Why Do Anything About Injuries When You Can Pretend to Take Action Instead?

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by  Phil La Duke

Safety is not a humanitarian effort. We all know the story of the days of yore when the loss of life—from building the pyramids to building the Brooklyn Bridge—was just the cost of doing business. Nobody liked it, but it wasn’t like IMPORTANT people died.  After all the workers weren’t considered much more than bright livestock. In fact, when a horse pulling a wagon died in the workplace it was much more of a set back than when a worker died. Irish, Poles, Blacks, and German immigrants were plentiful and a good horse was hard to find, whereas the filthy poor were a dime a dozen.

We’re more sophisticated in our bigotry toward the great unwashed now.  The careless, obstinate, ignorant workers are “too stupid to save their own lives, and yet if one of them gets killed MY bonus gets affected”.  Or the executive who rolls the dice with human life when asking, “how much will we get fined if we don’t comply and get caught?” or let’s just get “safe enough”.  I hear these and worse from people who run companies and worse people assigned to the safety department.

I’m tired, people, I’m tired. Maybe I’m all punched out and just staggering around the ring praying for the bell or that knock out punch that takes me out of the match forever. Or maybe I’m just like a terrier with a rat, refusing to drop it long after its dead. Maybe. But it’s tough seeing the ferocity with which many in positions of leadership—not just in Operations but in safety—defend the stupid practices done in the name of safety.

I’ve been thinking a lot of how we as a profession got here. How did safety go from protecting the company and its workers to blaming the workers and doing everything we can to ensure that the books are properly cooked? If I’m jaded I come by it honestly.  People keep describing me as angry, but now all I can feel is disgust and guilt by association. I don’t want to get hurt when I got to work, I damned sure don’t want to die there. Am I so different than the custodian working three jobs to get by? I don’t think so.

In his seminal work, The Jungle, Upton Sinclair provides a contemporary account of the life of a worker in a meat-packing plant circa 1900. It told the story of a man who wanted nothing more than his share of the American Dream and was thwarted at every turn. At it’s heart was the message that everyone deserves to work, earn a fair wage, and go home unharmed.  Sinclair hoped that the popularity of his book might spark social reforms. Instead, it ushered in regulations for food safety. Sadly, Sinclair summed up his disappointment saying, “I aimed for America’s heart and hit it in the stomach.” I seem to keep aiming for people’s ability to reason, and instead hit their guilty consciousness.  (Here is where the guiltiest among you can puff up your chest and dismiss me in the condescension that can only come from too many years on the job claiming credit for saving lives when things go right, and blaming the victim when things go wrong.  The guiltiest consciousness cries foul the loudest.

Life for workers was slow to improve, on one hand, you had Unions fighting to organize to secure and preserve workers’ rights, not the least of which was the right to return home uninjured, and on the other hand, you had business leaders with all the compassion of a Nazi Death camp guard hiring strikebreakers—Henry Ford hired the University of Michigan football team to bust erstwhile UAW heads, while other companies hired organized crime specialists to brutalize Union workers.

And three decades after Sinclair wrote The Jungle, Herbert Heinrich wrote his rich book of fiction Industrial Accident Industrial Accident Prevention, A Scientific Approach a book that most snake oil salesmen who peddle the Behavior Based Swindle have never read that has become the Holy Bible that has created the cult of Behavior-Based Safety.  

Defending Heinrich and his infernal tribute to stupidity, the Heinrich Pyramid, is tough. Unless you can justify:

The Behavior-Based Swindle grew out of dubious “research” of one Herbert William Heinrich a statistician who claimed to have conducted research in the 1920’s that would predict the numbers of likely fatalities based on the number of less serious injuries. He further postulated that 80% of all injuries were caused by worker carelessness or recklessness.  Few questioned this work despite some things that we would never pass scientific muster today, including:

  • Heinrich’s research was based on asking supervisors of the injured workers, sometimes a two decades after the incident, what caused the injuries.  I could ask supervisors of factory workers today to tell me the causes of worker injuries that happened yesterday and get a similar response—without the slightest shred of proof or scientific investigation; just like Heinrich.
  • Heinrich’s work was never peer-reviewed, in fact, there is a growing body of evidence that he took no notes at all and never even visited a single workplace in furtherance of his research. Some have gone so far as to suggest that he made up his research, which is fair—there is as much evidence that Big Foot is responsible for crop circles after getting a particularly rough rectal probe from alien visitors as there is that Heinrich did anything more than write his opinions.
  • Heinrich was a strong supporter of Eugenics, the widely discredited idea that some races were superior and more evolved than others. Today there are a lot of people who support the idea that some races are intrinsically superior to all others. To support Heinrich is to support these groups.

    For some it’s not nationality, it’s a theocracy, workers, in these over-educated pedantic mouth-breathers assume that people who CHOSE to work in a mine, or on an oil rig, or as an over the road trucker couldn’t hack it as a production manager or a Safety Practitioner; it never occurs to them that these hard working people turning wrenches might just prefer this life.  I worked in factories before going back to school, and there is some pride in being able to do work that its too tough for the soft-lotioned hands of the white color desk jockeys. It never occurs to them that these great unwashed fools had a CHOICE, this is simple the cost of a lack of ambition and a lack of education.

    That work was never for me, but having done it has made me better at my job in safety and I am proud of my blue color roots.  Even though the factory killed my dad and brother-in-law I still see working the line, or as tradesman, or a laborer, or a construction worker as just as noble a profession as any held by anyone reading this.  If they distrust and dislike us, why shouldn’t they? It’s tough to look up to someone who is looking down their nose at you.
  • Heinrich’s statistical relationship of 300 injuries to 1 fatality seems to have no mathematical or statistical validity. For one we have NO IDEA how large the population of the bottom of the triangle is so any statistic inference is impossible. Add to that the fact that machinery and equipment that workers used in the 1900’s and teens are far less safe than it is today, and you have all the makings of an urban legend—something people believe with no basis in fact, but that sounds really reasonable. Heinrich’s Pyramid has a lot in common with the Loch Ness Monster.

So why do people persist in promulgated this Behavior Based Swindle? Because there’s big money in stupidity, and as long as people—particularly business executives—believe this horse manure,  sharp snake oil salesmen will continue to shill it.

Behavior-Based Safety (BBS note that BS is in its name for all that is holy) is not without its charms: it’s easier to blame the worker than it is to take accountability for fixing the system errors that created the environment where workers made poor choices because they were lead to believe something was safe when it wasn’t,

You also have a chorus of imbeciles claiming that they have achieved zero-injuries using sustainable solution. Add to that regulatory and now global corporations who insist on using REPORTED injuries and in some cases a BBS system as a criterion for doing business and…well gosh darn it why WOULDN’T we implement BBS?

Except it doesn’t work except for assigning blame and driving risk underground. And when we continue perpetuating it we kill people.  Years ago, saw a case where a worker was crushed to death—his body popped like an overripe tomato splattering gore over a sign provided as part of one of the leading BBS proponents, and yet the leadership of his facility continued to use BBS.

Last week I posted a link to 80% of Safety Practitioners are Idiots on LinkedIn with the sole text of “read the post before telling me I’m wrong.” 11,067 people viewed that post but  8.069% actually read it—only 893 people were interested enough to click a link to find out what justification I had in calling 80% of our profession idiots; based on the number maybe my estimate was off by a bit.  

I have found that oft as not, people don’t really want to think about safety in hard, meaningful terms, it’s so much more reassuring to think about safety in philanthropic terms. “We’re doing what’s right” rather than “we’re doing what’s smart”. Mostly what I learned from the incredibly low percentage of people who read my one sentence post was that people today don’t really want to learn—at least not from me—rather they want to be insulted and stop around in righteous indignation.

Meanwhile, people are working themselves to death.

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 a couple of weeks my second book will be out and I will be nagging you to buy that. So you’re already behind the 8-ball.

Remember the holidays are coming up and this book makes the perfect gift for the person for which you feel obligated to get something for but don’t really like.

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.