Why I Tend To See The Worst In Safety

I’m posting a day early. No reason really, except that I had it done and I tend to screw up the timed publication.  This was prompted by an email that called me rude and disrespectful to safety professionals. If I am rude I apologize. If I am disrespectful its because I was taught you earn respect by giving respect.  This blog is not now, nor will it ever be a love letter or a letter of appreciation to safety professionals for all the hard work we do.  Most people work hard.  Most people work harder than us. And a hell of a lot of people count on us to keep them alive. It’s a sacred trust and every time someone is hurt or killed we have let the organization down. So with that let the hate mail begin.

By Phil La Duke

If you’ve read my work, it has been a seemingly nonstop barrage on the state of safety and/or the ineptitude of safety professionals themselves. A reasonable person could ask, what the hell is wrong with me; if I hate safety so much why do I stay in the profession?

A friend of mine was a policeman and worked his way all the way from a rookie to becoming chief of police of a medium sized town that was a stopover for both major human trafficking and crystal meth rings, in other words not exactly Mayberry. I once asked him if he liked being a cop and his response surprised me. “Hell no,” he said “when you’re a cop you always see people at their worst and if you’re not careful you start to see the worst in everyone.” I had never thought of it that way, and think about it whether you are pro policeman or anti policeman you have to admit that when you typically encounter them you’re having a pretty crumby day—you’re reporting a burglary, getting pulled over, or they show up at your door because a neighbor complained about your barking dog. Or worse yet you are getting arrested.

For me, I have spent over 25 years in safety in one capacity or another and I tend to have become somewhat jaded in my opinion of safety as a field and of some of the safety “professionals”. When I worked in the auto plants in 1985, we had a safety guy and a Union Safety rep. The safety guy was the brother-in-law of the plant superintendent and was given the job to keep him off the line; he did nothing.  His previous job was that of a hair dresser and he had no experience or education in safety.  The Union safety rep worked the line and was only relieved for Union meetings. He too had no background or education in safety, and he too did nothing in the furtherance of safety.   But that was 1985, and a lot of progress has been made since then.

I’ve spoken out loudly against some of the top names in Safety, some have accused me of jealousy I can assure you that’s not the case. I’ve met these meat heads (not as some fan coming up after they spoke) but before and after we shared speaking engagements), looked them in there arrogant condescending eyes, spoken to them at length; enough to judge the measure of their character and found them wanting. In most I found people more interested in bilking companies out of their safety dollars than actual thought leaders who wanted to engage in debate. I found them to be skeazy snake-oil salesmen with the black twisted hearts of society’s worst.  They lie, or more accurately perpetuate 100 year old research and they convince safety professionals who had ought to know better. There have been exceptions, Christopher Vallee and Dave Janney from Taproot are great guys with a great system in which they believe and, what’s more important, works very well.  Probably most notable were Chris Goulart whose first words to me were “Phil La Duke? I hate you.” We talked at length and eventually became good friends despite radically different ideas about safety.  We still are at opposite ends of the spectrum, and neither of us were swayed by the other’s position, but I respect Chris and believe that at least he believes in what he is doing and I while I still think there’s a better way, Chris isn’t going to sell you something that will get you killed.  Another excellent exception to the pundit as shitbag rule is Wayne Pardy, with whom I was on the roster of a large Canadian Safety show.  Wayne and I had debated various points of safety online and disagreed often.  Wayne is a warm and friendly guy who believes in what he is doing, and while I disagree with some of his points, listening to him or hiring him, won’t get your people killed.

Keep in mind, I have made around 100 speeches both public and private and have met a lot of “giants” in safety, and most that I have met are snake oil salesmen and they know it. They get rich selling impotent solutions to people who should know better.  These solutions are INSTEAD of solutions that actually work and save lives, so if I seem to hold them and their brainless zombie groupies in the utmost contempt it’s because I do. There quackery gets people killed or causes companies to spend money that could have been better spent elsewhere, but what’s worse they make the entire idea of safety seem like a colossal waste of money. They endanger our lives, our livelihoods, and the credibility of our profession.

It’s not just the pundits who have jaded my view of safety. I have met a TON of half-witted safety guys and dim-witted organizations. Let me be clear here: in the interest of self-preservation I NEVER write about customers of my current employer; it is self-destructive and even were I to disguise the details, people are likely to figure out about whom I am talking.  Besides, it’s just poor form to bad mouth your customers.  They come to you in pain and need with serious problems; to belittle them privately or publically is just plain wrong.

When I am working with a company, they need to be certain that I am not disclosing anything I discover about them.  That having been said, I have been on hundreds (maybe close to a thousand) sales calls where I have met some surprisingly incompetent, lazy, and outright deranged safety professionals.  Nothing I like better than to be invited into talk about safety only to have a safety professional waste my precious time pratting on about how great their safety program is.  It’s like going to a fancy restaurant and when the waiter comes to take your order you saying, “no thanks I just want to sit at this table and tell you what a fantastic meal I just had at another restaurant.”  Yet when I looked at their programs I saw that they were deeply flawed.  They were obsessed with their rates, but ignored risk.  They proudly displayed the children’s safety poster contest (what sort of sociopath introduces the thought that their parents might die to a 5 year old simply because they went to work? This is beyond cruel, and how many people has it saved? None.)

Add to that the vitriol I receive in my in box. I get emails from people threatening to kill me, from safety professionals, (cowards make threats, and people serious about killing someone don’t warn them in writing ahead of time. It doesn’t frighten me; it disgusts me.) Safety people threatening to kill me because they don’t like what I said or how I said it.  Bring it on, I have a shovel and no how to dig a hole and where to buy lime, you come at me I doubt anyone would miss you. So this further shapes my view of safety both as a function and as its people.

There is also one factor as to why I am so hard on safety professionals. If I post a positive, constructive post on how to do something better in the world of safety, it draws 1/20th the readership, and yes I care how many people read my blog. It would seem that in the world of safety people would rather be insulted, shook, and called out then to read some innocuous and helpful tips.

I write this blog because we can do better. A lot of us ARE doing better. For all the hate mail I get I get 20 letters of support. I hope that my blogs make people nervous; I hope it angers them, and I hope it scares them, because when we are feeling THOSE emotions we are most likely, willing, and able to make lasting changes.  To a large extent Safety is the Wild West with people figuring it out on the fly and making it up as the go along.  We need to challenge ourselves and police ourselves.  We need to do better and we can.