Now What? What To Do After The Low Hanging Fruit Has Been Picked

By Phil La Duke

When you first started, worker injuries were out of control, every time the phone rang you jumped, wondering if this was THE call, and you honestly didn’t know how you were ever going to get things done. Then, after awhile, things got better, injuries were down, you had a couple of good programs that showed real progress and then…nothing.  Now you have a program that is dangerously close to a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, while injuries are down, you have that nagging sensation that you’re not getting a complete picture of the real risk of injuries in the workplace; you’re stuck.

Sound familiar? If so, welcome to the world of the harvested low-hanging fruit.  “Low-Hanging Fruit” is the popular analogy for solving the numerous, yet none-the-less easy, issues to resolve. When it comes to safety, many of us have made a career of picking low-hanging fruit.  Behavior Observations make the most obvious issues easy to spot, and training and awareness campaigns (assuming they are effective) reduce the number of poor choices workers make, and heck, the Hawthorne Effect means that doing virtually ANYTHING will get us some improvement, but then what?  It is easier to move an incident rate from 25 to 12 than it is to move it from 3.5 to 3.25.  In a world where leadership repeatedly asks “what have you done for me lately” safety professionals can’t rest on the laurels, the execs want to know what you are doing NOW, and when they can see results or better yet a Return On Investment (ROI).

Recognize that You Need A New Strategy and Tactics

Once you’ve resolved the many, small but irksome issues your process starts to stabilize, which is good. Unfortunately, business is rarely stable.  Production demands go up and down, population demographics shift, and employment levels ebb and flow. So having a static, “we’re done now” methodology won’t work, but that’s not a bad thing necessarily.  By reducing the number of insignificant issues you can now

Seek the Evolutionary, not Revolutionary

Too many safety professionals erase their organization’s progress by starting over.  This wastrel process of seeking out the next big idea wipes out any gains that previous methodologies have yielded.  Instead of being drawn in by the latest fad (or promising new potential) look at what’s working (even on a small scale) and what’s returning the most value.  Making improvements to what works for you may not be sexy, but it promises to take you much further than starting over with a radically new approach.

Apply What You’ve Learned

Mesmerization, Phrenology, downsing, Iridology…were (and to some still are) the height of scientific theory. And while they are now they are now widely dismissed as quackery  most had some roots in major scientific discovery.  Once the low hanging fruit has been picked you need to apply what you’ve learned, while guarding against misapplying and over applying what you’ve learned.

Prune The Bushes

You probably don’t need as large an infrastructure to tackle the more systemic and deep-seated problems than you needed to solve the many easy issues.  Consider reorganizing your safety department and trim some programs that have become obsolete.  Avoid the temptation of building an empire and opt for fewer, more capable heads over many generalized hands.

Remember That Was Then, This Is Now

Superstitions—hat on the bed, shoes on the table, thirteen at the table, etc. are all, for the most part, rooted in fact.  Unfortunately, people cling to facts long after the facts are no longer relevant.  What was once sound advice becomes shadowy superstition.  Similarly, things that might have been true 15 years ago in safety may no longer be true, or at very least, are less a concern now.  Technology, government regulations and numerous other factors change our safety environment and need to be considered as we craft safety policy and procedures.  Question everything, and ask if there is a way to achieve the same (or better) results through cheaper, faster, or more lasting means.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

Telling someone to “work smarter, not harder” is clichéd, but in a very real sense that is what we are asked to do every day in worker safety.  Instead of grousing around about this in the break room, we need to not only rise to occasion but also demand it from our vendors. The new economic reality means that we not only have to question the value provided by our current tools and tactics but look for innovative ways to achieve similar results.

We need to face the hard fact that safety, as a profession, has been completely and irreversibly changed and if we are to survive we need to adapt to the new reality.