Safety Is A Lie

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By Phil La Duke

I’ve been reading a book about lying, well several. I had to read a lot of books about lying as research for my new book The Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence (it’s useful to be able to tell when someone is lying during a job interview when you are trying to screen out people at high risk of being involved with a workplace homicide).  One of the books asked the question, “do you like being lied to?” and asserted that most people do not. This book equated honesty with happiness and happiness with resilience.

The question is sublime in its simplicity: “do you like being lied to?” only the water-heads and mouthbreathers like being lied to right?  Wrong. At least when it comes to safety. There are two kinds of lies: the ones other people tell us and the ones we tell ourselves, and safety is not only rife with liars and lies but also with people who are either insane or enjoyed being lied to.

“Safety” in itself is a lie. Show me an absolute risk-free workplace and I will show you a liar, and a safety practitioner who is lying to him or herself.

When I say “lie” I am talking about a deliberate attempt to deceive someone.  I’m not talking about lies you tell when a woman asks if her garment of choice makes her butt look big (spoiler alert the answer is always an emphatic and immediate “NO!”)

In safety, we lie to our leaders by providing a flawed analysis of misleading indicators. Or we lie to an injured worker to dissuade him or her that the injury doesn’t need outside medical treatment and aspirin will work as well as a prescription medication. Or we use “case management” and have our insurance companies lie to lawyers to cheat workers out of their legitimate right to Workers’ Compensation.  But at least in my experience, these lies are rare, maybe even scarce.

The lies we tell ourselves are not so scarce.  We lie to ourselves every day. Nobody is immune to lying to themselves; I admit I’m as guilty as anyone else.  We all like to tell ourselves that we’re smarter, kinder, better, or in better shape than we are. But in safety, we have a special set of lies we tell ourselves.  It’s more than wishful thinking, many of us have lied for so long that now we believe our own hogwash. We tell ourselves that we save lives when the best most of us will ever do is help other people to make informed choices about their safety.  I get more pushback from safety people when I say that they don’t save lives than I do any other statement I ever made. We don’t save people’s lives, at least not with enough frequency to say we do it for a living.  But why is that lie that we tell ourselves that important to us? What makes it SO important for us to believe that we save lives?

The workers know that we aren’t saving their lives, although some may humor us.  Workers will compliment us for caring about their safety, but as Chris Rock says, “you don’t get credit for what you’re SUPPOSED to do!” I care about workers’ safety, but isn’t that something that EVERY person is supposed to do? From the CEO to the vendor who mows the lawn we are all supposed to care about worker safety, and frankly what kind of monster believes that it doesn’t matter how many lives I risk as long as the job gets done?

We also lie to ourselves about things like some of the absolute nonsense that we teach in safety orientations “the rules are in place for YOUR safety?’ Na uh.  The truth is that many of the rules have less to do with protecting workers and more to do with the ease of enforcement. There are jobs where government regulation doesn’t necessitate that everyone that enters the production area wears safety glasses. Point of fact, a good many people that we currently require to wear safety glasses are made to do so for the convenience of enforcement. Imagine how hard it would be to force only some of the people to wear safety glasses some of the time?

We often lie to ourselves about our power in an organization.  Authority is the right, by nature of one’s position, to order someone to do something. Power, on the other hand, is one’s ability to get a person to comply with your request.  In Safety, we have a lot of authority, but too often when someone fails to comply we run like an 8-year old tattle tale to someone who has both the authority and power to get the person to comply (and then we wonder why people don’t respect us.)

But the biggest lie that we tell ourselves is that we are doing our best.  We may be putting in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, but is that really the best we can do? How many of us give 100% every moment of every day? Scarce few of us.  The Franklin Institutes estimated in a study several decades ago that the average person was productive less than 30% of his or her day (I don’t recall the exact number—it may even have been less than 25%).  Is that really the best we can do? Or when a manager who doesn’t have a clue about how to reduce the risk of injuries, or and overrules our decisions and puts the workers at greater risk (I’m not talking about putting them in direct contact with the angel of death, but taking a shortcut or working out of process) do we just tell ourselves to choose our battles and cross our fingers?

Truth, integrity, and authenticity take courage and that’s in short supply. Not just in safety but in all aspects of our lives.  I’m not suggesting that we start putting our jobs and livelihoods at risk by telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth in everything thing we say or do, but I am saying that we had ought to know the difference between when we are lying and when we are holding our tongue until the time is right to have a meaningful conversation.

My public relations manager and my publisher, both worry that I will lose my voice, that I will start to modify my writing style to pander to my audience.  I don’t worry about that and those of you who know me well know that as well. My goal will always to provoke, to accuse, not to bully you or your colleagues, but to get you to ask yourselves if what you are telling yourselves is the truth or another big fat lie.

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.

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