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.

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