What Is Your Safety Legacy

by Phil La Duke


This Monday, the U.S. will celebrate Memorial Day.  In the global community Memorial Day is one of the lesser-known U.S. holidays; that’s shame.  The U.S. is often seen as the impudent child in the world community, accused of having no sense of history, no sense of legacy. Memorial Day started after the American Civil War to commemorate the fallen soldiers.  Now Memorial Day is a day where Americans remember all those who have died in service to their country.

I am not a veteran and I won’t wrap myself in the flag.  People who use occasions like Memorial Day to make themselves look good by thanking a stranger for his or her service sicken me; I find the gesture disingenuous and self-serving. While I am certainly grateful for those who served, and even more so to those who sent loved ones to pay the ultimate price for freedom, that is the purpose for this post.

This is not to say thanking a veteran is wrong or that I am discouraging it in some way.  But if you are truly thankful for the service a veteran has paid you than hire him or her.  Every day I am contacted by veterans who despite having served in a safety role while in the armed forces who cannot find work (because despite having extensive training in safety they lack a degree).  As so many military conflicts wrap up world-wide we have a responsibility to help veterans transition to civilian work.  If you want to show your gratitude hire a vet.  But as I said, I don’t want to get up on that particular soap box this week (I will be revisiting it often and adamantly, but not this week.)

This week I want to remind all of us who work in safety to consider our legacy. We stand at a cross roads in safety.  We are beset on all sides by those who think we are superfluous; people who dismiss us as over-protective fuss-budgets who want to protect workers into unemployment and others who see an opportunity to roll back safety protections that were hard fought by people who are long dead. 

This weekend I want to remember those of us who came before us, those who served, their not only their countries, but people everywhere, in pursuit of a safer workplace.  From Tiananmen Square to the Battle of the Over Pass people have faced death for a better life, not just for themselves but for countless strangers as well.  We each have an individual responsibility to avoid squandering the advances they have made. 

It’s easy to forget the sacrifices made by strangers on our behalf.  Read Sinclair Lewis’s gut wrenching account of the plight of workers and ask yourself have we come so far that we can forget the people who worked under these conditions?

Remembering the fallen and abused is important, but it is only useful if we act on it.  What will you do differently in response to the sacrifices others have made? What line will you draw; on what is the hill you are prepared to die? 

Remembrance of those fallen may make us feel good, but they didn’t die to make us feel good.  If all we offer for the sacrifices the giants on whose shoulders we stand are platitudes we disgrace their memories.

So fellow safety professionals, I ask you, what will be your legacy? Love me or hate me, I am here every week confronting you with the question: is this the best we can do? If people speak of me when I die I hope some will say that I pushed the profession, that I called out the lazy, challenged the complacent, and decried the hypocrites.  But I also hope their will be those among you who have the courage to call me fraud, to denounce me as heretic.  If I leave this planet without people arguing about my message I have failed.

So this weekend I challenge you to consider your legacy.  What will people say of you when you have shuffled this mortal coil? Will they say that you did your best (remember, I can get a baboon in here to try hard)? Will they say you had the courage to do what it took when everyone tried to shout you down? Or will they say you were a dried-up, burnt-out turd of a person who shouted down new ideas, took boon-doggles to Brazil, and congratulated yourself for a job half-done? Will history judge you hero or villain? Will history remember you at all? 

Will your children’s children’s children remember you at all? We all have only one chance to do something meaningful with our lives, will you contribute to the world of safety at all? Will you have tried, or will you simply collected a paycheck? In the end all we can do is try to honor those who came before us by protecting those who come after us.


#legacy, #memorial-day, #safety

Talking Dollars, Making Sense


The Great Recession likely has forever changed Operations leadership’s view of safety.  Gone are the days when safety professionals could lean on “it’s the right thing to do” to justify their actions and initiatives.  Operations leadership rightfully expects that the Safety function will contribute to the bottom line and show a return on investment for the funds it is given in its budget.

Quantifying the value provided by the safety function isn’t easy—most of what it does is cost avoidance rather than profit, and when one talks about cost avoidance, the conversation can quickly turn hypothetical. Despite these difficulties it is still possible to put together a compelling business case for safety.

Know What’s Important

Every industry has some measure that is more important than anything else, and that measure is seldom safety.  In mass production, downtime is an area in which Operations leadership is keenly interested, in other industries sales are what gets the most attention, still others it is delivery time or days in production.  While most (if not all) of these companies care about safety, safety is not seen as “keeping the lights on” and typically efforts to keep the workplace safer are seen as completely divorced from the other business measures.

The key to creating a compelling business case for safety is to express injuries in terms that Operations understands and to which it can relate.  Safety professionals must demonstrate the relationship between safety and whatever metric the organization links most closely to its success.  Years ago, I worked with a heavy truck manufacturer where a sharp safety professional was able to express the cost of injuries in terms of the additional number of trucks that the plant would have to produce to recoup the costs incurred because of injuries.

Know Your Costs

An organization’s cost of injuries should include both direct costs and indirect costs.  Direct costs are generally easy to gather and/or calculate.  These are costs like fines, medical treatment for the injured worker, and Worker’s Compensation costs.  Surprisingly, many organizations jealously guard Worker’s Compensation cost information from the safety department despite the obvious connection between the two areas. Indirect costs include things like loss of productivity, damage to products, and damage to the company’s image or brand.  Indirect costs are difficult to calculate and Operations leadership may see attempts to quantify indirect costs as juking the stats.

For example, let’s take a look at an injury where the worker cuts his hand and requires stitches.  Halfway through an eight hour shift a worker cuts his hand. The injury requires production to stop for 12 minutes, and a supervisor has to drive the injured worker to the clinic that is 10 minutes away.  It takes an hour to treat the injury after which the injured worker is sent home.

Direct Costs

  • 12 minutes loss of production (average wage of idled workers x average hourly pay x .2).
  • Wage of injured worker (wage x 4 hours)
  • Wage of supervisor while driving the worker to the clinic, waiting during treatment, and driving back to the workplace (wage x 1.4 hours)
  • Wage of janitor to clean up blood (wage x 15 minutes)
  • Cost of treatment
  • Wage of safety professional to complete required paper work.
  • Wage of the safety professional to conduct the incident investigation
  • Wage of the supervisor to participate in the incident investigation
  • Wage of witnesses who participate in the incident investigation
  • Wage of the Operations manager to read and react to the incident investigation
  • Wages associated with OSHA inspection
  • Fines

Indirect Costs

  • 12 minutes loss of production (average wage of idled workers x average hourly pay x .2).
  • Increase in insurance premium
  • Costs associated with decreased morale
  • Cost of legal consultation
  • Court Costs
  • Legal fees


It’s wise to present only the direct costs as actual costs, but it is also a good idea to reference the indirect costs as costs above and beyond those that you can quantify with hard figures.

Depending on how hospitable your Operations leadership is to safety, you may be able to skip the actual hard figures in favor of a estimated rate.  OSHA has a wonderful tool for calculating the costs of safety that includes both direct and indirect costs that the agency provides for free on its website. (http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/safetyhealth/mod1_estimating_costs.html). The tool estimates the cost of a worker fatality at $910,000 (a ridiculously low number based on a National Safety Council study from 1998—but realistically this cost has probably not dropped from that time), $28,000 for a Lost Work Day injury, and $1,300 for a recordable injury. By entering one’s injury figures into the calculator one can estimate a fairly reliable cost figure.  This same website affords you the opportunity to calculate the impact of the cost of injuries on profit and sales as well.

Make It Personal

Several years ago I discovered a way to save companies millions of dollars by reducing their Workers’ Compensation costs.  After saving companies an average of $2.5 million (in one case saving a walloping $8.5 million in less than 8 months) I spent the next four years unsuccessfully trying to convince other companies to engage me for my services.  I learned later that I was not speaking the same language as my prospects.  On one hand I safety professionals who tended to be risk averse and shy about introducing me to the decision makers in Operations. On the other hand I had safety professionals who couldn’t see how what I was suggesting was different from what they where already doing or were reluctant to engage outside services.  In cases where I did have access to the Operations leadership I was equally likely to either make a sale or stiff resistance.  Nothing I said would pique their interests.  I was flabbergasted; didn’t they WANT to reduce injuries and safe millions in months?  Ultimately that particular business venture was a victim of the great recession and I parted ways with the company for whom I had invented it.  Recently I was talking about my puzzling dilemma with the COO of a manufacturing firm and he told me that the average plant manager didn’t care about Workers’ Compensation costs since that was considered a corporate cost and generally wouldn’t effect the plant manager’s bonus.  With that explanation things started to make great sense.  People respond to the things that affect them personally.  If I had positioned things just a little bit differently I probably would have been wildly successful.

If safety professionals want to be successful they have to find a way to make the decision makers successful and that is easier than most people think. The answer is simple: find out what is important to decision makers and relate safety in terms that they can understand.  Safety professionals need to be careful however, and never EVER exaggerate or misrepresent the costs.


#calculating-the-cost-of-injuries, #direct-and-indirect-cost-of-injuries, #safety-and-costs

Post delayed this week

This week’s post will be delayed for at least 48 hours

Response to the Open Letter From the 4695 Fatalities

St. John’s Cemetery, New Orleans

Dear Victims of Workplace Fatalities:

I received your letter last week, and while nothing I say or do will ever erase your tragedy I do hope I can help you to understand the state of workplace safety today. I hope you can receive this in the spirit in which it is intended. First, you are right I am a safety guy, but I am not THE safety guy. The workplace is complex system, and as such, there aren’t any easy solutions to problems.
Most workplaces are intrinsically unsafe, and it is only through all of us working together actively trying to make it less dangerous that we can ever see any real improvements in safety.
You seem to think that I am indifferent to your death; I can assure you that is absolutely not the case. Every safety person that I know who has lost someone on his or her watch carries that person’s death with them for the rest of his or her life. Do you think we are monsters? I have parents, siblings, in-laws, children and friends. Each of them could have just as easily have fallen. I know it may be tough to see now, but I can assure you that I care about your passing. Somehow you got the impression that you and I are different and that I somehow see myself as superior, it saddens me to think I might have said or done something that made you feel that way.
I am also an employee and I sometimes do stupid things, in fact, all of those things that you list as having lethal consequences I have done at one time or another. I took risks and I violated rules, and like you, I never expected that those things would get me killed. That doesn’t make me a hypocrite, it makes me human. As to your comment that it was my “job to make sure that your job didn’t kill you” well I’m afraid you are mistaken. Keeping the workplace safe is a shared responsibility, and before you ask “then what do we need you for?” I’m here because I have specialized skills and tools to help you work more safely. I’m here to coach you, train you, and mostly just to make better decisions. I didn’t squirm when you held me accountable. Nor did I take offense when you blamed me for your untimely demise. Believe me when I tell you that I will hold myself more accountable than you ever could. But blame is a useless exercise. There are many people who will blame you for your injury—whether it is warranted or not. Blame answers the question, “who is at fault?” and the discussion stops. I prefer to ask “what can we learn from this tragedy?” and “how can we prevent similar tragedies in the future?” As you point out, everyone makes mistakes, but nobody should have to die because of it. You counted on me to anticipate and correct hazards before I got hurt, but I needed you to help me. You understand the job better than the people who designed it, you are the expert and I need your help to make the job safer. I can’t correct these hazards if I can’t find them. I need you to report near misses, make suggestions on how to make the job safer, and to actively seek out and report hazards.
Speaking of mistakes, the way we used to handle the safety BINGO, and bonuses for zero injury days was a big one. In safety, we understand that the biggest cause of injuries are unsafe behaviors and our attempts to encourage workers to be more mindful of safety actually provided incentives for under reporting. People were going home with blood in their pockets to secure those bonuses. In my defense I will say my heart was in the right place, I’m just sorry that these things may have contributed to your death. I was deeply disappointed to learn that worker fatalities in the U.S. has spiked, but not for the reasons you seem to believe.
For the record, I had no say in outsourcing dangerous work. I would much rather have found a way to do the job’s profitably, efficiently, and safely. I have collaborated on kaisens to make sure that as we improve our processes we don’t do so at the expense of safety. I don’t see myself as a victim. I am management. I AM a leader. And most importantly I am a champion for worker safety. My success depends on your cooperation, compliance, and communication. If I resign and the only thing that changes in that equation is me; I think we will see a lot more bodies. Change is needed, but not just in me.
Are you being too hard on me? Well with 13 people dying in a workplace somewhere in the U.S. everyday I can honestly say we need to improve, but that’s not really what’s important. What’s important is that we continue to have a dialog about worker safety and fatalities. Yes, there are a few reactionary crack pots who fire-off poorly-spelled, frothy, poison pen letters to authors with whom they disagree. And yes, there are some misguided safety professionals who boot people out of groups on LinkedIn because they don’t like the message, and yes there are even some closed-minded professionals who want to silence all debate in the name of civility. But that is the minority in our profession. Many of us actively seek out opinions different from our own, and agree with the criticisms and honestly want to have those discussions. Our culture must change. But I can’t lead it. In fact, I play a relatively small role in improving the culture such that it values safety. You play a much bigger role in improving our culture’s view of safety. The culture didn’t kill you, and maybe your death will be the catalyst for you change; I can’t say, but I hope so. I don’t see myself as under-appreciated or doing a thankless job. My thanks comes from the satisfaction that while my work may never get to a place where the workplace is completely safe, I know things are getting better. I will never know how many lives I’ve saved or how much human suffering I have prevented, but deep in my heart I take great comfort in knowing that in this battle for workplace safety I took a stand. And I know that I made a difference. I will never get wealthy being the safety guy, some will never respect me, and still others may mock me, or accuse me of being out of touch. But come tomorrow I will be here, fighting the good fight and carrying your death with me. My best may never be good enough, but let’s see your baboon do that. Sincerely, The Safety Guy

The Safe Side: May Edition Just Hit the News Stand

The magazine asked me to write a series on the different specialties with safety.  This is the third in the series (click the link to read the article).

An Open Letter to Safety Professionals from the 4,690 Workers Who Died on the Job in the United States in 2010

St. John’s Cemetary, New Orleans

Note: I thought long and hard about writing what you are about to read.  Whenever I have taken issue with the self-congratulatory tone and self-righteous complacency that I see dangerously prevalent among safety professionals the ensuing storm of bile and abuse heaped on me has, at times, made me consider bagging it—stopping the blog, ending the speeches, and retiring from my gigs as a safety columnist.  But after more than a decade of decline the workplace death toll in the U.S. has risen.  In 2010, while some of you were jetting off to Brazil on your citizen diplomat boon-doggle an average of 13 workers died a day.  If you get offended by the truth; stop reading.  If you do read on, save us both time and aggravation and spare me your outraged venomous hate mail, I don’t want to hear it and all it does is convince me of the veracity of my message.  What follows is perhaps my magnum opus of provocative work. I dedicate it to my father who died of me, my brother-in-law who died of lung cancer after working for decades on Zug Island, once listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the dirtiest square mile on the planet Earth, my brother who suffered permanent memory loss after an industrial accident, my many friends who died in industrial accidents but most especially to those who have  taken such extraordinary measures to try attack and insult me in an effort to silence my message.

Dear Safety Guy:

I hope you are doing well and are enjoying this lovely weather with family and friends.  I don’t want to your harsh buzz or bust up the barbecue, but I died in the workplace this week and I want you to know that I am deeply disappointed in you.  You see, I trusted you and you failed me. And not just me, 12 other guys died along side me and 13 of us died yesterday, and another 13 tomorrow, in fact, every day; day in and day out.  4,690 of us in all…wait that’s not quite right another 50,000 or so died from illnesses caused by working waste deep in poisons or breathing in chemicals that would kill us slowly, horribly.

Some of us died because we did stupid things, some of us weren’t adequately trained, some of us under estimated the dangers we faced, and some of us over estimated our skills, but none of us expected to die. None of reported for work expecting to get killed. None of our lives were any less valuable than yours and before you get all self righteous it wasn’t my job not to die, it was YOUR job to make sure my job didn’t kill me.  But I DID die, and I doubt you will ever get a verbal warning.

As I write this I can see you squirm.  Does it make you uncomfortable for me to hold you accountable? Is it unfair that I blame you for something that I did that killed me?  After all, how—you ask—can I hold you accountable for my own stupidity? You didn’t tell me to do the things that I did to day that ultimately got me killed.  But it was your job to keep me alive.  I certainly didn’t do those things that I did because I wanted more butt time (as I’ve heard you describe to your colleagues at conferences or huddled around a coffee talking about how stupid we all are).  I screwed up, and that screw up got me killed.  Everyone makes mistakes, but nobody should have to die because of a mistake made at work. I counted on you to anticipate and correct the things that would kill me before I got hurt; where were you when I died?

I really liked the safety BINGO, and I sure loved the extra money when we got as a bonus for zero injury days.  Were you too stupid to know that these things created an environment where we were essentially bribed to stay quiet about injuries? Or did you just recklessly disregard the fact that you were creating incident statistics that lulled the decision makers into a false sense of security regarding our risk level? I knew what you were doing was wrong but I wasn’t about to turn the whole company against me and speak up.  Congratulations on having such a great safety record; how does my death look on your resume?

I can only imagine how disappointed you were to learn that worker fatalities in the U.S. has spiked—I think we all figured that when we sourced all that the really dangerous work out to the Third World that we were home free.  I feel kind of bad about it now—the after life is full Third World workers who bought it because their lives were thought to be so much cheaper than mine. It turns out they weren’t that much different from me.  They had families who loved them, wives and children who counted on them. All they wanted to do was go to work, make a buck, and come home safe. They had lives snatched away from them same as me; just cause we showed up for work.

I know that as you read this you are tempted to excuse yourself and tell yourself that my death isn’t your fault.  That management put profits before safety; that the Union shut down what you wanted to do; that you can’t protect people when they won’t listen to you, and all that other crap I’ve heard you say a thousand times.  Stop feeling sorry for yourself; you aren’t the victim here.  Before you blame management… the last time I checked most of you ARE management.  The same goes for leadership—isn’t that what you are supposed to be, a leader? If a juggler can’t do his job guess what? he drops a couple of balls;  no harm, no foul.  If YOU are incompetent, people DIE; I DIED. 4,695 other people died. If you can’t hack it, get out of the game.  Stop worrying about the condition of your 401K and retire or change careers; become a florist, that way the only thing at risk of dying because of your ineptitude is a dozen carnations.

Remember how much we all enjoyed your children’s safety poster contest? Now it just seems sad.  How about all those pictures of people doing unsafe things? Remember how we’d laugh about how stupid they were? somehow it’s just not that funny anymore. Did you really think you were making a difference with that crap?

Think I’m being too hard on you? Think you deserve some credit for doing your best? Screw you, I can get a baboon in here to do its best. Your best doesn’t measure up.  Your best gets people killed.  And I don’t believe for a second that you were doing your best when I died.  It’s not like you weren’t warned.  When people posted things on blogs or magazines that were critical of your profession you chose to get indignant and hammered out a “how dare you insult the hard working men and women of the august profession of worker health and safety blah blah blah”, you remember that don’t you? It was a hell of a lot easier to write an indignant email telling your peers to tell that guy to shut up than it was to consider for one microsecond that you might have to do something different.  And now even in the face of my death you are still too arrogant to consider that there might be a better way.

Was it the culture that killed me? Did you see all the signs that we were ripe for a fatality?  Did you storm around the office saying if someone doesn’t do something that someone was going to die? Did “you tell the bastards”?  Well if you continued to take a paycheck in a hopeless environment where leaders didn’t care about the safety of the workers I decry you as a craven and fool.

I know you see yourself as under appreciated and doing a thankless job.  Well I’m dead and thanks for nothing. You aren’t a hero; you don’t even deserve a footnote in my obituary.  You get no thanks because there is nothing you’ve done that deserves the smallest modicum of gratitude.

Before you wrap yourself in the blanket of “there was no way I could have prevented his death” there are plenty of people working for change and we NEED change.  These people work against impossible odds against people just like you. You have a decision: you can either be on the side of change or be part of the forces lined up against it.  You can either save lives or save your twisted sense of self righteousness; you choose, and for the first time in your life be prepared to live with the consequences of your choices; I doubt you have that in you.So what now? My role in this argument ends at the grave.  What will you do next? Between now and Monday, 26 more workers will die in the U.S. and ten times that worldwide.  Will it just be a statistic? Will it be a shame?  What will you differently in response to my death? Do you care even a little bit? Are you more concerned about saving lives or saving your own ass?


4,695 dead workers and counting

#2010-worker-fatalities, #safety, #worker-fatalities