Fear the Reaper, Not the Safety Guy

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By Phil La Duke
Burnt Out Safety Consultant, Iconoclast, and  Author of I Know My Shoes Are Untied Mind Your Own Business and Lone Gunman Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence

I’m a consultant  being a consultant means going to a lot of workplaces and meeting a lot of different people in a lot of different places. And even though I’m not an auditor (those hated safety cops who come in to bust you for the pettiest things) but nonetheless companies seldom call me and pay me to tell them things are great. 

People fear me. 

I used to say that a consultant is someone who spends three days in your company, gives you an unworkable solution to an ill-defined problem and then blames you when it fails. And the solution to fix the problem is always more money. I am not that kind of consultant. 

And yet people fear me. 

I’m in the advice business, you pay me for my expertise. I believe that workers don’t want to get hurt and your systems are supposed to hurt them. I look to find the system flaws that cause injuries and you’d be surprised how simple, obvious, and cheap they are to fix. 

But people fear me. 

When I arrive the reaction is either the disingenuous sickeningly welcome “gee whiz,boy do we love safety” or out-and-out hostility.  People hide things from me. People make lame excuses for things I don’t care about.

People fear me. 

Well…that’s not entirely true; people fear the safety interloper. It doesn’t matter that I am there to help them identify and mitigate risks that could maim, cripple, or kill them. They would rather dance a polka with the angel of death than cooperate with the safety consultant. 

It makes it tough to do my job. Many of you make it tough to do my job by being safety cops. 

When people hide from us we can’t do our jobs. Is this who we want to be?

It must be, at least for some of you, because so many of you reinforce the idea that the safety guy is the de facto parent for the orphan children laboring in malicious obedience waiting to be chastised by the stern taskmaster.

I never revealed this publicly, but the inspiration for my first book, I Know My Shoes Are Untied…Mind Your Own Business is from an incident that I experienced before I even got INTO safety. I was a consultant to one of the Big Three, (I won’t name names because even though it was over 30 years ago my boss tends to throw a hissy fit at the mere idea that I suggest that a customer or potential customer is anything less than perfect). I was tasked with transforming a failing plant into what would later be dubbed a “focused factory”.  So I walked out onto the plant floor, where an emotionally constipated safety man would look at me and give me a stern look and say, “the next time I see you with your shoes untied I’m putting you out of the plant.” I can clearly remember the exact location where he told me that, a scant six feet from an induction hardener. I went out that night and bought loafers (steel-toed was required at that point).  

I walked by that induction hardener wearing a metal watch and a metal belt buckle multiple times a day.  The safety bad-ass said nothing. He had won his war of wills by making me buy new shoes. I hope it made him feel tough, like the cop he always wanted to be. As I walked by the induction hardener I said hi to the operator, we were friendly but not really friends—we never had a beer together, and while I knew he was married with kids, I couldn’t tell you now or then their names or ages.  But I liked him, and I enjoyed passing the time of day with him several times a day (he was on the main aisle at the base of the stairs so our paths crossed a lot.)

One day, a couple of months after my untied shoes incident, my friend was killed when the high intensity electricity used in induction hardening arced off the machine and connected to his wedding ring.  I hope he didn’t suffer. He was likely dead instantly, but I always wonder about those last moments of his life. I also think that it could have just as easily have been me, the killer bolt of electricity could have just as easily arced to my belt or my watch.  This senseless horrific tragedy could have been prevented, but instead the safety cop was more worried about my shoes being tied. For the record, my friend died with his shoes tied; I hope that brings the stupid sonofabitch safety cop some peace, because it haunts me every single day for the last 30 years.

Some of you like the idea of being the tough guy, the safety champion, the person unafraid to get into a grown person’s face and tell them what’s what.  Get out of safety. People will only agree with you to your face and return to unsafe behavior as soon as you leave. You will have taught the person nothing more than that you are a self-important mouth breather who thinks you’re smarter and more powerful than him or her, and he or she will despise you. 

Unless you learn to respect people, treat them as equals, and persuade them by providing them good information that they can use to make better choices about the risks that they take you are doomed to fail.  Maybe people should fear us after all.

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.