The Swindle Continues

snake-oil (1)

By Phil La Duke

Last week I made my eighth speech at the National Safety Council’s Annual Congress and Expo. In consideration of my speaking at the event I am given a full conference admission, which affords me access to the exhibit hall and sessions.  I usually help cover the show for Facility Safety Management by posting a story or two; this involves me attending technical sessions that I might ordinarily avoid like a diuretic rat.  This year was no exception and no surprise.  What WAS surprising however, is the shear volume of snake oil salesmen who have seemingly dropped the Behavior Based Safety in favor of “Transformational Safety”.

All the familiar faces were there each spouting “it’s all about culture” and “it’s about leadership commitment” where once they hailed behavior as the single largest cause of injuries.   They’re right of course, the key to safety does lie in culture change, but do any of these companies that until now shouted down anyone who dared question there sacred belief of behavior as the holy grail of safety and behavior modification as the magic bullet that would magically deliver companies from the injury bogey man?

Before we get into this troubling development, let’s set a couple of things straight.  Behavior is in fact the largest cause of injuries.  People make human errors, take chances (informed and uninformed) that result injuries, people are careless, reckless and make poor choices.  That has never been in dispute.  In fact, if you trace any injury back far enough you will absolutely find some behavioral cause.  No, what I (and others far smarter than I) have always criticized about BBS is the junk science and misapplied psychology that concluded that it would be easy and would provide a quick fix.  Manipulating an entire population such that it no longer makes human errors, takes chances (informed and uninformed) that result injuries, and behave carelessly, recklessly and stop making poor choices is patently absurd.

Now so many of the old BBS providers are suddenly abandoning their old party line and pushing culture change, or transformations.

As for “management commitment” being the key to a safe workplace well that falls into the “so obvious as to be insulting”.  What corporate initiative has any chance of success if management—at any level—doesn’t support it.  The concept that management can remain on the sideline and the change will somehow take hold is so stupid that it doesn’t bear mentioning.  Except the sessions that I attended the speakers mentioned management commitment in the same hushed whispers and reverential tones that they once reserved for BBS.

Culture Transformation approaches to safety are sound and effective approaches to increasing the overall effectiveness of an organization—not just in safety, but in quality, delivery, material control, productivity, environmental, and management systems.  In fact, Lean Manufacturing, World-Class Management, Six Sigma, Kaisen, are all culture transformations to one extent or another.  But the question is this: can the people who were selling snake oil a year ago be trusted to know anything about culture transformations? I don’t think so, and neither should you.

The question is not whether the culture needs to change, rather, do the people who until recently were hawking BBS snake oil qualified to deliver a viable methodology for achieving a sustainable culture change?

For my part I am deeply skeptical of the snake oil salesmen’s newfound religion.  I believe that this is just a shell game; that the methodologies currently being hawked by the neo-culturalists is simply a rebranding of the same old crap. (I attended one session on culture where the speaker said so many incorrect things about culture, the origins of the concept of “safety culture”[1] that I walked out in less than five minutes; that was all I could stand.  I don’t blame these companies for trying to survive and spokespeople from both the National Safety Council and American Society of Safety Engineers told me (after I asked them what type of presentation abstracts they wanted to see) “any thing but BBS—people are sick of it.  Now if you’re livelihood was threatened how would you respond? Might you not be tempted to rebrand your products to fit what the buyers want?  Of course it would be far more ethical to actually LEARN about the new methodology instead of just slapping a new label on the same old schlocky crap, but different strokes for different folks. These people are playing with people’s lives, limbs, and livelihoods—it’s a disgraceful place to experiment.

I’ve confronted the safety sentimentalists—openly scoffing at their sanctimonious “I save lives” and their sophomoric  “we love you go home safe” sentimentality—so at the risk of sounding like one of the very people I have so often condemned as making all us safety professionals look like simpering goofballs I so often attack, let me ask you this, don’t we have a higher calling? We aren’t selling candy bars, we aren’t trading sock, or doing tours, or performing any service that —while important and valuable—have such important consequences.  We have a responsibility to confront the snake oil salesmen who talk a good game but at the end of the day produce nothing lasting, nothing of meaningful value.

There are good providers of culture change interventions and maybe even some of the people who spoke at the congress, but it can be difficult for executives to know the difference between the snake oil salesmen and the providers of sound transformational services. I certainly am not in a position to tar all of these people as liars, cheats and thieves, but if we don’t expose the frauds in our field who will?  We need a healthy dose of skepticism when dealing with this herd of crap-merchants rushing tired retreads to market. We need to do something and do it quick. As long as we continue to let charlatans sell us crap we put people at risk, and putting people at risk is the very opposite of our jobs, and our vocations and should not be the legacy that we leave.


[1] James Reason coined the term in  1990.

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#safety-change-intervention, #safety-culture, #transformational-safety