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.