When is Safe Safe Enough?

By Phil La Duke

Four Burros in the Back of a Pick Up Truck

As is frequently the case, last week one of the editors of one of the premier safety public reached out to me (as well as a lot of other top safety professionals) to ask a question that he hoped would generate some discussion.  While his question was limited to the U.S., I think it is of universal interest. The question revolved around the general opinion that safety, as a discipline was no longer necessary, more succinctly put, has the world reached the conclusion that the world is safe enough? And if so what should the safety professional do about it?

Worldwide there is a growing attitude that we have achieved a point of acceptable and manageable risk of workplace injury. In other words, more and more people are beginning to see safety as anachronistic, out-dated, and excessive. With workers, employers, the public, the media, and lawmakers all seemingly having reached this conclusion, I am haunted by the deeper question, “are they right?”

There is a growing population that believes that safety, as a function, has outlived its usefulness.  After all, they argue, injuries are down and workplace fatalities have continued falling.  The low hanging fruit has been picked and the kind of improvements that remain will be too costly to ever return anything on the necessary investment.

How Safe is Safe Enough?

For decades now, the safety profession has been working without a goal.  We have preached the heretic gospel of “zero injuries” even though wiser men from other disciplines have told us such goals were counter productive.  We have embraced fad after fad, lie after lie, and goofball methodology after goofball methodology.  Hell, we can’t even agree on a standard definition of the word “safety”. We have been so remiss in establishing a vision of what exactly constitutes acceptable risk that the public, employers, and governments have finally decided for us.  Last year 141 people died in Michigan workplaces. This number doesn’t include those who died from illnesses after spending a career working in poisonous work environments.  There was a time when 141 dead would be an outrage, but now it’s barely considered a shame.  This is a war of public opinion and we lost it.  We’ve openly and ferociously embraced quackery that lead to gross under reporting.  We’ve trumpeted our accomplishments in lowering workers’ compensation fraud.  Basically we’ve spent the last three decades worrying more about convincing the world what a swell job we’ve done and now…well congratulations nobody needs us.

But Is It Fair?

Maybe the workplace has gotten safer but why?  About 25 years ago, I worked at an automotive assembly plant.  Injuries were frequent, but seldom recorded. A lot has changed, but that doesn’t mean that factories are now “safe” places to work. If we assume that injuries remained constant for the past 30 years how could we account for the data that shows otherwise? Fact don’t lie, right? Wrong.  First of all as awareness of the importance reporting injuries rise so too does the reporting.   For many years workers didn’t know that they were expected to report injuries, weren’t encouraged to do so, and may even have been ridiculed or disciplined for trying.  Then, as enforcement and awareness grew, more people reported injuries and the rate seemed to rise, even though the number of injuries may have stayed flat (or even fell).  Decades of questionable safety improvements (as well as many legitimate ones) brought the number of recordables down.

The data we have are statistics and it’s been said that statistics lie and liars use statistics.  In fact, 43% of all statistics are made up.  Again, let’s assume that the number of actual (not recordable) injuries has remained static over the last three decades what could account for a decrease in recorded injuries if actual injuries remain flat? Several variables can skew the data:

  • Increased awareness by corporate doctors and clinics on how treatment decisions can impact safety statistics (the difference in medication can make the difference between first aid cases and recordable injuries.  Simply teaching doctors and clinics how their decisions impact corporate safety performance metrics can account for a decrease in recordables without an appreciable difference in the frequency or severity of injuries.
  • Incentive programs that reward or encourage under-reporting of injuries.  Too many programs (and I have beaten this topic to death) punish people for being injured while rewarding the “blood in the pocket” syndrome where workers seek medical care outside the workplace to avoid spoiling the safety record. In this scenario the actual number and severity of injuries can remain static while under reporting improves the safety stats.
  • A move toward subcontracting of the more dangerous jobs.  Faced with a financial decision of removing a hazard or subcontracting the work to a smaller and less enticing a target of enforcement many companies pass the risk on to contractors.  Many smaller contractors are far less devout in their adherence to the law and safety policy.  In these cases, the client company appears to approve its safety record when it has done nothing to reduce injuries or risk.
  • Shipping the most dangerous jobs to third-world countries.  In the slobber of corporate greed that has typified the last several decades countless jobs have been exported to the third world.  The most common explanation is that these emerging economies have far cheaper labor markets; this is true.  But it is also true that these countries have little or no environmental or safety standards.  While it is accurate to state that many of these countries have more stringent environmental or safety standards than the U.S. but the agencies tasked with enforcement are either so lax or corrupt that they might as well not even exist. Improving workplace safety by exporting the most dangerous jobs to more accommodating environs is like improving public school performance by expelling all the stupid kids (or all the students who can’t earn a C+ or better grade if you prefer a more politically palatable analogy.)
  • Fear of Job Loss.  It may be counter-intuitive that injury rates fall in tough economies.  Many believe that, fearing job loss; most injured workers will fake an injury and collect Workers’ Compensation rather than unemployment.  Unfortunately, this opinion is not supported by the facts.  Many workers fear that an injury—even a minor one—will make a dismissal more likely AND make it more difficult to find another job. Again, we have a situation where injury rates appear to fall when they are actually remaining steady or even increasing.

To what extent have these factors muddied our view of safety? No one can say.  But let’s not kid ourselves about the veracity of the data that suggests that the workplaces in the U.S. are necessarily any safer.

Taking Credit Where None Is Due

Safety, as a profession, has been quick to claim responsibility for the utopian workplace in which we now find ourselves.  But there are plenty of things that have made the workplace safer that had little or nothing to do with the performance of the safety professional:

  • Process advances.  Let’s face it, everything from PPE to machine controls to Kaizen has had a profound impact on what improvements, to what extent have these advancements improved worker safety? No one can say for sure but many believe this contribution has been substantial and the evidence of this is the millions of dollars spent by industry on Lean, Six Sigma, ergonomic assists, and similar efforts.
  • Automation.  Walter Ruether once predicted that “automation will be the salvation of the working man” and, at least as far as safety is concerned, he may have been right.  Similar to technological advances automation has eliminated many of the most back breaking jobs once done manually.  When I worked in that assembly plant they still used lead to fill the seams in the bodies of automobiles (no I didn’t work in the lead filler booth so save your wise cracks), bumpers and fenders were man-handled into position, and seats were loaded by hand.  All of this work is now down by robots (or at very least using lift assists). It depends on how loosely one defines “safety professional” but much of this equipment was purchased to improve production speed and to eliminate labor not to protect the worker.  Was there an ancillary safety pay-off? sure, but that was just a serendipitous boon for most companies.

When Does Safety Go Too Far?

Years ago I was working with an aerospace manufacturer who was purchasing some equipment from one of the Big Three auto companies.  As the equipment was loaded into the truck fifteen people stood around ensuring that no one was harmed completing the task.  I was just finishing an engagement implementing an organizational change with the aerospace company and the scene made a profound impact on the management team. At one of our monthly safety strategy team

What can the EHS profession do to prevent being marginalized?

  1. Wake Up. Denial is a nice place to visit but you can’t live there.  I have been the obnoxious voice nagging safety to recognize that as a profession it has lost touch with reality. We convinced the world that we have won the war on workplace injuries and now we are terrified that the public wants to bring the troops back home.  After polio was cured, what happened to funding for polio research? What happened to the demand for polio researchers?  There is a reason that items are always the last place you look for them, because continuing to look means you’re an imbecile.
  2. Stop wasting time and money.  I’ve already written a body of work on how the EHS profession needs to look for ways to support and align with Operations strategy and to make a real contribution to the bottom line.  The reaction has been…well let’s just say I don’t get a lot of thank you notes from the Safety establishment.  Safety has to broaden its scope and probably will follow Quality into corporate extinction.  This isn’t a bad thing.  Safety professionals can make a far greater impact as part of a continuous improvement and productivity enhancement effort than it ever did telling workers to watch their steps and to be careful because their kids love them.  While a world without a safety professional may seem scary it should excite and reinvigorate those who have always yearned for greater respect and credibility in the organization.  Safety professionals who have long bemoaned their inability to effect real change take note; this will allow you to make a difference.
  3. Wait for the next Triangle Shirtwaist Fire to get the public riled up. Before we get ourselves all twisted and frothy about winning the war on injuries, let’s remember that a lot of what the public believes about workplace safety is a fragile, excremental, fable that will come crashing down after the next horrific workplace tragedy.  In a world of uncertainty, one absolute remains: corporate greed and the lust for profits will eventually turn the tide of public opinion.  The conditions are all in place for a truly abhorrent workplace slaughter and when it happens public opinion will swing 180 degrees.
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