Don’t hurt yourself. We’ve heard it perhaps hundreds of times throughout our lives and probably said it almost as often. Let’s take a moment to reflect on what that statement says about our view of safety and the nature of injuries. Clearly we believe that the injury is within the control of injured party otherwise we wouldn’t say it as a declarative statement. In saying don’t hurt yourself we are directing the about-to-be-injured party to stop what they are doing and avoid injuring his or her self. We are implying that we are smarter and most likely immune to getting hurt.
Telling someone not to hurt him/herself also implies that the person has control over whether or not they will be injured. This sounds innocuous enough, but (while harmless) it’s seldom accurate. Injuries can come from hundreds if not thousands of causes many of which are far upstream from the injury itself. Equipment wears out, structures collapse, strangers act in careless or negligent way, and we can control very few of these causes. But the believe persists that we somehow are at some basic level responsible when we get hurt.
“Don’t hurt yourself” also implies that injuries are the result of cognitive behaviors and conscious decisions and again that is seldom the case. Think about the times you were injured; how many of those times were you hurt simply because you weren’t thinking. There is a growing body of research that holds that mistakes are a basic function of the brain. Most of our mistakes are subconscious and some believe that our subconscious minds make these ways to test the environment and the safety of adapting to a new environment. In this way, we are able to both resist and invite change simultaneously. As backward and contradictory as that sounds in so doing we can innovate, discover better ways of doing a task, and expose ourselves to all the wonderful serendipity that life has to offer us. Unfortunately, sometimes these mistakes lead to lethal or even deadly consequences. But if mistakes are an inevitable function of our brains merely telling people not to err is pointless and in my opinion fairly irritating. It’s like telling someone to be taller.
Assuming we aren’t dealing with someone who is mentally ill, injuries that do happen as a result of a cognitive decision were not a deliberate attempt to hurt ourselves. Saying “don’t hurt yourself” implies that we WOULD hurt ourselves if we weren’t told not to. It’s a saying rooted in arrogance and ignorance. After all, many injuries occur either because something we thought was true wasn’t or vice versa. In other cases, we made assumptions relative to the situation or environment that were equally false. So telling us not to hurt ourselves, or even to “be careful” is really an attempt to express concern, not an earnest attempt to prevent an injury. It’s a nice sentiment and people who tell us not to hurt ourselves mean well, but the statement is indicative of an attitude about the nature of injuries that is flawed and potentially dangerous.
The saying “don’t hurt yourself” is not in itself dangerous but often safety professionals institutionalize this flawed philosophy into a equally flawed, and exponentially more dangerous, safety system. At the heart of many Behavior Based Safety systems there is the belief that if we can just get people to be more careful and watch what they are doing the workplace will get safer. But this emphasis on holding people accountable for their own injuries creates an atmosphere where individuals fear the organizational consequences of an injury far more than the physical consequences. At one end of the spectrum you have people terrified that if they report and injury they will be fired, and at the other end of the spectrum you have people who won’t report injuries because it will mean spoiling the safety record and costing their coworkers a reward of some kind. One can, of course, modify the things for which the organization provides incentives, but unless the organization abandons the underlying mindset endemic in “don’t hurt yourself” the system will ultimately result in skewed data and a false sense of security. In these environments injuries seem to fall and the organizations infer that the workplace is safer. But as I have said on numerous occasions, the absence of injuries does not denote the presence of safety. Risk that might have been easy to mitigate had near misses and minor injuries been reported, contained, investigated and corrected are never detected and, as these hazards interact with other unknown risk conditions, ultimately raise the risk threshold to the point where a fatality is all but certain.
“Don’t hurt yourself” safety systems are less an expression of concern or an attempt to keep workers safe and more a way of putting the onus for being safe on the worker. These systems are more a warning about culpability for the injury; it’s a way of saying, “if you get hurt you will have no one to blame but yourself”; it’s not all that nice a sentiment, but even more so, in most cases it’s simply not true. No organization can excuse itself for worker injuries by saying, “well I told them to be careful; it’s his own darned fault.
Some of you may be reading this and thinking, well I am certainly not guilty of telling people not to hurt themselves. To you I say, take a hard look at your workplace. Do you have safety posters and slogans plastered all around? Are you preaching safety in vague esoteric terms? Tug on the heart strings by putting up posters made by the employees children? All these things are just different ways of telling people not to hurt themselves. Reminding me not to do something I didn’t intend to do is Catch 22 thinking; it makes us feel better even though it does more harm than good. That’s not to say that there aren’t good and important warnings to provide to the workers. “Remember we are running 35 non-standard products today, and anytime we introduce variation into our system we increase our risk of failure modes so double check your work and the work of others.” Reminding me of risk conditions (“It snowed last night so watch for water on the floor”) are helpful because instead of merely telling me to be careful you are also telling me of conditions that are nonstandard and therefore more inclined to hurt me. This proactive thinking is the foundation of a good safety system.
So think long and hard about telling someone not to hurt themselves, and remember, don’t hurt yourself.