By Phil La Duke
This won’t be a blog about gun violence or school shootings. While these things are horrific and the subject of heated blame throwing and debate, this is a worker safety blog and while I sometimes go off on tangents this is one time that I will avoid it. That having been said, there is a huge parallel between the gun violence/school shootings and worker safety: both don’t have easy answers.
People love easy answers whether it be about gun violence, world peace, or yes, worker safety. Bring up the topic at your corner bar, pub, watering hole, or dive and you will invariably have someone slur out over yellowed teeth, “it’s real easy: alls ya gotta do is…” But it’s not real easy. When it comes to worker safety I’ve heard so many “ya just gottas…” that I am beginning to wonder why people pay me to consult at all and why people are injured and killed at work.
For example: “It’s real easy: you just gotta get people to follow the rules and do what they’re told. Except, one, since when has getting people to do what they are told easy? If everyone followed the rules and did what they were told, we would have no crime, no “lifestyle” illnesses, and traffic would run pretty smoothly so and there would be so few accidents that a minor fender bender would be international news. People aren’t going to do exactly as they are supposed to—they don’t follow directions, they get distracted, they get sick—but that doesn’t give a company license to kill them. Two, frankly if your process is so fragile that one person working out of process is going to get them killed then it’s time to rethink your process.
I’ve also heard “It’s real easy…all you gotta do is have workers observe one another and coach them when they do something unsafe.” I have never been a worker who had another worker watch me and “coach” me on my unsafe behavior. That’s for the best, as when I worked the assembly line I was never in the mood for a do-gooder to come up and “help” me. Especially after I had twisted my ankle the umpteenth time in the hole left by the missing wood block that I had been asking my supervisor to get maintenance to fix for over a year. No money in the budget they had to keep that line moving and if it killed me, well I guess that’s just the cost of doing business. If I had someone observe me I would have likely told the person where he or she could stick that coaching. I would irately have asked what made them think that THEY knew my job better than I did, given that they are seeing it for the first time and I do it over 1700 times a shift (literally). I would then have called my Union rep and wrote (and likely lost) a grievance against double supervision (our contract said that we had one, and only one, boss and that was the only person that I had to take orders from.)
My peers would have likely responded differently. The outlaw biker who worked down the line from me would have probably caught the observer is a stairwell and when he was done with the person the only unsafe behavior they would ever turn in again would be walking in a stairwell. The 50-something woman who worked up the line from me would have smiled as said thank you and then gone back to the way she was doing things before the observation. Most of the others would have played a little game where they would write up some innocuous bit of nonsense in exchange for the tacit agreement that when they got observed they would also be observed doing something unsafe that a) wasn’t real and b) something nobody really cared about. The safety people would count their cards and throw pizza parties and celebrate a change that wasn’t real and that nobody cared about.
I know a guy who does ergonomics, and he has the answer as well “all you gotta do is do an ergonomic evaluation on all the jobs and engineer the hazards out.” I guess that might work, but I am yet to find the organization with the money, time, and will to do this. Actually that’s not accurate, I know of several companies who routinely do ergonomic evaluations on a grand scale and yet they still have injuries and fatalities.
Still others will howl that you have to fix leadership, and they’re right in many cases. But which leaders? At what level? And how do you fix them? What does a good safety leader look like? How do you know they’re fixed?
A growing number of people are screaming “it’s real easy all you gotta do is fix the culture”. But I know this: when it comes to change, culture will change the people before people will change the culture. I’ve made my living in organizational development before becoming an organizational development consultant focused specifically on worker safety. My best clients are those who tried doing it themselves and failed. That isn’t a plug or a commercial, it’s a fact. Unless you have tried and failed (the more miserably the better) the less likely that you will pay me what I am worth (if you want cheap I can recommend a snake oil salesman or two.)
Why is safety so hard? Because we have convinced workers that we don’t really want safety, we want the perception of safety. We want people to tell us that there are zero injuries and zero harm. Sure we say we want an injury-free environment and we may in the short term achieve it. In the long run, however, what we end up with is the blood in the pocket syndrome. People conceal their injuries because we have convinced them that injuries are bad, and by getting injured they have sinned against God and man. People don’t want to screw up the Safety BINGO or lose a bonus, or cancel the pizza party, but most of all they don’t want to disappoint us.
We have created this mess by pretending that safety is something that it really isn’t—the absolute absence of all risk. A state of safety, a complete state of safety where there is absolutely zero-percent chance that a worker will be harm doesn’t exist, can never exist. The best we can strive for is to make things safer, and that’s easy, all’s you gotta do is get 100% worker engagement at all levels where safety is no longer a goal, it’s a value. Oh, and good luck with that.
p.s. John F. Kennedy once said, “we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard”. Anything worth doing is hard and as long as I remain in this profession you can count on the fact that I will continue working hard to make things safer, because it’s worth it.