By Phil La Duke
Do you remember your first workplace injury? I don’t, I started working at 13 as the cleanup boy at a privately owned Dairy Queen. I worked after the store had closed and was completely unsupervised. The work wasn’t particularly dangerous but I had to run close to scalding water mixed with disinfectant through the machines and then run three buckets of clean water through the machines. I had to sweep and mop (and dry—a lost art I can assure you) the floors and move boxes of stock. I’m sure I fell on slippery floors, burned myself on hot water, and strained my muscles moving boxes too heavy for my 13-year old body. I don’t remember any specific injuries because none were serious enough to require medical treatment.
I remember being injured numerous times in my second job, a dishwasher and then a short order cook (in those days you weren’t considered a “chef” unless you: 1) completed culinary arts studies; and 2) apprenticed under a master chef; and 3) received your credentials from a master chef.) I was burned repeatedly by grease splattering against the bare flesh of my exposed arms, or by incidental contact with a hot grill or char broiler, but I never told anyone because my peers would have made fun of me and the restaurant owner wouldn’t have cared.
One day I cut myself as I, following the accepted norm (like many workplaces there were no procedures just tribal norms) I cleaned a knife by wrapping a towel around the blade and pulling the towel firmly across the edge of the blade from hilt to tip. Unbeknownst to me, the towel only APPEARED to be covering the blade and I ended up with a deep cut across four fingers. A co-worker got me clean towels and I applied direct pressure. The owner looked at what had happened and said, “I don’t think you need stitches, but you can’t cook like that; go home.” I went home where my mother cleaned the wounds and applied butterfly stiches (it’s worth noting that I lived in a rural area and a trip to the hospital for stitches really had to prove itself necessary.) The butterflies worked well enough and even though I was in excruciating pain I was back on the job a couple of days later.
Several jobs and several injuries later, I entered the adult work world working an assembly line at an automobile plant. But by this point, I had 12 years of on-the-job safety training. That training consisted of being laughed at or mocked by coworkers, dismissed as “not tough enough” by managers and business owners; in short I learned that safety doesn’t matter.
My point is that even though we tend to think of new employees as blank slates, by the time we get people into our new employee safety orientations they have had a decade or more of experience (the best teacher after all) with safety, and before we can change how our workers think about safety we have to have them unlearn the powerful lessons that they have learned and had reinforced by the death houses that are many small businesses. If the first thing workers learn about safety is that it’s all bull excrement we have to deal with that perception before we can have a serious and effective discussion about safety in our work places. These workers will definitely test the norms of the organization and if their leaders (who by the way are often NOT supervisors or managers, but a charismatic veteran) reinforce the perception of safety formed by working for years in workplaces that are antagonistic of safety, then this perception will become even stronger.
So we can’t treat new employees as blank slates, we can’t count on common sense (which is simply the shared knowledge and perceptions of a situation), and we can’t count on workers taking safety seriously because many others have already taught them that safety is a big joke.
How do we break this cycle? By driving the company’s values around safety deep into the culture. New workers need to hear a consistent message from the senior leader to their peers on the shop floor. Changing their perceptions about safety won’t be easy—they will look for confirmation of their world view in every subtle message our nuanced action—but we have to universally reinforce our company values and norms around safety or the preconceived notions of safety will eventually erode the value the company places on safety.