Clarifying the Idea of a Safety Culture

In the December edition of Facility Safety Management magazine I penned an article on Just Culture  ( ).  As I do with all my articles I post them in safety forums and ask for the community for their comments and feedback; do so helps me to improve as an author and to explore more deeply some of the themes that I initially post here.  One flows into another and back again.

In my most recent article I explore the dichotomy between Just Culture and the very real need to hold some employees accountable for their unsafe behaviors.  I don’t want to rehash the article here (if you think it would be of interest to you, than I encourage you to follow the link and read it, or better yet subscribe to the magazine.)

While all of the posts were positive and supportive of the positions of the article, (such is not usually the case) there were a couple of posts that surprised and concerned me.  I have talked ad nauseum about how tired I am of safety professionals parroting the “we need to change the safety culture” mantra du jour.  I am weary of people who don’t have a clue what culture even means talking about how we had oughtta do something, but I won’t revisit my feelings here and grouse about it anymore than I already have.  I would like to focus on the very real need for safety professionals to stop trying to change the safety culture.  It’s impossible.  Why? Well for starters there really isn’t such a thing as a “Safety Culture”. All organizations with more than 6 employees (this is the number where group dynamics tends to kick in) has an organizational, or corporate culture (I would define culture as the shared values and goals of an organization or to make it simpler—but perhaps less clear—culture is “how we do things around here”).  The degree a company values worker safety is a part of the corporate culture, but it is not a discrete element.  I don’t want to come off as pedantic or as if I am splitting hairs, but it is important to remember that safety (or lack there of) is only a segment of a larger whole.  Show me a company that doesn’t care about the safety of its workers and I will show you a company that likely has little regard for other process failures—like scrap, poor quality, or even customer satisfaction.

The opposite of a safety is not production.  Companies that have immature manufacturing systems have poor quality, injure workers, high scrap rates, and waste a lot of money.  Companies that seem to tolerate an unsafe workplace really tolerate poor business systems and process variation.

As long as we ask organizations to chose between safety and their core businesses (i.e. production) we will perpetuate the myth that a company can’t efficiently increase production without jeopardizing safety.  We as safety professionals need to help to foster a continuous improvement culture where injuries are a waste and a symptom of a process that is out of control.  By positioning safety as a means of increasing the organizations ability to produce more efficiently (injuries cost money and disrupt production—just recording the downtime caused by injuries can open the eyes of some old school production leaders) we can change the perception of the safety professional from that of a policeman or impediment to production to a key resource that helps production to run more smoothly and that helps to save money.

Unfortunately, many safety professionals still position safety as at odds with production, profitability, and efficiency.  Commercial enterprises (both for profit and not for profit) exists at least to make money; it’s a primary concern.  For profit organizations make money for their share holders and owners.  Not-for-profit organizations make money because unless they do so, they will not be able to serve the common good.   Money is the life blood of our world, without it organizations collapse.  If safety professionals want to continue employment in a capitalist society they have to accept the fact that safety is NOT the number one priority nor should it be.  Making money is the number one priority, but that doesn’t mean that organizations can turn their back on worker safety. In fact, companies that truly understand process efficiency understand most fully that worker injuries are the worst kind of waste and that an organization cannot be successful for long unless it makes every sensible effort to protect workers.

Instead of working to improve the “safety culture” safety professionals need to focus their efforts on areas that they can control, and those areas may surprise many safety professionals.


Before continuing, I should disclose that much of my background is in training, much more so in fact than safety.  I hold a Bachelor’s degree in Education and a certificate in Training, Design, and Development.  So it’s, I think, fair to say that I am biased in favor of quality training.  I am of the belief that the most important training in terms of protecting workers is not the traditional “safety” training.  This is an area that I explored at length  in my article, What’s Wrong With Safety Training and How to Fix It. (see the link on this page).  Traditional safety training is almost exclusively compliance based (we do this training because we are legally required to do so) and much of it is limited in scope to showing a video and reading a standard.  In the purest sense, it isn’t training.  But a well-designed and training course that provides mastery-level skills to workers is the best protection against work-place injuries. Assuming that our processes are capable (that is, they are working as designed) and are not inadvertently placing workers at risk than training that ensures the worker can do the job within the process should offer the best protection.  Unfortunately, most of this training, if it exists at all, is typically informal and is not the responsibility of the safety professional.  Safety professionals can, however, point out deficiencies in training that raise the risk of injuries.  This sounds like a harder sell than it need be: poorly trained workers are also more likely to slow production, have higher scrape and defect rates, and create other costly production problems.

Awareness Of the Relationship Between Safety And Productivity

Operations tend to focus on production.  Whether your organization builds widgets, treats sick people, provides professional services, or distracts rodeo bulls from goring a fallen rider, time is of the essence.  The faster you can provide those goods or services without incurring other costs the more money you can make per good or service provided; in business terms we call this “productivity”.  A key to fostering a culture that values safety is to capitalize on its value of productivity.  This is both easy and difficult.  On one hand it’s easy to capitalize on the value of productivity by positioning safety as a time saver rather than a time consumer, but I will return to that point in a moment.  On the other hand, some corporate cultures don’t seem to value productivity, in which case it’s tough to sell safety on that basis.  But most organizations value money and so one can generally build an interest in safety by demonstrating the effect a safety initiative has on the bottom line.  It’s also true that there are some cultures out there that don’t seem to value safety, productivity, or even money; if you find yourself working there get out.  A corporate culture that has no regard for money—even not for profit organizations—are run by imbeciles that will ultimately run the business into the ground and you will never be successful making rational arguments to the leaders of these organizations; get out and get out fast.

Linking safety to productivity is simple, but to do that you have to have some idea as to what productivity means. In most basic terms productivity is the time it takes to produce one unit of whatever you are delivering typically expressed in “per hour” increments, for example 100 automobiles per hour.  Efficiency is more complex, but in the interest of simplicity, I will just say efficiency is the cost of productivity; the greater the cost the less efficient a process is.  “Waste” is a term used to describe anything that costs money but does not increase the value of the goods or services (the customer will not more for the good or service simply because money was spent on these things.)  So in this sense injuries adversely effect efficiency in multiple ways.  First, injuries disrupt production which means the rate of production slows (because time is lost it now requires more time to provide the good or service). Second, injuries cost money (and the costs here are fairly well defined and yet often ignored) both in direct costs (medical treatment, fines, wages paid to injured workers, Workers’ Compensation costs etc.) and indirect costs (insurance premiums, Workers’ Compensation reserves, legal fees, etc.). And third, in some settings (food manufacturing, chemical manufacturing, retail, logistics) the injury may contaminate inventory and create even higher costs.  All of these factors drive up the cost of production, increase the cost of doing business, and reduce the organization’s operating efficiency.  If a safety professional captures and advertises the connection between safety and productivity and efficiency he or she will advance the cause of safety far more effectively than by squawking about the need to change the safety culture.

contingency planning and prevention

I am an outspoken advocate of prevention.  I have publicly stated my ardent belief that given enough time and information all injuries can be prevented.  But there is a big difference between the possibility that all injuries can be corrected and the possibility that all injuries will be corrected.  In some cases, things will still go wrong despite our best efforts to prevent them.  In other cases, the cost associated with preventing a failure mode is so excessive that it is completely impractical to try.   In still other cases, the possibility of an injury is so remote that efforts to prevent it are foolish and seen as overkill.  In all these situations, we have to have contingencies to reduce the impact of a process failure.  Contingencies are all around us and have been a big part of safety but many of us have forgotten about them and how useful they can be.  Fire extinguishers don’t prevent fires, rather they are contingency tools in case there is a fire.  Fire extinguishers help us to make sure we can control the fire (if not put out the fire  all together) until people can reach safety.  Similarly, tornado drills don’t prevent tornadoes, rather they are designed to reduce the likelihood of an injury caused by the tornado.  Safety professionals who do a better job distinguishing between preventive measures and contingency measures will do a better job of convincing the organization of the value of safety than those who err on the side of prevention.  We must always remember how the costs of prevention and contingencies effect the operating efficiency of the organization.

I know I am hard on safety culture, and I know I am hyper critical of the providers of “culture-based” safety solutions (and for the record I believe I was the one who coined that term although I rue the day I did) but if we are going to survive as a profession we have got to stop whining about a broken culture.  It’s time to  roll up our sleeves and partner with Operations to increase operating efficiency by increasing the safety of our workplace.  As safety professionals we have the opportunity to create the biggest increase in operating efficiency since the invention of the assembly line; it’s time for us to bring our skills to bear not just in the name of worker safety or corporate responsibility but in the name of process improvement; it’s time for us to lead.


#attitude, #attitudes-toward-safety, #behaviour-based-safety, #contingency-planning, #culture-change, #efficiency, #increasing-efficiency, #increasing-productivity, #injury-prevention, #just-cause, #loss-prevention, #operating-efficiency, #phil-la-duke, #philip-la-duke, #process-improvement, #productivity, #rockford-greene, #safety, #safety-culture, #worker-safety

Requiem For Prevention

I am a loud and ardent supporter of prevention.  In fact, I spent the last 6 years shilling a safety system based on six values, one of which was “Prevention is more valuable than correction.” Given my vocal, some might say obnoxious advocacy of prevention, one might be surprised to learn that I believe that in many cases prevention has gone overboard and that in many cases companies would be better served by doing LESS prevention and more contingency.  Heresy? Consider the  organization that spends tens of thousands of dollars each year preventing accidents that would likely have little or no chance of ever happening.  These companies have 20-person safety committees that meet once a week to argue about why an over burdened maintenance department hasn’t fixed a low-priority hazardous condition.  Prevention cost money and resources that may well be better spent elsewhere in the organization. Equally damning, are organizations that continue funding Behavior-Based Safety Systems that unnecessarily add heads, complexity, and cost to preventing injuries in the name of preventing one of the most prevalent and insidious causes of injuries in the workplace today: human behavior.  Unfortunately, these systems seldom deliver what they promise (i.e. a lasting change in human behavior) and can actually impede important business processes and the delivery of goods or services in the misguided attempt to control human behavior; it can’t be done, so stop trying.

That’s not to say that I am advocating a return to reactive safety practices, far from it.  What I am saying is that there is a time and a place for prevention, but prevention is not a panacea.  Simply put, you can’t prevent every accident, and in some cases you should be looking at what to do to protect workers when your best efforts to prevent an accident fails.

Variation in Human Behavior

As organizations, we’d all like to think that we hire smart, capable people, and for the most part we do.  We spend days (and thousands of dollars) screening candidates we ask them probing questions to find out how they reason, how they solve problems, how they think.  We do back ground checks and asks professional references whether or not the candidate is a worthwhile candidate.  We screen the candidate for illicit drug use, criminal misdeeds, and the things in life that indicate that whether or not the candidate has sound judgment. So we confidently hire the candidate and invest time and money training the new hire so that he or she can meaningfully contribute.  And then it happens.  The person that we spent so much time screening and training gets hurt and we think to ourselves, “if only that idiot would have…”  Huh? Now because the employee got hurt he/she’s suddenly an idiot?  You may read this and think that you are immune to such thoughts, but the majority of the people I hear describing injured workers as idiots are safety professionals.

They Call Them Accidents For A Reason

As much as we would like to assign accountability for injuries, the fact remains that in almost all cases whatever happened to injure the person was unintentional, or at very least, the person who committed the unsafe act didn’t fully comprehend the potential consequences of his or her actions; the accident was an unintended outcome; in short, the injury was an accident.  Accepting that things will go wrong, that people make mistakes, is a bitter pill to swallow.  We are taught to believe that making mistakes are bad, subject to punishment, and indicative of poor judgment or out-and-out stupidity. But everyone makes mistakes—we learn by trial and error and without mistakes there can be no learning, at least not organic learning that lasts.

Everyone Makes Mistakes, But No One Should Have To Die Because of A Mistake

I’ve read (I can’t remember where) that the average person makes 5 mistakes an hour. Multiply that by the 2080 hours in the average work year and you have a boat load of mistakes.  Some theorize that because biologically speaking change is reckless and dangerous (nature tends to have a “if it aint broke don’t fix it’ approach to survival; if a species is thriving it resists change.  In fact, change is so dangerous, that our bodies are hardwired to resist it, when we are confronted with change it triggers our flight/fight response and causes us stress.  Conversely, species that are unable to change are unable to adapt to changes in their environments and are driven to extinction.  So it would appear that we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.  But if the research that found that the human brain will make 5 mistakes an hour is correct what possible advantage would there be in these mistakes?  Making tiny subconscious, non-cognitive mistakes could be our brain’s way of testing the environment by disrupting our routines in small ways.  If the mistake leads us to a better way of living we make serendipitous discoveries and innovations but if the mistake leads to an undesirable outcome we see it as an error. But in both cases our brains learn about the safety of deviating from its routine and we are better able to safely adapt.

Variation Leads To Errors

Experts in quality, particularly in manufacturing, cannot emphasis the danger of process variation strongly enough; when the process varies things go sour very quickly.  Manufacturing and process engineers have made huge strides in reducing mechanical variation, but the variation endemic to human behavior is so pervasive that it’s all but impossible to eliminate it, or substantially reduce it.  Outside of the military (and quasi military—police, security, etc.) it is very difficult to control human behavior.  Even variation in cognitive behavior is difficult; how many companies have problems with poor attendance? Certainly at least some of the causes of absenteeism are cognitive decisions where the offending employee simply chose not to come to work.

Focus On Contingency Not Prevention

Okay, relax.  I know that I preach prevention above all things, but when it comes to variation in human  behavior you just can’t prevent most of it.  And to make things even more complicated, human behavior can be very tricky to predict, and even more difficult to prevent.  We have to stop pretending that all our problems can be solved through preventive measures; sometimes—despite our best efforts—things go awry and when they do we had ought to have some contingency in place to prevent a mishap from becoming a disaster or a tragedy.  When it comes to contingency versus prevention it doesn’t have to be an either or decision.  I used to teach problem solving and we used a very simple tool for determining whether to use a preventive countermeasure or a contingency countermeasure.  We would rate both the probability and severity of an error in terms of high, medium, or low.  If the probability that the particular failure mode (engineering speak for a screw up) is high—in other words it is almost certain to happen under the given circumstances—then one should definitely find a preventive action.  If the probability is low (fairly remote, but possible) one would need to temper the response after considering the time and money it would require to implement.  Similarly, if the failure mode’s severity was high (if it DID happen the consequences would be severe) than one would have a contingency in place to protect workers, property, and inventory.  Of course if the severity was expected to be low one would again determine whether the protection offered would be worth the cost of the required resources.

Because one rates the severity separately from the probability, one ends up with two scores that must be considered together.  Certainly if the probability is high AND the severity is high one would implement both preventive and contingency controls.  On the other end of the spectrum, if both the probability and severity were low, one would likely only take action if the countermeasures were cheap and easy to implement. But the scores that are in between (medium probability and low severity, etc.) are subject to a lot more judgment-based decision making. This may seem like a serious weakness to some, but on the contrary, this subjectivity allows an organization to customize it’s countermeasures to its unique environment and situation.

#attitude, #attitudes-toward-safety, #behavior-based-safety, #behaviour-based-safety, #contingency-planning, #culture-change, #fabricating-and-metalworking-magazine, #injury-prevention, #just-cause, #phil-la-duke, #philip-la-duke, #predicting-injuries, #process-safety, #rockford-greene, #safety-culture, #stop-trying-to-prevent-every-possible-accident, #worker-safety

Unsafe At Any Speed (With Apologies to Ralph Nader)

Note: This is a reposting of a blog I wrote prior to putting the blog on hiatus.  Unfortunately, the original posts were lost and this is based on a back  up  Word document

We interrupt this blog to bring you a special rant by Phil La Duke …

There is a bill before the Michigan electorate that would ban texting while driving, and I’m against it. It’s not that I believe that driving while texting is a safe thing to do, or a wise thing to do, or a smart thing to do; I just don’t think we need another unenforced law on the books.

Several days ago while making my 40 minute commute home that traverses no fewer than five expressways I was barraged by drivers floating in and out of their lanes, tailgating, illegally changing lanes, speeding and in general driving like fool.  As I passed three different drivers who were impeding traffic by driving 50 mph in the passing lane I noticed that one was dialing on a cell phone, one was reading map quest directions, and one was elderly.  Since none of these drivers was texting, however, none would presumably be subject to penalty under the new law. (I haven’t read the bill, nor am I likely to, but I think it’s safe to say there are no “driving while elderly” provisions in it.)

Let’s be clear, I believe that driving while distracted represents a major threat to highway driving, and the National Safety Council has research to prove it.  But in a world where people routinely and cavalierly run yellow (if not red) lights, cross the double yellow line to illegally turn left, and speed with no fear of enforcement why should we have yet another law for texting.  What’s next a law forbidding us to make omelets while driving?

I once asked a police officer why he sat idly by while 3 people turned left after running a red light and he said that there was no point in writing tickets because the judges would just throw it out.  Interesting.  We stop enforcing the law because 1 in 10 (I’m guessing) would go to court and contest the charges, and another 1 in 10 would have the charges dismissed.  Meanwhile drivers violate the law with no fear of punishment; another law will not change that.

But many of you have seen pieces I’ve written that deride discipline as a means of making sustainable change, so if another law isn’t the answer, what is?  I think if we look at the root causes of this problem it is an issue of indoctrination and training.  My daughter took her driver’s ed course at our local public high school as I did at my local public high school twenty years prior.  It wasn’t a perfect system, but it was a good system Michigan has since privatized driver’s ed and it is no longer available through most public high schools.  Now instead of learning to drive from a public school teacher our young learn to drive from retail outlets that I seriously wouldn’t trust to sell me a lawn mower.

We need to shore up driver’s education requirements and maybe, instead of suspending licenses and gouging those drivers with poor records on insurance rates, we should require those poor drivers to retakc driver’s ed.  If we truly want to improve highway safety we need to do more than pass esoteric laws aimed at addressing the issue of the month.

#driver-safety, #driving-while-distracted, #texting-while-driving, #uninforced-lawas