By Phil La Duke
Most of us know the dangers of combustible dust, how when there is a critical mass of fine explosive material—whether it be flour or sawdust—all it takes is a spark to set of catastrophe. But there is an equally dangerous situation in the world of safety, the combustible dust of thought. Combustible Dust Thought is prevalent in LinkedIn discussion groups and other safety forums. I call it combustible dust thought because it’s old and dusty defense of obsolete or just plain simple-minded thinking and practices, and combustible because the old “safety by experience” “we don’t need no education” cranks who blow up at the merest mention of a new idea that isn’t theirs. The Crank Coxes of the world belch out bile and hatred of anything new in safety in bellicose mockery of the modern safety professional.
Take for example “Crank Cox” (a pseudonym of course and an amalgamation of numerous persons I have encountered. Let me put it this way, if you are reading this and are offended because you think I’m talking about you then I probably am. Feel the hurt and let it go). Crank is a soft-headed blowfish of a man who trolls the discussion topics looking for things over which he can react to in self-righteous indignation. How dare, he asks, can anyone suggest that anything he does do might be a better way? After all, Crank has over thirty years in safety and that should qualify him in all things safety, he’s SEEN things you know? Why should he listen to anything that he doesn’t already know? In his decades of experience he has learned all there is to learn and people with new ideas are just “college boys” who don’t really work for a living. Crank is a not so bright dinosaur, a vestigial organ from the days when industry didn’t really expect a lot from safety professionals. A time when a degree in a safety-related discipline was neither required nor expected. A time when safety was where you put people who couldn’t do much right but you didn’t want to fire them, “put ‘em in safety; what can it hurt?”
Doing Something Poorly For 35 Years Isn’t Valuable Experience
Whenever I take on one of these sub-simian mouth breathers invariably he puffs up his chest and through a face ravaged by too many Chesterfields and cheap malt liquor they go off on me because they have been in safety since before I was eating solid food. They go on and on about how they have worked at such and such for 40 odd years as if that proves that they have mastery of something. I started piano lessons at age 4 and have plunked on the ivories ever since. Despite almost 50 years experience on the piano I really and truly suck at it. I stopped taking lessons at around 18 and much as I enjoy playing I just don’t have the discipline it takes to practice several hours a day to keep my skills sharp. Similarly, I have been surfing since 1996 and am arguably the world’s worst surfer (it doesn’t help that I’m 1,000 miles from the nearest decent surf spot) but on paper I am an experienced surfer with almost 20 years of paddling out. So forgive me if I am unimpressed by someone who likely spent the better part of 4 decades sitting on an ass the texture of cottage cheese being squeezed through a plastic bag in an office with “Safety” stenciled on the door like some sick inside joke.
Safety Ain’t What I Used to Be
Safety is a relatively new function and when it was created in the mid 70’s it was typically an assignment tacked on to someone’s existing job. There were no instructions, or templates for doing a good job. Most safety people were expected to make it up as they went and predictably many were successful while many more were not. This “do whatever you think is right” climate created a host of really creative ways of blaming injured workers for getting hurt. It also promulgated the idea that injuries were inevitable. Safety was like a sick joke, “what do all injured workers have in common? They need to be more careful.” It was also this climate where the seeds of the worker as lazy, stupid, and disobedient children were sown. Truth be told industry didn’t expect much from the folks in safety back then, but that was then and this is now. Now the safety function is expected to partner with operations and reduce operating risk and to devise and deploy interventions designed to directly mitigate the risks associated with doing one’s job. In short, today’s most successful companies expect tangible results from the safety group and these safety groups deliver. The Crank Coxes of the world have been driven out of industry and have settled into half-assed consultancies where they have hung out their greasy shingles and lay in wait for customers who don’t know any better.
This Brush Doesn’t Have Tar Enough For All
I don’t want to imply that everyone who has spent decades in Safety are automatically Crank Coxes. In fact, most of the people who have taught me the greatest lessons and provided me with the deepest insights about safety have half a century or more in the field. While it’s true that we stand on the shoulders of giants, it’s equally true that just because you’re tall doesn’t mean you’re a giant, you could be little more than an oversized goof-ball with hurt feelings and a big mouth. So what creates a Crank Cox? Two things: fear and stupidity (or the all too rare combination of the two). The Crank Coxes have adopted a pattern of dysfunctional behavior that has garnered them some measure of success—think of the most dysfunctional turd of a person, a complete teardown of a person that adds nothing to the workplace but carbon dioxide and occasionally methane—and continued success is predicated on nothing changing in the workplace. These people fear new ideas because real change will expose their inadequacies and may force them out to pasture. If they are incapable of change then the only option left to them is to yowl and attack those advocating change. Some of these people are simply too stupid (not ignorant which implies an honest and correctable lack of information, but true belligerence to education) to learn the emerging skills and ideas presented and rather than try to learn or admit their lack of understanding it’s easier and more comfortable to slobber and snarl in discussion groups like closed-head injured bull mastiffs than it is to admit that maybe they lack the chops to continue in this field and need to take their cantankerous asses to the local Walmart where they can greet people as they enter.
Is This Really A Threat?
I have had plenty of discussions with people who waive me off as Chicken Little. They roll their eyes and say, “just ignore them”. These people don’t see a problem with the Crank Coxes of the world. They say that nobody takes them seriously. They say that these people are just harmless blowhards who are just one cheese pizza away from ceasing to be a problem to anyone or anything. To them (and to you who agree with them) I say, with sincerest respect, on the contrary, these people, like a rabid raccoon shot dead in the street, are as dangerous to our field now then they were just years ago. As long as we allow these miscreants to shout down new ideas, make personal attacks in LinkedIn, and otherwise shape the debate of safety thought these people will drive the people who we most need to participate in these forums forever away. Unless each of us confront the Crank Coxes and sweep there poisonous combustible dust out of our field they will continue to speak for us and ruin our reputation and make us irrelevant. Do I sound like an alarmist? Perhaps, but I know of at least 10 leaders in the field of safety (many with decades of truly useful and valuable experience) who have been forever driven from the forums by these barking rats.
What About Freedom Of Speech?
Invariably posts like this will elicit emails questioning my support of free speech. For the record I wholeheartedly believe in the freedom of speech, but freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from the consequences of said speech. Can we support a teacher’s freedom of speech when he or she teaches children fairy tales as history? Can we support a researcher’s right to free speech when he or she falsifies findings because he or she earnestly believes that given just a bit more time his or her conclusions would eventually be supported? We live in a world where wikipidiots believe that all opinions (no matter how lunatic fringe) are as valid as carefully researched facts. As in so many other areas of life, we get what we put up with, and if we put up with the Crank Coxes of the world then we can’t exactly cry foul when the world sees all safety professionals through that same lens.
Disclaimer: Crank Cox is a fictitious amalgamation of numerous piles of steamy excrement of people that I have been met. Any resemblance to any person living or deceased is purely coincidental. No animals were harmed in the writing of this blog, although if I catch that squirrel that has been poaching my tomatoes I will wring its little neck.