by Phil La Duke
You’re corporate incident rate is so low that you are the envy of your industry, so where do you go from here? Despite the ever increasing death traps that we call workplaces, it’s a valid question that some fortunate companies have to deal with. You could chase that last delta and spend more and more money achieving less and less meaningful results, or you could shift your focus away from body counts to levels of risk.
Am Managing Indicators Or Risk?
I go on a fair amount of pointless sales calls where safety managers beam with pride over their sterling safety metrics and puff up their chests and brag about this supposed innovative practice or another. Silently I ask myself is things are running so well, why am I here. If you don’t need help, why in the hell are you wasting my time? But they do need help. Many are still under the mistaken impression that the absence of injuries equals the presence of safety. They manage numbers not hazardous conditions. That’s right hazards. As in anything that can cause harm. I am so sick of listening to the debate over whether injuries are caused by behavior or by process flaws I could scream. Injuries are caused by both.
I was going to write this post last week but I injured my hand opening a bottle of wine. I was using an old fashioned cork-screw and the cork broke in half with the bottom half of it lodged in the neck of the bottle. Was the corkscrew the proper tool? Yes. Was it in good working order? Yes. Was I qualified to use one? Yes (believe it or not my late mother showed me how to use a corkscrew decades ago). So there I was with half a cork in a bottle of wine, what should I do? The process clearly failed me, so now what? Throw the bottle of wine away? Think again, I have had many corks break off in similar situations so I wasn’t even going to consider this option (one could say my behavior failed me and one could shove that bottle of wine where the sun don’t shine). I carefully chose the most stable portion of the remaining cork and began the process anew. Things were progressing swimmingly and just before the cork popped I notice a hairline crack in the neck of the bottle that was previously hidden. Before I could react the neck shattered cutting my hand and fingers in 9 spots. I called a friend who took me to the emergency room where I received 5 stiches and had 7 lacerations glued shut. For the record, I hadn’t had anything to drink prior to this bottle so alcohol was not a factor. On the plus side I was able to learn how to use the talk to text feature of my computer.
I am here to tell you that having someone observe me opening the wine bottle and writing up a card would not have prevented this injury and may have gotten someone stabbed in the eye with a corkscrew. Sure we could have traced this incident back to the winery, the bottle maker, and the cork manufacturer even to the grapes themselves, but in the end scarce little could have protected me and been worth the cost of preventing something that, while serious, was never going to happen enough to warrant spending time and money on it. Was this a system problem or behavior problem? Who cares? If something similar happens in the workplace we shouldn’t spend time and energy cyphering out something where the probability of it happening again are miniscule.
We need to do a better job understanding the things that cause safety. That’s right; “cause safety” not cause injuries. We have to stop focusing on what happened that caused an injury and start worrying about the things we can do to lower risk. We need to investigate WHY we are below industry average instead of patting ourselves on the back and thinking about how great we are doing.
Of all the offerings out there that we have cherished for so long we have to ask ourselves these simple questions?
- Does doing this activity really lower our risk of injuries?
- How does it do so?
- How much does it cost to do so?
- Is the cost worth the reduction in risk?
- Am I doing this out of ego, tradition, because I like it, or to keep people busy?
Let’s take my favorite, soft-headed safety practice and subject it to this scrutiny. Does having a children’s poster contest lower our risk of injuries? No it doesn’t. Now some of you are squirming and clucking your tongues thinking it raises awareness. In truth, children’s safety poster contests raise awareness in a 6-year old that mommy or daddy have a real chance of dying at work. What kind of a sick bastard thinks it’s a good idea to torture a 6-year old with that thought? Screw awareness. I was aware that the neck of a wine bottle could shatter but this knowledge did nothing to keep me from getting injured. I have never met any properly trained worker who was injured because they weren’t aware of the dangers. In fact, studies have shown that making people focus too intently on a hazard will actually CAUSE mistakes.
Like the posters. Most of what we do in safety costs money, takes time and organization, consumes resources, and returns nothing.