Why Safety Will Never Achieve What Quality Does


By Phil La Duke

Back in 1985 when I worked the line at a major player in the auto industry they put up signs: DIRT FOOT. DIRTFOOT stood for Do It Right The First Time the extraneous “O”s were added either because us lowly floor workers were thought to be too stupid to remember it without it spelling out something, or someone thought it was witty or cute But behind the DIRT FOOT campaign was the supposition that, unless reminded to do otherwise, the clumsy, lazy, stupid, and indifferent workers would, left to their own designs would produce poor quality; and so it was before the “quality revolution” when the teachings of Deming, Drucker, Jurandt, and others transformed the auto industry. Cars are much more complex than ever and yet the quality endemic to the vehicles produced is exponentially higher than the vehicles produced in the 1970s, may my crappy first car POS rust in peace.

Does the mindset prior to the quality revolution sound familiar? Are workers still reminded not to die by cutesy signs and trite slogans? Do companies manage safety as if “the clumsy, lazy, stupid, and indifferent workers would, left to their own designs would injure themselves”?  It’s a rhetorical question, but it begs another, non-rhetorical question: “Why were companies so successful in making such vast progress in quality and yet safety—while admittedly improved—still struggles?”

Quality is a market-driven; it’s simple mathematics: build inferior shoddy products and sell them at the same price as comparable products that are high quality and you will be driven from the market. Safety isn’t market-driven.  If you don’t believe me, ask yourself when was the last time you decided NOT to purchase something because of its safety record?

NOTE: This section has been edited because I think it could be unfairly misconstrued as calling into question the safety efforts of companies I respect, or as a call to action to boycott companies unfairly.

I fully admit that while I won’t shop at a particular retailer or I don’t buy a particular brand, that usually has more to do with its behavior as a corporate citizen (does it pollute the environment or did its bloated sub-simian founder kill the last known black rhino and then brag about it on Facebook, or even because I don’t like its commercials, but I have never once balked at buying a product because it had a poor safety record, and with the exception of a family member or a friend of the victim, few if any people consider the safety of the workforce when buying a company’s goods or services. The hard reality is people generally don’t care about safety, or to be more granular and specific: we the consumers don’t use the safety of the workers as a criterion when deciding what to buy.  The fact is, we don’t even think about how safely a product was assembled as long as it performs satisfactorily and as promised. And we are safety professionals, so what hope is there for changing the hearts and minds of the average consumer?

As with so many of my posts, things aren’t as cut and dried as they seem. Sure we hear and read news reports of workplace fatalities, but we rarely hear the facts of the incident, and unless there is an indictment we aren’t likely to be able to say with certainty that the company behaved inappropriately. So even if we wanted to restrict our shopping to companies with the best safety records it’s unlikely that we could.  I would also be remiss to not point out that many of my customers use my company’s safety record as a criterion for whether or not they source work to us, so for me to say that there is absolutely NO market pressure to work safer would not be accurate.

That having been said, from a manufacturing standpoint (or oil and gas, or construction, or mining, or whatever your industry) there is scarce little difference between quality defects and injuries. Something or someone messes up and it either damages the people, the product, or the equipment (and sometimes all three). So if the cause is the same, why is it so difficult for companies to embrace the teachings of Deming?  I have written both published works AND blogged about how Deming can be applied to safety, and yet the gulf between how we view and manage quality and how we manage safety seems to have grown.

Deming said, “Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality”[1] and yet “behavioral observations” are still commonplace in the world of safety. Deming said, “Institute training on the job.”1 and yet much of the “training on the job” isn’t really training—even in the broadest sense of that word—rather one employee showing the new employee how to do the job; it is seldom formal, recorded , measured, or covers safety issues specific to the job.  On-the-job-training is still almost unchanged from the training I received in 1985 when a foreman asked if I had ever used hydraulic tools and I said no.  He then asked if I had ever used power tools and I said, “not extensively”.  He looked irritated and said, “read this ticket if there is a letter “T” here it’s a Cadillac and that means you put on a recliner lock by driving screws here, here and here.  If there is a “TL” on the ticket you put recliners on both sides. You use the big gun to drive the big screws and the little gun to drive the little screws (they were bolts by the way, not screws) It there’s nothing on the ticket you put on a regular lock and drive screws here and here, you got it?” I said not really and he walked away.  I learned about safety by missing the recliner bolt and having the part spiral backwards narrowly missing my head. Safety wasn’t a priority, hell safety wasn’t even a vague notion in anyone’s head.  People who went to medical were seen as malingers and lazy goof offs. Treatment at the medical department was designed to keep the injuries off the book and generally consisted of aspirin and the unfortunately named “Analgel”.

Deming said, “drive out fear” and yet when it comes to incident investigations many of them still feel more like a police interrogation than an honest attempt to find out how to make things safer. Too often incident reports come back with “employee screwed up” or some fancied up version of that as a root cause.  And perhaps the biggest difference between Deming’s teachings and safety as practiced today is Deming’s point “Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.”1 We festoon our walls with posters made by the children of employees and have slogan contests.  We argue bitterly over whether or not our goal should be “zero injuries”, we ignore that like low quality and low productivity poor performance in safety belongs to the system and is beyond the power of the workforce.  This incongruence steadfastly remains even in workplaces with fairly sophisticated quality management systems.

So here we sit. We have the tools that have been proven to work in quality and yet we ignore them in safety.  We vehemently argue against Deming’s points, not because they are wrong or that they don’t make sense but because they weren’t invented here.  Until consumers, us among them, stop buying from companies that kill and seriously injure their workers there won’t be a Safety Revolution to rival the quality revolution; just a bunch of safety guys arguing about nonsense.

[1] Source: https://deming.org/management-system/fourteenpoints The Deming institute