Hardwiring Safety Into All Activities

By Phil La Duke

I’ve written several times on the hypocrisy and condescension of slogans like “Safety Is Our Number One Priority” and “Safety First”.  Such platitudes are disingenuous and the people who perpetuate them are either liars or fools or both. For some reading this, this is fairly obvious, while others will furrow their sub-simian brows and hammer out an angry email filled with mouth-breathing outrage.  So why revisit it? I am continually surprised at the shear volume of safety professionals who continue to self-righteously lie about this to his or her constituency.

Nobody likes hypocrites, of course, but the real danger here is that once a population has been lied to, it seldom believes anything else it is told.  So by perpetuating this lie, safety professionals forever diminish their abilities to ever deliver a message. I’ve talked to too many people who cite the practice of beginning a meeting with a thought about safety.  We must stop the practice of self-congratulation because we managed to finish the day without killing someone.  Safety professionals who brag about commitment to safety because every meeting begins with a word about safety diminish the world’s view of the safety professional and by extension the profession itself.

Safety is neither a priority nor a goal instead it is a criterion by which companies measure the efficacy of its efforts to be successful. There is too much word service given to safety; much ado about nothing, sound and fury signifying nothing.  Too many safety professionals mistake communication for awareness and activity with action. For safety to truly achieve any sort of capability it must be imbedded into every thing we do. Of course that is far easier said than done.  But isn’t that the essence of a so called “safety culture”?

Hardwiring safety into all activities cannot be achieved through sermons and scoldings. Hardwiring safety requires a reimagining of the nature of safety itself.

For some safety professionals, the role of the safety professional is cheerleader;  a perpetually perky advocate of all things safe.  Unfortunately, this kind of safety professional typically has only the most superficial understanding of what it takes to make a workplace safer.

Other safety professionals see their roles as parental, eternally haranguing a petulant workforce into straightening up and flying right.  Command and control approaches to safety don’t require much more awareness of the nature of safety than that required of the cheerleaders.

Some safety professionals are witnesses to business.  They walk around the workplace worrying over charts and counting boo-boos.  These safety professionals are too busy looking at what happened that they can’t ever internalize the true nature of safety. In most cases they don’t really care about the nature of safety. They content themselves with passing charts to Operations.

Until safety professionals can see safety as an expression of risk and can advocate for risk reduction through coaching Operations can safety become imbedded into all our activities. Safety has to be more about removing variation from our processes and protecting people from injury when things go wrong and our processes fail.

No operations will ever be completely without risk, and therefore nothing can ever be described as 100% safe. Safety is a strategic business element that needs to be managed as scrupulously as Quality, Delivery, Cost, and Morale.