By Phil La Duke
The safety is well known safety lore, how old man (Éleuthère Irénée) du Pont was a pioneer in worker safety because he a) manufactured dynamite and b) employed family and friends. As much as anyone, up to an including, Herbert William Heinrich, Du Pont has come to symbolize safety, particularly Behavior Based Safety (BBS). I (along with many others, including OSHA) have openly criticized BBS for its failings, not the least of which is the tendency of BBS to encourage people to under-report injuries and for…well not working very well.
I’ll warn you, this will sound strange coming from me, but it occurs to me that while many of the most devoted BBS fanatics are soft-headed, mouth-breathing, imbeciles one or two of them may not be that far off. Stay with me. Let’s say you are a 19th century manufacturer of dynamite, using rudimentary, pre-modern manufacturing techniques. Your business is basically cooking up a batch of goo that you dry into a power and package into explosive sticks, that—if you are lucky—won’t blow up before you get them to the customer. If everyone involves doesn’t do exactly as they are supposed to the whole operation literally blows up. This isn’t a case where if someone messes up we have a near miss, or a first aid case, or even a single fatality, rather someone messes up and we’re scrapping chunks of uncle Pierre off a church steeple 2 miles away. So people are careful. REAL careful, the supervisors make sure everyone is careful, the managers make sure people are careful, and the workers themselves remind each other to be careful. Why? Because in the words of Tom Waits, “It’s the same with men as with horses and dogs, nothing wants to die.”
Things are much the same, or at least they should be, in high consequence industries. If a single error can result in another Chernobyl or Texas City or Deepwater Horizon then it makes sense that every creature with a pulse at the facility has a vested interest in making sure nothing goes wrong and causes an international disaster. So yeah, if you are in a one strike and everyone within a 20 mile radius is out kind of industry, maybe some sort of BBS makes sense.
Except most of us don’t work in those kind of industries and so our corporate cultures are a lot more tolerant of risk; I used to build seats for General Motors (I literally screwed for a living and came home sore) on the assembly line. If I made a mistake nobody much cared. Sure if I created scrap (like if I tore the fabric on a seat—which incidentally I never did) someone might chew my butt out for ruining a $30 part, but everybody knew that it was just a piece of cloth and that GM could spare the $30 bucks). The idea that I could screw up and get someone hurt was pretty laughable, and the idea that I could screw up and kill 30 or so co-workers was beyond absurd; and even in the most bizarre, science fiction scenario a zombie apocalypse was thousands of times more likely that a mistake I might make in the assembly of the front seat of a Cadillac would wipe out Southwest Detroit.
And yet the safety pundits want us to treat building seats, transporting parcels, driving busses, and erecting sky scrapers with the same scrutiny and care as if we were cooking 19th century dynamite.
There are cultures out there where worker’s safety matters. Not out of self-preservation but out of genuine decency (there are far more out there that pretend that they value workers because it’s the right thing to do, but in general that is a steaming heap of freshly squeezed bull excrement). I’ve seen these places and they are remarkable, but I’ve seen far more hellish landscapes where pride is an alien concept and safety is just something management talks about.
I used to work in Organizational Development, and in the course of that phase of my career I had the pleasure of meeting and working with some genuine screwballs. It was a fantastic experience that made me the person I am today. There are two incidents from those days that resonate with me (and by resonate, I mean in the true sense; they echo through my mind sometimes loudly, sometimes barely audible they ebb and they flow, but they are always with me. The first is when a woman who came out of healthcare came to work with us. She was all business but a sweet and generous woman, but the work weighed heavily on her. Until one day the burden seemed to have been magically lifted, a friend asked her what precipitated this transformation and she smiled softly and said, “ I realized last night that if I make a mistake nobody is going to die.” You see, she had worked for many years training nurses and other clinicians in the tools and techniques of medicine and surgery. If, for example, she inadvertently left out a step, or forgot to mention a certain critical task a patient could die. But the work we did was different, we were writing supervisory skills training so the worst case scenario if we made a mistake was a crappy supervisor remained a crappy supervisor. In fact, it wasn’t even THAT consequential. If we made a mistake and left something out, 95% of the course remained effective, so in a way the worst case scenario was that a crappy supervisor might still greatly improve. For all intents and purposes if we made a mistake not only would nobody be harmed, but in most cases most people wouldn’t even notice. The second incident was related to me second hand by someone whose friend had worked in a candy factory. This friend of a friend was something of a perfectionist and she believed that her training had to be 100% correct; perfection was the only acceptable goal and it was killing her until one day it occurred to her: “It’s only candy”. As I have said, I often think of these two scenarios and I think it applies to safety: the stronger the probability that someone will die from even the smallest deviation from the process the greater the discipline to that process must be.
I’m not saying that we should become cavalier about our jobs and not worry about predicting and preventing injuries, but I AM saying that we can’t live in a safety bubble. Just because du Pont (the person, not the company—I’m not looking to get sued here) did something and it worked doesn’t mean that it will work for us, or even if it will for us that it is worth the time and expense to pursue it. I’m not defending “save enough” approaches to safety, but every redundant safety system we put into place costs us money. Those of us who have to have a hardscrabble, knock-down drag-out fight for a $50 expenditure knows that it is getting harder and harder to justify every purchase so if we are looking to make our workplace as safe as it should be we need to spend it smarter and more effectively. And by the way it wouldn’t kill you to spend some of it on me; I work too hard not to get paid for what I do.
So ask yourself this, am I making dynamite or candy, am I building seats or teaching someone surgery? Does this approach to safety REALLY fit my environment? Stop trying to turn you’re organization into the dynamite factory; some of us just make candy.