Are You Practicing “Nod & a Wink” Safety?

by Phil La Duke

There are two extremes when it comes to safety practitioners: overly protective simpletons who see certain death lurking around every corner and those who practice “nod-and-a-wink” safety. The former are the much maligned safety cops who seem to have the singular goal of eliminating risk by eliminating work and putting the company out of business; we hear a lot about them, mostly well-deserved criticisms. The latter however, don’t get much ink, and they are perhaps even more of a threat to the credibility of the safety function than anything. Nod-and-a-wink safety practitioners manage to turn a blind eye to some seriously dangerous activities that they KNOW pose significant risk to workers and even the general public.
If You Can’t Come Up With A Solution Why Try?
Nod-and-a-wink safety isn’t necessarily an evil plot; in most cases it’s not. These people are depravedly indifferent; in most cases they just don’t have a viable alternative to the current state. How many of us, when criticizing something has been asked, “do you think you can do any better?” It’s a fair question, but it doesn’t address the concern. It’s a way of shouting down the criticism without really engaging in a meaningful dialog; a way of bullying your way out of an uncomfortable or awkward conversation.
“Sure it’s not the best way to do it but it’s all we got”
Safety pundits, myself included, (at least to the extent that I can be called a pundit) have been preaching about the importance of the safety function enabling business instead obstructing it and the nod-and-a-wink set have taken this to heart. It’s easy to justify doing nothing in the name of cooperation. If I don’t have a safer way to do the job, it’s easier to walk away then it is to be put in the position where I alone am responsible for solving the problem. The overly zealous will fight to stop the practice even if there is no viable alternative, where as the nod-and-a-wink practitioners ignore the issue all together. A better solution is to say, “no, I don’t have a better solution, but we can’t just ignore the dangers here. Let’s work together to find an answer.”
Surely Not I?!?!
Too many reading this doesn’t see themselves as nod-and-a-wink practitioners when they are. It’s tough to recognize yourself or your organization when you have been looking the other way so long that it’s tough to recognize the danger any longer. Consider the following dangerous working conditions that are largely ignored by some companies:

  • Distracted Driving. I’m sure were all good and tired of hearing about distracted driving. We know dangers of distracted driving and yet many companies turn a blind eye to it. In fact, in a recent National Safety Council study, over 70% of the people responding said they’d ignored or violated their company’s distracted driving policies. I acknowledge that this policy is difficult if not impossible to enforce, but while this is true, consider the demands we place on people when they’re on the road for protracted periods of time. Sales people are expected to respond to emails, texts, and make phone calls when they’re in transit. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t expect quick response times and distraction free driving; when we do we are practicing nod and a wink safety
    Worker Fatigue. A far more insidious and potentially more deadly problem is worker fatigue. No worker or is immune to the effects of worker fatigue—we’ve all worked long hours at one point or another in our career. But nod-and-a-wink safety practitioners allow, and sometimes even endorse, long hours followed by long commutes that place the worker at significant risk. This issue has been a problem in the workforce since the workforce existed. People have been asked to work double shifts (and then return to work their normal shift), work long hours seven days a week, work swing shifts, and generally work longer and harder than we expect. On top of that, we forget that the workers have to get home somehow. When calculating the work day we seldom include the worker’s commute, and even a short commute can be deadly
    Contractor Training. As I was walking my dogs the other day I watched aghast as roofers worked on a neighbor’s house. I mentally counted at least ten major hazards that put the workers’ in harm’s way. I did mention to the crew leader some of the more egregious violations and he thanked me and I walked away. The next day the crew was right back at it, nothing had changed. Much the same goes on in the workplace. nod-and-a-wink practitioners are often deliberately ignorant of contractor behavior and when the contractors screw up, it’s not always them who get killed.
    All of these situations have something in common: the workers, safety practitioners, company and customers have a vested interest in not taking too close a look at the situation. In effect, they collude to perpetuate these dangerous situations. The worker may not enjoy long hours, but many are generally willing (or even eager) to work the overtime to earn extra money, the company wants to get the job done, the customer doesn’t want to pay the added cost associated with adding more workers and doesn’t want to delay the project, and the nod-and-a-wink safety practitioner will go along to get along. These issues are so pervasively ignored that worker fatigue or distraction are seldom identified as causes in incident investigations.

What’s the Solution?
If these issues are going to be solved, we need engagement at all levels. Senior leadership needs to understand that there’s a connection between distraction while driving and the demands the organization put upon drivers, to understand that overworking the workforce has a cost, and to recognize the interrelationship between contractor safety and overall safety in the workplace. Safety Professionals need to try to minimize the risk by proposing better solutions that are practical, and workers must take more active role in their own safety. Getting engagement starts with respect; preaching isn’t the same as teaching and awareness is the same as commitment between two adults.


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