Compromise Is A Big Part of Safety

by Phil La Duke

Two weeks ago I spoke to a fine group of safety professionals at an ASSE PDC on the dangers of complacency and in two days I will speak at the Michigan Safety Conference about shifting the focus away from body counts in favor of the things that cause safety. In preparing for both of these topics something that had always bothered me became clear: Safety is a series of trade-offs and compromises.  I can already hear my detractors, “That’s La Duke endangering the workplace with more his safety  heresy.”

But think about it, “safe” is a relative term. Is it safe shooting a movie at the Packard Plant?  No when compared to shooting in a sound studio, yes compared to Detroit Animal Control capturing a scared and agitated tiger in the abandoned and unsafe labyrinth of tunnels below the plant (it had escaped during a German video shoot).

This weekend I saw a “health tip” on avoiding the flue: “get the flu vaccine, wash your hands often, and don’t touch handrails.” Now I know of at least four workplaces where an employee can get written up for NOT touching the handrails while traversing steps.  When I worked and Trinity Health (by people who really KNOW about the subject) we were a) required to get a flu shot, b) had ample dispensers of hand sanitizer conveniently located and c) were told not to touch the handrails, rather to hold our hands slightly above the rail so that should we begin to slip and fall we would be able to catch ourselves.  For the record this is how handrails are intended to be used.  The idea is less about eliminating the risk of falling, and more about the mitigation of the risk of injury; to reduce the consequences of slipping on the steps.

Tradeoffs are part of our job we want people to be alert and vigilant and to focus on the tasks at hand, and yet we know that remaining hyper-focused tends to lead to attention fatigue, where are minds can no longer focus at such a high level and errors become exponentially more common. So by pushing awareness and focus we at some point actually create hazards.

Complacency is another area where we have to pick our battles. On one hand we want workers to be confident and competent in the tasks they do, but on the other hand we don’t want them to get TOO confident either; it’s an on-going battle.

Just Say No Doesn’t Work

Too many safety professionals see themselves as guardians of all their flock. These safety professionals tend to discount the life experience and decision making abilities of their people and think they know better in all cases. And when safety professionals develop this attitude they get in the business of saying “no, that’s too dangerous”. I have occasion to be the Production Safety Consultant on a big budget action film. Action films, despite the extreme precautions to reduce the risk of undesirable outcomes (it’s not just injuries, but destruction of property, damage to equipment, etc.) action films remain a fairly high risk endeavor (as compared to shooting at an outdoor Paris café) but safety people need to recognize that the old adage, “the show must go on doesn’t just apply to Hollywood or Broadway but to oil fields, and auto manufacturing, or logistics, or bio tech, or well… you get the picture (no pun intended).  Everywhere the work has to get done, ideally safely, but if you tell them “no” they will just wait until you aren’t around to do it.  And hidden risk is deadly risk. Our jobs in safety has to be about helping people make informed decisions about the risks they take, not making global rules and procedures because one person made a bad decision. We have to be better than that, but being better than that is a lot more work.  Safety is not a profession for the lazy, and point of fact I haven’t met that many lazy safety practitioners (the problem is the ones who are stick out in my memory).  I’ve met plenty of crusaders who have an exaggerated sense of their own importance to the organization, and I’ve seen my fair share of bellyachers (you have to remember that through my writing, blogging, speaking, and consulting I meet a LOT of safety professionals that traverse geographies, cultures, industries) but mostly I’ve met good safety who are earnestly trying to do the best job they can. Most are respectful, thoughtful, and intelligent, and most would agree that safety, and the steps we are forced to take are often compromises that keep us up at night.

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