In Harm’s Way: How Safety Professionals Brought Down the Safety Profession

Image courtesy of http://bilinick.blogspot.com/2011/02/homer-simpson-cartoon-photos-and.html

Image courtesy of TheGuardian.com

“My pledge to you this year is to kill off for good the excessive culture of safety and health that is dragging down business like a heavy wooden yoke.”— David Cameron, United Kingdom Prime Minister.

In a recent article in ISHN magazine editor, Dave Johnson does an excellent job of covering comments that David Cameron, UK Prime Minister recently made about the onus that safety puts on businesses and of his party’s intention to “crush” the culture of safety. http://www.ishn.com/blogs/16-random-sampling/post/politicians-just-dont-get-safety At this point most of you are expecting me to launch into another one of my pithy rants about how safety is being attached on all fronts and people of good faith should rise up in righteous indignation. You will be disappointed. I have been writing and blogging about safety for over 5 years, speaking on the subject for close to ten, and working in the field consulting and providing safety training for nearly thirty years. I have plenty to say on this subject and most of you aren’t going to like it.

Most recently I have pumped out some pretty aggressive messages that puts the blame for the decline in respect for the safety profession squarely on the shoulders of the safety professionals. I have been fairly clear in my message: Safety professionals have to reposition themselves as key resources for making the workplace more efficient, more cost effective, and more productive. Instead we continue to propagate the image of the safety professional as a bleeding heart social worker that wants to coddle workers and impeded progress. I have said, in no uncertain terms, that if Safety is going to regain a position of respect it will have to stop doing such stupid things.

“safety cultures (are) a too often farcical, marginal monster that must be crushed and killed.”— David Cameron, United Kingdom Prime Minister

When “Protect Your Dignity” was published in ISHN a couple of months back, I got a visceral response from a bunch of old-school safety half-wits who squawked and bawled because I asked what kind of sociopath introduces the possibility of a parent dying at work to eight-year olds in the guise of a children’s safety poster contest.

When I wrote an article that criticized the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) for sponsoring an expensive boondoggle to Brazil in the worst economy in a lifetime, no fewer than three safety publications refused to run it. And when I publicly criticized the organization for their actions—well…let’s just say if you are wondering why I am no longer speaking at their conference you have your answer.

When I made blog posts decrying Behaviour Based Safety as amateurishly shilled snake oil, one greasy, bloated, pig-eyed brute rallied the fanatics and the zealots who sent me a steady stream of venom, and made clear their intention to protect and preserve the Behavior Based Safety Bureaucracies at all costs. I’ve been called every thing but a child of God, simply for calling into question the status quo.

Well guess what? It turns out WE ARE under attack, and not by some third world despot or human trafficker but by the leaders of the free world.

‘Cameron, meanwhile, says, “I am hereby declaring war… on the safety and health monster.’ .”— David Cameron, United Kingdom Prime Minister. ”(ISHN)

As Dave Johnson points out, politicians don’t get safety, but politicians do “get” what messages people want to hear, as people the average politician is a thick-witted brute without basic skills to pour piss out of a boot when the instructions are written on the bottom. Except on extremely rarified occasions, politicians aren’t all that extraordinary, there are no heroes here and few villains either. The politicos are, like every other organism designed to survive and politicians can only do this by sensing public sentiment and regurgitating it back to voters.

The story here isn’t that David Cameron, the leader of one of the most industrialized and powerful countries in the world thinks its okay to kill workers, rather the story is that David Cameron thinks that voters will be sympathetic to those sentiments. What matters here is not that a single politician believes workers should be seen as expendables, and chattel to be used up and thrown away.

“Safety culture is nothing more than a straitjacket on personal initiative and responsibility. We must crush these cultures before any more damage is done.”— David Cameron, United Kingdom Prime Minister.

This Is a War That We Are Losing.

Public sentiment is turning against worker safety. Politicians equate safe workplaces with job loss and hyper-sensitivity for paper cuts and bruises. Less and less people are taking us seriously and human life hangs in the balance. “safety cultures (are) a too often farcical, marginal monster that must be crushed and killed.”— David Cameron, United Kingdom Prime Minister Is safety farcical, marginal monster (“farcical” means “absurd” or “ridiculous” for those of you who have been directed to this page by one of my many detractors who are reading this for the sole purpose of getting pissed off)? Well when you hear things like the case a friend of mine shared with me it makes it pretty tough to see safety as anything but the rightful object of ridicule. In this case, my friend’s safety manager slipped and fell but did not report the incident and instead sought treatment from her personal doctor so that she would not “ruin” the safety BINGO. When the writers of The Simpsons wanted give the hapless, drunken, and perpetual screw up main character Homer a job, they ultimately chose head of safety as the most ludicrous job (Homer has had jobs ranging from body guard to astronaut, but he always comes back to safety). And when you see some of the safety bureaucracies that try to manipulate people’s behaviours like so many lab rats the “monster” appellation seems pretty spot-on.

Where is This Coming From?

Lord knows I’m full of answers, but this one has got me stumped. Where is the big, unifying event that convinced the public that we have taken worker safety too far? As far as I can recall there has been no major fines lobbed at corporations for infractions that a reasonable person would see as frivolous. There have been no high profile cases of companies forced out of business because protecting the workers became to onerous. Why then, has the public turned on us? Fighting Back What can we do to turn this around? Because let’s face it, we have got to stop fiddling as Rome burns, and we aren’t going to win this fight without first winning the hearts and minds of greater society. • Advertise the cost of Injuries. In the world of corporate Learning we like to say, that “if you think Learning is expensive, try stupidity”. We have to make the average person understand how much productivity and efficiency is lost when a worker is injured, even when that injury was minor. And when we talk to people about worker safety we have got to stop filling the air with jargon that we think makes us sound smarter but in actuality makes us sound like pretentious dung heaps. • Seek Out and Eliminate Safety Gimmicks. End safety BINGO, scrap the gift card programs for doing something a reasonable person would do without being asked. If it’s cute give it the boot. Incentive programs MUST return a quantifiable return on investment and must DIRECTLY link to safety improvements. • Proactively Seek Out Ways to Lower Costs. Find ways to lower the operating cost of the safety function BEFORE Operations suggests it. If you are able to demonstrate a willingness to share in the responsibility for process improvement and waste reductions Operations leadership will begin to see you as a partner instead of a policeman. • Talk Dollars, Make Sense. Express the costs and savings in ways that make sense to Operations; if products sold is a hot button talk about the increase in sales that the company will have to make to pay for the injuries incurred. Or better yet, talk about how much more efficient the Operation is because of a decrease in injuries. We have to run the safety function like a business and we have to speak the same business language as Operations. • Lay Off the Platitudes. “Safety is everyone’s job” —oh yeah? Then why do we need you? “Safety is our number one priority”—no, making money and staying in business is our number one priority, and if you don’t believe that go somewhere else to work, safety supports this, but let’s not be stupid. “Safety Is the Right Thing To Do”—So is making money, so is being globally competitive, so is producing high quality, so is…there are a lot of “right things to do”. • Vote. Get out and make your voice known. Talk to your neighbors about this dangerous trend and how it should affect the way they vote. Refute the misconceptions about worker safety. Tell war stories, but most of all vote and make sure the candidates know that their positions on worker safety matter to you. A Parting Shot I have worked with companies that spend more money keeping worker’s safe from cuts and bruises than they will ever recoup in savings and I am often asked when I consult with new clients if I am going to turn their company into one of those paranoid companies that have 7 safety people watching a guy loading a truck. I always respond to those concerns the same way. The safest companies on Earth are those whose doors are shuddered because they went out of business. The job of safety is to keep companies in business by eliminating waste and boosting productivity.

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