By Phil La Duke
Let me begin by saying that the title is trite, and sounds like a slogan, I have to say I thought of rephrasing it but ultimately decided that however much it made me seem like I was trying to be clever or cute that was not my intent. It pains me to know that it countless workplaces there are probably signs with this slogan.
I don’t mean it as a slogan, I mean it as a call to action. Too many of us think of safety as this passive event. Nothing happened and therefore we’re safe. We shift from behaviors to culture to risk to whatever cockamamie idea is slowly percolating in the mind of some PhD who has never done an honest day’s work in his life. I will confess that this post grew out, to some degree, of my post Zero Injuries Are Nothing to Celebrate, where my principle point was that, while it’s great that nobody died, what did you do to prevent it. What one thing, or multiple things did you do that was the proximate cause that nobody died? Scarce few had answers so they instead focused on my heresy that a celebration of a perfect safety record was soft-headed.
So what can we do to act with purpose to make the workplace safer? I get criticized a lot for only pointing out what’s wrong without offering solutions; to that I say: a) I raise these points because they need to be raised, b) nobody else seems to be raising them, and c) I’m not your paid consultant so I am under no obligation to give you free advice, but that’s just me getting cranky. The truth is, there isn’t one true path to safety. Somehow (and I have my characteristically strong opinions as to exactly how, but that is for another article) “Safety” has become a quasi-religion with the cult of behavior, or the cult of Gellar, or the cult of…well you get my point. I’m not going to get into a debate over whether or not there is one true religion, but I will say that, having worked across many industries that safety means very different things depending on your industry, your location, and your size.
If you work in a high-consequence industry like oil and gas—where a single slip up can have catastrophic results—you tend to have a very different view of what’s safe and therefore a much lower tolerance for risk than say a shoe retailer. So for me, or anyone else, to offer universally applicable suggestions is irresponsible to the extreme. But I will say this: we have to understand how what we do is affecting the risk of a person being hurt by hazards in our workplaces.
Take slips, trips, and falls for example. Not a big concern for a chemical company whose biggest threat to worker and public safety is lethal chemicals shooting a death cloud over the surrounding community, but a huge concern for people working at heights or around sharp materials or bio hazards. So what YOU think might not be a big deal (and you are correct) could be a huge deal for someone else.
Safety as Superstitious Nonsense
We do so much in safety, from awareness campaigns to Job Safety Analysis (and every day some genius comes up with something else for us to do) that we lose sight of the key components of safety; we can’t separate the nice to haves from the absolute must haves. Let’s take an easy example: A worker ascends a step ladder 15 feet. We have two probabilities to worry about 1) the probability that he will fall and 2) the probability that if he falls he will be killed (or seriously injured but for our example let’s just say killed) is 98% (I don’t believe in absolute certainties) so let’s now work through how we lower that risk from 98% to as close to 0% (again I don’t believe in absolutes) as is practicable (don’t mistake this for practical). Now bear with me here as I work the problem backwards. If we have the worker tie off how much does that reduce the risk? To answer that we would have to know the failure rate of all the fall protection components, but for our purposes let’s say it cuts it down to 20% can we live with a 20% chance that the worker might bang his head, have a lanyard break, or have some other unforeseen hazard come into play? Probably not, so we add…a children’s poster contest to remind him not to die? A pizza party if he doesn’t fall?
No in our case we would probable decide that a ladder is the wrong tool for the job and use a man lift. Let’s say this reduces the chances of him falling to his death to 2%. Obviously all my percentages are WAY too high, but the point remains we need to know, at a minimum, if what we are doing is causing safety.
We have to stop concentrating on preventing injuries and focus on causing safety. Let us never forget that everything we do should have a direct consequence of causing safety. Sure awareness campaigns may have some effect on workplace safety, but is this really where you should be spending your time and money? In environments where you have high turnover of workers who tend to have a limited awareness of the dangers around them, then it may well be, but if you are in a factory where people do repetitive jobs that cause their minds to wander or where they are more likely to be injured by a fatigue-induced mistake it probably isn’t.
The most difficult job in safety is that there isn’t a magic formula for getting things right. We have to think. We have to create solutions that work in OUR environments and stop thinking that anyone out there has it all figured out and all we need do is to copy their solution and we will be alright. This is what makes it so difficult for people to move from one industry to another. What is important in mining may be insignificant in retail. What’s worse is even within our own industry what works for our completion may not work for us at all. It’s too bad really, because my experience as a person who helps companies build safety management systems and infrastructures I’ve seen some pretty cool things that are completely unworkable in other industries, geographic regions, or sites.
Unfortunately for most of us, we are barraged by people telling us the opposite; that they have figured out the magic bullet and for the right price they can sell us a solution that works for everyone like magic! I’ve reviled these people as unethical snake-oil salesmen and some of them are indeed thieves. But more of them believe what they’re saying, which makes them more dangerous. It’s tempting to buy in to a philosophy that just requires you to turn off your brain and drink the Kool-Aid, especially if our boss has a big vat of it on his or her desk.
It is incumbent on us to make every dollar spent on safety count and if we are spending our time and money foolishly we could get someone killed. So again, before you start a new initiative, or even continue the things you’re doing, ask yourself, “how does this cause safety?”