The Rise of the Safety Jihadist

Safety Jihadist


By Phil La Duke

I have written a lot about the danger of safety professionals so convinced in the rightness of their cause that they find any disagreement a threat. Their feelings for their profession have surpassed passion and have drifted solidly into fanaticism. They are safety jihadists, and like all jihadists they are dangerous; they cannot be reasoned with nor can they be swayed from their zealotry. The life a life of singularity of purpose and anyone who dares disagree with them are at risk. One of my readers commented that I rail against these safety extremists and yet here I am week after week the insulation that I too was a fanatic hanging in the air like the victim of a lynching pecked clean by crows, but I am no fanatic.

That having been said, I feel strongly that change is necessary, that safety as a function has a lot of room for improvement. I’ve never claimed to have all the answers; in fact, I pose a lot more question than I answer.

EDIT: I think I should provide some context here throughout my 11 years of writing this blog I have been threatened with violence, received several death threats, had people tell me that they hope that my family is killed in industrial accidents, and last month someone called me and told me they were going to bring a bomb to my house.  In one case a man threatened to kill me because I asked what kind of sociopath introduces the idea that a parent might die at work to a 6 year old (through children’s safety poster contests)?  I think it’s a valid question, he thought it was justifiable homicide.  Not everyone who is passionate, heck even zealous about there work is a jihadist. Not everyone who is a nutcase fanatic about safety is a jihadist.  But when one crosses the line and advocates violence against someone for speaking out against misguided safety practices or merely suggest that we question what we do, that person is a jihadist.  And before grousing about my use of the word, perhaps learn a bit more about it from this nifty link I found. Jihad: a misundertstood concept from Islam.  It probably isn’t proper for me to mix religious terminology with secular and if anyone reading this is offended or upset on that basis I am truly sorry, but given the misappropriation of the term by the general public I think it applies her.  Now back to our regularly scheduled blog already in progress.

There’s a lot of talk today about culture. We rightly say that safety cannot improve unless we change the culture and yet we so seldom change ourselves. I have been heavily criticized of late for being too negative, too controversial, and too provocative. That the things I say might upset a client or chase away potential business. Of course, the slimly little snitches don’t say it to my face, but that’s to be expected cowardice is the defining characteristic of a lot of people.

This isn’t going to be one of those “woe is me” missives; in fact, almost the exact opposite. Don Rickles entire act used to consist of insulting members of the audience at the end he would always finish with something that would prove to the audience that he was really a nice guy after all. I despised that. If you’re going to adopt a certain style you can’t cave it because someone got offended; the ending always ruined the show for me. It’s a lot like that with what I do. I provoke, I prod, and I poke people until people start to think about and question their deepest held beliefs about safety. I call them out. Do I think they are bad people? Most are not. Do I think I can persuade people to believe what I am saying? That’s not really my goal. In the song Imagine John Lennon doesn’t say there is no God, he merely asks people to imagine what the world would be like if there was no God. My goal is for people to look at safety a different way; safety practitioners most particularly. I don’t praise them for working hard because I can get a monkey to work hard and fail. In matters of life and death, we need success, not effort. I’m not here to build the fragile self-esteem of the delicate flowers in the field of safety.

A colleague of mine does a powerful Safety Transformation intervention and invariably people, confronted with their own shameful inadequacies want him to acknowledge all the good things they are doing. He won’t. As he puts it, “when you go to a doctor because you’re having a terrible pain in your abdomen, you want the doctor to concentrate on that ailment. You don’t want him to tell you what a great haircut you have.”

Questioning any part of your world view is scary, and many of us would rather read either heart warming stories that reaffirm our world view or about some horrible tragedy that we know we would never let happen on our watch, which also confirms our world view.

I am here to focus a lens on some areas of safety that we really need to work to improve and I can’t do that by worrying about whether or not someone’s nose get’s pushed out of joint.

The most common compliment I get is “I read your work, and while I don’t always agree with it, it always makes me think.” Don’t always agree with me—I don’t have a monopoly on the truth but recognize that neither does anyone else. And that’s what separates me from the safety jihadist; I don’t want you to always agree with me. Always agreeing with me leads to zealotry and fanaticism and the last thing we need more safety jihadists.