I Don’t Even Know Who We Are Anymore

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Phil La Duke

I Know My Shoes Are Untied Mind Your Own Business and Lone Gunman Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence

As many of you surely know by know, the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) turned down the inclusion of my books in their library; I was disappointed—not just because that would exponentially increase sales, or even that in the case of Lone Gunman there is a real chance that it could save lives—no, what disappointed me the most was the response of ASSP.  I have a lot of respect for ASSP and the rebuff made me reconsider the role of professional societies and their purpose. That cascaded quickly into me questioning whether or not we as a profession (and I have to tell you that some of the thought leaders in Safety have taken me to task for even describing those who work in safety as “professionals”) have a unified view of the role of Safety in an organization, to whit: are we simply the people who enforce regulations and kiss boo-boos or are we people who challenge ourselves to do better? 

The actual rejection read:

“The primary reason was the overall tone. We know that you don’t pull any punches in your blog and presentations. The sometimes colorful language and in-your-face approach are contrary to the more neutral approach we take as a society. The other books we carry may not be as provocative as yours, but they are more traditional and what members expect from publications we publish or sell.” (Emphasis in bold is my addition)

Let me state for the record, ASSP and the National Safety Council can reject any work that they choose and I (and any others who have their work rejected) don’t have a write to complain about it. These organizations have a responsibility to their members and that may extend to politely declining to carry my book. I don’t get to be mad at the rejection and I am not. Truth be told I wasn’t really expecting that they would carry it, but figured it was worth a try. 

None-the-less I was deeply troubled by the response. Lone Gunman deals with the very real problem of workplace violence, which, a) differs completely from mass shootings and b) tends to increase as mass shootings are all over the news. In short, people right now are at risk and the risk is predictable and for the most part preventable.  What is the appropriate tone when talking about women being butchered by their estranged husbands and boyfriends? How can I adopt a more neutral approach to calling out the murder of employers by mentally unhinged homicidal maniacs? 

They also mentioned that the reviewers pointed to a lack of citation for fact-based conclusions. This is my fault completely, because although the citations for each of my facts are clearly labeled (albeit some are embedded in the chart titles and others are at the end of the book (my publisher’s idea, not mine)) they aren’t easy to find and don’t follow a conventional style guide. My only defense is that I am not writing text books and ostensibly that’s not what the organization is selling.  It is a valid reason for not including my books in their catalog, and again, I have no legitimate gripe.

It was the last line of the rejection that hit me like a gut punch: “The other books we carry may not be as provocative as yours, but they are more traditional and what members expect from publications we publish or sell.” WTF? Seriously? So because my book isn’t pablum that tells people in Safety that “all is well and stay the course” it has no place in the discourse in the safety community? The message I took from this is my books rock the boat and the people who buy from their library want upbeat, life affirming, books about all the good things that are Safety. 

This has me wondering whether or not I have a place in Worker Safety or at very least should I continue providing free reading material.  I have always viewed my role as providing workers, managers, and senior leaders with the information they need to make informed decisions about their safety.  I don’t delude myself into thinking that I am a lifeguard or that I am a policeman or that I am following some higher calling, and I will continue to call out in harsh tones and colorful language those who do. I am hated by some for it, but I don’t know these people and they don’t know me so hate away (chances are if I met you I wouldn’t like you much either.)

So again I ask, “WHO ARE WE?” Do we only read materials and listen to speakers who tell us things that reassure us that we are doing a good job? Do we only want to think about saving lives and getting a blue ribbon like a prize pig at the State fair? I spend hours writing blogs, articles, and books all on my own time and my own dime.  My employer doesn’t pay me to write these articles in fact, my employer should never be judged for anything I say or do in these areas because they neither commission my work nor see it before it is published, and most don’t even see it then. I have constructed a hard wall between my personal life and my professional life. I recently put in some long days working as a Production Safety Consultant on a major theatrical release film, and come Tuesday will be back on an equally exciting gig doing the same for another major film; in short, I have a rich and deeply fulfilling job working for a global company that I like and respect and for the most part that likes and respects me.  So why continue doing this? Why keep crashing a party where I am clearly unwelcome and uninvited. I feel like the guy who goes to the same restaurant every day and complains about the food—eventually the owner doesn’t want to hear it any more and will tell me not to come back.

My intent is not to single out ASSP either, after nine presentations in eight years the National Safety Council has decided that I am no longer welcome. The reason is one of the most simple-minded verbal drooling put to paper.  The NSC changed their selection process and began by looking at the evaluations of all the previous speakers. I scored in the top half of the evaluations of all speakers. They then divided the remaining speakers in half. I was in the lower half of this group.  Why? Not my presentation style which was scored as one of the highest, nor my knowledge of the subject, in fact nothing in my presentation style. How then could I score in the lower half of the top half you might be wondering? My topics. Really? I would send as many as 36 abstracts to the NSC and THEY CHOSE THE TOPICS. So I have to believe I am effectively black listed by the NSC for something other than what I have been told. To be fair, the NSC has never commented except to say I am welcome to submit abstracts for future consideration. (as if there was retroactive consideration) I was initially disappointed, but realized that unlike the ASSP who is generally gracious to its speakers the NSC always acted as if it was doing its speakers and vendors a favor by allowing them to participate (speakers are unpaid, pay their own travel expenses, and are given a free entrance to the event).

Yes I provoke. I irritate the establishment. I call ‘em like I see ‘em. But I don’t pick a fight just for shits and giggles. I don’t spend my weekends at my keyboard looking to irritate the more uptight and sanctimonious among our trade. I do it because I thought I made a difference, at least I used to think that. I used to do it because a handful of you would tell me that while you didn’t always agree with me, I always made you think.  Now I do it mostly out of habit.  What we do is too important for us to sit in our offices and argue about academic crap like is zero injuries attainable? I can tell you this, without a doubt we can never attain anything approaching zero injuries as long as we only seek out opinions that support our world view and get off our asses and engage with people.

So I am not angry with ASSP, although they might well black list me too, that’s their right, and if they do, well at least I understand why: because YOU have told them that you don’t want to hear about ugly topics like workplace violence, and YOU have created the impression in them that YOU don’t want to learn, that YOU are more interested in the alphabet after your name than helping people to learn to make better decisions about their safety, that YOU can’t handle a harsh tone or the merest insulation that you might not be doing a perfect job.  Professional organizations have a responsibility to their membership to provide what the members say they need and want, so if you tell them that you want a neutral tone on an ugly and urgent topic they don’t have a choice: they have to provide you with palatable crap that you will buy; that’s the job that YOU have defined for them and demand of them.

Recently I asked an editor who I respect greatly (and who has published 80-some articles I have penned) to tell me the truth about my books, specifically “is my baby ugly” (although both are selling well, so well in fact that Amazon and Barnes & Noble sometimes have trouble keeping up with demand), and here’s what he had to say: “You write like Hunter S. Thompson and people read his work for the love of the language. But while Thompson wrote on broad topics of interest to a large audience (Nixon, Hell’s Angels, Drug Use) you rewrite to technical professionals who are only interested in being told the procedure for doing x.  That’s why it was always so challenging editing your stuff—I was never quite sure if the piece was meant to be instructive or to share your view of the world. You need to decide whether you want to write staid, boring, technical/procedural stuff for an audience of technical people who lack taste or imagination, or share your twisted view of the world for intelligent, enlightened, and curious people who will love taking the journey with you.”

I am a firm believer in the second line of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If “if you can trust yourself while all men doubt you, while still allowing for the doubting too.” I have listened to my friend and editor/publisher and I reject the idea that all safety professionals are humorless drones incapable of taking the journey with me. It’s just a shame that the ones who are seem to be setting the agenda for the discussions around safety.

I am proud to announce the hard launch by Marriah Publishing of my second book, Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention.  This is all new material that cannot be found anywhere else. In light of all the talk and panic around gun violence, and the shamefully bad advice some “experts” are giving I hope some of you will read it and pass it along to your executives and HR leads (go ahead, expense it, they will be glad you did.)

It can be purchased in hardcover or paperback at Amazon or Barnes & Noble 

I should warn you, this isn’t a book that is pro- or anti-gun ownership rights.The book has extensive sections on spotting an unstable employee (some people’s lives will take a dark and desperate turn long after you have hired them but there are always signs), the types of work environments that tend to trigger these events, and I recently returned from Dublin, Ireland where I spoke on how companies can leverage technology to protect workers from workplace violence.  But all the books, and magazines, and speeches in the world won’t change a damned thing if you keep thinking that it can’t (or probably won’t) happen to you or someone you love. You can bet your life that we will see more similar shootings in the weeks or months as people who are currently at the brink of sanity see the news reports and think, “now’s the time”. WAKE UP, PEOPLE!!!! This book is pepper with the sarcasm, self-deprecating humor of the first book, but it also makes use of my extensive knowledge of violence prevention in the workforce (that I gained as head of training and OD for a global manufacturer.) 

Of course, my first book is still for sale, and you might rightly ask yourself, why on God’s green Earth would I read a book that contains previously released material? Simple, like the rain-forest and the polar bears my work is disappearing from the web very quickly.  All but a handful of my works for Facility Management Magazine is gone, and you can basically only go back 2 years on my blog (8 year’s worth of my work that ranges in quality from magnificent to mindless dreck.) And besides, about a third of the book is new material that cannot be found anywhere else. So buy it. It will teach you, entertain you, and make you want to read more it can be ordered here I Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business or on Barnes & Noble.com.