What’s Wrong With Drinking The Kool-Aid

poison kool aid

By Phil La Duke

Recently ISHN published an article by me (about the uselessness of slogans) that has drawn a fair amount of both criticisms and questions. In one case, a long-time reader and friend posted something of a response, and though I am arrogant, I am not arrogant enough to believe that his LinkedIn post was completed directed at me I am arrogant enough to believe that his post was at least somewhat prompted by the article. A few days later, I received a request to join the network of someone who too read the post/article and voiced her concern on how best to address the tendency on the part of both safety “professionals” (her quotes, not mine) and corporate leaders to push, slogan-based pseudo-psychological time and money wasting activities so pervasive in the safety field.

I believe that there is a great philosophical divide in safety that one can illustrate as a four quadrant model. On one axis we have behavior (I adopt the Anglo spelling of the word because that’s the way most of the world spells it) on one end and process at the other; all safety practitioners fall somewhere along this continuum. The other axis is bordered by individual responsibility versus organizational responsibility. What this means is that everyone who derives a living from safety believes that either injuries are caused by behaviours or process flaws or either the organization or the individual bears primary responsibility for safety. For the record I am a centrist in this debate although like most I can drift to a quadrant depending on my mood or the topic.

safety quadrant

As I have said on many occasions, I ardently believe that there are tools that simply don’t belong in the safety tool box. For example, there are still people out there that believe that disciplining workers for getting injured is a useful tool. While it is certainly appropriate to discipline people for recklessness, I don’t believe that it is ever appropriate to discipline people for human error, that is, something they didn’t intend to do and yet made an honest mistake. This is just one example of a “tool” that I think most people would agree doesn’t belong in the safety toolbox. I am taking the easy way out, of course, but there are a fair many more controversial tools that I could have mentioned but that would simply raise the hackles of many safety professionals and would interfere with an unemotional debate.

I have posted that “it’s just a tool and every tool in the toolbox has a use” is a tired argument and I believe that it is; it’s what people say when they can’t construct a logical argument against a point I make that questions the value of a “safety” activity. Saying “twisting the heads of ducks is just one tool in the safety professional’s toolbox” is just a passive aggressive way of saying “well that’s YOUR opinion”. Say what you want about me, but there is nothing passive about my aggression. I make these points because I want to get to the heart of the issue, and that issue is the alarming frequency with which safety practitioners use superstition and folk wisdom instead of science. Nobody likes to be told that their cherished tools are useless gibberish but at some point we have to call the emperor naked.

Too often we in safety start with a solution and work backward to make it fit the problem; we begin using the tools and methods that we enjoy, find easy to use, or understand. It’s human nature to gravitate to the familiar and safety practitioners are no different. I’ve called techniques psychobabble and antiquated. Some of these “tools” flat-out don’t work and others may still work, but there are far better, more effective and less expensive ways of accomplishing the same thing. I include Behaviour Based Safety as one of these tools. As many of you know, I am an outspoken critic of BBS. Why? because if you ask 10 BBS proponents to define it you are likely to get 11 different responses. How can a methodology be effective when its top proponents and advocates can’t seem to agree on its very definition? I honestly believe that it does lead to a “blame-the-worker” mentality. Not in all cases of course, but the danger is real and always there. When I make these criticisms people don’t defend BBS they say I don’t understand it or that the organizations that I have seen have implemented it inappropriately. We can blame the organization as improperly applying the methods or tools, and we can blame the BBS practitioner as being misguided, or we can blame a host of other things, but the damage is still done.

For the record I don’t believe that everyone who sells or advocates BBS is selling snake oil or a knuckle dragger, but some are. Many believe that what they are doing is the best bet for improving worker safety, other have spent their career selling something that is increasingly dubious and when it comes to safety this is unconscionable. But as my LinkedIn colleague pointed out, clouding the water by filling the C+ suite’s heads with ill-defined schemes for making the workplace safer puts workers at risk.

Many BBS practitioners advocate behaviour modification as a useful tool for “changing our lives for the better” and I couldn’t agree more. But shy of a cult, behaviour modification is typically not successful in changing the behaviour of a population. The workplace is an interactive population and the sciences of sociology, anthropology and other social sciences are ignored by many BBS theorists. Frankly were it possible to use behaviour modification to change the behaviours of a population we could end war, crime and a host of societal issues by using it. We would live in a Utopian society…and yet we don’t.

When I post it is my ardent hope that safety professionals will rethink their practices and ask themselves if what they are doing is returning value that is commensurate with the cost and effort that it requires. Alas, far too many in the safety community are unwilling to even consider change and will always keep tools in their toolbox solely because they like them and are comfortable using them even if they are destructive and dangerous.

How do we make these safety practitioners that their ideas are misguided, nonscientific, and dangerous? Sadly I don’t have any answers. How do you convince Jenny McCarthy that her contention that vaccinations cause autism? People argue that her position is not supported by science but their arguments fall on deaf ears. How do you use logic to sway people from the persistent emotional belief? You don’t. Now, imagine these people who are so emotionally tied to an erroneous belief derive their incomes by getting others to invest in these emotional beliefs. You don’t have another tool in the toolbox you have another glassy-eyed convert lining up for a glass of Kool-Aid. And what’s wrong with someone “drinking the Kool-Aid”? Let us never forget that the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid” refers to the mass murder suicide of the members of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple followers. So what’s wrong with “drinking the Kool-Aid”? It’s laced with cyanide.

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