The Biggest Threat To Worker Safety Might Be You and Me

Mr. Chicken old photo

By Phil La Duke

As efforts to improve worker safety become more sophisticated so too have the dangers that workers face.  Much has been written about the role of the individual worker’s behavior in workplace safety, and much has been written about the role that a lack of leadership commitment plays in worker injuries.  But for a moment I would like you to consider perhaps the most serious threat to worker safety: the attitudes of the safety professionals themselves.

These attitudes range from the “defenders of the faith” to the “backslappers” and each poses a significant threat to the safety with which we work.  I would like to take a brief look at these attitudes and ask you to take a hard look at yourself and your peers and ask how closely that attitude aligns with your personal beliefs.

Before I get into the individual attitudes that put us at risk, I think that it’s appropriate to discuss change, and why we are programmed to resist it. In  biological terms, change is bad.  If you are a white crested tern, and you live in an environment that affords you a bountiful supply of food, good mating prospects, temperate weather, and few predators then all change can bring is ruin.  The human animal has evolved keen defenses against change and resists it at an almost molecular level.  Yet, on some level nature also knows that an inability to change results in the inability to adapt and an inability to adapt leads to extinction.  It puts us in a pretty tight bind.  If we change we die, but if we can’t change we also die.  It’s a tough row to hoe.  And the safety profession is the organizational personification of this dichotomy.  But before you look to lay blame for the inadequacies of your safety system on some unsuspecting victim, take a look at these attitudes of safety professionals that are doing more harm than good and ask yourself “am I my own worst enemy?”

Defenders of the Faith

I’ve seen a lot since I started working with safety almost 10 years ago.  Let’s be clear, I’ve worked “in safety” for a lot longer than 10 years, but for the last 10 years I have been working diligently to effect change in safety and that has not been easy.  Bringing change—sometimes radical change—to people who by their nature are extremely cautious individuals is tough. Add to that, the fact that many of these same individuals report to Human Resources departments that view themselves as keepers of the status quo, defenders of the faith, and you will perhaps get some sense of what those years have been like.  Defenders of the Faith are the safety professionals who ostensibly espouse a desire for radical change in the way we approach worker safety, but, in fact, most of these professional don’t want change at all.  The Defenders of the Faith will outwardly admit that change needs to happen but then chip away and passively resist change.  These individuals never tire of the blame game and have umpteen excuses for why they aren’t successful, but meanwhile people continue to get hurt. The primary motivation of the Defenders of the Faith is to ensure continued employment and deflect any negative attention from themselves.

Heggs

Luther Heggs was the character played by Don Knotts in the film The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Heggs was a cautious to the point of being afraid of his own shadow, and there are a lot of Luther Heggs working in safety today.  I am not trying to be ironic when I say that safety professionals are a cautious lot.  The profession attracts more than its fair share of individuals who enjoy regulation, rules, and formulas.  As a rule, these individuals don’t like change and actively (or passively) seek to subvert it.  Whether they realize it our not, these individuals would rather continue a course of action that consistently fails than to adopt a new (and in their minds risky) course of action.  These individuals will only embrace corrective actions that have been time tested and proven effective beyond a shadow of a doubt.  They will make all sorts of excuses as to why these process changes are inappropriate to their situation.  Heggs don’t understand process, and haven’t a clue at the deeper implications and underlying organizational flaws that injuries represent.  In their minds the job of the safety professional is to count bodies as they bear witness to the carnage.  It’s not their fault that people are getting hurt, nor their jobs to fix it. If you find yourself reluctant to accept a new idea until there has been years of research on its effectiveness before you consider it you might be a Hegg.  Unfortunately and ironically, the caution shown by the Heggs actually increases the risk of injury.

Bandwagon Jumpers

Opposites of the Heggs are the Bandwagon Jumpers, and they are every bit as dangerous.  Bandwagon Jumpers have never met a dumb idea that they didn’t love, especially an idea that absolves them of culpability of a failed initiative.  You can find Bandwagon Jumpers at every conference eagerly jotting down notes in the professional development sessions or loading up on the newest fad literature in the bookstore.  This attitude is dangerous because even when the Bandwagon Jumper happens into a good idea he or she seldom gives the idea time to work before scurrying off to the next hair-brained scheme.  You can spot a Bandwagon Jumper by his or her love of jargon; they jabber on for hours spewing meaningless crap that they really don’t understand themselves. Operations leadership seldom respect the Bandwagon Jumpers because the leadership expects and values results, and for all the sound and fury generated by Bandwagon Jumpers very little gets done; it’s all activity and no meaningful consequences.

Snake-Oil Salesmen

I’m fond of the old adage, “when you sell hammers, all the world is a nail”, and never was this more true with the Snake-Oil Salesmen.  These safety professionals glommed onto a scientifically dubious safety process years ago and like a terrier with a rat in its mouth they just refuse to drop it.  Some of these people learned a methodology that worked for them in a very narrow scope and continue using it even though it creates an infrastructure that is too costly to sustain.  Others paid to get certified in a given methodology and admitting that it is of questionable effectiveness erodes their Curricula Vitae; these people understand that allowing the possibility that their methodology is bunk is, by inference, calling their qualifications into question as well.  You can’t blame one for preserving one’s professional values but it becomes problematic when one places more value on one’s own credentials than they do on the safety of the workplace.  It’s easy to be a Snake-Oil Salesman without meaning to—after all, every conference hosts seemingly inexhaustible populations of people who make their living selling processes, methodologies, and ideas that don’t work.  You can find the Snake-Oil Salesmen shouting down each other in LinkedIn chat rooms and on-line safety forums.  Snake-Oil Salesmen are adroit at using a statistically insignificant sample size to refute the evidence that their malarkey is junk science.  They will seldom support their arguments with any research done in the last 50 years, in fact, most will just keep repeating their own opinions until the opposition dismisses them as idiots and walks away.

Backslappers

Without a doubt, Backslappers are the most dangerous attitudes in safety today.  Backslappers are content with what they’ve already done and brag about how safe their workplaces are.  By using industry averages, dubious rates and trends, and antiquated views of safety (as the absence of injury instead of the reduction of risk) Backslappers congratulate themselves for a job well done, at least until there is a serious injury or a fatality.  Backslappers feel that they’ve conquered worker injuries and they don’t have to worry anymore, their jobs are done.  Safety professionals who are Backslappers can’t wait to show the new boss what a terrific job they’re doing, and will waste vendor’s time by inviting them in the guise of learning more about the vendor’s offerings when in fact, they only want to brag about what a swell job they are doing.  Backslappers are the most dangerous of these attitudes because it belies the misconception that we can ever relax or let our guards down when it comes to workplace safety.  When complacency becomes the safety strategy the risk of serious injury grows unchallenged and unchecked until a the probability of a fatality rises to virtual certainty.

So What Can We Do?

I’d like to think that these posts do more than deride a particular fault I find in something and that I also offer something constructive that one can use to correct the undesired state. In that spirit, here goes…

  1. Ask operations if, in their eyes, you fit any of these attitudinal types.
  2. Investigate the trends your safety against national trends; you really need to discount improvements that are part of a national or industry trends.  You also don’t need to congratulate yourself too much for being “better than average”.
  3. Actively seek to improve the safety of your workplace by getting engaged and partnering with Operations.

It takes a lot of courage and moral fortitude to be an effective safety professional, but then this is the career we chose.  If we can’t challenge our own belief-sets, if we can’t call our own attitudes into question, how then can we effect real, lasting, sustainable change?

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