Why The Death Of George Robotham Matters

George Robotham

Vale “George” Robotham

By Phil LaDuke

For many of you, the name George Robotham is meaningless, and the fact that he died doesn’t mean all that much to you.  When George died suddenly last September his passing was barely noted even in his native Australia but as I face the coming year I, like many of you, take time to reflect. So who was George Robotham and why does his passing make a difference?  Because in a time when safety professionals can’t jump on the lastest fad wagon fast enough and the carneys of our professions—the card sharks and snake oil salesmen, the well intentioned imbeciles, and the quick buck artists—concoct truly odious rip off schemes, George was one of the rarified few who could decry the emperor naked.  George could sift through the excremental messages of the living commercials of our field to call safety as he saw it; George was one of the true great ones.

George was a plain-spoken Aussie with more certificates and degrees than most tenured professors. But in an age when fame is measured in tweets and hashtags, George didn’t make much of a ripple. If you look up “George Robotham” online you will find a lot of his work on Dave Collins’ Safety and Risk Management blog www.SafetyRisk.net  but other than that, you won’t find much.  In fact, the Wikipedia article on George Robotham isn’t about him at all (it is in fact, about a Hollywood stuntman and minor character actor who played a henchman in the Adam West Batman movie).

Apart from who George was, what is more important is what he stood for.  George stood up to the rising tides of charlatanism in safety, even as those tides rose again and again.  And while George’s common-sense approach to safety attracted converts, his ideas weren’t the kind of grand schemes that made for getting rich quick; anything George had he sweated and toiled for.

George had a way of putting things that made sense to people, but also didn’t threaten the fanatics.  His practical approach and easy to understand advice could have easily been seen as an attack on the ubiquitous sea of snake oil, but somehow George’s disarming way of putting things soothed the bruised egos of even the most mercenary rivals.  George said things like, “Whatever you do make it SIMPLE & EASY, if it is too much like hard work, it will not happen;”  that’s hard to argue with, but if you’re selling safety and it looks simple and easy, people are reluctant to hire you.  I don’t pretend to know George, he and I eye corresponded a bit in the comments sections of articles one or the other of us had written.  Always supportive, George knew I was a loose cannon and always came to my defense when some sulky fanatic would fly off the handle and shower me with insults.

“Communicate your expectations and react when they are not met”

George was generous with advice and was never shy about telling people what he thought. As the quote above shows, not all of his advice was limited to safety applications.

I became a fan of George because despite working and living a world apart (he in Brisbane, and I in Detroit) we came to a lot of the same conclusions about safety.  George once said, “Use a quality management approach to safety, with a continuous improvement philosophy”. When I read that statement I thought, heck that’s what I’ve been telling people for 15 years.

“Define the scope of any project before you start it, you cannot meet needs if you do not identify them.”

There are a lot of self-loathing safety professionals out there, but George wasn’t one of them. I guess for some, George wasn’t all that profound, but for me, advice like, “Do the things that give you the biggest bang for your buck” or “Minimise[1] the bureaucracy and bull s—t.” is true wisdom.

Much of what George stood for and what he learned over his nearly 40-year career might seem like common sense, for example, he often advocated that people give and expect regular feedback, and while that is certainly sage advice it is so woefully lacking in business today, and supervisors at so many levels of the organization are so loathe to do so, George might as well have been discovering cold fusion.

George believed that “Visible leadership from the top of the organisation1 is the key to success” but he was quick to chastise the whiney would-be martyrs of our field, George was impatient with belly achers and believed people should bring him solutions, not problems. George was a fellow critic of Behavior Based Safety and was a firm believer in investing in people,

 “When it comes to employing people remember ‘If you pay peanuts you get monkeys‘ he warned.

A believer that safety could drive change and that culture change should be left to experts in culture change, perhaps George’s best advice was, “Whatever you decide to do, do it in bite sized chunks, trying to do too much at once may lead to unrecoverable failure.”

George led his own consultancy and while he leaves behind an impressive body of work, most of it he distributed for free.  www.SafetyRisk.net   is a store house of free resources from George’s pen.

So George Robotham was a great man who worked tireless not for the almighty buck, but for the betterment of the safety profession.  But so what?  Good people die every day and life as we know it goes on.  What is it about George’s passing that makes a difference?  Every day, there are more and more people out there selling hair-brained safety schemes to unwitting or dimwitted customers without George there is one less person questioning the pseudopsychobabble and one less voice of reason.  I suppose one could argue that while the fact that George will no longer write about safety, exposing its warts while offering practical and sensible alternatives is no more a tragedy than the loss of anyone who was loved.  But for me losing George is like losing Steve Jobs.  Both men cut down in their primes with, presumably more great work to be done.

People who are peddling their nonsense will always speak louder than those who truly love the craft and are passionate about making our profession better.  Heck I can think of one guy in particular who can’t answer a question on any topic without turning it into a commercial for his latest book or video.  George left some pretty big shoes to fill and it’s time for one of you to step up to it and fill it.  So do this for me: Stop reading this blog and spend a day or so reading George’s work.(You can find it here www.SafetyRisk.net).  Find some kernel of wisdom, something that speaks to you and resonates with you in your particular mine, or factory, or oil rig, or…well you get the picture…and post it on the workplace walls, preach it to the masses, and make George’s life work a reality.

[1] Dear nitpicking frustrated editors, George, being Australian, used the King’s English spelling of the word