Safety In The Disposable Worker Economy

by Phil La Duke

I have been saying that training in core competencies is perhaps the single greatest determinate in lowering the risk of injuries for over 11 years. In fact, my first published article was What’s Wrong With Safety Training and How to Fix It. Unfortunately the message, after 11 years, still doesn’t seem to have sunk in.

It’s pretty simple: if a person doesn’t know how to do his or her job the probability that this person will make a mistake that will cause him or her harm goes up exponentially. This equation doesn’t change no matter how many times you observe him or her, how many cards you write, or how many times you congratulate yourselves on how infrequently you leave someone battered and dying in a pool of his or her own blood.

So why don’t we do a better job training workers in the core skills (as opposed to safety training, which—in my experience—is of equal poor quality, if not worse)? Here is where we trot out all the old convenient excuses: there isn’t enough time, we do “shadow” training, “this isn’t rocket science”, etc. But lately there has been a new excuse: we don’t want to waste training dollars on temps, contractors, or a workforce that turns over quickly. People speak of the new “gig economy” as if it is a new, innovative and tremendously valuable trend that give workers freedom and flexibility. I think the “gig economy” is better described as “the disposable worker economy”. I wrote an article for Entrepreneur on the gig economy Is the Gig Economy Sustainable that asked that very question. In response to this article, which I admit paints a grim picture of those forced into the gig economy, a publicist for a profiteering pig of a man wrote to me suggesting that I write an article on “How one entrepreneur is using the gig economy to help leading manufacturers”. What was alarming was that these temporary workers weren’t being fobbed off onto small sweat shops, rather onto Honda and Toyota, in fact, he brags that 20% of his customers are Fortune 500 companies, and “how he grew his $88M business by 87% in the last two years”. These people are being commoditized; it’s one step up from human trafficking, and I don’t know how familiar you are with human trafficking, but they don’t do a lot of core skills training or place a high emphasis on safety.

Companies are behaving reprehensively for preying on temps to avoid paying unemployment and other benefits (I asked this glorified pimp three times if he paid his workers benefits and received no answer). I can only assume that they receive the typical one-hour safety talk that contract service providers typically provide and I don’t see companies spending a lot of time and money training workers that they are going to wad up and through away like used Kleenex. I have actually had safety and (sub)human resources professionals tell me that it doesn’t make fiscal sense to train workers that won’t be around longer than 90 days.

Some of you may agree with this thinking, and that’s your right (not that you need my permission) but consider this: untrained temporary workers pose a threat not just to their OWN safety but also to the safety of other workers, including you. The more marginalized and neglected the temporary workers are made to feel the less likely they are to care about the safety of those around them, and what’s more, even those who DO care about safety cannot possibly work safely if they haven’t been properly trained in the core skills necessary to properly and safely perform the necessary tasks.

This lack of training isn’t the fault, at least not entirely, of the safety professionals. In many organizations it is the Training (or talent development if you prefer) function’s job to do core skills training, but too many of these can’t see beyond the classroom. Yes, the most effective core skills training is actually on the job, but that doesn’t mean that the Training Function should abdicate its responsibility in favor of having “Subject Matter Experts” develop and deliver training. I worked for several years in healthcare where clinical training was left to nurses. Adult learning is a highly complex process and requires expertise in how to develop course material and a robust instructional design and evaluation. In laymen’s terms, you got to know how to write and deliver training and make sure that it is effective before you turn the learner out into the world. This is as true for Safety as it is for healthcare clinicians; let’s face it, when a safety professional writes a training course without having had the benefit of any education or experience with Adult Learning theory, Safety is being completely irresponsible.

Neither Safety nor Core Skills training is just something we can check a box indicating that it has been done. We have to ensure that the training providing actually imparts the required skills workers need to keep themselves and others alive, and that applies to someone who will be in the job for a day or a career.