In Harm’s Way

By Phil La Duke

I was walking my two unruly mongrels a few days ago when I found my path, a path I have taken twice daily for better than ten years, blocked by a construction barrier and caution tape.

The caution tape extended a full city block to my right and ended inelegantly in the middle of the intersection.  The construction team had left me little option but to walk through the tapped off area and encountered the very hazards they were trying to warm me about or walk around the barricades into harms way.

Now clearly indignant construction safety people will cluck their tongues in self-righteous judgment, but I chose the walk through the barricaded area.  Why? because I walk that route every day and had watched the crew’s progress. I knew the concrete had been poured two days prior, and I judged moving under the tape and through the hazardous area to be the best, safest choice.  I did a risk assessment of sorts and judged that the probability of being harmed by moving through the taped-off area were pretty low and if were to be injured I figured such an injury would be most likely minor. I decided that the safety protocols were out of sync with the situation and defeating them was my safest option.

I’ve written and spoken at length on why we don’t follow the rules and I don’t want to rehash the many good reasons why we people operate outside the process. Instead I thought I would explore the spectacle that so often plays out between safety professional and the workforce where safety professionals leave workers no practical option but to violate the safety protocols.

I want to emphasize that my motivation in defeating the safety protocols wasn’t primarily about convenience, although it’s fair to say that played a role.  I violated these rules because: a) I knew, or at least I thought I knew, the dangers of doing so, b) recognized that to some extent these protections had more to do with the construction company making a half-assed yet defensible attempt to isolate the hazard and protect themselves from lawsuits c) I wasn’t left much of a choice—there was no detour, walking around the barriers would put me in harms way and d) walking through the area was the most expeditious path to my destination.

Every day since I have walked through that area, and every day it makes me angry that this makeshift barrier passes as safety.  It’ as if the construction company has said, “hey, we told you it was dangerous to walk there” but they don’t tell me where I can walk, I’m just left to figure things out on my own.

Too often safety professionals are in the business of saying “no” without giving people any practical alternative.  But we have lives, we have jobs to do, we have places we have to be.  Just telling us we can’t do what makes the most sense to us isn’t helpful and left to our own designs we will choose the option that seems right to us.  That’s fine if we’re talking about a safety professional walking over dried concrete but what about the miner who refuses to wear a respirator because it interferes with his ability to see the hazards she about which she is most concerned, or the nurse who refuses to use an ergonomic assist because she doesn’t have time to wait 45 minutes for a physical therapist as required by safety regulations, or the steel worker who won’t tie off because doing so makes it so difficult to maneuver that it takes three or four times as long to do the job?

As safety professionals we need to do a better job of getting into the “doing it safe” business and out of the “preventing doing it unsafely” business.  But what happens to the safety profession if we don’t? Well, things look pretty dim for the “preventing doing it unsafely” as fewer and fewer workers get injured, fewer and fewer safety professionals are necessary to police up the workplace.  Prospects for those in the “doing it safe” are brighter.  Freed up from the paperwork, incident investigations, safety lectures, and all the administrivia associated with hurting workers, these professionals can busy themselves developing safety strategies, renegotiating reduced insurance premiums, helping to develop vendors, and supporting Operations by anticipating hazards and dealing with them proactively. Safety can play an essential and pivotal role, but only if it aligns with Operations.

Too often, Safety professionals see themselves as completely independent from the core business, and when operations leadership’s compensation depends on achieving these goals leaders won’t look kindly on the safety guy looking to shut things down.

Safety professionals have to find ways to put bonuses in the pockets of Operations leadership by helping them to achieve their goals.  When someone does his or her job such that you’re income goes up you are far more likely to listen to him or her and support his or her suggestions.


#construction-safety, #the-safest-practical-solution

Heads Up: Raising Awareness Is Often A Waste of Time

by Phil La Duke

One of my recent posts, Forgetting Andy, has generated a lot of discussion about the value of raising awareness.  In that post, I questioned the effectiveness of showing, gory, “let this be a lesson to you”, “it could happen to you” videos and speeches to people. There appears to be a lot of people who really love this schlocky crap.  God bless them.

But in most cases it doesn’t work.  Before I go on I want to freely acknowledge that there is a large contingent of safety professionals who need constant validation that their tired, ineffectual, and clichéd tactics are appropriate. Further I will also acknowledge that there are a lot of well-intentioned and hardworking safety people who work tirelessly and thanklessly trying to raise awareness of dangers lurking in the workplace.  To them I say, “so what?” I can get an imbecile to work tirelessly and thanklessly, what we need are people who get results.  In fact, I think most thankless jobs are thankless because the work is more or less without any discernable value.

That having been said, is there value to raising awareness? What could it hurt? There is value in raising awareness when a) people in your organizations are injured because they weren’t aware of a hazard, or b) when people under estimate the likelihood that they will be injured by a known hazard.  But raising awareness, in and of itself, is worthless.  It makes sanctimonious and self-righteous safety professionals feel good, but it means squat to those in the trenches. And let’s not forget that “raising awareness” of the obvious is condescension, it’s the not-so-subtle way safety professionals tell workers that they are smarter than them.  And “making people aware” over and over is really just nagging, and if I wanted to be nagged, I would still be married.

Yet, in seeming hypocrisy, I just posted to a blog about the need to raise awareness of the dangers of sleep deprecation.  So what separates awareness in this area from raising awareness through the threat and gore videos?  A lot actually.

Yesterday I was talking about the “threaten and gore” videos and how I don’t believe they teach much of anything to people, and the person to whom I was talking said he didn’t agree with the idea that awareness is valueless. He continued that his kids have been sufficiently affected by public service announcements warning about texting while driving. I confess that he hit on a subject that was near and dear to me.  I have seen these public service announcements.  They are powerful and effective.  But what’s the difference? Plenty:

  1. Context.  A video, whose message is basically “I wasn’t careful so I got hurt” isn’t the same as a message that says, “I was doing what you were doing and this is how things turned out.”  The difference between the two messages is context.  People who make a living telling tales of how bad things happened to theme because they didn’t heed the sage advice of the safety guy lacks a transferable context. It’s an easy to understand business model, if I make a video that tells the tale of an ironworker who fails to tie off and is horribly injured, the video is really only impactful to other ironworkers. And if I am a speaker and video producer I don’t just want to sell my wares exclusively to ironworkers so I market them as universally applicable even though I know they really aren’t.  It’s a little white lie that I tell because nobody really gets hurt, and who doesn’t benefit from a cautionary tale. But most of the people respond by thinking, “okay, the next time I’m working high steel, I’ll be sure and tie off”.  The context is so removed from the work they do that you might as well be telling them to be careful while doing dental surgery on an unanesthetized tiger; right, will do.
  2. Applicability. For a message to be accepted, it needs to ring true.  Unless the message emotionally resonates as something that could realistically happen to me, I won’t listen. I will get caught up in the emotional melodrama, and it may bring a tear to the eye of one or two viewers but most people will remain largely unaffected. If the story is about ironworkers, nonironworkers will be less effective.  People will continue to believe that it won’t happen to them because realistically it probably won’t. People who work in restaurants, or foundries, or mines, or oil refineries have a difficult time relating to the story presented.  It’s easy to check out mentally.  Instead of sending the message that it COULD happen to me, it reinforces the belief that it only happens to others. And while it’s true that even the dimmest bulb can extrapolate that carelessness can readily translate into similar issue in his or her world, the reality is that these comparisons can only be invited in, and only those already sympathetic to the cause will ever embrace this message. Where these messages have the most impact are with people who have almost had it happen to them; of course these people need no convincing.
  3. Actions.  Telling a worker to be careful is useless. As a worker, at least in my mind I AM being careful. I need you to tell me specifically HOW I can protect myself from these dangers, and I need you to give me practical, useful advice, not pipe dreams and unworkable solutions.  If the you make my job more difficult to do in the name of avoiding an injury that, in my eyes will probably never injury me, and if it does injury me the injury will be inconsequential, then I am going to take that risk every time.
    At the end of the day workers don’t need to be made aware of hazards that they probably know better than the safety guy. What they need is solid advice regarding the best way of dealing with these hazards and without making it impossible (or impractical) to do the job. If safety professionals can’t give workers the answers they need to do the job safely they should stay out of the way.  Start worrying more about how workers can do the job without getting hurt and less about how workers can avoid being injured as an abstract.  Generally speaking, workers know how they can avoid being injured: they can stay home and starve.  What they don’t always know is how they can do their jobs, keep up with production without taking risks that might get them hurt.  Raising the workers’ awareness without providing solutions doesn’t do anything more than make the safety guy feel good.
  4. Specificity. The public service announcements that I see are very specific.  Here is what happened, here is why it happened, and here’s what could have prevented it.  The horror show, “it could happen to you” videos lack specificity.  The message becomes less “it could happen to you” and more “it could happen to anybody” except it can’t. Without specifics the message become ludicrous and nobody believes it, in fact, unless the warning is very specific people are likely to ignore it all together.

Awareness of a specific hazard that presents a real danger of injuring a worker is crucial, but awareness of a general threat of a danger that probably only applies to a microcosm of the population does little more than make the safety professional feel good while making him or her look ridiculous.

#awareness, #building-awareness-of-hazards, #making-awareness-campaigns-effective

September Fabricating & Metalworking hits the newstands





The 14 Points of Workplace Safety

63.28% of All Statistics are Made Up

By Phil La Duke 

Statistics are tricky.  Because they are expressions of probability one can be mislead by statistic, as the old saying goes, “statistics lie, and liars use statistics”. In the world of safety perhaps the most widely quoted, pervasive, and well…just plain wrong, statistic is that 95% of all injuries are caused by unsafe behaviors.  It’s a tidy and convenient statistic that is cherished by both Operations and Safety professionals.  People like this statistic, chiefly because it puts the onus on the worker for staying safe.  It holds, that 95% of all injured workers are to blame for their injuries (or at a minimum, another worker’s behavior is responsible for their injury.) It lets both companies and safety professionals off the hook—they can’t be held culpable for workers who refuse to work safely.

Unfortunately, there are serious issues with this statistic. In 2001, noted safety theorist, Fred A. Manuele, published “Heinrich Revisited: Truisms or Myths”  (Herbert William Heinrich was an insurance professional who, in the 1930s investigated the causes of workplace injuries).  Manuele set out to study the origins of this statistics and basically to determine the veracity of this statistic. The book is a great read, and all those ninnies who are out there proclaim these statistics as Gospel should read it.  I won’t take a great deal of time dissecting it (like I said, buy the man’s book), but I think there are some observations of which safety professionals should be aware (the following are :

  • The Research is Not Replicable Heinrich either didn’t keep records of his research, didn’t keep it, or it has been lost. Some safety professionals (not necessarily Manuele) interpret this as indicative that Heinrich made up his findings.  I personally doubt that Heinrich faked his work or made up his findings, but under the scientific method, one is expected to keep records of one’s research so that your professional peers can review it and critic it before publication.  So if there is no research there can be no peer review and the work is not accepted as valid. So Heinrich’s work was the 1930’s version of a blog, an opinion piece that (like every good urban legend) made sense and sounded right to people eager to believe it.
  • That Was Then. This is Now. Manuele points out that Heinrich conducted his research in the 1920’s a scant nine years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that created an uproar that ushered in workplace safety reforms. As Manuele observed, so much has changed in workplace safety that 70-year old research needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
  •  Psychology Is Not A Cure All.  Manuele points out that Heinrich greatly over estimated the role of psychology in accident causation.  Heinrich believed that psychology was of “a fundamental of great importance in accident causation” and his love of, and rabid belief in, psychology blinded him to other, potentially more important contributors to injuries. It’s not that Heinrich’s beliefs in psychology were misguided—understanding why people make mistakes, make bad decisions, and take risks is of paramount importance in safety—but the belief that Skinnerian behavior modification could somehow make the workplace safer was misguided.  Heinrich can be forgiven for embracing these theories. Freud, Jung, Skinner, and other founding fathers of psychology were still doing important research and publishing findings.  But unlike the work of these behavioral scientists, little to no follow up has advanced Heinrich’s theories.
  • Many of Heinrich’s Other Conclusions Are Even more Specious. Some of Heinrich’s other conclusions directly conflict with the research and findings of later, more respected management experts like W. Edwards Deming and Peter Drucker.  Deming in particular found that root causes of process failures (of which injuries are a symptom) grew out of flaws in management systems. In short, management research from the 1950’s on tend to call Heinrich’s findings into question.
  • Like Many Of His Time, Heinrich Believed That Automation Was the Answer To All Of Life’s Problem’s.  Walter Ruther believed that “automation will be the salvation of the working man.”  Ruther believed that machines would one day do the most dangerous jobs.  Heinrich shared this belief, and like many contemporaries believed that “man failure is the heart of the problem and the methods of control must be directed toward man failure.” This belief was the prevalent opinion in business in the 1920’s and 30’s. But the work of Drucker and Deming supported a more enlightened view of industry.  In their view, workers possess invaluable information relating to process capability and overall process improvement.  As jobs become more and more sophisticated, they typically require workers who are able to think and make sound decisions to keep the process operating.
  • Heinrich Was Kind Of a Bigot. Like many of his day, Heinrich believed that people of a certain ancestry or from a given socioeconomic background were intrinsically…well, stupid.   In the minds of many, these people were pretty much incapable of learning to do things without hurting themselves.  It is easy to see how someone of this belief set could, subconsciously conclude that workers of a given ethnicity would be responsible for 95% of all accidents.  It’s worth noting that Heinrich’s research was conducted in the 1930’s, before the Nazi atrocities pretty much killed off the idea of eugenics.  World War II forever changed the landscape of behavioral science and  theories based on the belief that one race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background being intrinsically biologically or intellectually superior quickly went out of vogue.
  • Most of Heinrich’s Conclusions Were Based on Anecdotal Evidence.  From what little we know about Heinrich’s research we know that he asked supervisors what they THOUGHT the causes of injuries were.  He didn’t conduct any formal accident investigations nor did he (as far as anyone can tell) talk to the injured workers, many of whom were likely dismissed as unfit for duty.

An entire industry has grown out of research of questionable methods, from a time when industrial processes were largely a simple adaptation of agricultural methods that were conducted by a man who had more in common with the Nazi’s than with Deming.  People have trouble abandoning a business philosophy that is paying their kids college tuition.  But isn’t about time that we stop giving Heinrich’s theories the same weight and credibility as someone who uses modern scientific methods and produced replicable research that is reviewed and analyzed by his or her peers?


#criticisms-of-bbs, #criticisms-of-heinrichs-pyramid, #the-myth-of-95-of-injuries-are-caused-by-unsafe-behaviors

Risky Behaviour Is A Fact Of Life

by Phil La Duke

This is the 100th post to my personal blog.  Thank you to all of  you who have made this blog an important voice in worker safety. I hope you enjoy it enough to share it with others.

Last week I explored the world of human error, that is, those mistakes that our brains make subconsciously that cause unintended and unwanted consequences.  This week I will take a look at another injury cause, at risk behavior. At risk behavior makes safety professionals salivate like Pavlov’s dog.  After all, if we can only dissuade people from taking unnecessary risks we can greatly reduce the probability of injuries, right? Well as usual, controlling people’s decision making is harder than it might seem.

Why is it so hard to get people to avoid unnecessary risk? because, as Robert Long points out in his book of the same name, risk makes sense.  (For a copy of Long’s book follow the link on  it’s a good read and provides a wealth of insight about why risk is not only unavoidable, in most cases it is something we want to encourage.)  Getting people to stop taking risks is like trying to get people to be taller, which is to say, impossible.  Risky behavior is almost as deeply biologically ingrained as errors and attempts to prevent it are pretty much doomed.

Risk Makes Sense

I won’t rehash Long’s work here (I give you enough free reading, buy the man’s book for crying out loud!), but in broadest strokes, people take risks because humans have a deep-seated need for expediency.  We take the shortest path even if it might be a bit more dangerous.  We approach the job in the easiest ways in different to what might happen. And we will risk dropping the grocery bag by carrying too big a load just to save us another trip. It only seems stupid when things go wrong, and in most cases things go just fine.

Risk Is In The Eye of the Beholder

People out there take risks that I would never take.  Walking a tightrope without a net, wrestling an alligator, or making waffle while driving people take risks that I think are just plain stupid, and that’s why I don’t engage in such activities (I don’t even know where I can buy a waffle iron with a cigarette lighter power adaptor.) So why aren’t risks universal? Simple, the level of risk is based on personal perception, and perceptions aren’t always based on rational experience.  Let me give you an example.  I surf.  I fully acknowledge that a) surfing can be dangerous, particularly for someone who doesn’t do it well and b) I don’t surf well.  When I tell people I surf, which I do with irritating regularity, (friend will tell you that it seems come up in conversation frequently, especially if I am in the company of an attractive woman that I am trying to impress) invariably people ask me if I am afraid of sharks.  I am not afraid of sharks.  The likelihood of a fat man from Michigan (about a 4 day’s drive to the nearest surfable beach) are about the same as me winning the lottery while getting stuck by lighting (According to The Guardian, one’s chances of being killed by a shark are 1 in 251,800,000.)  Over the years I have met scores of people who are absolutely phobic about the ocean because they so strongly fear sharks. So much so, that recently I recommended that a Las Vegas bartender get tested for rabies because she was so incredibly hydrophobic.  These people will continue to make decisions (albeit, not many that are likely to make career decisions) based on a perception of the risk of shark attacks that are wholly their own and that have little basis in facts. And people in the workplace consistently take risks completely out of whack with the reward, but perception of risk is every thing.

We Teach Ourselves that Risks are Lower Than They Are

Every time we take a risk and we don’t suffer a negative consequence we teach ourselves that the risk is lower than it might actually be.We speed, and when we don’t get pulled over we teach ourselves that speeding is worth the risk. What’s worse is that more often than not the reward far outweighs the negative consequences.  Whether exceeding the speed limit to gain a couple of minutes in the morning or failing to lock out the energy before repairing a piece of equipment, or entering a restricted area for “just a minute”, we are rewarded for our risk taking while at the same time not be punished for it.  And as long as safety management processes reward the absence of a negative outcome without addressing the risk taking injuries will not only continue to occur, but they will likely go unreported.  Here is how this thought process works.  A worker is forced with a choice, park the fork lift he is driving in the designated area before going on break, or parking it half in the pedestrian walk way and half in the aisle in front of the break room.  The worker knows that this increases the risk of an injury because he has obstructed a busy pedestrian area AND has obstructed the aisle both conditions cause traffic to move in an area that was not intended for them. Since the driver has done this frequently and no one was ever injured he erroneously judges the risk of injury to be very low.  The driver weighs the time and trouble it will take him to walk from the parking area (and the loss of his, against the (in his mind) highly unlikely and heads blissfully off to his lunch break.  It is not until someone is injured that this practice is likely to stop, unless the consequences for taking this risk create a perception of risk that must be avoided (like firing a couple of fork lift drivers, for example).  But realistically, why don’t plants have parking spaces near the places where people will be frequently?  The answer to that is also the answer to many facilities hazards: because plants and warehouses are designed under the assumption that vehicles will always be in motion.  In most cases in my experience there is insufficient parking in an industrial work place so drivers have to improvise an often those ad hoc parking places create serious hazards.

We Encourage People To Take Risks

In many cases we develop a safety rule or job instruction that impedes the expeditious completion of a task.  We make the most direct route to the bathroom a restricted area; we require hot, ill-fitting protective equipment; or otherwise make the jobs more difficult to do.  Faced with doing a job that is, in the eyes of the worker, needlessly protected given his or her perceived risks, the worker is likely to chance it.  And what about those situations where the operation isn’t running according to the standard procedures? Do we shut down operation because of parts shortages? Do we send everyone home because we are short-handed? Of course not, we take risks.

The answer lies, not in discouraging risk taking, but in training workers to make better decisions by training them how to better assess the risk of what they are planning to do.  People will take risks and there is nothing we can do to change that.   But there is much that we can do to teach people how to assess those risks and make appropriate judgments relative to risk and reward.

Do you enjoy this blog? Do you find it useful, helpful, incendiary? Why not share it with others of a like mind? I’ve tried to make it as easy as possible for you to post it on Facebook, tweet it on Twitter, share it with groups or contacts on LinkedIn, or email to friends (or enemies, frankly that’s your business).  You play an important role in my incentive to keep writing this monster. Your comments and promotion of this blog are often the only thing that motivates me to the keyboard.  So let me know what you think, and spread the word.

#risk, #risk-and-worker-safety, #risky-behavior