Is Workplace Bullying A Threat To Worker Safety? And If So What Can Be Done About it?

By Phil La Duke


Okay, there isn’t actually bullying here, but my two dogs play fighting is the best I could do to approximate bullying

The case of 68-year bus monitor, Karen Klein being bullied at the hands of four seventh graders has set off an international outrage against bullying.  This issue has touched an even deeper nerve among safety professionals because Karen Klein, as a bus monitor, is a safety professional. The case raises some interesting issues about workplace bullying and the appropriate response to cases of workplace threats, harassment, and intimidation.

Is workplace bullying a threat to worker safety? Certainly in the broadest, emotional sense, one cannot be truly safe while being bullied at work.  But is workplace bullying really a threat to worker safety in the sense that bullying will increase the probability that injuries will occur? I’ve written virtual reams on the inevitability of mistakes. And even while we cannot ever complete prevent mistakes, it’s possible—even easy—to cause people to make more mistake simply by increasing the elements that impede peak performance.  Distractions, fatigue, drug use, noise, interruptions, lack of capability, rushing, and most notably stress significantly increase the probability that workers will make mistakes and in many of these cases these mistakes will result in worker injuries.

Beyond the increased probability of mistake-related injuries, workplace bullying can directly lead to workplace violence, and while this may fall within the purview of other functions, it is appropriate that safety professionals be mindful of workplace bullying and manage it as they would other safety hazards.

It’s important to understand the nature of bullying.  Bullying is a pattern of, typically escalating, aggressive behavior.  Aggressive behavior is a natural part of the formation of teams. As individuals form teams experts have identified distinct stages: forming, storming, norming, conforming, and performing. The storming phase is characterized by power struggles often punctuated by aggressive, even dysfunctional behavior.  Bullying, however, goes far beyond this normal aggression and morphs into something uglier and potentially more violent.

As with any threat to safety the key dealing with workplace bullying is preventing it before it happens.  To do that:

  • Deal with the Environment.  As with other forms of harassment, bullying tends to thrive in, and depend on, an environment that either tacitly or actively supports it.  To protect against bullying, organizations should guard against environments where teasing, horseplay, and practical jokes are tolerated or even encouraged.
  • Act Early. Bullying, left unaddressed, tends to escalate until the problem is unavoidable and difficult to manage.  Many managers tend to ignore the bullying in hopes that it will go away which acerbates the problem.  Organizations that take clear and decisive action at the first sign of bullying are far more likely to be successful in avoiding escalating issues.
  • Don’t Reward Bullying. Those who engage in bullying behavior generally equate those behaviors with success. Most bullying is perpetrated by individuals who have been rewarded for inappropriate behavior for years—or even decades—and expecting them to abandoned behaviors that have served them well for years is foolish.  In some cases, leaders—valuing the technical skills of a worker engaged in bullying—will actually enable the bullying behavior by protecting the offending worker from the logical consequences of his or her actions.
  • Recognize that Bullying Is a Behavior, Not a Person. Given the right antecedents and environment virtually anyone can engage in behavior that—if seen in a different light—could be perceived as bullying.  While media attention or office gossip make it easy to vilify those engaged in bullying coaching an individual on the inappropriateness of a behavior is often enough to prevent aggressive behavior before it reaches the level of bullying. Avoid describing individuals—even those that engage in the most egregious behavior—as “bullies” and focus on the inappropriate behaviors instead.
  • Be Mindful that Bullying Can Be Difficult to Spot.  Some of the most aggressive workers can and will use company policies to engage in bullying behaviors.  Often these individuals will use Human Resources policies or anonymous whistleblowing employee assistance lines to make false accusations against their victims. Sometimes the victim may be mistaken for the aggressor.
  • Treat Bullying Just as You Would Any Other Workplace Hazard.  Bullying is a significant influencer of a worker’s performance: bullied workers make more mistakes,  worse decisions, and generally are prevented from performing at peak performance levels.  In short, bullying is a significant contributor to an increase in risk of injuries.  As with any hazard, the organization should record the behavior, contain it, permanently correct it, and fix the system error that allowed it to develop.
  • Train Supervisors To Spot the Warning Signs Of Workplace Bullying.  An organization’s best defense against workplace bullying is to train supervisors in how to spot early warning signs of workplace bullying:
    • Excessive horseplay or teasing.  As mentioned above, horseplay, teasing, or name-calling is a good indication that bullying may develop.
    •  Scape-Goating. Often, bullying develops when a specific individual or group singled out for punishment by the larger workforce.  Often bullying develops simply because the victim is slow (or refuses) to adopt the group norm.  Aggressive individuals will often justify the bullying because, in their minds, the victim “brought it on himself” or “asked” for it.
    • Tit-for-Tat Disputes. There are often workplace disputes where two parties will engage in a vicious pattern of  aggression followed by retaliation. These seemingly innoculuous disputes can begin as pranks or practical jokes that escalate into real violence.
    • Don’t Blame The Victim.  Many people expect the bullied individual to “stand up for him/herself”. While that may have been good advice for kids on a 1950’s playground (and I question that) it is a bit trickier between adults in a workplace.  Predatory behavior is less likely to be a problem if a would-be victim assertively addresses the problem and essentially stops exhibiting “prey” nonverbal, but no one should have to tolerate being bullied by a coworker; it is the organization’s responsibility to act.
    • Don’t Take Sides. This may seem a bit obvious, but it is imperative that leaders avoid getting sucked into petty disputes between co-workers.  This is not to say the supervisor shouldn’t act on an employee’s complaint of workplace harassment. On the contrary, in incidence of an employee complaint the supervisor should address the behavior with both workers present and make it clear that both are expected to engage in professional behavior at all times.
    • Adopt, and Enforce, a Zero-Tolerance for Harassment Policy.  Workplace bullying is a serious problem and one that needs to be quickly, consistently, and convincingly addressed.  No one should believe that they can bully a coworker, peer, or subordinate and not face severe career consequences.

#bullying, #preventing-workplace-bullying, #worker-safety, #workplace-bullying

Stop Trying To Do It Alone: Why Culture Change Takes Collaboration

By Phil La Duke


The approach d’jour to improving worker safety is to change the organizational culture to one that is more supportive of worker safety. The idea is so pervasive in the market place that many of those who recently were purveyors of Behaviour-Based Safety (BBS) have quickly switched to “cultural interventions” despite being thoroughly unqualified to provide such services.  It seems that every consultant that has read a book about culture is now promising to build a safety culture and solve all your problems.

The basic idea is correct; an organization’s culture can either make or break the safety function’s efforts. Furthermore, if an organization is going to change it has to do more than rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, it has to reengineer its foundation; it needs to change at a molecular level. It requires transforming the mission, shared values, and norms of the organization.

There’s a very simple flaw in all this: as a rule, safety professionals don’t lead change of this magnitude and no mater how great their desire attempts by safety professionals to effect real permanent change will fail.

Timing Is Everything

Culture change must be pushed from above and getting that level of buy-in is likely to require a level of dissatisfaction that goes far beyond worker safety.  Culture change typically is driven by a larger business need for change. For example, all organizations have a maturation cycle—they begin as entrepreneurships, evolve into professionally managed companies, and so on until they reach the point of philanthropic organizations.  Every time a company transitions from one stage to the next, it must reevaluate its values, mission, and vision.  Another opportunity for cultural change is when a company is facing bankruptcy and must drastically revamp its business model. In either of these cases, the larger business need for change affords a wonderful opportunity to include safety in the new agenda.

Collaboration Is Key

If the safety professional is going to capitalize on the changes being driven for other purposes he or she must be prepared and ready for the transformational push, and positioned such that safety is more than just an attractive addition to cultural intervention, but an essential one.

The key to this preparation and positioning lies in collaboration.  Safety professionals need to make a concerted effort to partner with other functions. The first relationship that safety professionals should cultivate is with the process excellence group.  A proven track record of collaborating with the process improvement group, positions the safety function as key resource in organizational change. Even the simplest changes will likely involve the process excellence group, and big organizational changes will most certainly employ these professionals.

Another essential collaborative relationship should be between Safety and Legal.  The legal department will likely be significantly involved in the architecture of change, and the more closely Safety is involved at the beginning of the intervention the more likely Safety can insinuate itself into the organizational changes.

Get On Board Early

Beyond collaborating with other functions, safety professionals need to understand the big picture of why the change is necessary, and what the change is expected to bring in terms of benefits to the organization.  A safety professional who understands the goals of the intervention is far more likely to make worker safety a part of these goals than one who is not sure of the role safety will play in the new order.

Climate Change Versus Culture Change

I’ve met many safety professionals who sit around congratulating themselves for already changing the corporate culture to one that values safety.  Hogwash. In most of these cases they have been successful in changing the climate—something important, and an accomplishment in its own right, but not the same as changing the culture. Culture change isn’t dependent on personalities, enforcement, or policies, but climate change is.  It can be difficult to see a meaningful distinction between culture and climate, but the most important difference is that climate change is typically a temporary change that is easily disrupted by a change in leadership.

Changing the organization’s view of safety is challenging and doesn’t happen over night. In fact, the process of changing a corporate culture such that it values safety can take years.  But with the right positioning and partnerships, safety professionals can play a pivotal and valuable role in culture change.

Did you enjoy this?  Hate it? Find it offensive or troubling? If so, I hope you will share it. The icons below will allow you to share this via Twitter, Facebook,  posting it to LinkedIn Groups or individuals, and even email it to individuals.  I maintain this and without direct compensation to promote Rockford Greene and my published work.  I’d sure appreciate it if you would help to pass the word to your fellow aficionados and or detractors. Thanks in advance, Phil

#change, #collaboration, #safety-culture

Who Gives A Crap About Safety?

By Phil La Duke

Note: Some of you might be wondering where I’ve been and why my blog post is late this week. In the last three weeks I have been working at break-neck speed with my clients conducting Just Culture training at a major heathcare provider (which bounced me around from John’s Hopkins (not my client for now) to greater metropolitan Los Angelos, Detroit, and Chicago.  While I was able to write my blog posts, it made it tough to get them posted and promoted; sorry for that.  Those of you who haven’t already done so (and are disappointed when you don’t see the latest post) really should subscribe.  I don’t have any sponsors (I prefer to keep advertisers from meddling in editorial content) and I neither spam nor share subscriber information, so the only thing you risk is getting an email when there is something new on the blog.


If 16 U.S. children died at school every day there would be a revolution.  People would rise in outrage, proverbial torches and pitchforks lit, nooses at the ready, tar a boil, feathers cocked and primed; someone would pay. If grizzly bears ate 16 Yellowstone Park campers every day, the call would go out to gun the furry bastards down; society would descend on the hairy marauders like PCP-crazed furies. If every day somewhere a bridge collapsed sending hapless vacationers tumbling to their death on a rocky canyon floor, there would be similar outrage. But in the time it takes me to write and post this sixteen people will have died on the job (in the U.S. alone.) and for most of us it really doesn’t make all that much of a difference.  We read the account and think, “aw geez that’s a damned shame,” and maybe even whisper a prayer before we go about the business of living, stoic survivors of nature’s cruel ways.

A recent article by Dave Johnson in ISHN asked where the public outrage was regarding safety, or more accurately, the lack thereof. I’ve given the matter no small amount of thought and the conclusions I drew surprised me.  I was born and raised in metro Detroit in an area both affectionately and derisively referred to as “Downriver” a stained, second-hand quilt of communities peopled by the hardened steel workers, automotive assemblers, and sundry rough and tumble brutes that feed the beast that is the automobile industry.  We are the great unwashed, tough people in a tough town, where people where tee-shirts that say, “Detroit, where the weak are killed and eaten” and “welcome to Detroit, now go home”. We are the great unwashed you always hear about we’re proud of it. Don’t think you’re better than us until you can hump the line in the body shop for ten in heat that would kill a buttoned down Yuppie (yeah, we still call people that here…got a problem with that?) leaving only his uncalloused, girlie-smooth little hands in a puddle of goo on the shop floor.

People like us wear workplace injuries like badges of honor. Injuries at work are just our way of counting coup; we are the Great Plains warriors reborn, ghost dancing though the factory at time and a half.  We tell war stories about the time we fell off a ladder and broke four bones or got burned down to the bone. We pour one out on the curb for our fallen comrades who we watched die fallen heroes of a war for survival.  We don’t want to die, we don’t want to get hurt, but we are tough enough to take it.

A Legacy Of Death and Dismemberment

For my part, workplace injuries are my legacy.  Both my grandfathers died on the job.  My mother was 18 years old when she got the news.  A state trooper stammered through the details of the accident that took away her father.  The family mourned, of course, but not out of righteous indignation of, rather with the sort of quiet dignity one mourns the death of a soldier; a sadness tinged with a sense of pride borne of sacrifice. Details of my paternal grandfather are less clear.  He was a farmer and stumbled while pushing a wheel barrel sending the handle deep into his innards.  An incompetent doctor misjudged the seriousness of his injuries and the ensuing gangrene killed him.  No one shut their fist at the sky and yelled “why?” after all the job that killed him had provided for a wife and eight children, his death was greeted with fatalist acceptance; is luck had run out.

Closer to me, my father died of mesothelioma after decades of breathing asbestos. He died less than a year after being diagnosed; in agony, struggling to breath but never complaining. When he finally went, he held the cold steel stare of the Angel of Death and waited until the angel blinked before passing over to the other side.

When my brother came home and told us that his best friend had been killed on the job he had helped him to get he didn’t cry.  He didn’t go to pieces unable to deal with the fact that he was in a small measure responsible for the death of his friend.  He didn’t play “if I could do it over again” games. He stood there and took it.  That’s what we do, take it; we are life’s anvils.

For my part, I’ve lost count of the people I’ve lost.  The childhood acquaintance and known associate who died after falling into a vat of acid, the co-workers electrocuted on the job, the brother-in-law who died this year after sucking poison into his lungs in a workplace that Guinness Book of World Records once proclaimed the dirtiest square mile on the planet. I couldn’t begin to count how many people I know who have lost fingers, broken bones, and shattered their bodies on the job.  When you live where we live and do what we do you can judge us for our beliefs but be careful what you wish for; most of you can’t do what we do.

It’s not just Detroit: from the West Virginia coal mines to the avocado groves of California, to shrimpers in the gulf, to lumberman in Maine, we are everywhere.  We would love to believe that we can have a clean, safe job that won’t kill us, but for most us that’s not real.  Somewhere in the bowels of our souls we know that if we raise too much of a ruckus Wall Street will just move our jobs overseas, leaving us fighting and scrapping for jobs as bus boys and short order cooks.  We would rather die making a living wage than work three shifts at crappy “service economy” jobs.

We never expected that our jobs would be easy, or safe, or clean.  We watched, and continue to watch, a generation die horribly, but it’s the price we pay for a living wage.  We roll the dice every day we go to work and sometimes it comes up craps; them’s the breaks and nobody mourns the man who knew the risks he took before they killed him.  Casey Jones, John Henry, Big Bad John …ours is a pantheon of fallen workers who died plying their craft.  Far from pity we celebrate these mythic figures; giants among men.

So where is our outrage? That’s reserved for those who are trying to take our jobs away. Whether it be a greedy human canker in the executive suite or a safety do-gooder who makes it more profitable for companies to spill the blood of third world foreigners than ours. Outrage is a luxury of the leisure class, we got work to do, even if that work will one day kill us.

Did you enjoy this?  Hate it? Find it offensive or troubling? If so, I hope you will share it. The icons below will allow you to share this via Twitter, Facebook,  posting it to LinkedIn Groups or individuals, and even email it to individuals.  I maintain this and without direct compensation to promote Rockford Greene and my published work.  I’d sure appreciate it if you would help to pass the word to your fellow aficionados and or detractors. Thanks in advance, Phil

#outrage-over-unsafe-workplaces, #worker-fatalities, #worker-safety

Let’s Forget the Perfect World


As I write this someone, somewhere is designing a system based on the erroneous assumption that things will run perfectly.  So many things—from products to complex processes ignore the simple fact that no system is perfect, and because these systems ignore this fact the systems fail.  Why do we develop systems based on a perfect world when we all know that not only do people make mistakes, so do computers, products, and even robots.  Ideally, we would allow for this imperfection, and in fact, many systems do.  Unfortunately, leaving the perfect world takes time and forsight and these days both are in scare supply.

The Curse of Variability


Too often we create “perfect” systems that are corrupted by unforseen factors.  These serpents sneak into our processes and wreak havoc as we sit helplessly nearby wondering how we could have ever prevented such a disaster.  I call this the “Eden Effect”. Whether we call these process disruptions gremlins, ghosts in the machine, SNAFUs or viruses things nobody counted on enter our system and make us shake our heads.  Take for instance the American black bear who wandered into the parking lot of a customer of mine.  They jokingly asked me how to record this hazard in our database.  Clearly this was a safety issue—you can’t have a bear wandering around the parking lot—and yet there was nothing in the safety process (or security process for that matter) that dealt with how to remove a bear from the premises.

Not all process failures are quite as far-fetched.  In fact, many of the most destructive things in our processes aren’t statistical outlyers at all.  They are simply common place things that we didn’t forsee, and our completely understandable lack of foresight leads to disaster and even death.  We describe these things as “freak accidents” or  “acts of God” and excuse ourselves because there was no way we could have seen it coming. The reality is that we often can predict things and take no measures to prevent them; there is nothing wrong with that.  In many cases the likelihood of a failure is so incredibly remote that it doesn’t warrent any preventive measure or counter measure to reduce its severity.  Take our bear example; there had been reports of bears wandering into populated areas and certainly the safety professionals could have had some inkling that there was a possibility that a bear would come calling, and yet they did nothing.  An encounter with a bear is highly likely to cause a sever injury or even a fatality.  Should we judge the safety professional’s behavior as reckless? Was he negligent? No.  Most would agree that the very remote chances of a bear coming into the parking lot did not merit a counter measure even in though the consequences could be fatal.  Any measures to protect workers from bear attacks (likely a once in a couple of lifetime occurence) would be judged as financially irresponsible and ridiculously over protective.

How can a safety professional know the balance between improving the safety system and being over protective?

  • Stop trying to do the impossible.  People make mistakes; that as much of a universal truth as you will ever get in this life.  We have to make our peace with the fact that smart, highly skilled, cautious people will make mistakes and there is nothing in this world we can do to prevent them. We CAN, however, reduce the likelihood of mistakes and the severity of the consequences to the point where mistakes don’t kill people, by managing the things that increase the likelihood of mistake making:
    • Stress. People under stress think differently than those with less stress.  Some brain research has even shown that excessive, prolonged stress can change our brain chemistry.  When we are stressed it signals our subconscious that we need to adapt and the brain starts to experiment with the safety of our environment by causing us to make mistakes.  Mistakes are our subconscious mind looking for the safest route for a quick exit, but unfortunately it tends to find out that something isn’t safe by falling victim to an accident.
    • Incompetance. People who are physically or intellectually unable to do there jobs correctly are going to make more mistakes than those who are better suited to the job requirements. 
      We do no one a service by putting them in a position where they face the real possibility of serious injury by doing the job.  Training can eliminate some incompetance but it can only take us so far.  We also need to beef up post offer screening and our over all recruiting and hiring process if we are going to drive incompentence out of the workplace.
    • Fatigue. As we get fatigued we make poor choices and mistakes.  Safety professionals should take a hard look at fatigue levels of workers in areas of the most frequent near misses and injuries and modify work schedules to reduce fatigue. 
  • Recognize that Systems Also Produce Unexpected Results.  For decades business has worshipped automation, and anyone who works in automation will tell you that you can’t always predict, or count on. what an automated system will produce.  An aggressive Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) System will go a long way in improving equipment reliability, but even TPM can’t tighten your process to the point where everything produced by it is perfect.
  • Build Systems that Can Tolerate Drift.  Not only will people (and machines) make mistakes, they will also slowly (even inperceptably) move from the design standard away from the norm until they ultimately have moved outside the processes tolerance for drift.  Saw blades dull, drill bits get brittle, people take short cuts, until the saw won’t make a clean cut, drill bits snap like pretzels, and people get hurt.  The key to building a system with a high tolerance for variability is to study the factors that must be true for the process to perform and compare them to the likely amount of drift.  This sounds hard, and it is more difficult than it sounds, but until we build better systems that can tolerate variability in materials, environment, machinery, and most importantly, human behavior we will still be counting stitches and bemoaning the fact that we don’t live in a perfect world.

#influencing-human-error, #mistake-proofing, #process-control, #variability, #worker-safety