Forget Injuries—They Have Nothing to Do With Safety




By Phil La Duke

Last week I posted an article defending (to some extent) Zero-Injury goals that touched off a powder-keg of on-line debate.  I have gone back and forth on the idea (on one hand zero-injury (or zero-harm, or zero-anything) goals don’t work very well (for a variety of reasons that I don’t feel like getting into right now) and on the other hand if our goal isn’t zero than how many people can we kill in the workplace and still call it a job well done?) until I finally landed on a position with which I can live: who cares?

Now before you start rounding up pitchforks and lighting torches to drive me from the village, hear me out. We as a society have been using injuries as proof of an unsafe workplace and the absence of injuries as proof of safety and nothing could be further from the truth.  Is it safe to leave a toddler home alone? Is it safe to walk around an unfamiliar and bad neighborhood at night? Why? After all most toddlers wouldn’t be harmed and most people don’t get mugged, and yet most people I’ve talked to agree that many practices like this (or using tools with the guards removed) aren’t safe.

So if we can agree that there are many, many activities that aren’t safe irrespective of the outcome, why do we persist in using injuries as the chief criteria for determining what is safe and what is unsafe? In some organizations safety professionals claim credit for saving lives simply because they reminded people not to die. In other organizations safety professionals are hammered by leaders for injuries that they didn’t cause, but failed to prevent.  Nobody much likes the system, and nobody wants injuries and fatalities. And yet we persist in chasing numbers that don’t matter and juking stats that tell us nothing about the safety of the workplace.

The Measurement Craze

Industries’ fierce desire to measure every element of the business is a by-product of the quality revolution, and in many people’s eyes, if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, the Safety function directly copied the Quality function’s approach to measurement.  In some respects this makes sense, because an injury is not unlike a defect; both are the outgrowth of a process defect (and no I won’t be baited into an argument over whether or not the cause is procedural, behavioral, or systemic. I’m sorry to disappoint but it really doesn’t matter to a meaningful degree—unless, of course you are selling some new whiz bang approach and you have to differentiate it from the pack). In other respects it makes no sense whatsoever, since, as we’ve already established while there is a quantifiable relationship between the absence of a defect (the part either is within the tolerance limits of its standard or it is not) there is no such quantifiable relationship between a worker’s safety and injuries.  Let me put that another way: we have a good understanding of what constitutes a defect (since we also have a clear understanding of the specifics criteria for an acceptable product) but we don’t have a clear understanding of the specifics of safety, that is, we don’t really have a clue how much risk a worker faces at any given moment so it’s tough to measure safety in any meaningful way. Many organizations have become so obsessed with measurement that they are losing site of the real purpose of the safety function: to help both the organization and the individual to make better choices when it comes to safety.

It’s About Risk

When we talk about safety we’re really talking about risk, that is, how probable is it that our workers will be injured in the normal course of their work days?  The gross misunderstanding of basic statistics in general, and probability in specific, lies at the heart of the trouble so many organizations have in tackling worker safety.  I know it sounds like heresy but in a real sense injuries have little to do with safety and in fact often distract the organization from the real task of lowering operational risk.  Individuals who would never gamble with company funds blithely roll the dice when it comes to the safe execution of work. If we continue to concentrate on injuries at the exclusion of risk we lull ourselves into the false sense of security and when we achieve a year with no injuries we throw a big party and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, despite the very real risks that lurk unseen in our midst.

More and more companies are celebrating the hard work that seems to have paid off, when in reality, they don’t have a clue whether or not the results they are getting are a product of hard work, voodoo, divine intervention, or blind luck. As a friend of mine recently said to me, we don’t understand the real problem (process variation) so we invent a problem we can solve and call ourselves heroes.  Since we’ve solved the problem that we do understand (worker injuries) we no longer work to solve the real problem (process variation, i.e. risk of injury). The processes (and for the purposes of this post I am including both behaviors and systems in the word “processes”) continue to drift away from the standard and soon exceed the control limits.  Before too long we are operating completely on luck while congratulating ourselves for slaying the dragon of injuries.  By the way, it’s a myth that sooner or later our luck will run out; we’d like to believe it, and statistics support the belief that in most cases risk will catch up to us, but probability being what it is there is always a chance that the organization will keep humming along on a wing and a prayer and never have risk come up and bite it on the ass. It’s theoretically possible that an organization will survive on luck alone, but more often organizations who fight the injury battle continue to win (there is a lot of overlap between the efforts to end injuries and the efforts to reduce process variation) because of good luck will ultimately have a catastrophe that corresponds to some change in the workplace.  Those who understand risk know that given enough risk the probability of injury becomes so likely that for all intents and purposes a serious injury is certain, but the self-congratulatory organizations who trumpet their zero-injury achievements tend to ascribe causation to some external force that has nothing but timing to do with the spike in injuries.

Whose Job Is It Anyway?

Some argue it that the problem is that safety professionals don’t spend enough time “on the floor” or “on the site”. While certainly out of touch safety professionals that don’t understand the nature of the business can’t be effective, I doubt that’s the real issue.  Safety professionals need to be agents of change and continuous improvement, not safety know-it-alls who scurry through the worksite trying to “catch someone doing something safe”.  The front-line supervisor owns safety, which is not to say that that worker don’t have a role, in fact a central role, in safety. After all, it is their fitness to work, decisions, competence, commitment, and judgment that collectively create what we call “safety”.

But when speaking operationally, when everyone is responsible for safety (and that responsibility is not clearly delineated) effectively no one is responsible for it. Certainly the worker must be responsible for his or her safety, not just at work but everywhere. But the individual’s responsibility for safety does not obviate the supervisor’s responsibilities. As a former automotive production worker, trainer in healthcare, construction laborer, consultant, security guard, food service worker and more, I can honestly say that I had a tendency to focus on the rigors of my job and tried to do it as safely as possible. I took it for granted that other workers were doing their job safely, that my boss was ensuring that the equipment and facilities were safe to operate and work in and yes, that my boss was ensuring that my coworkers weren’t doing something that would get us all killed.

My bosses had the decision rights to intervene in unsafe situations that I flat out didn’t have (short of losing my job). I depended on my bosses to keep me safe from the things over which I had no direct control. Too many people believe that safety is the responsibility of the individual alone. Leaders play a key role in all of this and owning the safety of the area is far different from individual ownership of safety.

Consider this: Every day we as individuals go through life responsible for our own safety, and yet we take for granted that someone is acting on our behalf. Don’t believe me? I’m willing to bet that within the last month you (while firmly responsible for your own safety) ate a meal where: a stranger harvested the ingredients, another stranger delivered them to a restaurant, where they were accepted by a person we’ve never met who also decided that the ingredients were safe to use, another stranger prepped the ingredients for cooking, still another stranger cooked you a meal using utensils washed by another stranger who then placed the food on a plate (also washed by a stranger), it was then delivered to you by a stranger, and you ate it using silverware washed, yet again, by a stranger. If at some point you were to die (or merely get really sick) because there was some breakdown in the supply chain, would society have the right to say, “well you never should have trusted so many strangers so you deserve what you get”? of course not, and yet many people bemoan the worker’s lack of ownership of safety.

My point is that we often assume, as workers, that someone else has inspected the tools, made sure the machines are in good shape, checked to ensure my coworkers are fit to work, and in general has looked out for my safety, at least those things that I cannot practically do for myself.

I believe this is the role (primarily) of the first line supervisor. While everyone should have the right to stop work if they feel it is unsafe the front line supervisor often makes the choices that directly affect the safety of dozens of people.


#forget-injuries, #injuries, #measuring-safety, #worker-safety