Safety Sergeants and Invisible Risks


By Phil La Duke

In some respects the safety practitioner is like an army drill sergeant.  At first that seem like an odd coupling, but the drill sergeant has to train people to act in a way that is clearly not in their best interests and in fact, carry the risk of getting them killed to serve a greater good.  Safety practitioners, conversely, are often charged with persuading workers not to take risks that people don’t see as all that dangerous. So while the goals of the drill sergeant and the safety practitioner are at cross purposes achieving those goals both rely to varying extents on one’s ability to persuade another.

In too many cases, the safety professional misses the difference between the role of the drill sergeant and that of the safety practitioner. These safety sergeants believe that their role is to berate and bully people into following the safety rules and thereby achieving the state of safety.  Of course, lacking any context for the rule, workers tend to ignore the rule when safety sarge is out of sight.  What’s worse, is the that workers’ real bosses often encourage the workers to work unsafely as long as Sergeant Safety isn’t around.  These safety sergeants are generally seen for what they are: soft headed buffoons with little man syndrome.  This isn’t a knock on those of us who are vertically challenged some people are little on the inside, or are so eaten up with insecurity that they could be 7’ tall and still have little man syndrome.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense for people to place themselves in harm’s way, after all, our central nervous system is designed to keep us alive, and when we put ourselves in harm’s way for any length of time we get stressed out.  To be sure there is a lot to be said for our love affair with risk taking, but I’ve already written a considerable amount on the subject and I don’t feel like rehashing it here.  It is fascinating how people are simultaneously driven from and drawn to risk but not fascinating enough for me to explore, at least not right now.

Make Risk Visible

I’ve found the key to persuading people to invest in safety (whether that be a financial investment or a personal investment in making better choices) i to make the invisible risks visible.  This is more tricky than one might suppose.  We are surrounded by hazards and most of the hazards alone pose little risk of harming us. In my experience, which for the record I make no claim to its universality (I just love when some mouth breather reading this tries to argue matters of my experience as if some yahoo that I’ve never met is going to convince me that I didn’t experience something or that my perception is completely flawed because it doesn’t support their meth-head view of the world) injuries don’t result from a singular cause, rather they come from interrelated causes and effects working in concert.  So we find ourselves in a complex network of hazards, interactions, and potential catalysts and every time we emerge unscathed we convince ourselves that we were never at risk. It’s not unlike the dumb-asses who, when faced with mounting gambling debts make bigger and bigger bets in a pathetic attempt to get even (and then when they DO win it back they decide not to leave the table because they are on a roll.

Probability Isn’t Intuitive

The problem with risk of injuries is that it’s all probability.  In fact, safety can (and should) be defined as the probability that one will interact with a hazard and emerge unharmed.  The greater the probability of harm the less safe the interaction.  Unfortunately most people don’t get probability.  If you toss a coin the odds of it coming up heads is 50:50, but if you have tossed the coin nine times and it comes up heads all nine times, what are the odds of it coming up heads on the tenth toss? It’s still 50:50 but it can be tough to convince someone who doesn’t understand probability, and if you think that there aren’t many of those people you haven’t spent enough time at a Vegas craps table watching people bet Aces.  Of course the odds of injury aren’t as clean as the odds of dice rolls or against flopping a nut flush; calculating the odds of remaining unhurt depends on knowing all the variables and this is seldom the case.

Doing Our Best

Forgetting the schizophrenic crap storm that will likely follow me saying so, in all practicality we won’t eliminate all injuries.  At this point about a third of you stopped reading and are rounding up pitchforks and lighting torches to drive me from the safety village.  To those of you who remain I say this, acknowledging that zero injuries isn’t possible from a practical standpoint doesn’t obviate the philosophical position that zero injuries is the only acceptable goal.  It’s a dumb argument made by dull people with too much time on their hands. What I think we can all agree on is that while some companies may have achieved zero injuries this accomplishment, while laudable, is a poor predictor of future performance.  We still have to do our best to get as close to zero harm as possible and that is only possible through the relentless search for hazards.  The most successful approaches to safety are those that focus on reducing risk by identifying hazards and containing and correcting those risks to ensure people are subjected to minimal risk of injuries.

If you are still focusing on injuries you are really fooling yourself.  Trying to make the workplace safe by focusing on injuries is like trying to cure cancer by shaking a gourd over your leg; it might work, but if it does it’s pure luck and coincidance.