What Every Operation Leader Should Know About Safety

 

one-on-one-coaching

 By Phil LaDuke

Every day I hear another safety professional bemoan the fact that Operations (or leadership) doesn’t support safety.  It’s a tired bleat from whiners who should know that I would have no patience for it.  I generally turn the conversation around and ask flat out what they have done to educate operations leaders on safety and they begin to drone on and on about incident rates and lost work days and whatever the latest fad in safety of which they happen to currently be enamored. As safety professionals we have to drive these eunuchs from our chosen field with knotted chords and send them scampering like shocked money changers.

It seems that every month or so I get a wild hair up my small intestine and advocate throwing a beating into some poor schmoo who’s trying to make a buck.  Maybe that’s unfair, but who cares, I care not one whit about fair and when someone is trying to make a buck by undermining the foundation of a profession that, for all its warts,  is ostensibly about keeping people alive long enough to toil another day. So for those of you who are reading this in hopes of yet another viscous attack against the ugly brutes schilling snake oil, sorry; you will be disappointed, perhaps on several levels.

But then I digress.  The target of this week’s blog is the self-castrated safety professional who simpers and whelps about the grave injustice of being saddled with a clueless Operations managers who just don’t get it when it comes to safety.  I freely accept that there are many Operations folks who don’t get safety, but why is that? We’ve made the topic of worker safety about as interesting as the farm report.  You want to shut down the conversation with the hyper caffeinated goofball seated next to you on a plane? You don’t tell them you sell insurance, or that you’re a realtor (when did real estate agents decide that their chosen profession needed to be pronounced real TORE instead of realter? Call it what you want your still selling real estate; case closed) No to strangle the conversation in its infancy you simply need to say, “I work in worker safety, what do YOU do?” The conversation will die quicker than if you said you enjoy watching snuff films.

Let us assume that you’re able to truly able to have a frank conversation with Operations management about worker safety, what would you say, what are the five things you would want  every Operations leader know about safety? First of all, if you need to have this conversation if you hold out any hope of making things better, and some of you, I’m convinced, don’t want that. Many of you are only content to be malcontents, to be the pitiful victims who are under appreciated; those of you who work so hard and receive so little reward.

For my part, here are the five things that every Operations manager should know:

  1. Injuries Aren’t Unavoidable.  Generally speaking there is a correlation between a tightly controlled process that has little variation and a safe workplace.  When people get hurt it’s obviously out of process, as your process (unless it was designed by the Marquis de Sadd) wasn’t designed to deliberately injure workers. So if a leader strives to make sure that people work within process (including things like following safety processes and procedures) they will tend to have less injuries.
  2. Injuries Are Inefficient and Cost A Lot.  When people get hurt it shuts or slows everything down; everything, and not just at the time of the injury sometimes for weeks or months afterward and far beyond the confines of the area in which the worker was hurt.  Depending on how gruesome the injury (or Heaven forbid a fatality) the witnesses may be forever shaken by what they’ve seen, some may not be able to return to work ever (and this isn’t me being melodramatic, I’ve seen strong men unable to cope—and therefore work—-because they saw a friend pulped and mangled before his or her agonizing death on a dirty factory floor.) Even those who didn’t witness the event first hand are shaken and the macabre cacophony that travels through the organization like ball lightening is sometimes far worse in its imaginings of the scene the bloody reality. It’s tough to give work your all when you wonder if you will be the next to shuffle this mortal coil in the name of building widgets. Okay so maybe I am being melodramatic, but what’s a bit of melodrama between us safety guys?  The efficiency goes on and on through investigations internal, corporate, and criminal.  It takes a lot of time to kill or cripple a worker, given all the paperwork and associated loss of production and time is, after all, money.  So when the final cost of carnage hit the bottom line it hardly seems worth it.
  3. 3.    If It Looks Dangerous It Is; So Shut It Down. Too often people assume that because the boss (whether it be the team leader or the CEO) allows an activity it must at a minimum be “safe enough”.  In a lot of those cases the boss is counting on the worker to make a judgment call and to keep him/herself out of harm’s way.  So on it goes with both parties counting on the other to prevent the accident that will kill the worker. 
  4. 4.    Giving People Credit For “a Little Common Sense” Is like Giving Them Credit FHaving Super Powers.  We could argue whether or not common sense exist ad nauseum and all that would come of it would be that eventually I would want to back hand you right in the mouth; probably more than once.  The bottom line is that whether or not you believe common sense exists to any great extent (it doesn’t) trusting it to keep people from doing something they never foresaw or intended (i.e. injuring themselves or others) is a pretty stupid way to run a business.
  5. 5.    Work is Intrinsically Unsafe and the Only Way to Make It A Bit Safer Is to Stay Actively Involved. All jobs carry with them some risk of injury so leaders have to be mindful of the risks endemic to a job and, yes, actively work to reducing the risks to the lowest practicable level.  We can pretend that people don’t commit errors, make bad decisions, take risks, behave recklessly, and generally do stupid things.  We can act as if we live in a utopia where machines don’t malfunction, tools don’t wear out, and equipment never fails.  We can do these things but when we do we do nothing to reduce the risks and we count on luck to protect people.  Lucky people win lotteries, date people way more attractive that any sense of justice would allow, and find hundred dollar bills on the ground. LUCKY PEOPLE DON’T NARROWLY ESCAPE DYING ON THE JOB.      

Are these the right five? Are the really ten? Fifty? A thousand? Maybe you have others you think they should know, but if you think they need to know about how hard your job is, how to calculate Incident Rates or how to conduct a JSA I would put it to you that you’re probably as dumb as the Operations leader thinks you are; maybe more even.

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