We Made The Mess We’re In

By Phil La Duke

I’ve started this blog post six times. Each time I begin I get so despondent over the state of safety that I can’t continue.  Maybe my seventh attempt will be a charm.  This will be less a coherent narrative and more like Martin Luther nailing his points on the cathedral door.

    1. We can’t succeed with leaders who don’t support safety. I can already hear the applause from frustrated safety practitioners from around the globe, but before we blame the leaders we need ask ourselves why leaders don’t support safety. Ask 100 leaders if they support safety and they will answer unanimously that they support safety 100%. But as I have explored in previous articles that while everyone supports safety there is a huge gulf between philosophical support (“I believe that everyone should go to work in the same shape they came into work!”) and operational support (“shutting down production for 30 minutes will cost a fortune but I refuse to risk injuring a worker for the sake of production.”). We need both kinds of support for safety from leadership.
    2. Leaders won’t support what they don’t understand. As near as I can tell, there isn’t a single MBA program that teaches the fundamentals of workers safety, and even if there were, they would probably get it wrong. So how do leaders learn about safety? From us, and let’s face it, a lot of us are boobs without the sense God gave geese. We have promulgated the idea that a) most injuries are caused by unsafe behaviors, and b) behavior modification allows us to increased desired behaviors through a system of rewards; ergo c) if Safety provides sufficient incentives for working safely and disincentives for not working safely we will greatly improve the safety of our workplace.
    3. We taught leaders the wrong things about safety. Even if we no longer believe this (or never did) this belief system is so deeply ingrained into our leader’s view of safety that we need to make a concerted effort to reeducate them. Now at this point some of the dimmer bulbs among you are questioning what is wrong with the idea that if we can only make people follow the rules we can have safety? I’ve said it before and I will say it again:
        1. All injuries are caused by behavior; get over it. When was the last time someone you know got injured doing nothing? Sometime last never? So the idea that somehow the safety of one’s actions are binary (safe or unsafe is absurd)
        2. Many behaviors are not conscious decisions. Have you ever been distracted? Driving along deep in thought about the worries of the day, and then suddenly realize that you blew through a stop sign without even slowing down? Have you ever been in a traffic accident? Did you do it on purpose? The reality is this: no amount of behavior modification will keep us from making mistakes and yes causing or being a victim or accidents. (I’ve heard safety professionals smugly announce that they don’t believe in accidents. Well I do. I also believe in imbeciles who think they can magically reprogram the human brain.
        3. Safety can’t be measured in body counts. We as a profession have done a stellar job convincing people that safety is the absence of injury; if we can’t see it then it doesn’t exist. I live in Detroit and I am proud of my home town. That having been said, I can take your children and leave them over night in a bad part of town in an unlocked door. By the body count reasoning, if nothing bad happened to them, then they were safe. If I still haven’t convinced you that there is a boat load more to safety than people not dying load your kids in the car and set a course for Detroit. We’ll try my little experiment, and there’s a pretty good chance that maybe nothing bad will befall them.
        4. Rules don’t trump a robust process and good training. Assuming you still believe in the Hierarchy of controls (or at the very least believe that we implement controls so that people won’t get harmed) then you must accept the fact that when someone is injured one or more of our controls failed. It’s also worth noting that the average Boob-Based Safety proponent spends most of his or her time working on the BOTTOM of the Hierarchy of Controls the very things that we have been saying for over a century are the LEAST effective way of protecting a worker. So effectively, we have taught our leaders to spend the most effort on the least effective ways to keep people safe. WE ARE GENIUSES!!! While we’re at it why not increase production by shortening the work day and smashing the automation?
        5. Past performance is a poor indicator of future success. I once had an irascible attendee at one of my speeches who insisted that a lack of injuries was the very definition of safety. I responded by congratulating him. When he asked why, I explained that according to his line of thinking he could never die in a car crash since he had been driving for decades and had never died in a car crash. “Hell,” I added, “you just might be immortal since you haven’t died yet.”


    4. We made this mess; we have to clean it up. This has just struck terror into the hearts of many safety professionals. Just when we get leaders to listen to us and to “get it” we have to reeducate them on exactly what “it” is. They will think we’re idiots, and you know what? In most cases they just might be right.