From the 4-year old tattle tale to the office colleague that runs to the boss with a petty grievance against you, people dislike informers. Unfortunately for those of us in the safety industry many people see us as the rat squad, or even more dangerously, see anyone who has the courage to exercise stop work authority as a rat.
As much as we are loath to admit it safety slows work and can often be a nuisance to the people who believe that getting the work done is more important than following the procedure to ensure the work is being done as safely as is practicable. Even the wording of UK law that holds employers responsible for performing work in the safest way practicable can be troubling. What’s the difference between practicable (we in the States might say “feasible”) and possible? A lot. And who decides where lies the line between an unfair burden on the company and reasonable precaution? Typically the employer and the person who blows the whistle on an over zealous employer may find him or herself ostracized by coworkers for being a rat.
Safety Will Put Us Out of Business
No I know that many reading this will frown a patronizing frown and think, “this guy has got it all wrong, MY people would never react this way” and maybe they’re right. But I have been in the safety business in one form or another for over 25 years for the last 15 I have worked on consulting projects for the bulk of my time. Consulting is a cut-throat, back-stabbing, dog-eat-dog world, but the nice thing about being a consultant is that people will tell me things that they would never tell someone in their company. Years ago, I was working with a small manufacturer with a horrible safety record and worse culture. (I was brought in by their biggest customer who was concerned about what they saw as a disaster waiting to happen). One of the leaders told me that “if we did things the way you think they should be done (safely) we would be out of business in a week.” The workforce were largely minimum wage and spoke little English and if they knew something was unsafe they knew better than to report it. there were no lock out procedures, placards, or discipline and I personally had to intervene three times because someone was working in a robot cell while it was fully energized. The sole focus was speed (the parts they produced didn’t have a whole lot of possibility of a meaningful defect.) Ultimately they decided to strong arm the customer by refusing to make parts until they were granted a 25% price increase. A week later they were out of business, killed not by safety, but by greed.
Still, the idea that in some industries it is impossible to work safely persists. In some industries an injury is a badge of honor; it means you are no longer a rookie. In those environments safety is the enemy and to bring up a safety concern is to be a snitch, the lowest of the low, a coward who can only muster the gumption to tattle in secret; below scum.
So how does one combat that twisted mentality? For starters you need to ferret out the real informers and let them know in no uncertain terms that if they have a problem they need to address it assertively with the individual and not run to the boss with petty crap. Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations are really great books that describe skills that all professionals (not just safety professionals) should master. I will warn you, having conversations of this nature isn’t fun, but they are a heck of a lot more productive than snitching.
Years ago I was commissioned by a large company to produce a video that showed a cross section of workers answering one question: “How do you intervene when you see someone doing something safe?” the answers ranged from “I tell the person that I care about them and don’t want to see them hurt” to “hey (expletive) can I have your tools when you’re dead” (I didn’t get to use that one, but it was effective).
We ARE Snitches, But We Don’t Have To Be
Many of us are snitches. We lack the authority to discipline workers for not following the safety rules and the best we can do (along those lines) is tattle to someone who can enforce the rules. But we don’t need to be snitches, instead of trying to force people to follow a safety rule we need to influence them to see following the safety rules (or in the case of the company that forces people to tie off at the height of 4 feet when the harnesses have a 10 foot lanyard to speak up when the rule doesn’t make sense or even further imperils the worker) we need to listen, learn, and advise the workers. They may have a very good reason for not following a rule and if were not careful, we might just learn something.