Reverse Engineering Safety Offerings

By Phil La Duke

I don’t have all the answers; not about safety and not about anything else. Furthermore, as much as it may seem to the contrary, I don’t even THINK that I have all the answers, but there are people in the world of safety who seem to think that they do. Several weeks ago I spoke at the National Safety Council in San Diego, CA. It was a hot, afternoon session on the connection between housekeeping and safety that about a hundred people endured. Thank you to of you who sweltered through a mediocre presentation.

When you speak at the conference, in way of a thank you, you are given free admission to the entire conference. It’s a nice perk; especially since many European conferences expect you to pay all your expenses, forgo a speaking fee, and PAY admission to the conference. I turned down speaking at Loss 2010 because my out-of-pocket expenses amounted to over $10,000 and I’m sorry, but it just wasn’t going to be worth it. (I didn’t realize the theme “Loss” would be applied so directly and acutely applied to me).

Those of you who have never attended the National Safety Conference Annual Congress and Expo you really should. The vendor hall is so large it takes more than a day to go through it all and the speakers present on a wide range of safety (of all aspects not just worker safety) that influences policy across the globe. The topics really caught me eye this year. I saw topics ranging from the very specific to the vague to the point of being almost meaningless. One topic got me thinking about how what people shill through their presentations represents what they think is the key to a safer workplace. I thought I would reverse engineer some of these topics to see what people believed were the true source of unsafe workplaces.

The first topic that grabbed my attention was something called Motivating People to Work Safe (or something similar). This struck me as odd. Are there people out there who aren’t motivated to work safely, in other words, are there people out there who would work safely, but can’t find a compelling reason to, after all, what’s in it for them? How absurd, patronizing, and arrogant is it to assume that workers aren’t already intrinsically motivated to work in a way that will keep them from getting killed. Certainly people seem to lack motivation for working safe, but I think that is more a product of our perception than the reality.

The second topic that caught my eye was related to the first topic: getting people to value their safety. One of the keynote speakers even went so far as to lay out the four secrets to safety that all, more or less, amounted to ways to get people to value their safety. PLEASE! Safety is one of the most basic needs on Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and Maslow believed that this need would be an intrinsic motivator until it was filled (Some in the BBS field openly criticize Maslow, but I don’t know of any who criticize the designation of safety as a basic human emotional need).

We should also be mindful of the fact that the primary role of the human central nervous system is to keep people from harm; it’s hard wired into our bodies to avoid things that will harm us. We even have the fight or flight reflex that floods our bodies with adrenaline to enable us to protect us from danger. I reject the beliefs that people either lack sufficient motivation work safely and/or people behave unsafely because they don’t value their safety. Both fly in the face of proven science and the less hard science of behavioral psychology. People are designed to keep themselves alive.

So why do people behave unsafely? Lots of reasons, actually, but off the top of my head here are some of the most common:

  • Human Error. People just plain screw up. They make mistakes without thinking. People forget to complete a key step, misread an indicator, or accidentally put themselves in harms way. Some believe that human error is our subconscious minds experimenting with the safety of rapidly adapting, but in any case, it’s not about motivation or not valuing our safety.
  • Poor Judgment. Sometimes we deliberately do something risky because we erroneously believe the risk is lower than it is. Why? Because:
    • We are acting on imperfect information—we thought something was true when it wasn’t or we thought something wasn’t true when it was. When we don’t have all the facts it’s tough to make a good call.
    • We’ve taught ourselves that something was safer than it is. Every time we do something unsafe and don’t get hurt we teach ourselves that the unsafe act is in fact safe; so we do it again and again, each time believing that it is less and less risky.
    • We’re Improvising. Too often we don’t really know how to do the job and are forced to figure it out on the fly.
  • Inappropriate Risk Taking. Generally speaking, people take risks incrementally.  People seldom take a huge, stupid, reckless risk before taking smaller less dangerous risks.  Little by little, people’s risk tolerance increases until either something happens that jars them back to better decision making or they cross the injury threshold and hurt (or kill) themselves or others.  Think about how you drive.  As you get more comfortable speeding, talking on the phone, texting, etc. you engage in these activities more frequently or for greater durations until you reach some line known only to you that causes you to rethink your risk taking.  It could be a ticket, or it could be a serious accident.
  • Weak Leadership. Leaders (including the safety practioner, who if not a leader should get out of the business) have the greatest influence on safety than any single individual.  And when it comes to safety, companies tend to get the level of safety that their leaders demand.  If the leaders look the other way when they see safety issues or infractions, or if the leaders roll their eyes when someone voices a safety concern the population will tend to mimic the leader’s and at very least try to act in a way that pleases the leader.

We have to be careful listening to the latest theory from the latest expert (myself not only included but singled out for special scrutiny). Theories are just that: theories, not facts. Theories are opinions irrespective of how loudly they are argued. We need to challenge and questions these assertions if we will ever grow in safety.

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