Pulling Safety Out Of Its Rut: The Value of A Different Look At Safety

By Phil La Duke

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Let’s be clear, there is no such thing as a safe workplace. Sure we can slap each other on the back and brag to one another about the four years without a recordable injury and we can tell ourselves that we have achieved a Utopian risk free workplace but the reality is, there is always some probability that a worker will be harmed in the course of doing his or her job.

While the level of success in lowering the risk of injuries varies from organization to organization, its fair to say that we can all do better. (For you smug “I haven’t had an injury in my organization in 23 years” readers, I say look harder, do you have near misses? First aid cases? If you think the answer to those questions is “no” you are delusional. You might as well stop reading, because you will never understand the error of your ways until your next fatality; and believe me one is coming.) The problem isn’t just in the way we view safety, it’s also in the fact that for about 30 years the view of safety has remained largely unchallenged.  Consensus thinking on a complex problem leads to a convoluted mess, and in this case safety vendors—both the well meaning and the snake-oil salesmen—capitalize on the confusion to carve out lucrative livelihoods. When people make their livings off the status quo, they aren’t highly motivated to make substantive changes. In fact, most will fight like pumas to preserve their intellectual turf.

The problem with the same old thinking is that it implies that we have forever solved the problem. It’s as if safety is a static problem when in fact, safety is dynamic; every time there is a change in the workplace (which is constant—if nothing else every piece of equipment is getting older. Parts where out, workers get older and aren’t as physically capable as they were the day before. Without intervention, everything in the workplace is becoming more and more risky. Applying a static solution to a dynamic problem lies at the heart of disaster. Too many organizations miss this fact as they pursue improved worker safety. The approach most organizations take to making the workplace safer hasn’t really changed in the last 30 (if not 100 years). Effectively the solution is to modify the workers such that they are better able to interact with workplace hazards.

 “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”—Albert Einstein

If there is to be any sort of important, transformational innovation in workplace safety we have to think differently and explore radically different methods for reducing workplace risk; in short, we have to view safety in a revolutionary new way; we have to think differently.

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” —Albert Einstein

I understand that many of you don’t see the problem, after all, things are getting better—injuries are down, fatalities are flat, and in general the workplace seems safer, or at very least safe enough.  But people still get hurt on the job, people still die in industrial accidents. So perhaps you should consider that another approach is necessary.

“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”—Albert Einstein

It’s tempting to think that if we are getting good results doing what were doing then there is no real reason to change; if it aint broke, don’t fix it.  But emerging technology, slackening protections for workers, and socioeconomic changes relative to the business climate combine to create a drastically different workplace than we have previously experienced. We need to worry less about the procedural, less about the logical and more about the possible.

“Think Different”—Steven Jobs

Co-founder of Apple, Steven Jobs has had the greatest impact on our lives since Thomas Edison. When he returned to Apple he adopted the slogan, “Think Different”.  Others at Apple protested, “Think Different” they argued was grammatically incorrect, and should rightfully read “think differently, or think ‘different’”.  But Jobs had a specific meaning in mind. He wanted people to think “different”. Not differently from the way they were currently thinking, although that was certainly part of it. No, Jobs saw the credo as a call for thinking that was tangibly out of the mainstream. It was almost as he was calling for a visualization of exactly what the manifestation of what “different” looks like. It was more than a challenge; it was the defiant sneer of a mind that would change the world. If ever there was a place where thinking “different” is needed, it is in the world of worker safety.

Okay…So What?

It’s easy to hammer out a thousand words or so on the need for us to look beyond the traditional in worker safety, but without specifics how useful is the advice?  While the need for change in safety is considerable, the most critical changes need to come in these areas:

  • The Role of The Safety Professional.  Seeing the safety professional as the wizened old mage who is the arbiter of all things safety is outmoded.  Whether these sages are policemen or consultants, it’s time to imagine a completely different safety function. One where the decision making relative to safety isn’t housed in the safety office to be meted out by the safety engineer, rather where knowledge is widely distributed throughout population and decision-making regarding safety resides with empowered workers at all levels.
  • The View of Behavior As Causation.  Yes, unsafe behavior gets people injured and killed, but the BBS pundits have got to stop acting as if they have discovered the God Particle.  There is a dearth of understanding of sociology, neurology, brain function, group dynamics, anthropology, and even psychology underpinning too many BBS “solutions” (the only solutions offered by many BBS systems is to keep the providers well feed with full pockets). The question isn’t whether or not unsafe behaviors create heightened risk of injuries, but whether or not we can influence those behaviors to the extent that it will lower the risk of injuries.  If you considers other problems associated with populations—crime, poverty, war, etc.—governments haven’t had much luck solving these problems by modifying individuals behaviors; what makes us think we can be more successful in worker safety?
  • The View of Safety As A Discrete Element.  Trying to managing safety in a vacuum, that is, without considering Quality, Delivery, Cost, Morale, and Environment is like herding cats.  If you don’t treat the efficiency of your organization holistically, you will most likely shift problems from one area of the company to another.
  • Prevention. A couple of weeks ago I posted “Requiem for Prevention”. In that piece I talked at length about how we needed to siphon some of the effort that we currently put into prevention and refocus it on protecting workers when prevention fails.  We need to radically reinvent our view of prevention and how to balance it with contingency planning.
  • Treating Injuries As Somehow Different From Other Process Failures.  Safety professionals need to be re-envisioned as problem solvers and process improvement specialists; as utility players on the team. Safety professionals should be capable of making improvements across the SQDCME spectrum; more generalist and less specialized.
  • The View of Safety As A Sacred Calling.  Yes, safety is the right thing to do, sure it’s moral, yes…blah, blah, blah…admit it; we don’t save lives. We aren’t doctors, we aren’t searching for a cure for cancer.  The best we can hope to claim is that we might have saved a life in the course of our careers. We need to stop elevating what we do above the jobs of those we serve.

“You May Say I’m A Dreamer, But I’m Not The Only One”—John Lennon

I realize that a good number of you are bristling about what you’ve read here.  That uneasiness you’re feeling is the first stage to opening your mind.  You need to open your mind and stare into the abyss, because if you don’t you have no capacity to change. Those who have no capacity to change and adapt are on the express train to extinction. Open your mind, if you leave us too soon you’ll be missed.


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