I Factory Rat

By Phil La Duke

This week I conclude my series of posts on safety as an outcome. I began these articles by asking you to rethink safety; to think of it not as a discreet element unto itself, but as the outcome of well-managed business systems, particularly in the areas of competency, process capability, risk and hazard management, accountability, and engagement.

Engagement is one of those words that softheaded HR folks use that makes me nervous. It’s not that engagement isn’t important, in fact, it’s critical, but as Dr. Paul Marciano points out in his books Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work and Super Teams true engagement begins with respect, and I am here to tell you respect is in short supply.

Empowerment, employee involvement, human capital, etc. all sound great, until you get to the root of things and understand that in many cases these words mask the company’s true intentions. The idea that a front-line worker would ever have something worth listening to is an absurd concept to many of the salaried ranks, and the contempt with which many salaried workers feel toward their hourly colleagues is often palpable. Where there should be respect there is condescension, and workers can smell it as surely as whatever they stepped in that is currently stuck to the bottom of their Red Wings.

My view of the world is jaded. In 1985 I took a job working the line at General Motors building seats. I was a hardware installer which meant that I would attach seat locks (a 15 lb piece of rough metal that I would use an air wrench to drive two or three fasteners) to the base of a seat so that the seat back could be slid over the peace and secured to the seat back; I screwed for a living and I came home sore. I would attach 1,600 seat locks on an ordinary shift and 1,800 on an overtime shift. The work was dirty, back breaking, and had numerous hazards associated with it (the company at the time did not require steel toed boots, cut resistant gloves, or safety glasses at the time). In short it wasn’t work that everyone could do, so much so that of the oddly 188 people hired the same day that I was less than 90 made it through the first 90 days. But both inside and outside the plant we were seen as second-class citizens, factory rats. A man who worked the line next to me had earned three masters degrees and when I asked him why he didn’t go to work in one of his fields of study he laughed and said he wasn’t going to take a pay cut.

A lot has changed in the 30 years since I worked that line. Automation has replaced some of the most dangerous jobs. Machine controls and processes have become so much more sophisticated that many shop floor employees are almost skilled trades. But one thing that hasn’t changed that much is the attitude by many salaried employees that the people working the front-line are somehow beneath them, that the lack of a college degree is automatically equivalent to a lack of brains.   The attitude is often subtle but it’s still there, and it is far more prevalent among safety professionals than it should be.

I have heard safety professionals openly malign the front-line workers by questioning their intellectual abilities, and describe them as lazy, stupid, or working in their current roles because they don’t have any other choice. In other cases it is more institutional and insidious. I have been asked to dumb down speeches and even training programs because the average Joe on the shop floor won’t get it. And I’ve been told that unless I compared it to NASCAR most of the people will ignore it. Still other safety professionals think so little of the front-line workers that they have appointed themselves surrogate parents. Its in this climate of condescension that we are expecting workers to rise to the occasion and engage as equal partners in making the workplace safer.

Worker engagement begins with respect and respect begins with confronting our own biases and bigotries. And this is an “us” problem not a “them” problem. Too often in the safety community we blame all our ills on others; the execs don’t do this, production won’t do that. But this is an “us” problem, the only way we can get everyone truly engaged we have to stop acting as if we are the only people who care about safety and the only ones capable of making a difference in safety. We have to stop moaning about how no one will own safety but us and invite others into our world.

It’s impossible to fake respect and until we truly learn to respect all levels of the organization engagement is impossible. So how do we break this cycle? We can begin by expecting more from the shop floor, and warehouses, and shipyards, and steel mills. We can stop acting so surprised when the front-line workers make good suggestions. We can end schmaltzy child safety poster contests and overly parental awareness campaigns. Treat the workers like equals. Ultimately demand great things from workers and engaged workers will deliver.

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