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