Is Safety A Right Or A Responsibility

By Phil La Duke

Yesterday I reposted a blog article of the same name that I wrote and published in 2011 on my own company’s website.  I re-read it and was amazed at how much my outlook had shifted on this matter.  I’m sure it’s the current climate of entitlement  and people ascerting rights that they don’t have, but here it is for good or for ill…I don’t bad mouth BBS so I don’t expect more than a half-dozen readers  to actually see this post.

Is safety a right? Do I by nature of my own basic humanity possess an individual right to an injury-free workplace, or do I have a responsibility to work safely and avoid injuring myself and others? This seemingly simple question is at the cornerstone of every safety process, debate, and theory. Let’s explore these concepts independently at first. For something to be a right, we must have some guarantee or assurance by a body of some standing that whatever point of contention is in fact bestowed upon us when we meet a given criterion. Some of these rights are bestowed upon us directly and unquestionable—for example the right to remain silent to avoid self-incrimination. Other rights are subject to interpretation, as in the overblown debate over whether an over-paid athlete has the right to kneel during the national anthem before sporting events, which can be viewed as a subset of said athlete’s right to free speech.

Safety Cannot Be a Right

Safety cannot be a right, because nothing is ever completely safe since true safety is the absence of any probability of coming to physical, emotional, mental, metaphysical, or any other sort of harm you can imagine. This seems odd because if human beings have any rights at all it would seem that they should possess the right to make a living without dying, suffering a debilitating injury, or crippling chronic conditions because of the work they do. We have the right, in the form of protection under the law, to freedom from injuries that are caused deliberately by our employers, or through negligence, or depraved indifference, so in some sense, we have the right to expect our employers to exercise reasonable and practicable care to prevent us from being killed or injured. For simplicity’s sake, we will refer to these rights as the right to Safety.

Today, experts estimate that there are 27 million slaves. Experts differ on the definition of exactly what constitutes a slave and with variations in definitions comes larger estimates of the size, but in general, we can agree that there are a LOT of people who are enslaved. Interestingly, this number (and definition) of slaves does not include the working poor who feel that they have no options. Liberty is seen in most developed countries, as a universal right and yet for too many people liberty is taken from them by force, swindled from them by conmen, or simply ignored for those people too poor or who don’t know that what is being done to them is illegal.

The U.S. Chamber of commerce and other business lobbyists have actively engaged in a campaign to significantly curtail the rights of individuals in the U.S. to sue companies for products that are unsafe. But this is just the final battleground worldwide. Laws globally have made it harder for individuals to hold companies responsible for the safety of their products. And it’s not just product safety. Workers’ compensation laws disallow workers from suing their employers for a workplace injury (such cases are governed by worker’s compensation payouts instead of individual lawsuits.) Similar efforts worldwide reflect a growing legal opinion that the primary cause of worker injuries is stupid, clumsy, or reckless workers. As for criminal penalties for injuring another, such consequences are largely nonexistent unless a company actually kills an individual, does so quickly, and does show while showing criminal recklessness and depraved indifference. If you are a company and you kill a worker by slowing poisoning him or her over say 30 years your board or exec team will not see a day of prison time (remember Union Carbide and India?) So while it sure makes sense that safety would be a right the legal opinion seems to view safety as something for sale—break a rule pay a fine, maim a worker and risk a lawsuit with restricted remedies. As long as you are prepared to write a check you can pretty much injury workers with impunity. If safety ever was a right it has long since ceased being one.

Safety Isn’t A Responsibility
If Safety isn’t a right is Safety at very least a responsibility? If safety is a responsibility, who is responsible? Everyone? Workers? Corporations? Is it a moral responsibility or legal one? Is safety a personal responsibility or a collective one? More and more companies are looking to hold workers responsible for the safety of the workplace. In some business environs, safety is a condition of employment. In others, elaborate and expensive behavior modification programs are implemented to manipulate the worker’s behaviors so that they work more safely. Given that injuries are accidental (not assaults) it’s hard to hold an individual responsible for an unforeseen outcome of an unintended action. So who is responsible? An organization bears the responsibility for keeping the workplace safe by implementing 5S workplace organizations, applying safety controls, training workers, designing robust processes, and ensuring that equipment is in good working order. In my mind, the front-line supervisor is and always will be ultimately responsible for the safety of the crew that he or she oversees. This responsibility is beyond debate. Only the front-line supervisor has both the power and the authority to ensure safe work practices of all the workers in his or her area. I can be killed as easily by the human errors, uninformed risk-taking, poor choices, or wanton recklessness of a coworker as easily as my own, and it is the front-line supervisor’s responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Clearly, workers bear some responsibility for their own safety, for example, they must follow the work instructions procedures that should be designed to perform the task most efficiently and efficiently includes in the safest possible manner. Workers need to manage their personal lives and avoid performance inhibitors. Avoiding performance inhibitors—like hangovers, lack of sleep, unmanaged stress, and fatigue—also tends to build resilience (a word so inappropriately bandied about I hesitate to even use it). Building resistance involves maintaining the fitness of body, mind, or soul. It does matter who you are staying physically fit helps you to boost your immune system and to bounce back more quickly from illnesses. Exercising your mind helps you to build what Chris Groscurt (in the fantastic recently released book, Future-Ready Leadership: Strategies for the Fourth Industrial Revolution) calls, “Presence of thinking” according to Groscurt “presence of thinking leads to greater self-awareness. We need presence of thinking to get out of the default (autopilot) mode of thinking.” This mental discipline allows us to bounce back from mental trauma and tragedy more quickly. Finally, we need to exercise our spiritual health—whoever or whatever you worship (hell you can worship me as God-Emperor and most of you cheap bastards still won’t buy my book) or if you worship nothing at all you have to take care of your spiritual or if you prefer, your emotional health. Groscurth dubbed this the “Presence of Feeling”, as he explains it, “Presence of feeling supports self-management and enables presence of action. This type of ‘practical wisdom’ (phronesis) or in-the-moment decision making…”

So while no single individual is responsible for the collective safety, everyone is responsible for some part of safety and should at a minimum hold themselves accountable for their contribution or lack thereof to safety.
Both and Neither
And so it goes that safety is both a right and a responsibility, and neither a right nor a responsibility. Safety is probability, and probability is generally a balancing act. By making safety an abstract (right, responsibility) we obviate the need to think of our safety as a continuous condition, and remain situationally aware or constantly shifting probability that we will not be harmed by the hazards with which we interact. We can either reduce the number of hazards with which we interact, reduce the time with which we interact, or reduce the severity of the consequences when, despite our best efforts, we are injured anyway

Did you like this post? If so you will probably like my book which can be ordered here I Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business or on Barnes & Nobel.com. Did you hate this post? Did it offend you deeply? Maybe you should organize a book burning (minimum of 150 books) but be sure you are only burning my book, I don’t want you to go to a used book store and buy a bunch of cheap books and stack mine on top.

The book is a compilation of blog posts, guest blogs, magazine article (from around the world) and new material. Much of it is hard to find unless you know where to look. A second and third book has already been green-lighted by the publisher (expect fewer reprints and more new material).

In all seriousness, I have been blogging for free for over 11 years and I think I have earned a bit of revenue so buy the damned book.

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