Joe Safety and the Infinite Toolbox


By Phil La Duke

Last week I had the sheer audacity to question the value of safety slogans in lowering risk and improving the safety of the workplace. The reaction was mixed but passionate. The reaction didn’t surprise me; after all, I frequently question the status quo, but something in the reaction did intrigue me. Safety professionals who disagree with my position but often construct a non-argument that x is a tool and like all tools there is an appropriate time and place and why would I dare condemn the tool simply because someone misuses it. “You wouldn’t throw away a hammer simply because someone misused it, would you?” one asked me. No matter what I question someone weak defender will simply shrug and say “it’s a tool…”

Improper Tool Use

As safety professionals we often warn workers of the dangers of the improper tool use. I know of many workplaces that have prohibited homemade tools, box cutters, and a host of other tools either because the tool isn’t designed or approved for the intended use (it’s out working out of process) or it has been designed and fabricated by someone who wasn’t qualified to do so. To be sure, some tools are absolutely too dangerous for most workers to use and safety professionals are wise to advise Operations to ban them. Not all tools are benign and some our out-and-out dangerous.

Of course the people who sell box cutters will tell you that a box cutter, if properly used, is no more dangerous than a safety knife with a self-retracting blade and they may be correct, but isn’t the point of the hierarchy of controls to substitute the unsafe tool (or a tool that could be misused and put the worker at risk) with something more appropriate? Why is it any different with outmoded thinking, the “tools” that we keep in our toolbox despite the fact that good sense tells us there are better, more effective ways of getting the job done?


If hand and power tools can be come obsolete why is it so hard for us in safety to accept the possibility that our most cherished tools may too someday become obsolete, if they haven’t already done so? Bloodletting was one the height of medical technology and more recently mercury was used to treat syphilis. History is full of scientific and technological dead ends and you can bet that wherever there was a dead end there was a crowd of people whose livelihoods depended on these technologies railed against the new technologies as unnecessary and who swore that it makes no sense to abandon a proven technology just because something is better.

A Double Standard

It would seem that when it comes to tools we safety professionals have something of a double standard. Tools that others use—box cutters and the like—can be easily cast away as dangerous, or outmoded, but then it’s tough to form an emotional connection to a box cutter. Unfortunately, many of our safety tools are based on the flawed premise that: a) the clear majority of injuries are rooted in unsafe behaviors b) these behaviors are deliberate and conscious and c) we can somehow modify these behaviors and control a population. Most tools and practices that I have called into question are rooted in this flawed premise. I will concede that the majority of injuries are caused by unsafe behaviors in fact I would go so far as to say 100% of injuries are caused by unsafe behaviors (if people aren’t doing anything they can’t be harmed, and if what they do harms them than by definition the behavior was unsafe). Okay, but so what? We haven’t exactly discovered the God particle here.   Where I take exception is the belief that these behaviors are deliberate and conscious and that we can somehow modify these behaviors and control a population. Safety incentives that are based on injury reduction, zero injury goals, behavior observations, and safety slogans are all rooted in the beliefs that most unsafe behavior is deliberate and if we just remind people to work safe we can eliminate injuries.

But not all behavior is deliberate. Human fallibility lays at the heart of being human nobody’s perfect and to use tools that assume that people will not make mistakes (or even behavior predictably and rationally) is dangerous and stupid. Furthermore, people will inevitably take risks and many of those risks will be uninformed and/or foolish, no amount of behavior modification will change that. Should all these tools be thrown on the trash heap? I think so. Not because they are occasionally misused by a rare few, but because they are fundamentally flawed and habitually used and perpetuated by a large portion of the safety profession. Are they dangerous? I would have to say yes. Organizations only have so many resources to deploy and if they waste valuable time, money, and energy on snake oil and obsolete tools they put workers at risk. Some tools don’t belong in our toolbox.