Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

Thanks For Nothing


By Phil La Duke

Last Thursday was Thanksgiving, a holiday celebrated in the U.S., and while the dates may differ many countries take a day to reflect on the many things for which to be grateful. The temptation to rifle off some insipid, smarmy, warm and gooey contemplation on gratitude, but alas my private persona is every bit as irascible as my public one and safety remains a thankless job. And while a lot of us in safety bemoan how little appreciated we are some of us use this time to reflect on exactly why should anyone appreciate what we do—after all the best we can do is nothing; anything less than zero injuries, in many people’s mind (both within and outside the safety trade) represent failure. So in a very real sense people say thanks for nothing when we succeed, and thanks for nothing when we fail.

I don’t have the energy for another frothy debate, but a member of LinkedIn, Armand Audette, commented on last week’s post, he quotes one of his contacts, Kevin Burns, as saying “we all start at zero injuries everyday its ours to lose or keep.” I’m a bit torn on this statement. On one hand, it’s a great sentiment and something like a value; something to which we all can and should aspire. On the other hand it smacks of original sin, which we are somehow pure at the daybreak and get more and more sullied as the day progresses. In this, the darker of the two scenarios, to be injured is to sin, it becomes about shame and blame. I prefer to think of it in the former, but that’s a matter of choice I will leave to you all.

I promised not to make this about being grateful, but I do have to say that I have been reflecting on my life in safety and thought that just maybe an expression of gratitude might be worth it.

First, I am grateful that I was dragged kicking and screaming into safety after over a decade working in organizational development and lean manufacturing. I’m grateful that I got to work on a multi-year joint program to transform a company into the safest company in the world. In the course of that project I worked with some of the greatest minds in safety and with a Union that rejected BBS as a “blame the worker” philosophy.

Next I’m grateful for the many dysfunctional workplaces where I have worked, one of which is where I was forced to start writing and speaking as a condition of my erstwhile employment. I fought against blogging, protesting that it was self-indulgent crap best reserved for talentless hacks who couldn’t get their work published by the established safety press. I’m grateful that in the misguided attempt to get fired or at least subvert the order that I create a blog I decided to create a safety blog where I would speak with my own voice.

I wish to thank all my editors (most of whom would prefer I NOT mention them here given my complete disregard for punctuation and grammar.)But I’m especially grateful to Mike Riley, the publisher or Fabricating &Metalworking magazine, who ran across a white paper I wrote and published it which ultimately lead to a monthly column on safety in a magazine devoted not to safety, but to metal manufacturers and processers. Thanks largely to Mike, a whole industry accustomed to safety as an after thought was not having safety presented to them on the same equal footing as quality, grinding, and the latest in fabricating innovation.

I’m also grateful for Chris Sanford, who I met at a tradeshow and who encouraged me to send him some samples (“If they’re shit, I won’t print them”). Chris took some of my roughest work and shaped into something worth reading, truly my best work was done at the business end of Chris’s red pen.

I would be remiss in not voicing my heartfelt appreciation to the likes of Dave Johnson and Dave Collins who ran counter to the safety establishment and encouraged me to go on the aggressive. It was they who recognized that too many people writing about safety were playing it safe for fear of losing customers. They encouraged me to take risks and to push the envelop; to ruffle feathers. They did this not because they hoped to see me crash and burn, but because they judged me to have the guts and thick skin to handle the insults, death threats, and general violent insinuations. They encouraged me to continue when I was both privately and publically ready to quit.

Of course I appreciate people like Barb Fleming (even though her Facebook account got hacked and Lord knows what hell has in store for me now) and Hilda Koskiewicz who have awarded me coveted speaking spots at their respective conferences (talk about a thankless job!) Pieter Jan Bots the driving force behind one of the largest LinkedIn groups dedicated to worker safety who chose me to be one of the sponsored bloggers for the group which helped boost the readership of my blogs and articles tenfold.

I’m grateful for Rockford Greene International co-founder, Pat Sullivan who prodded and pushed me outside my comfort zone and single-handedly helped me to create one of the fastest growing safety consultancy before I was assimilated.

Most of all I’m grateful for my many readers, detractors, fans, and sociopaths that keep me at it. For those I’ve helped, for those I’ve infuriated, and for those I’ve inspired, I am grateful. There are others of course as there always will be; omissions I assure you are both inadvertent and spitefully calculated; if you don’t see yourself here I leave it to you to wonder which.

But where is this outpouring of thanksgiving coming from? It’s damned sure a kindler, gentler Phil. It just occurred to me that for a field so incredibly rife with crybabies and whiners we all have a lot for which to be thankful. Perhaps Safety Practitioners (and all of us really) should focus more on appreciating instead of being appreciated. We entered this field (at least ostensibly) to help people. When we answer a higher noble high road we lose all credit if we whine about the lack of appreciation we received for our efforts. If we truly want to be appreciated we have to do our jobs without complaining; except me off course, complaining is my job.

Filed under: Safety

We Can Predict Injuries, Just Not With 100% Accuracy


By Phil La Duke

The first snow of any significance of the 2015 winter hit the Detroit yesterday dumping 5 or so inches of snow on an otherwise grey and rainy November day, marking the beginning of yet another Ingmar-Bergmanesque bleak and depressing Michigan winter.  There are those here who love winter.  We call them idiots and we don’t let them use a table knife and fork unattended.  But there was something enlightening about this snow storm that I think is a nice analogy for what’s going on in the world of Safety.

This storm was predicted as most weather is.  Now you can joke about a weatherman being the only person who can get things wrong half the time and keep his job, but with all the Crank Coxes out there, I wonder if that’s not equally, or even more true of safety practitioners.  What’s more, I just read a wonderful book that had nothing to do with Safety (and believe me, I scour everything I read for some kernel of wisdom that can be used to make the workplace safer), Guns, Germs, and Steel.  In this book, the author points out the importances of agriculture in the development of dominate civilizations, and cites a study that showed that weather forecasts are surprisingly accurate—for example, in cases where the meteorologist predicted a 70% chance of rain, that it did in fact rain in about 70% of those cases.

Weather prediction is an apt parallel to safety.  When the weatherman (or lady) is wrong many people openly deride him or her as “not being able to predict anything”.Just as there are many who believe that some injuries are just an act of God.  But in both cases the believe that something is IMPOSSIBLE simply because one failed to do it is asinine; everything was impossible until someone figured out how to do it.

And this brings me, fairly verbosely, to my point.  Zero Injury goals have been vilified by many because they aren’t possible and setting that as our goal demoralizes the organization.  To some extent I have made that argument, saying that to achieve zero injuries we have to be able to predict every conceivable hazard and possible injury.  But is this so different from predicting the weather?  One of the most difficult thing about predicting the weather is that there are so many variables acting in an extremely complex system that one could throw up one’s hands and say that its essentially just a guess. Except it’s not a guess, it’s science.

Science Versus Luck

This article should not be seen as an endorsement of zero injury goals, I have enough whack jobs in my life without stirring up the fervor of the Zero Harm zealots.  The point is, as many have made it more artfully before me, that many Zero Injury workplaces are just the result of dumb luck.  It’s like me predicting that it will snow again tomorrow (by the way the forecast doesn’t call for snow) base on nothing but the pain in my knee.  If it snows my prediction was accurate.  Should I be then given a job as a weather forecaster? What if I made correct predictions for a month?  Unless we know WHY we are correct our predictions can’t be trusted.  And we cannot ever prevent hazards that we didn’t anticipate, all we can do is argue amongst ourselves who bears the blame for failing to predict  the injuries.

Why Are Predictions Are So Poor

For starters, we shouldn’t be predicting injuries, we should be anticipating the possibility of an injury.  People who accurately predict injuries should be jailed (Sorry Mrs. Kelsey, we knew this would happen but we let it kill your husband anyway, what can I tell you? He’ll be missed.”) But assuming for the sake of this conversation that we use the word “predict” to anticipate the consequences of one interacting with a hazard, why then do they consistently fail us?

  1. We don’t try.  I’ve been in enough workplaces where the frontline supervisors believe (and are indifferent toward) the inevitability of injuries.  People get hurt, it just part of the job.  Well if you believe that, then there is absolutely no point in trying to predict how someone might be injured and do anything to mitigate the risk.
  2. We believe an accurate prediction is impossible.  “Yeah right, what are the odds of that happening?” Too many of us believe that it is impossible to predict that an injury will happen.  People are understandably skeptical. Unlike the weather, however, we don’t need to know anywhere near as many variables as a meteorologist.  We aren’t trying to predict the precise moment and injury will occur, or the specific type of injury, heck we don’t even need to predict how severe an injury will be, only that an injury is likely to occur unless there is some sort of intervention.
  3. We look at too many variables. Safety has become alchemy; a blend of science, superstition, snake oil, and guess-work.  We don’t need a good share of the information and tools that we fiddle with to anticipate that a workplace rife with hazards, lax enforcement of safety rules and a culture with a high risk tolerance and a knowing or unknowing contempt for worker safety to prognosticate a high risk of injuries.

Mark Twain reputedly said that everyone talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it, sometimes I feel the way about safety, we all talk about it, but we do so little of substance about it.

Filed under: Safety

The Work Is Temporary Not the Workers


By Phil La Duke

I spent the month of October at two different conferences, the National Safety Council in Atlanta and EHS Today’s Leadership Conference and of the several themes to emerge one could not have come through more strongly: OSHA is taking a hard stand on the safety of temporary workers.  Temporary, lasting for only a limited period of time; not permanent; transient; not made to last; single use, disposable.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability 40.4% of the U.S. workforce is now made up of contingent workers—temps, contractors, or other workers whose job status is shaky at best. There’s a tendency among many to think of “temps” as worth less to society than the stalwarts who pay mortgages, own homes, and grind it out forty-plus hours (when exactly did we lose the 40-hour work week? When did putting in an honest week’s work become the mark of a disgraceful slacker who shows neither ambition or loyalty to the company?) to buy some meager measure of security. 

I’ve never worked as a temp.  I’ve worked as a “contractor” which was just a euphemism for a guy who works of the books, beyond the protection of the authorities; an outlaw in the purest sense—not protected by the law and no longer a part of the tribe, peripheral to society. Get injured on the job? Screw you. Die because in addition to paying workers “under the table”  the people who hire these workers take dangerous shortcuts? Tough crap.  Working in a job like that changes you; it shapes your perception of who you are.  Treated like a commodity to be used up and thrown away makes you try extra hard to show yourself and those around you that you DO matter.  You over compensate and cop an attitude, but do that work long enough and you start to believe they’re right, that you don’t matter, that you aren’t going anyplace or anywhere that you will spend the rest of your life drifting along the bottom of life.

So why did I do it? It was 1988 and I had been out of work for over a year. People remember Ronald Regan as this great political hero, but I remember a different 1980’s.  For me, in Detroit life, was bleak.  When I caught the break of a lifetime and got a job working the line at a doomed GM plant I wasn’t worried; even though the plant I got a job had a clear and irrevocable death sentence (the antiquated facility was slated to close in less than five years as the work was being moved to the modern and more efficient Detroit Hamtramck “Poletown” plant) I wasn’t concerned.  I was in the GM system, I might be laid off for awhile but I would get picked up somewhere in the system.  I hadn’t counted on General Motors closing 15 plants and laying off 50,000 other workers. A year later I moved out of my rental home, and I was living in the upstairs of my brother’s ancient and decaying farmhouse. I had a baby and a wife. Loss doesn’t come all at once, life takes things away from you a little at a time; I gave up my independence,, my marriage was evaporating under the strain, and finally my pride.  I signed up for focus hope and was able to get government cheese, dry beans, canned meat that I swear I never could learn to choke down. I didn’t qualify for any government assistance because I wasn’t 6 months behind in my bills and they wouldn’t even give me food stamps because I shared a kitchen with my brother and heaven forbid he might eat food allotted for me and my family.  Better for all of us to starve I guess, but I wasn’t bitter (and ma not bitter now) those were just the rules and one thing you learn quick when you are living at the bottom is the rules and how to exploit them.  I joined a program, a Christian co-op where members of some church would “sponsor” you and I could go to a special store where I could buy expired (past their pull dates) food at a discount on the condition that I attend meetings to “learn about Jesus” despite having been raised in a Christian household and despite everything was still a practicing Catholic.  It was miserable but it put food on the table.  Eventually, the grocery store shut the practice down (selling that food even to the poor and the desperate) was illegal; and even though I never liked that scene I had to do what I had to do. Nobody, not my family or even my closest friends, ever knew how bad it was I was able to keep up some semblance of appearances; I would keep that for as long as I could.  When my soon to be ex-wife’s family offered me work off the books I jumped at it.  The work was tearing out stores in malls so that new stores could be built in their places.  There was no training, no PPE, no JSAs, and most of all no social security cards (but I declared the money I earned anyway—I wasn’t likely to earn all that much so taxes weren’t that much of a concern, even though unemployment pay is taxed). It was that environment that turned me into a permament hire and my life and my safety was worth no less then than it it is today

My daughter worked as a recruiter in a Temp Agency and has told me enough stories for me to realize that a lot of temp workers are temps for a reason.  From the stripper who refused to provide anything beyond her stage name to the parade of screw ups who showed up drunk or didn’t show up at all. But there are other stories as well, stories of people who are looking to find their one true passion or their live’s work, stories of free spirits who want to work in an office one day and a warehouse the next, stories of empty nesters looking to return to the workforce, and stories of college grads getting work experience until the jobs they were promised materialize.

OSHA isn’t coming for the kind of companies that I worked for, and they aren’t coming for the temporary agencies, they are coming for coming for the companies who hire temps and treat them as industrial cannon fodder; if, that is, they come at all.

Filed under: Safety, , , , ,

What’s In It For Me? WIIFM in Safety


By Phil La Duke

Let’s suppose your spouse’s cousin asks you for a favor…a big favor (not a sexual favor get your mind out of the gutter). After he unveils his scheme to make big money with little effort and all he needs from you is $10,000 and he can see a $80,000 return in just six short months. Since he makes no mention of interest, a reciprocal favor, or even of paying you back, you’re likely to ask, “why should I?” or “What’s in it for me?” After all $10 grand is a lot of money (about a third of a good safety practitioner’s annual wage) and you worked hard for it…well not exactly hard, I mean you weren’t working in a limestone quarry swinging a pickaxe…but you did earn it…okay some might argue with that point as well…at any rate it’s YOURS and you aren’t just going to give it to some shirt-tail relative with his hand out.

In adult education the idea of “What’s In It For Me” commonly called WIIFM (pronounced “whiff em”) is seen as a key to adult learners. Children will learn because the teacher is an authority figure and there are real life consequences for not learning. Adults have a choice whether to listen to you or not and that choice is made very early in the discussion. Far more likely than not, the adult learner will decide in short order whether or not you are worth listening to and that depends largely on the perceived benefit to the adult; the WIIFM. WIIFM can be boiled down to two elements: “are you credible?” and “is what you are offering personally going to benefit me?”

It would make perfect sense to assume that everyone can see the personal value in workplace safety, after all isn’t coming home safe in a state of aliveness reward enough?, but in many cases that assumption is just plain wrong. First, in a lot of cases the safety professional lacks the requisite credibility for workers to take him or her seriously. Throughout my career I have met some truly brilliant safety professionals, but then again, I have met many puffed up mouth breathers who think that by nature of their safety merit badge people should listen to whatever dreck they drool out their gaping gobs.

Too many safety professionals miss the important first step of establishing credibility and rapport. Establishing credibility is more than convincing people that you know what you’re talking about, that you have a real command of safety in all its forms. Credibility also means that you have standing to talk to ME about MY world. I have worked the lines of assembly lines, swung a sledge hammer doing demolition work, worked construction, was a farm hand and a janitor, (with my mouth and attitude its tough to keep a job) but none of those things mean squat to a worker in hotel maintenance. Unless I can draw parallels between my job experience and his I won’t ever truly be credible. I have to be able to demonstrate my understanding and empathy quickly. Sometimes I have been effective by turning that around, and admitting flat out that I don’t know what it’s like to work as breeder on an emu ranch, and then ask for his help in helping to explain the challenges of that world. It’s a powerful dynamic that usually works. If I show genuine interest in understanding other people’s worlds they will generally share their frustrations and   challenges. If I can empathize with their struggles it generally establishes enough credibility to satisfy the first part of credibility. Because I have admitted that I don’t know what they go through I can be trusted; I’m not a know it all. In fact, in these instances I have shared a safety concept and had a person ask me a question like, “okay that’s fine for oil and gas, but how does that apply to the entertainment business”. That may sound like a challenge to your authority, and safety professionals who believe that their authority and credibility rests on their 56 years of experience or the letters after their name (PCP, CHIMP, etc.) will be outraged that someone dare question them on this, but in fact, this is an invitation to have a dialog, where the two of you (and others in the group) can use your experience in other industries and education and their first hand knowledge or their situation to together solve the riddle. It’s a great place to be, because it demonstrates that they have already found some portion of WIIFM and you can build from there.

The second part of credibility (and thus WIIFM) lies in whether what you have to say is valuable to the listener. If your message is relative to working at heights, and I know (or believe) that I will never work at heights than listening to you is at least perceived to be (if not actually) a waste of time. It doesn’t matter that a good portion of your message applies to everyone (everyone needs to know to remind people to where height protection, or people need to be aware of the dangers posed to people on the ground when people are working above them) because as soon as the listener has decided that the message doesn’t apply to them they stop listening and don’t resume listening later. In these cases I usually start the message with the most general information first “working at heights poses a risk to all workers—the person working at heights could fall obviously, but people working beneath the improperly secured worker could be injured when the worker falls on him or her or by a dropped tool, and because we are all at risk we all need to remind workers who are going to be working at heights to use fall protection”). From there, it’s important to address the population least at risk first and continue narrowing the focus until you get to the relative handful of workers who need it the most.

Another factor that we battle in safety in creating a meaningful WIIFM is that a lot of the stuff that we have to say or present to all employees under penalty of law, doesn’t really apply to all workers and they know it. Where’s the benefit of requiring me to where steel-toed shoes when I might go into an area where there might be a possibility that I might encounter a hazard with which I might interact and if I interact I might have a heavy object fall on my toes and the steel toed shoes might prevent my toes from being crushed? Yeah right, and the moon MIGHT fall out of the sky so be sure and wear your hard hats at nights

Filed under: Safety

When is Your Safety Meeting Not A Safety Meeting?

dysfunctional meetings

By Phil La Duke

A common leading indicator for safety is involvement in safety meetings, but to risk sounding like Bill Clinton’s infamous “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” quote what constitutes “involved in safety meetings”? To answer that question we have to define “involved” “safety” and “meetings” (and hell you might as well define “in” while you’re at it.)  To be a true leading indicator, that is, a measure of something that positively correlates to future safe performance, something must directly or indirectly align with things that promote safety (in my view of the world: improved competency, better process capability, more effective management of risk and hazards, heightened accountability, or stronger engagement).

Participation in safety meetings if often used as a leading indicator, presumably of worker engagement; the assumption being that the more one is engaged the more likely one is to attend safety meetings.  There is a lot of noise in this particular indicator. Let’s face it one could attend a safety meeting because they serve croissants and one love’s croissants (“they’re like a little bite of Paris”) and one’s wife won’t let one have that at home because she’s a bossy shrew who nags one for being too fat (like she’s Christi Turlington) when she has no room (literally) to talk.  One also might go to safety meetings because it beat’s unclogging stopped up toilets because one’s coworkers desperately need more fiber in their diets.  One might even go to safety meetings because the new safety intern is really hot and who knows she might be single and might be interested in going to lunch sometime, heck she might even have daddy issues.  In short, attendance at a safety meeting can indicative of many things (I forgot that one might be clinically insane and just LOVE to go to meetings—run for city council you freak and leave me out of your twisted fantasies, but then, as I inevitably do, I digress.)

But the supposition remains that people who go to safety meetings are more engaged in safety than those who don’t “aren’t” involved in safety meetings persists and if you can forget all the statistical noise associated with this indicator, you still find yourself led back to the need to define what it means be involved with safety meetings.


Ostensibly attendance at safety meetings should be an easy variable to measure: either someone was at the meeting or they were not.  This takes us to the Slick Willie style reasoning of what exactly does “at the meeting” means.  This will surprise some, but I was a handful as a student.  I was knew the rules and followed them to the letter, the whole time circumventing the spirit of the rule.  I was, what an employer who I affectionately refer to as the Devil, called “maliciously obedient”. (The term was new to me so I asked for some clarification and he told me that “malicious obedience” is the practice of doing exactly what one is told to do while knowing the whole time that doing so would lead to disaster and ruin.)  My attendance record was actually pretty good, although I seldom went to class.  The process of taking attendance at my high school was for the teacher to take attendance (noting who was there and who was not and jotting the results down on small yellow sheet of paper and then sending to down to the office in care of a student.) In geometry class (something that no one except carpet layers will ever use) I would always volunteer to take the slip to the office after which I would stop by the cafeteria (so often that the faculty advisor thought that was my actual lunch period) and never return to geometry.  I got a C+ which is pretty amazing considering that I was only about 12% of the time. It was a win-win I got out of geometry and a highly disruptive presence was removed from the classroom. The point is I “attended” geography every day; hell I don’t make the rules, I just have to live by them. So the point being that when you are using attendance at the meeting as a criterion for engagement, you might consider counting only those who are on time and stay until the meeting is concluded.


Participation is also a tricky thing to measure. I participated in all my classes in high school except geometry (seriously, I have to prove the Pythagorean theorem? Can’t we just take Pythagoras’s word for it? And who’s to say if I can’t prove his precious theorem that HE’s not wrong? Isn’t that the point of proving something? So anyway, I participated a lot, usually in the form of non-sequiturs and wise-ass comments but by the strictest definition I was indeed participating, in fact much more so than my classmates. When it comes to participation in safety meetings any measurement is going to be subjective. If someone shows up and sits arms crossed with a furrowed brow harrumphing through the meeting I wouldn’t consider that participation. I think we need to qualify the word “participation” as “constructive participation” it may not be any less subjective but I think it paints a clearer vision of exactly what “counts” as participation.


I’ve sat through too many meetings that seemed to have the sole goal of wasting the time of everyone involved. If your safety meetings aren’t focused on a tight agenda; if for instance the meetings are little more than gripe sessions where people get together and shout about how nothing get fixed and how sick of it they all are. Having a good agenda is only half the battle; even the best agenda is worthless in the hands of a weak facilitator. The facilitator is there to keep the meeting on track. If the facilitator doesn’t keep the meeting on track it is within the right of all team members to call for a “process check” and pull the meeting back on track. Like most of the other criteria for success determining the quality of the focus of a meeting is also really subjective.

While it can be easy to question the value of subject data as terms of an indicator, but provided one uses the same subjective criteria each time, and as long as one is honest (not juking the stats) this can be valuable information. I still don’t think anyone has found a strong leading indicator around engagement (let’s face it even in 100% of the people participated in meetings, reported near misses, completed of safety surveys, or made suggestions for safety improvements it really doesn’t cleanly correlate to worker engagement) we don’t know what’s really inside people’s heads. Engagement is closely related to one’s attitude and overall morale and there are so many organizational things that have nothing to do with safety that can skew the data, and if we are looking at skewed data than we are acting on a hunch in the guise of data.


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Balancing Safety With Privacy


By Phil La Duke

There are two competing trends in worker safety and they are on a collision course. On one the information age (does anyone still use that term?) has brought growing concerns that one’s medical privacy could be used to discriminate against them in the workplace, inappropriately reveal embarrassing or intimate facts, or in just in general allow nosey creeps access to medical information that is none of their business.

On the other hand, a growing number of companies continue to look for ways to personal safety. This is an important goal. Those of you who have read my work know I’m about as far from being a love and flowers safety advocate, so it should carry some weight when I say that making safety personal is valuable. I’m not ready to endorse all the schmaltzy, tug-at-the-heart-strings programs the water heads think up and push down the unwilling throats of the organization, but talking about significant human suffering in terms of rates, and dollars, and numbers doesn’t tell the whole story.

This week I had a garage door installed, the company had to come back out and fix the initial installation because…well because they’re contractors and don’t give one wit about customer satisfaction and given what they sell (garage doors) it’s not all that likely they count on a lot of repeat business. My job was delayed when my installer was injured. A company with 10 employees had 1 had a Lost Work Day Injury. Pretty high Incident Rate, and blah blah blah. Pretty routine stuff, right? Another small company with no safety management system, proper training, or any of the things larger companies take for granted. A bland story that happens every day somewhere in the world. But the worker in question broke his back. He’s looking at several expensive and painful surgeries and most likely will end up permanently disabled, at a minimum he won’t be installing garage doors anymore. His name is Scott and he’s in his mid-forties. He’s got a wife and a mortgage and just lost the crappy job that was really all he was trained to do. He can’t even do similar work. If he’s lucky he will be able to walk small distances without too much pain. He may have his employer, a husband and wife team, who let’s just say don’t exactly place a high premium on the safety of their workers. They blame Scott for the bump in their insurance premiums, and for not being more careful. Sure they like Scott and aren’t happy he got hurt, but let’s face it if he had been more careful he wouldn’t be in the mess he’s in.

The numbers don’t tell Scott’s story, and if he worked for a larger firm he might be pressured to tell his story. To talk about how can’t toss the football around with his kid anymore, how he probably won’t be attending his daughter’s graduation because sitting in a folding chair for 2 hours would just be too excruciating, and forget dancing at her wedding.

Not a day will go by without Scott reliving his accident and second-guessing the decisions he made leading up to that fateful event. He may not be particularly thrilled about become a modern day PT Barnum circus sideshow.

Even if we forget about building a campaign around Scott and his injury, I have had to have the uncomfortable conversation with business leaders about HIPPA regulations and patient privacy. A lot of leaders want to know WHO was injured and they want the names used in incident investigations, reviews of the recordables and other very reasonable and logical activities. Reasonable and logical but in many places illegal.

So how do we find a happy medium? How do we make safety personal so that we aren’t the insurance men calculating the cost of killing the construction workers to build the Brooklyn Bridge without making the employee injury a vaudeville act?

For starters:

  • Follow the law. Obeying the law is a lot easier if you educate your company on exactly what the law allows and forbids you to share, and don’t try to work around the law or get cute.
  • Use the facts you can. You don’t have to name the employee you can describe the worker without using his or her name. You don’t have to say “Millie Fitzgerald was opening a box when her box cutter slipped and cut her upper arm” you can say, “the afternoon shift receiving clerk was opening a box when the box cutter slipped and cut the worker’s arm”. Both narratives convey the same facts and neither have reduced the situation to just another number.
  • Recognize that Focusing On the Personal Side of Safety Is More Powerful Before Someone is Injured. Why do we obsess with making injuries personal and ignore the personal side of remaining uninjured. Not being injured is personal too. I just wrote a piece on making better choices and while not all injuries are the result of poor choices, poor choices disproportionately put us at risk of injury (or some other ruinous outcome). In the course of my research I learned quite a lot about why people take unreasonable risks, and I would wager to say that if more people thought about the most LIKELY consequences of there actions they would judge the risks they take as not being worth it. Think of the worst case consequences the next time you decide to run a yellow like and ask yourself. Is it worth it.

Filed under: Safety

Danger: Professional Development Conferences May Be A Danger To Your Stupidity


by Phil La Duke

Safety is a thankless job; there’s no disputing it. But realistically if you do a job because you hope someone will thank you volunteer. You probably won’t get thanked for that either, but at least you will have some moral standing to piss and moan about it on Facebook. I generate (on average) 6,000 words in print a month for free. I don’t expect gratitude, hell I have long since stopped expecting civility, so what I was met with at this year’s National Safety Council’s Congress and Expo took me back. I made my first speech at the National Safety Council way back in 2007 and have made nine speeches in nine years (it should be ten, but owing to a decisive screwing by an employer I was forced to drop out just before speaking in 2010. (Special thanks to Hilda for not blackballing me). When I started the speakers were given a full conference admission, lunch each day, and a small gift. Now the speakers are given a conference admission minus lunch tickets and admission to contests that paid attendees are given. I’ve heard speaker’s grumble—with the exception of keynote speakers, speakers are expected to pay their own travel expenses, and there have been at least 3 years that I have gone out of pocket to appear—but not me. I happen to believe that professional conventions (really congress IS a better term) are an important, nay, essential part of the growth of our profession. I cannot trace one single business deal to an appearance I made at one of these conferences and being famous for safety (such as it is) is sort of sad; it’s like bragging about having a 84 level half-elf wizard at your regular Monday Night Dungeons & Dragons game—cool in the right crowd, but not exactly one of the five facts you give Alex Trebeck to ask you about if you are a contestant on Jeopardy! But as I said, this year I was taken aback. I spoke on the 3Cs of safety with Rockwell International’s Mark Eitzmann and both before and after the session I was approached by five or six individuals who just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for speaking. Thank you for having written them back when they sent me an email some years ago. Thank you for opening their eyes that they may have been approaching safety, and thank you for speaking.

I have to admit it was a bit humbling (don’t worry I am and will always be the smug, arrogant son of several bitches you’ve come to expect.) These people were there to tell me how I had touched their lives in some way and it meant a lot to me. One gentleman was quick to point out that he was NOT there to kick my ass, since, as he pointed out, I threw out the challenge to those of you who can muster up the energy to punch out hate email through bratwurst fingers about how you are going to kick my ass or kill me or whatever (seriously people grammar—and yes I recognize the irony of me giving a lecture on grammar—makes a difference). So where were you cowards anyway? You are so tough when you fire off a “I’m gonna kill you and eat your brain” missive but when it comes to prying your ample ass out of your recycled Barcalounger (come on, let’s call it what it is something you dug out of someone’s garbage and you continue to use because, as you tell your wife “ya get used to the smell of cat pee”) you come up short. And you wonder why you don’t scare me.

So before I launch into my rant, I just want to thank you all. Thank you for reading. Thank you for disagreeing. Thank you for asking for my advice. Thank you for paying me to come to your safety leadership meetings and speaking. Thank you for showing your appreciation, disgust, admiration, respect and contempt. I am currently at 89 published works with five more in the works at which point I intend to stop submitting works for publication. As it stands I have no plans for a book (I won’t self- publish and I am too lazy to pursue a deal with a publisher) and while I don’t have a specific expiration date for the blog I don’t plan on doing it much longer (perhaps 500 posts). In fact, I am planning on leaving the safety field altogether although I don’t know when or for what (maybe I will just organize underground death matches with the Deliverance cast off extras). Success in life is all about knowing when to get out, and when you find yourself in a situation where you are neither respected nor valued you had ought have enough sense to fold the hand. But mostly it comes down to this. This month the first The Safe Side The Safe Side in Fabricating and Metalworking Magazine since lasts February. The column stopped running regularly because the editor, Mike Riley, decided that I was repeating myself. Mike’s a straight shooter and nicer than most editors (probably too nice, at least he doesn’t deserve someone as difficult to edit as me). During that same time the publisher of one magazine for which I wrote a desiccated turd of a man decided that I couldn’t write for him as long as I wrote for a competing magazine run by a man who gave me my start as a safety writer, so I was forced to write for a magazine that had 5 times the circulation but worked for a publisher who hired and fired my daughter for no better reason than because he has puss and bile where most people have a heart or work for a magazine that increasingly cut my articles to make room for ads. I’ve switched to writing for “business” magazines but I will spare you the indignities foisted upon anyone choosing that particular road. But hell, at least I don’t make any money doing it; and that isn’t me whining. That is my choice. But at $100 a story it just doesn’t seem worth it. I could monetize the blog, which with the right moves could bring in $50K or more a year, but screw that. I get enough shit from readers without having to listen to advertisers bitch. So anyway, the doom’s day clock is counting down on the paste (not quite pearls) of wisdom that I ooze each week.

But then I digress. My intent was not to announce my impending resignation from public (and perhaps private life—anyone out there want to hire a washed up safety pundit? —I thought not). What I wanted to address is the lost opportunity so many of you face in failing to avail yourselves of attending one of the handful of professional conferences that are worth attending. If you rely on LinkedIn to keep abreast of the latest in thought leadership you will only learn how to be stupid. You really need to get out there and learn from other professionals. Get out there and meet people. Disagree. Share ideas, share a meal, share many beers, and innovate. It may be time for me to step down (I really hope to do one more National Safety Council speech before quitting—but Anaheim? Anaheim? You know what’s fun about Anaheim? Me neither, but such is life.

Of course all that glitters is not gold. If you go to ASSE you will have to suffer through the pretentious boobs who put the Ass in ASSE and if you go to the National Safety Council you will most certainly have the opportunity to endure a pointless keynote speech by Scott Gellar and Charlie Moorecraft (one of whom is a real sweetheart) on a topic that is less credible or relevant than an episode of Hee-Haw (Google it) but that’s not the point. You will meet people in the field who need you. You can be the counterpoint that decries the emperor naked. Our trade won’t get stronger or more effective in the LinkedIn threads, only dumber and more sanctimonious. We get stronger and better by getting together and discussing topics that matter. Not in the technical sessions or the key notes, but in the bars and vendor socials. Too many of us miss out on this great experience, and well if you want to hear me speak, the next National Safety Council may well be your last chance to do so.

In case I don’t get a chance to say it before I flush this whole thing, thanks for reading and thanks for commenting even you obnoxious blowfish who couldn’t kick your own ass with an axe.

Filed under: Safety

The Anatomy Of An Injury


By Phil La Duke

Let me kick off this week’s post by reminding you that I will be speaking at the National Safety Council with Mark Eitzman from Rockwell Automation in Atlanta on Wednesday, so those of you who are there and would like to say hi I would welcome that, and for all you who have threatened my the last couple of weeks bring it on, but expect now quarter to be asked or given.  That having been said, I wanted to explore the anatomy of an injury.  Reams of crap has been written about the causes and even environments that cause injuries and I’m not so sure that anyone has a complete picture of how hazards cause injuries.

I started this blog yesterday (Saturday) and well…life got in the way.  So I hastily scrawled some rough ideas down  and saved it as a draft so I could access without my home computer.  Then I jumped on a delayed flight, SERIOUSLY when did Delta completely give up on customer service?  They have an entire customer base that just shrugs at the myriad problems that Delta routinely expects people to tolerate.  I feel like an eight year old kid who took a ride with a skeazy pervert; you know as soon as the door closes that things aren’t going go well, but you’re trapped and you can’t get out and all you can do is pray that it won’t be as bad as it probably will be. It’s gotten so bad that complaining isn’t even worth it; the best I can hope for is that I will be discussing Delta in a psychiatrist’s office using dolls to recreate the experience.

But that’s not important right now.  While on the plane sitting waiting for everyone to get herded to their seats like the opening of a Khmer Rouge reeducation seminar I occupied my time reading Guns, Germs, and Steel a great book that explores the geographic and sociological factors that cause some civilizations to advance so much more rapidly than others. One paragraph struck me. When the author Jared Diamond explained the difference between “hard sciences” and “social sciences”  he pointed out that hard sciences (my term, not his)

“In chemistry and physics the acid test of on’e understanding of a system is whether or not  one can successfully predict its future behaviors.”

It occurs to me that we may have the whole argument over safety (process versus behavior, et el) all wrong.  Perhaps we are arguing our points to justify safety as a science.  We are horrible for conniving ways to prove that we are scientists.  We write paper and speciously researched paper and only publish studies that support our conclusions and quash any that challenge our world view.  So I say screw science.  We are all (at least most of us) capable of drawing from our insights and arguing the merits in a professional manner…Oh geez I can’t even write those words with a straight face.  I am with Diamond on this, and calling safety a science is like the ex-convict fry cook at Arby’s a chef.  Whatever helps you sleep Wikipidiots, whatever helps you sleep.

So any way, back to the subject at hand.  For years I have been teaching hazard recognition and breaking down the anatomy of an injury as:

Injury=Hazard+Interaction+Catalyst, and


It makes sense doesn’t it? Let’s take the case of injuries.

Hazards Are Benign

Hazards are everywhere and most aren’t doing anyone any sort of harm.  Lava spews from volcanoes, Great White Sharks stalk cold waters in search of prey, and none us are hurt by this.  We get all bug-eyed at the thought of an unguarded machine, or rusted out cat walks, and yet we are harmed by them.  In fact, hazards alone can’t harem us unless we interact with them.  As so we work tirelessly to find a way to make those interactions safer.  And people roll their eyes at us because they don’t see the hazard as any big deal.  After all, they do the job all the time and they don’t get hurt.  The same is true with the general population—they drive while boozed up, texting, and engaging in any number of other at risk behaviors that greatly increase the probability of an injury.  And yet they survive.  In fact, far more people escape injury in these cases than those who are injured or cause injury to another. And that’s because of catalysts.  For an injury to happen there has to be more than just a hazard and an interaction, there must also be something (or things) that set the event in motion. 

I was very happy with my anatomy of injuries until I realized that I had missed an element not only of the anatomy of injuries but of risk as well: Time To Decide.  I should probably talk about this as reaction time but I know how you all HATE reaction versus proactivity. With both risk and injury prevention we need to consider how much time does the person interacting with a hazard have to protect him/herself when suddenly face-to-face with an unexpected hazard.

We teach this in driver’s education—always allow sufficient stopping time so is it really all that odd to suggest that risk assessments and job design consider the time in which a worker has to make a life or death decision?  We can teach all the decision making skills and tools we want, but if we only have a microsecond to react there is not much value in it.

I hope to see you at the National Safety Conference.

Filed under: Safety

Safety Sergeants and Invisible Risks


By Phil La Duke

In some respects the safety practitioner is like an army drill sergeant.  At first that seem like an odd coupling, but the drill sergeant has to train people to act in a way that is clearly not in their best interests and in fact, carry the risk of getting them killed to serve a greater good.  Safety practitioners, conversely, are often charged with persuading workers not to take risks that people don’t see as all that dangerous. So while the goals of the drill sergeant and the safety practitioner are at cross purposes achieving those goals both rely to varying extents on one’s ability to persuade another.

In too many cases, the safety professional misses the difference between the role of the drill sergeant and that of the safety practitioner. These safety sergeants believe that their role is to berate and bully people into following the safety rules and thereby achieving the state of safety.  Of course, lacking any context for the rule, workers tend to ignore the rule when safety sarge is out of sight.  What’s worse, is the that workers’ real bosses often encourage the workers to work unsafely as long as Sergeant Safety isn’t around.  These safety sergeants are generally seen for what they are: soft headed buffoons with little man syndrome.  This isn’t a knock on those of us who are vertically challenged some people are little on the inside, or are so eaten up with insecurity that they could be 7’ tall and still have little man syndrome.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense for people to place themselves in harm’s way, after all, our central nervous system is designed to keep us alive, and when we put ourselves in harm’s way for any length of time we get stressed out.  To be sure there is a lot to be said for our love affair with risk taking, but I’ve already written a considerable amount on the subject and I don’t feel like rehashing it here.  It is fascinating how people are simultaneously driven from and drawn to risk but not fascinating enough for me to explore, at least not right now.

Make Risk Visible

I’ve found the key to persuading people to invest in safety (whether that be a financial investment or a personal investment in making better choices) i to make the invisible risks visible.  This is more tricky than one might suppose.  We are surrounded by hazards and most of the hazards alone pose little risk of harming us. In my experience, which for the record I make no claim to its universality (I just love when some mouth breather reading this tries to argue matters of my experience as if some yahoo that I’ve never met is going to convince me that I didn’t experience something or that my perception is completely flawed because it doesn’t support their meth-head view of the world) injuries don’t result from a singular cause, rather they come from interrelated causes and effects working in concert.  So we find ourselves in a complex network of hazards, interactions, and potential catalysts and every time we emerge unscathed we convince ourselves that we were never at risk. It’s not unlike the dumb-asses who, when faced with mounting gambling debts make bigger and bigger bets in a pathetic attempt to get even (and then when they DO win it back they decide not to leave the table because they are on a roll.

Probability Isn’t Intuitive

The problem with risk of injuries is that it’s all probability.  In fact, safety can (and should) be defined as the probability that one will interact with a hazard and emerge unharmed.  The greater the probability of harm the less safe the interaction.  Unfortunately most people don’t get probability.  If you toss a coin the odds of it coming up heads is 50:50, but if you have tossed the coin nine times and it comes up heads all nine times, what are the odds of it coming up heads on the tenth toss? It’s still 50:50 but it can be tough to convince someone who doesn’t understand probability, and if you think that there aren’t many of those people you haven’t spent enough time at a Vegas craps table watching people bet Aces.  Of course the odds of injury aren’t as clean as the odds of dice rolls or against flopping a nut flush; calculating the odds of remaining unhurt depends on knowing all the variables and this is seldom the case.

Doing Our Best

Forgetting the schizophrenic crap storm that will likely follow me saying so, in all practicality we won’t eliminate all injuries.  At this point about a third of you stopped reading and are rounding up pitchforks and lighting torches to drive me from the safety village.  To those of you who remain I say this, acknowledging that zero injuries isn’t possible from a practical standpoint doesn’t obviate the philosophical position that zero injuries is the only acceptable goal.  It’s a dumb argument made by dull people with too much time on their hands. What I think we can all agree on is that while some companies may have achieved zero injuries this accomplishment, while laudable, is a poor predictor of future performance.  We still have to do our best to get as close to zero harm as possible and that is only possible through the relentless search for hazards.  The most successful approaches to safety are those that focus on reducing risk by identifying hazards and containing and correcting those risks to ensure people are subjected to minimal risk of injuries.

If you are still focusing on injuries you are really fooling yourself.  Trying to make the workplace safe by focusing on injuries is like trying to cure cancer by shaking a gourd over your leg; it might work, but if it does it’s pure luck and coincidance.

Filed under: Safety,

The Myth of the Perfect Process


by Phil La Duke

Ever since Statistical Process Control (SPC) was conceived at  Bell Laboratories by Walter A. Shewhart sometime in the early 1920s manufacturers have pursued the great white whale that is the perfect process. Anyone who has tried to implement a system of SPC (and then Six Sigma) knows that—like so many things in safety—it is theoretically possible but practically impossible. Statistical Process Control is challenging because it relies a process that is “in control” which means that it effectively returns a predictable result within upper and lower control limits.  The process must be a normal distribution (the mean, mode, and median of the data must all be equal) and there must be a virtual absence of “special cause variation”, in other words the process must be well defined, tightly controlled, and have most things going according to plan.  SPC works well when those conditions are met, but most companies struggle with getting their processes sufficiently tight.

Obviously, (or perhaps not given some of the guff I am given by people selling pixie dust that magically transform human variability into robot-like precision) the more manual the operation the more natural variation in the process because people tend to vary greatly in size, shape, aptitude, skills, and attitude, but even robots make mistake. 

There Are Limits And Then There Are Limits

I have written about Geometric Dimensioning and Tolerancing, tolerance stacking, and how variance plays into safety before, but I find that few safety professionals understand GD&T and fewer still care.  That’s unfortunate because it’s fascinating, and something that safety professionals really need to understand.  Every process has tolerances that it must make to be acceptable.  Think of a bottle of water.  The bottle and the bottle cap are manufactured separately and later joined in the bottling process.  The outer rim of the mouth of the bottle must be a very specific size, as must the inner rim, as must the inner rim of the bottle cap, etc.  Tolerance is typically expressed as x + or – y. If the bottle cap is too small or too large (i.e. outside the upper or lower limits) it won’t fit on the bottle.  Similarly if the bottle itself is too large or too small it will likewise useless.  But what if the bottle cap is just a tiny bit big and the bottle is just a tiny bit small?  In this case the tolerances have stacked (more and more variability have caused a problem because while the original specification identified how big or little a cap could be it failed to consider what would happen if BOTH the bottle and cap were out of specification. Now think about something far more complex than a bottle, say an automobile, where there are thousands of critical tolerances that must be considered.

What’s Any Of This Have To Do With Safety?

I understand that most of you don’t come to this blog looking for information on GD&T, or Tolerance Stack, or any of this other engineering crap, so why am I talking about it? Well consider a process at your site or within your company.  Assuming you have the best engineering department available you would likely have standard operating procedures, but have you asked yourself who exactly the process had in mind? How much force is acting on the body when a person does the job? How much of this force can an average person withstand before his or her knees, back, elbows, or other body parts give out? In other words what forces act on the body and what are the tolerances of both the body and the process.  There are some great companies out there that do ergonomic evaluations and that can calculate these figures for you, and there are some human factors evaluations that can test individual’s abilities to perform at a given specifications.  Both of these services, used together can give you the bottle and bottle cap numbers, figuratively speaking.  But is that enough?  While it makes sense that doing this kind of analysis would return a safer workplace, remember this only is dealing with a process that is under control and people that are operating within a normal bell-shaped curve.

Triggers and Trigger Finger

I am a strong proponent of both Ergonomics and Human Factors Engineering, but let’s not all run off half-cocked. Continuing our bottle and bottle cap analogy, would we be successful by establishing a process and expecting the equipment that makes the bottles and caps to follow it? Of course not, and yet in too many cases ergonomic studies are only ordered for processes that have already hurt someone and even the most sophisticated Human Factors programs tend to measure people’s ability to do a job before they are hired (or more likely as part of a post offer qualification) so processes that are most likely to hurt people tend to only be addressed once someone has been harmed, and people’s on-going ability to do a job are seldom evaluated. In effect, even in the best circumstances we only have a single snap shot of risk.

It’s A Start

I’m not knocking companies whose safety management system has reached this height, it’s an important accomplishment but it really doesn’t provide us with as much protection as you might think, and let’s face it most of us haven’t come anywhere close to this level of sophistication.  But even on a smaller scale many of us don’t recognize that we can have all the protection in the world but if our process is filled with variation the risk of injuries can still remain great.

Filed under: Safety



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