Safety Is Hard Work


By Phil La Duke

Recently I experienced a personal loss. It was the kind of loss that leaves behind the kind of profound emptiness that only death can bring. Since the particulars of the loss aren’t related to workplace safety nor anyone’s business I won’t go into the specifics, but these are the kind of life events that get you thinking.

In the Safety function we deal with loss and to some extent we become preoccupied with preventing loss. But I don’t feel like talking about loss this week. Instead I want to talk about expectations.

Recently, a leader looked at me and said, “when are we going have the workers take responsibility for their safety? That’s the program I want!” A program. A gimmick. The next big thing. A magic bullet. That’s what too many leaders (and frankly too many Safety practitioners) want; the quick fix.

First of all, let’s stop blaming the culture. We as leaders create the culture so maybe it’s time stop bellyaching about culture and get down to brass tacks. If you have leaders—and I include safety practitioners as leaders—need to recalibrate our expectations relative to safety. So I thought I would put down a couple of thoughts and ask you to reflect on them as we speed toward the New Year.

Stop Obsessing on Other People’s Behaviors

How many of you have spouses, partners, or significant others? Kids? Do they ever do things that they know irritate, annoy, or disappoint you? If you can’t control THEIR behaviors how do you expect to control an entire population’s behaviors? After all, these are the people you know the best. You know what buttons to push, what motivates them, their deepest fears, and greatest desires and yet they do things you wish they wouldn’t. How then do you expect to influence people over whom you have no economic control, no power to fire or discipline them, and many of whom resent and dislike you for no more reason than because you are an authority figure, and they detest authority? It’s misguided and no matter how many puffed-up, self-important, “experts” with cheese and sawdust in their heads tell you differently, you will still have to come to grips with the fact we can’t control others behaviors.

Do Your @#$%ing Job

Why is it so difficult for people to do their jobs? I’m not talking about the rank and file, rather the managers and supervisors too lazy to stop a fork lift driver and assertively admonish him or her for blowing through a stop sign? As a leader our primary responsibility needs to be keeping the work place safe. This isn’t propaganda or a platitude it’s how the world is supposed to work. When we walk past hazards and say or do nothing we are accepting money for a job we aren’t doing we’re stealing.

Insist On A Clean And Orderly Workplace

It’s puzzling to me that people who insist on an immaculate home and a perfectly manicured lawn can come to work and become pigs; throwing everything from half eaten food to scrap parts on the floor. People who would have a brain hemorrhage if the decorative candles in the living room are out of place will gladly toil in squalor and filth. Personally I live in squalor and work from home so perhaps it’s time for me to practice what I preach.


So many of us work so incredibly hard trying to find an easy way to make the workplace safer when if we just concentrated on doing the three to five things that would make the greatest difference in safety. I don’t know what those things are, but I do know that too many of us have far more than we can effectively do, and in cases when people have more work than they can do they tend to sort their work in the following way: 1)What they enjoy doing 2) what they can do quickly 3) what is easy to do 4) what takes a lot of time 5) what is difficult and finally 6) what they dislike doing. This is a horrible and dangerous way to prioritize safety tasks. Concentrate on what’s most impactful; work hard, make a difference.


Where do the leaders get these dopey ideas about safety? They get them from us. We go to conferences or read books and we get the leaders all excited about things that we really can’t deliver. Just because some dough head who has never seen the inside of a mine, or walked a shop floor, or stood in a parts and distribution center churns out another book doesn’t mean we have to evangelize the ignorance and stupidity. We need to clearly articulate a message of what Safety can and cannot do. We need to reset their expectations.