The Rise of The Safety Extremist

By Phil La Duke

 Stop extremsim

“’Isms’ in my opinion are not good”
—Ferris Bueller, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off 

fa·nat·ic (fuhnat-ik) noun

  1. a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal, as in religion or politics.

ex·trem·ist (ik-stree-mist) noun

  1. a person who goes to extremes, especially in political matters.
  2. a supporter or advocate of extreme doctrines or practices.

I write provocative material.  I deliberately try to elicit a visceral response and take people to a place where they can explore their deepest held beliefs and question basic ideologies of safety. The latest in neuroscience suggests that our decisions or made and our ability to change reside deep in our subconscious beneath our defenses. When something strikes a nerve at that level it can be difficult to  have a rational conversation, but in general, if one can at least reconsider one’s belief set maybe its worth it.

Why is it important to reexamine our deepest held beliefs? Because the world is a dynamic place and if our beliefs are static we become increasingly out of touch.  If we cling blindly to our beliefs and lash out to anyone who threatens our worldview then we run the risk of becoming completely and dangerously out of touch with the realities of your profession and become a useless relic.  That should be career suicide, but sadly even the most out of touch hacks can usually find work based on their years and years of experience.  But what good is 40.2 years of experience if that experience consists chiefly of self-congratulatory affirmations and retreads of theories that are a century old.

Not that every new idea is a good one.  There is as much crap spewed by the idea d’jour pundits today as there ever has been. And just because an idea or theory is new doesn’t make it any better than conventional wisdom, but it’s important that any professional consider new ideas and emerging thought with an open mind.

That’s getting tougher and tougher to do in safety, owing to the rise in extremist thought in safety. The merest suggestion that we discard a safety truism is likely to to create nothing short of a public out rage.  Take for instance the response to Heinrich’s Pyramid.  A recent thread on the social networking site LinkedIn elicited 3,186 comments ranging from the intellectually bantering to the crackpot personal attacks. The thread quoted a recent assertion by EHS Today:

“Heinrich’s assertion that 88% of accidents are the result of unsafe acts has been dismissed as something he just made up. There was no research behind it whatsoever. “ and asked the simple question “What’s your opinion? And why?”

According to a recent article by Ashley Johnson in H+S Magazine a poll the magazine conducted found that 86% of respondents believed either completely or somewhat in Heinrich’s theories, while another 10% reporting that they weren’t familiar with Heinrich’s theories.  The article is a scathing indictment of Heinrich’s theories from experts who question his methods, his conclusions, and generally speaking nearly everything had to say.  The article was balanced by a half-hearted defense that the numbers were never meant to be statistical predictors (the were, by the way) and that Heinrich never blamed the workers (he did. In fact Heinrich was a devotee of eugenics and believed that one’s race and ethnicity played a factor in the likelihood that a worker would be injured or cause an injury to other.)

The What does this all have to do with extremism? Plenty.  This demonstrates that  despite a growing body of evidence that deeply held belief will hold sway.  This in itself is not extremism, but it does create an environment where extremists thrive.  Why do people cling to beliefs that are refuted (there are still people who deeply believe in fake photos and film footage of the Loch Ness Monster and Big Foot, even though the perpetrators of these hoaxes[1])? People tend to want to believe in what they’re doing and when people chip away at the foundation.

Its not just the Heinrich supporters who will lash out against any suggestion that doesn’t support their world view.  If you don’t believe me just publish something critical about Behavior Based Safety.  Within hours extremists and fanatics will marshal their forces and begin attacking you.  The problem has grown to such an extent that several editors of leading safety magazines actively avoid the debate more out of a desire to avoid arguing with fanatics than out of fear or intimidation.  But intimidation of the press is a goal of extremists everywhere —from Al Quida to the Ku Klux Klan to the Neo Nazis to the safety extremists—is to discredit, attack, intimidate, and generally silence the media which, if it is truly unbiased—will never buy there bill of goods.

Extremism Is Rooted In Fear

Let’s suppose you have 40.2 years of experience in safety where you served with distinction, and someone comes along and asserts something contrary to the foundation on which your entire experience is predicated.  What happens to your credentials and accomplishments and very identity as a safety professional when all on which it is built crumbles? People will protect their beliefs with a wildness typically reserved for mother grizzlies defending their cubs; they will make ugly personal attacks and seek to gather together like-minded souls close to them.

Extremism Loves Company

Social networking sites make it easy to reach out to a world of people. Some credit social networking with ushering in Arab Spring, but it also has a darker side.  Social Networking affords us the opportunity for the fanatics to get their ideas out to a sympathetic ear. Unfortunately, when it comes to safety, people are dying in the workplace while crackpots are postulating theories that are given equal weight with responsible theorists in safety.  I will leave the readers to decide which slide of the equation on which I fall.


[1] I’m speaking of the most famous loch ness monster photo and the actual film footage of a reputed big foot. The very people who first produced them convincingly disproved both of these.  If you want to believe in the Loch Ness monster or Big Foot God bless you, but what was the most compelling evidence has been disproven. And don’t even get me started on crop circles.

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