamite factory; some of us just make candy.

True Or False: Your Evaluation of Training Doesn’t measure Jack?

true or false

Phil La Duke

OSHA requires that workers be provided training and that the results of this training be evaluated. Unfortunately most safety professionals who design training don’t know squat about designing quality evaluative tools.

For reasons I’d rather not get into, I am taking an on-line safety-training course and it is awful. Apart from the six factual errors in the first nine lessons the methods they use to evaluate training are abysmally bad. For starters, the course designers use far too many true and false questions. What do I have against true or false questions? Plenty.

I read somewhere that the odds in favor of correctly guessing the answer of a true or false questions is 63% (don’t quote me on that since I don’t remember the source or the context) but even if we assume that the true or false question is perfectly constructed the probability of guessing correctly is 50% and so few questions are perfectly written that its safe to say that the probability of guessing correctly is much higher.

True or false questions are generally the result of lazy course development. It’s seems easy to right a good true or false question but it is surprisingly difficult to so. Authors of true and false questions tend to provide clues to the answer by using absolutes, like “must”, “always”, or “never”; if you see these clues you can almost always bank on the answer being false, because one only needs to produce a single exception to the absolute rule set out in the questions. Even something like “all giraffes have long necks and spots” is probably false since if one has enough time and energy one could probably find an example of a malformed or mutated giraffe that didn’t have a long neck and the question becomes false.

Beyond the simple-mindedness of true or false questions there’s the uncertainty of just what the true or false question is evaluating. These questions cannot measure anything beyond the memorization of facts. In her book (the best book on designing training I have ever read and I have read scores of them), Design For How People Learn, Julie Dirksen distinguishes between recognition and recall. Recognition questions are the ones that we with which we are most familiar; they test whether or not we can recognize a true statement versus a false one or if we can correctly choose a correct response from a list of possibilities. Recall questions are more open and may contain numerous correct answers—essay questions. Of course essay questions may not be correctly assessing the learner’s ability to synthesize information and or apply complex concepts in the workplace. Plus they are a pain in the ass to grade and all but the most sophisticated eLearning is unable to process a recall question. So what do we do? We take the easy way out. This is fine if we are trying to teach someone trivia, but for crying out loud we are trying to evaluate whether or not someone can safely drive an industrial vehicle or work in a confined space? Forget whether or not this is the BEST way to evaluate learning and consider if it is even a responsible way of testing these skills. When we provide ineffective training—whether it be in core skills or in safety—people are injured, crippled, or die.

The only way we can truly hope to understand whether or not a worker has sufficient training to safely do his or her job isn’t to write better true or false, or multiple choice questions, it is to be on hand to demonstrate the skill and provide a safe opportunity to practice and fail. By providing this kind of training and evaluating this kind of training can we really be sure that the people we train can do the job relatively safely.

So the next time you find yourself taking a quiz, evaluation, knowledge check, or test and you are asked a true or false question, you can hold in the utmost contempt the lazy or inept developer who took the easy way out.

I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Julie Dirksen’s Design For How People Learn; it’s truly a magnificent work that is meticulously researched and cites other great books. In addition to having a lot a great advice for both neophytes and experts it’s an easy and enjoyable read. I found profound applications to safety (as I have been on about so much lately, I truly believe that if there is one element that stands above all others in providing a safer workplace it is training and competency.)

If I can just rant a bit, the only field besides safety that organizations assume any dolt can do it’s training. You got PowerPoint? You got a projector? Well then pull together a deck and train us on that stuff you know. It’s an absurd proposition. I have a degree in training, and three separate certifications in training methodologies, but in the eyes of a lot of business leaders all that means nothing—since apparently the ability to train is imprinted on us at birth like ducklings taking to water.

Never mind that the training combines graphic arts, an understanding of how people learn and retain information, the ability to quickly build a classroom rapport, and other skills too numerous to mention, in the minds of many leaders all anyone needs to be a trainer is a slide deck an audience capable of being bored to death. Things are getting so bad that we know have “webinars” where the first thing the speaker does is mute everyone’s lines so they can pontificate like a bi-polar preacher on acid while people literally work on other things, but don’t worry if you can’t make the meeting the slide deck is available on the k:/drive.



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