Is Safety A Value, A Priority, or Neither?


Note: I don’t think anyone noticed, but I didn’t post last week.  Just too much other unpaid stuff to do for people who don’t appreciate it. Just kidding, I was lazy and the subject I wanted to talk about is one about which I feel very strongly. So here you go, not 5 days late, but 2 days early

By Phil La Duke

A kind reader suggested that I write a blog about the difference between safety as a value and safety as a priority, and as luck would have the alignment of a company’s values with its safety practices is one of my favorite subjects.  Too often people say something is a value when it is, in fact, a priority.  So what’s the difference? a lot actually.  Values are more than things we believe, they guide our every decision and how we react to issues and solve problems. Some psychologists believe that our personal values are fixed and hardwired into our brain by the time we are 7 or 8 years old. When we act in a manner that is inconsistent with our values we feel guilty and ashamed.  So if we truly value safety then safety tends to shape our decisions—we don’t need to be told to behave safely, it comes naturally to us.  While we may make mistakes (human error) that put us or others in harm’s way, we don’t take unnecessary or uncalculated risks and we don’t put up with people who do; to value safety is to have it shape your whole worldview.

Priorities, on the other hand, are flexible; even fluid.  What is a priority come Monday morning may fall off the list completely by Monday afternoon.  Priorities HAVE to change because life throws all sorts of things at us.  For example, for years I worked in an auto plant building seats.  When I first started our priority was production; my personal success was gauged by whether or not I could read a ticket, retrieve the correct part from dunnage, retrieve the correct screws from my tool caddy, install the part and drive five bolts every 55 seconds and keep up that pace for anywhere from 8 to 9.5 hours.  If that sounds easy you should try it.  Production was sacred and so much so that we quickly learned the exact cost of shutting down the line for a minute. They talked a good game for quality, but it we weren’t there yet, and while quality might have been a priority for the guys in the front office or at headquarters that sense of importance didn’t trickle down to shop floor.

Not that we didn’t produce quality vehicles—I’m still proud of the work I did and when I see the cars I built on the road 32 years later (and I do see them) I feel a sense of accomplishment and will often talk to the owners about the car. But given that I was busting my hump to keep up with the line, and that no fewer than six inspectors would ensure that I put on the correct parts I didn’t value quality. Quality wasn’t my job that was the quality department’s job. Sure I would get chewed out if I put on the wrong part, but so what? They weren’t going to fire me. If I didn’t keep up with the line, however, I had three chances to find a job that I could do at pace and if I didn’t I was out the door. I never saw a safety guy and to tell you the truth I’m not sure there was one.

We had several fatalities in the short time I worked there but no one took much notice of them—not to sound cold but I didn’t know these guys so while I wasn’t glad that they were dead I wasn’t too broken up about it either.  In fact, I used to joke that we shouldn’t think of them as much as fatalities so much as a job opening. I know a crappy thing to say, but I was young and had not yet come to appreciate the true importance of safety.  Then one day someone I knew died.  An electrician with whom I would have breakfast with darned near every morning was electrocuted when he failed to lockout and at shift changed the supervisor (who had no idea the electrician was in harm’s way) threw the main breaker on and killed him.  That hit home, but the reaction of the front line supervisors seemed indifferent to me; this was before my dad and brother-in-law would die from work-related illnesses so while it shook me that my friend had died it didn’t change my fundamental values.  In fact, it showed me that culturally safety was not a value nor a priority.  Production was a priority. If safety would have been a value the supervisors would have asked why the main breaker was off, he would have searched the area to see if anyone was working on electrified equipment, and he probably would have disciplined the worker for not Locking Out.  But production was the priority and it was costing a fortune not running the line so the supervisor did what he had been conditioned to do and threw the switch.

If you want to find out what you truly value in your life see how you spend your time and money.  A good friend of mine once told me, “you always have the time and money for what’s truly important” I have had people argue against this statement but I stand by it.  If you would have me believe that your kids are the most important thing in your life and yet you spend no meaningful time with them then they aren’t something you value.  Don’t get me wrong, you probably love your kids, and it’s difficult for a parent to admit that there are more important things than time with your kids (watching football, going to work, watching television, or going out with your friends).  You SAY you value your family but you have other priorities that take you away from your family.  Saying that your family is a value isn’t quite right anyway.  Your family’s health, happiness, well-being, and security may well be a value, and you understandably will prioritize the things that enable those things, like going to work or on an important business trip during your kid’s birthday. You will know that this is a value because it’s going to feel like hell doing it even though you know it’s important to your kid, it’s more important to continue your employment and put food on the table and clothes on your kid’s back but it still sucks and you don’t like it. On the other hand, if you valued time with your child enough, especially spending time with them when it’s most important to them, you would find a job that accommodates you or you would quit and find other employment.

A priority is always a choice and always feels like a choice; we know it’s a choice, whereas values just feel like the right thing to do. Our values are so sacrosanct that if we find ourselves in a situation that does not align with our values we tend to get out of that situation.  My ex-wife and I had very different values and so we divorced. Value misalignment can not only break up marriages, but cause us to quit jobs, and threaten safety bloggers with death or violence at the merest perception that what has been said does not align with values.

We can often excuse people who have different priorities than ourselves but it’s much harder to forgive someone (or at least see him or her as your equal) if they don’t share our values and that has created much discord in the world of safety.  If your priorities get out of whack it’s easy to recalibrate and (often with the help of your boss or close confidante) realign your priorities to your values.  In philosophical terms, we all at least pretend to share the belief that everyone should go home in the same condition for which they reported to work, but too often that isn’t really a value, and sadly in many workplaces that isn’t even a priority.

Did you enjoy this post? If you did you ought to pre-order my book I Know My Shoes Are Untied, Mind Your Own Business: An Iconoclast’s View of Safety Which will be released in about 3 weeks.  Did you hate this post? Then I would recommend you buy 250 copies and organize a book burning but make sure you only burn my books, not a stack of old text books with a handful of my books strewn a top.