I Am Not Your Mother

By Phil LaDuke

For the last couple of months I have been working with various construction crews. Each crew is run by a different supervisor and/or Union leader. I am responsible for safety on the sites I visit and for the most part these crew members to an individual are professional, courteous, and compliant with the rules, but I have found that with many and most of them that I have to preface my interaction with them, with “I’m not your typical safety guy. I’m not here to protect you, to save your life, or to police your behaviors. My job is to give you the information that you will need to make safer choices, what you do with that information is up to you. I’m not your mother, I’m not your boss, and I’m not some crazy safety super-hero crusader. I’m here to have your back, not ride on it.”

This satisfies most of the workers that I am on their side; that I clearly don’t want to die, want them to die, or for me to go to jail because they did something stupid. I’ve built a rapport with these guys (which, by the way is a general neutral term: look it up) and they now feel comfortable with me as a trusted advisor and partner in making decisions that carry minimal risk. All this got me wondering how the world sees the safety guy and how we see ourselves. When our visions are in sync good things happen, or more accurately bad things don’t happen, but when our visions are misaligned—say when we see ourselves as the safety cop and they see us as people who have no real power or authority to discipline them in any way, never mind fire them.

I have openly criticized the old school safety practitioners, and I meant every word I said. I think a handful of narcissistic opportunists more concerned with selling their snake oil have done irreparable harm to worker safety. They have devalued the safety “brand” we all share and as a result companies openly laugh at OSHA, ask “what happens if we don’t?” when told that the law requires them to do this or that, and generally treat the safety practitioner as the village idiot.

We have created the impression in many industries that it’s safety OR production and that is a tough paradigm to break, but we have to. So let me begin by speaking just for myself, let me just say:
I do not save lives. I have never once saved someone’s life. Have I stopped someone from working on energized equipment because it wasn’t locked out? Numerous times, but that a far cry from running into a burning building and pulling an unconscious worker out of a burning building. If tell people that I save lives that makes me a liar and a delusional blowhard. I have helped workers to make choices that may or may not have saved their lives; I can never know for sure.

I have not prevented a single injury. The closest I have come to preventing an injury is removing the physical hazards I find in the workplace, and talking to people about ways to work more safely. I have designed entire safety systems that have greatly reduced the duration of exposure to hazards, and while there is a strong correlation between my work and strong safety improvement, there is no proof of a cause and effect between what I do and the results that the organizations have seen.

I am not the safety cop. It’s not my job to catch workers violating safety rules and tattle. Supervisors are responsible for ensuring that the rules are followed and that there are appropriate consequences when they workers violate the safety rules. I have neither the authority nor the power to fire anyone, and in fact, firing someone often involves a complex chain of events that includes Human Resources, supervisors, and even executives.

I am paid to keep the show going. Beyond all the platitudes and sanctimonious bullshit I get paid by the company, not so much to protect workers from harm because it’s the right thing to do, as I am to keep bad things from happening to the company, its executives, and its shareholders. Worker injuries and their related costs are perhaps the biggest waste and impediment to success in business today, and the reason my job exists is to reduce that waste as much as possible and keep operations humming along efficiently.

I am only as good as the workers’ decisions. I can’t achieve a good safety record for the company unless workers at all levels want it. That means that my performance is only as good as the decisions made by front-line workers, supervisors, middle managers, and executives. I do my best every day to be there for the workers, to have their backs and to help them make safer choices, but if I fail to persuade workers of the importance of the decisions they make or if I fail to give them the tools and skills to make the smart choices the consequences may cripple their body but ultimately they cripple my soul.