Ending Vestigial Practices In Safety

Phrenology copy 

By Phil La Duke

There is more to culture change than doing things differently, it also means ending practices that you have done for years. Practices that many of you cherish and will defend with all the mettle you can muster.  Organizations typically develop organically—they evolve as they transition from small entrepreneurships to   professionally managed companies to giant philanthropic concerns. Along the way, many organizations create the procedural equivalents of evolutionary dead ends—policies that make little or no sense, rules designed to protect workers from hazards that no longer exist, or ways of doing things that are archaic.  Often the practice might still SEEM like a good idea (and may in fact be so) but under closer scrutiny may clearly need updating. Other practices never were all that good idea to begin with and (should) leave us scratching our heads and asking what we were thinking when we implemented them.

As you re-engineer the safety function (and for the love of all that’s holy can we PLEASE refer to it as that and leave “culture change” to the thieving snake-oil salesmen so eager to rebrand their particular swindle?) you need to root-out and end all the vestigial practices that remain in our safety management system. Many of the vestigial processes grew out of the fact that in the infancy  of the safety function were  directly lifted from the quality function (before the quality revolution) and even as the quality function has been reengineered.


The most cherished of the safety relics has to be the audit.  Year after year companies spend princely sums of money conducting audits—internal audits, corporate audits, third party audits, and more.  Audits are the most sacred activity in the safety function, but what do these games of cat-and-mouse produce beyond a list of things that need fixing and a “gotcha”.  Audits make safety professionals feel as though they are doing something—and I guess there’s no disputing that; but exactly what value does the average audit provide? Some will argue that audits allow organizations to establish a baseline; to find out the exact current state of an organization.  If this is the case then what is the point of annual audits that produce the same findings year after year and do little but rearrange the deck furniture on the Titanic? I’m not advocating that organizations suddenly stop doing audits, but unless the audit process is significantly redesigned the organization will continue to waste thousands (perhaps millions) of dollars on disruptive activities that produce a lot of noise and bluster but do little to improve anything beyond the bottom lines of companies that perform audits.

There is value in audits, but not in their current states.  Audits should be expanded to assess risk and to answer the question as to whether or not a good (or bad) safety performance is the result of sound safety management practices or luck.  Unless the scope of audits is expanded they will do little to support organizational change.

The Body Map

body map

Perhaps the dumbest relic in safety is the body map (although the area map does give it a run for its money.)  The body map continues to be used despite a complete lack of demonstrable value.  A body map is essentially a Pareto chart[1] in the shape of a human body pictogram; confused? Most people are.  What is the point of knowing that you had 53 hand injuries when the injuries aren’t quantified? Ascribing a pattern to this data and making any kind of inferences from it is useless—there are too many variables in counted data (which is what body maps are, a way of displaying an injury count) and unless we understand WHY people are getting hurt we can’t do anything of substance about it; this isn’t data this is trivia and the manifestation of safety professionals who collect data for data’s sake.

Area Map

Area map 1

Much like the body map, the area map is truly and utterly stupid.  Area maps are basically a graphic of your site with Pareto chart information as to where in your facility injuries happened.  Like the body map, the area map leads people to misguided inferences.  Also like the body map we don’t know WHY people are getting hurt only where.  Both body and area maps lead to what Zachery Shore (author of the book, Blunder) calls “causefusion” the practice of mistaking cause and effect with correlation. Causefusion leads companies to invest in snake oil, waste vast sums of money, time, and resources on things that will ultimately do nothing to improve workplace safety.

Green for Safety

Even organizations that have long since abandoned body and area maps, cling to the Green Safety Cross like a terrier with a rat (it’s dead, drop it).  The Green safety cross works like this: every day of the month where there is no injury you color a section of the cross until (ideally) you have colored the cross completely green.  Do I even have to get into how pointless and juvenile this practice is? And yet it persists as one of those cherished relics, a monument to pointlessness.


Safety Observations

Safety Observations are a lot like audits: when they are done properly and as part of a cognizant safety management process they can be a very powerful tool.  Unfortunately safety observations have taken on a life of their own and too many safety professionals have complicated and convoluted the act of observing the work that the process should be completely scrapped and rebuilt from scratch. The problems abound, from twisted bureaucracies that pit peer versus peer, to exercises in pencil whipping, to nebulous processes that make no sense. I have a lot to say on this subject, but that will have to wait for a different article.

Root Cause Analysis

Another cherished practice in safety that is in serious need of a cold hard look is Root-Cause Analysis.  Root-Cause Analysis is a wonderful tool for problems with a sudden occurrence and a specific structure and a single cause. In other words, root-cause analysis is a powerful tool for determining the one (and only one) thing that suddenly what went wrong (a tire goes flat after striking a pot hole, for example). Unfortunately, most unsafe conditions are really a lot of inter-related causes that grow over time until they reach a threshold and an incident occurs.  The tools used to identify and manage these multiple, interrelated hazards are completely different than root cause analysis.

It’s time we stop shifting things around in safety.  We need to stop looking for the next be craze and get back to basics.  It’s time to reengineer safety such that it is imbedded in our other business processes. But mostly it’s time to abandon the foolishness that pervades our field.  It’s not just about changing what we do, it’s also about throwing out the trash.

[1] (Pareto charts are used to compare counted information; they’re useful when making true apples-to-apples comparisons.  For example, if you are looking to reduce the number of errors (that cost about the same amount and have about the same severity) a Pareto Chart will show you where your efforts are best spent.) Unfortunately, the Pareto Charting of injury data leads to erroneous conclusions and dangerous recommendations.