By Phil La Duke
“Who takes all the glory and none of the shame”—Tramp The Dirt Down, Elvis Costello
Yesterday I received two white papers forwarded. The crux of these papers was something that should surprise none of us: 1) Companies world wide are increasingly using the Safety Function as a dumping ground for everything from case management to organizing the company picnic and 2) Companies are actively looking for all functions to do more with less resources (and particularly less people).
It’s causing ugliness—like the boorish warthog who pushes you out a project to claim it as her own all the while besmirching your reputation—and this ugliness is likely to get worse. Competition for the rapidly evaporating big-ticket ($100K +) safety opportunities is getting brutal and when it comes to messing with someone’s livelihood quarter is neither asked nor given and viciousness becomes the rule of the day; like rats in a cage we turn on each other.
All over the world corporate leaders are asking have we gone too far with safety (and environmental protections). Someone once said that you can’t claim credits for improvements without taking responsibility when things go sideways, and when it comes to safety things ALWAYS go sideways eventually. Safety as a function isn’t yet dead, but it’s coughing up blood and we are treating it like it’s just a cold; it will get better with time. They say time heals all wounds; I say time eventually kills us all—if you live long enough you will die of something.
“And if I could chose a place to die, it would be in your arms baby”—Eric Clapton, (Derek & the Dominos) Bellbottom Blues. Nobody chooses to be cut in half by a sheet of freshly manufactured glass, or be buried alive because a supervisor was either too stupid, lazy, or greedy to dig a trench properly. I don’t know how or why I would chose to die (I assume I will eventually be gunned down by one of you nuts) but it damned sure wouldn’t be on the job.
The worst thing about the siege under which safety currently finds itself is that we the Safety community are responsible for our current state. We have been bragging for years about what a fantastic job we’ve been doing. We tell the C-suite that our injuries are down (even if its because we have set up systems that reward under-reporting or dubious case management) and make excuses (and even argue with alternate facts) for the fact that fatalities remain flat. We have done such a great job convincing our bosses that we have won the war on injuries that the big bosses are deciding we can do with less troops, we can do more with less.
We conveniently convince ourselves that all the bullshit we’ve been slinging is true; we have done a great job, our snake oil really does work, and mostly if we don’t spend our budgets they will take it away. Ideally, a safety practitioner should work him/herself out of a job, but not like this. We should be out of a job when we have established systems that identify and mitigate risks and that give the highest priority to the most lethal risks, not as we have done by bamboozling the bosses that because we haven’t had a fatality in three years that we have cured cancer. Three years is not enough data to make accurate statistical inferences, but who gives a crap about that, our jobs are on the line and instead of demonstrating the enormity of the problem we talk about what a great job were doing not killing anybody lately. We have screwed ourselves: we’ve spent ten years convincing the organization that they NEED us to get to zero injuries, that without us there will be a blood bath. And when the injury rates were bad we simply excused it by telling the organization that we work in a dangerous industry and that compared to our competition…well we aren’t any worse. When things got better we ran to the bosses looking for a gold star; many of us didn’t have a clue why things were better except that we were doing a good job.
The problem we created is in the haste to cover our collective asses and save our jobs was that we avoided talking about risks and talked about injuries; body counts. The thing is, it’s tough to get people to care about workplace fatalities when more people are killed in traffic accidents. It will take a massive horrifying workplace catastrophe that kills a couple of hundred people before people will once again care about worker safety and even then I doubt it will be enough to save us, unless it is happens life on cable news. People have just stopped caring about worker injuries—hell when I hear someone is on medical disability my first thought is “this malingering bastard is probably faking it”, and intellectually I KNOW most people aren’t. So what do you think people who are outside safety are thinking?
As governments set out to gut OSHA and it’s overseas governments follow suit, as the National Safety Council looks for ever more simple minded safety issues to concoct (prescription drug abuse might well be a problem, but in all the incident reviews I have conducted not once has the misuse of prescription drugs been a problem) it’s chicken-little, “the sky is falling approach to safety” makes us look like water-headed dimwits who couldn’t pour pee out of a boot if the instructions were written on the bottom.
We have to immediately stop finding that little golden ray of sunshine in worker deaths and serious injuries (Our numbers are down!! Let’s get pizza!”) and start taking a hard and scientific look at the risks and hazards of our own house. I have been divorced for almost 30 years and live in squalor, but I never excuse the mess by telling visitors how much cleaner my house is than my next door neighbor’s house. WE are essential. WE are overworked. WE have to communicate that much as we may have claimed credit for the reduced injury rates we haven’t done much, or at least we don’t really know what we did that made the difference and we sure as shit haven’t done anything to quantify and mitigate our risks. A new day is coming and we had better stop bragging about improvements in safety until we understand WHY things got better, otherwise we might as well claim credit for a beautiful temperate and sunny day. We have bragged ourselves out of a job, and we are well on our way to bragging ourselves to death.