Work Will Set You Free

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by Phil La Duke

A sign hung on the gate of the infamous Nazi death camp, ” Arbeit macht frei” loosely translated as “work sets you free”. As I sit here on Father’s day I inevitably think of my father who died for no better reason than because he went to work and performed his job dutifully and generally without complaint.
We never talked about it much but here was a man that the depression couldn’t kill, nor could World War II, nor the wild shenanigans of seven children cooped up in a three-bedroom ranch with one bathroom.
My dad was a Union man, in fact, he served his fellow Union members faithfully as a member of the bargaining committee. Above just about everything my dad believed in fairness. An honest days work for an honest days pay. This was in the days when corporations and politicians convinced workers that Unions were just corrupt organizations that squandered the worker’s hard-earned Union dues on expense conferences and perks. Before “Right to Work” legislation made it harder to form Unions and had such audacious provisions that were he alive would have killed my dad. Provisions like the one requiring that the Union must represent those mooches who don’t belong to the Union (or pay dues) in labor disputes. This is fundamentally unfair.
But the decrease in the power and influence corresponds to the loss of benefits including, but not limited to, time off. My ex-boss tells of a story of being at a party and listening to the irate anti-union blathering of a fellow party guest about how Unions have destroyed this country. After this boob has spat the last of his vitriol, my ex-boss asked him what he did for a living. “I’m a dentist,” he told him. My ex-boss, to his credit, went on to ask him how many of his patients were blue-collar workers with dental insurance, and how many GOT that dental coverage because of a collective bargaining agreement?
What has any of this to do with health and safety?
As it turns out, researchers are finding that there is a much stronger relationship between worker health and worker safety, in fact, things like fatigue and work-related stress cause higher rates of human error, judgment lapses, and even recklessness.
The wellbeing of the workers plays a direct role in injuries and more companies are waking up to this.
State of American Vacations, Project Time Off Time Off Reported some good news. 2017 saw an upward tick in the amount of vacation time taken after a steady 15-year decline.
People need to take time off work for their health and wellbeing. Companies often apply pressure, both subtle and overt to discourage people from taking accrued time off. According to the study, “employees…were concerned that taking a vacation would make them appear less dedicated” These workers used only 39% of the time off that they had earned, but what’s worse overall, the average worker only takes 48% of his or her accrued time off.
The report contains even more bad news, “Nearly four-in-ten (39%) Millennials say they find the idea of a workcation – traveling somewhere with the intent to work remotely for all or part of the time – appealing.” Shame on corporate executives who rale against Chinese workers committing suicide at Apple, while at the same time convincing the next generation of workers that sitting in a hotel room in an exotic location like Aruba, or Kankakee Illinois, is the same as taking an honest to God vacation. Any of you who have taken a friend or spouse on a work trip knows that while it may be a lot of things, a vacation it AIN’T. I got creeped out when I read the term “workcation”. It reminded me that Pol Pot referred to his killing fields as “re-education centers”. You call a skunk a striped kitty but it’s still gonna stink.
Work is work, and yes, when I travel for work I try to make the best of it, but it is not the same as a true vacation, where you don’t take your computer, you don’t check your emails, and you don’t call into conference calls because it is just so darned important that you be there.
Some of you are old enough to remember the days before pagers or cell phones or answering machines, where admins took phone messages on little pink slips of paper, and when someone had something truly important to say they called back.
How many times have you said to yourself, “I need a vacation”? I know I have. While it’s not noted in the study, I find the idea of lumping sick leave and vacation time into a single “paid time off” troubling. Should we save our vacation time for when we are so sick that we cannot go to work?
Taking vacations, true vacations, help workers alleviate stress and increase their mental resilience. The study found that workers with more time off were far happier than those that took less time off and companies whose cultures encouraged taking time off performed better financially than those that were apathetic or hostile to the practice.
Holidays and vacation days are more than making people happy, people who are happy in their jobs tend to be less stressed, and people who are less stressed make fewer mistakes. Of course, fewer mistakes means fewer injuries and fewer injuries make for a more profitable and enjoyable workplace.
But back to my dad, in the end, the Company couldn’t save him, the Union couldn’t save him, the Safety function could save him, and medical science couldn’t save him; work ultimately and horrifically set him free. Happy Father’s Day dad, I miss you and thanks for the sacrifices you made to make me the man I am today.


Causing Safety (In Case You Missed It)

By Phil La Duke


Last week I traveled to San Antonio, Texas to speak at the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) formerly American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE).   For what it’s worth I happen to think that the ASSP does hands down the best safety conference and expo anywhere, and again big thanks to those of you out there who work tirelessly as volunteers  to make this show such a high quality event.

My topic was Causing Safety, I have been thinking about how to break the cycle of bleeding indicators and measuring the presence of nothing.  I reasoned, that we already know many of the things that make the difference between a safe workplace and a unsafe workplace so why on God’s green Earth do we work only defensively.  A couple of cocky sports teams not withstanding defense is not playing to win; it’s playing not to lose.


I didn’t have a moderator and the session wasn’t recorded so what I said during this slide is between the audience and I.


For too many years safety professionals have squabbled over the most basic terms of the profession.  Hazards, incidents, near misses, all may have very different connotations depending on the workplace and the most basic term, “safety” may have the most definitions.  Safety has to be more than the absence of injuries.  I am from the Detroit area and I like to tell people that I can take their loved ones, leave them overnight in an unlocked car, take no security precautions, and return them unharmed to them the next day.  Where they safe? Most people have a horrified look on there faces and say, “no”.  Why weren’t they safe? They weren’t harmed, but the potential for harm was so great that a reasonable person would judge them to be “unsafe”.  Why then do we persist in using body counts as a measure of safety? Instead we need to focus less on preventing injuries and more on promoting the antecedent practices that promote safety; the things that cause safety.

Over the years I have identified six elements that to one extent or another cause safety.  You may have more, but I’ve found these six are the most powerful.


It should surprise no one that competency, that is, people’s ability to do their jobs is essential to safety.  People who either because they don’t know how to do their jobs, or are physically or intellectually incapable of doing their jobs cannot do the jobs safely.  Competency begins by having clearly and accurately described jobs so that hiring managers and recruiters can get the right person for the job.  Once on the job workers must be trained—not just watch an experienced worker do the job for a week or two—and this training should be a mix of core skills and safety training.

Even the most competent person can subconsciously drift from the process, fail to retain components of the training, or begin taking short cuts, so it is critically important that the workers’ performances are periodically evaluated and given appropriate feedback.  Of course if there is significant deviation from the process, the training given to workers may be poorly designed, developed, or implemented.  All training should be piloted and evaluated before given to workers.

Finally, failing to address a competency issue because “it’s all common sense” is a sure ticket for getting someone hurt or killed.  Common sense is the universal understanding of a topic, and new workers entering your environment may take years to develop this common sense shared by veteran employees.


All processes that are “under control” (to use a Statistical Process Control (SPC) term) have an upper and lower control limit.  This is the range of performance in which, statistically, your process will perform.  Even though people’s behavior can be wildly unpredictable, they still tend to perform within physical and intellectual control limits.  If the range of the control limits of the process exceed the limits of the worker’s abilities, the worker will be harmed—sometimes the injury will be sudden and acute while others will develop gradually and create chronic injuries, but there is no doubt that this will happen.

Your process isn’t supposed to hurt people, and if you find yourself trying to protect workers using the bottom of the Hierarchy of Controls you’re process is probably insufficiently robust and stable.  When workers are forced to work out of process the risk of injuring them become exponentially higher, as the protections put into place to prevent harm were designed with a standard process in mind. Every deviation away from the standard design places the workers at heightened risk.  Of course process improvement should never be seen as a success if it prioritizes production over people.

Your process isn’t supposed to hurt people, and if you find yourself trying to protect workers using the bottom of the Hierarchy of Controls you’re process is probably insufficiently robust and stable.  When workers are forced to work out of process the risk of injuring them become exponentially higher, as the protections put into place to prevent harm were designed with a standard process in mind. Every deviation away from the standard design places the workers at heightened risk.  Of course process improvement should never be seen as a success if it prioritizes production over people.


It may sound schmaltzy or soft-witted but I firmly believe that leaders (and that includes safety professionals, anyone in a supervisory or managerial position, or simply a person of great influence that is respected by his or her peers) you have to visualize and personify the change you want to see, every day, every hour, every minute, and every breath.

As I look at the shelf in my office I see scores of books on leadership and all of them agree that leading by example is the single greatest way to encourage the behaviors that you want to see in whatever organization you are leading.

Having safety as a core value is not enough unless you live in alignment with your core values. Leaders must consistently and articulately communicate safety as a value.  That doesn’t mean walking around talking about how much we all love and value safety, rather leaders much explain exactly HOW these values manifest in our decision making, how we prioritize our work, and precisely what these values mean.

Too often, leaders try to “cascade the message” and this results in something I refer to as the “hour glass effect”.  The hour glass effect is the tendency for messages to be passed from senior leaders to middle management who then filter the message such that only a fraction of that message reaches the working level of the organization.  You have a level at the top that wants an engaged and safe workforce, and workers at the bottom who want to go home unharmed and don’t want to watch their coworkers maimed or dying in the gore of an industrial accident.  But you also have a bottleneck in the middle of the organization whose livelihoods and perhaps their jobs rely, not on the safety of the workers but, the extent to which they can push efficiency, production, and quality.  It’s always easier to risk someone else’s neck than your own, and many are far too willing to roll the dice with workers’ lives.


If you work in safety, you don’t need me to tell you how to manage your hazards and risks, or maybe you do, but there are only three points that I want to make here:

  1. Hazard and risk management are skills, and as such they need to be taught, honed, and periodically reinforced.
  2. Hazard and risk management doesn’t just happen; it’s not all common sense.  Your organization has to have a robust system that identifies, contains, and corrects hazards and that mitigates risks.
  3. Risk is not universal.  The risks of working in upstream oil and gas aren’t the same risks as over the road trucking or retail or…well you get it.Slide8

When it comes to Accountability systems  there are three main considerations:

  1. People need to understand risk tolerance, that is the amount of jeopardy they are willing to accept while they do their jobs.  Every person has a different risk tolerance, but each workplace must draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable risks.
  2. Accountability doesn’t automatically equate to punishment.  Management has to respond differently to human error (which is neither deliberate or avoidable), risk taking (we expect all workers to take at least some educated and informed risks) and recklessness (where the potential benefit is so grossly outweighed by the risk of catastrophic consequences.)
  3. People must be held answerable for their roles in safety and to do that the organization must clearly define and articulate exactly what that role is—when safety is everybody’s job it becomes nobody’s job.


Human error is our brain’s mechanism for testing the safety of rapid adaptation.  We make an average of five mistakes an hour, but don’t worry most of these mistakes are benign.  As much as we may want to punish someone for doing something that they didn’t intend nor plan to do so is unjust.  In most cases people feel terrible about making a mistake and punishment is unnecessary.

Risk Taking is different from human error in that it is deliberate and planned. We expect workers to take risks, in fact many jobs risk taking is essential.  But we need to ensure that people know their decision rights.  Decision rights are the limits we set on the level of risks workers are allowed to take.  Organizations have to draw a line in the sand and make it clear the exact point where workers are no longer allowed to take risks.

Recklessness should never be tolerated.  Recklessness is where a worker exceeds his or her decision rights and takes risks that are so out of proportion with any reward that the risk is impossible for a reasonable person to justify. Recklessness endangers the entire workforce and should be dealt with sternly and decisively.


Worker engagement is becoming a buzzword, Engagement is the quality that drives us to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.  Engaged workers understand that no one wants to get hurt, and they don’t want to hurt anyone.  These workers will guard their coworkers from harm and will stop work  when they judge the work to be unsafe. Engaged workers believe that if they see a hazard they own it and follow the “see something, say something, do something” approach to safety.

Worker engagement is often confused with worker motivation.  A motivated worker will work toward a reward or incentive but once that reward or incentive is achieved it ceases (or at very best case reduces) it’s ability to motivate.  Organizations cannot create engagement through recognition and reward programs, instead, engagement is built on trust and communication.  When you expect workers to do the right thing and you communicate this expectation workers tend to become more engaged.


Then people asked questions and I answered them.


And of course I provided information on how to stalk me.

I want to thank all of the many people who attended the session and hope that they enjoyed my talk as much (or more) than I did delivering it.

How Does It Feel?


by Phil La Duke

Someone somewhere made the remark that workers and companies have to imagine how it feels to lose a loved one to a workplace accident.  I don’t have to imagine. I never knew either of my grandfathers. Both of them were farmers and both died on the job one was pushing a wheelbarrow and when it hit a rut he fell forward and was impaled on one of the handles.  It ruptured his appendix and after an agonizing week or so he died (of gangrene because his doctor misdiagnosed it.) My other grandfather died when the tractor he was returning to another farmer was struck by a speeding train.  The crossing was unmarked and the view was obstructed by overgrown brush and tries. He never had a chance. My great uncle worked in a lime pit. He went to work one day, changed from his street clothes and donned his work clothes.  He disappeared never to be seen or heard from again. His street clothes and his personal effects were still in his locker. His legacy was the mystery of how he died, and however gruesome the details the would have helped the family cope.  Did he slip? Was he murdered? Did the supervisor screw up> A coworker? His mother never gave up and prayed every day for his return.

I remember growing up and thinking about what it would have been like to have grandpas, what I could have learned from them, how much fun we might have had. I had long tortured thoughts about the circumstances of their deaths and how both families struggled once the primary breadwinner was dead. I thought of what it would be like to lose a family member and get no answers.  The company floated the idea that maybe he had just run off—a ludicrous and insensitive thing to say to a grieving mother, particularly since according to their scenario he would have just left without his final paycheck, his street clothes, or his personal effects. I always thought they KNEW EXACTLY what happened but were reluctant to say for fear of getting in some sort of trouble.

Even more impactful to me was watching mesiothema turn my dad from a healthy and robust man (at 65 he was still one of the top players on his company softball team and he quit because the “young guys don’t show up for games.  I don’t mind losing but I don’t like forfeiting”, to a tired, suffering, old man too weak to do much beyond not leaving his recliner except to walk to the dinner table or the bathroom. In cases, like that, where you know that there is no hope of survival and that time is limited, there is so much you want to ask and say, but you know that dwelling on the finite amount of time left only makes both of your suffering worse.

And then there’s the case of my brother-in-law who died of silicosis (basically it did to the inside of my brother-in-law’s longs what mesiothema did to the outside of my dads.  He was the kindest man I ever knew. Once, when he was near the end we were talking and he asked about my work. At the time it was close to the great recession and it seemed like every time I went to work I took a 20% pay cut. I told him that I was adjusting my budget accordingly but that money was tight.  I honestly wasn’t thinking about his physical state, I just wanted to have a conversation like we did before he got sick. He looked at me very seriously, and said, “Phil, I don’t have much money, but if you need it, it’s yours”. I still ache at the thought of this great soul thinking of my problems instead of his MUCH more serious problems.

I think about how close he was to retiring. How much he looked forward to hunting and fishing, camping and being outdoors, and how his illness robbed him of all of that and robbed my family of many years of his presence,

My ex-father-in-law was a boilermaker.  He was working on a job when a foreman (who was not supposed to be working, let alone working above workers without telling them) dropped a 30lb angle iron that fell two stories before striking my father-in-law in the neck.  The force of the blow shattered his number one vertebrae and lodged the number 2 vertebrae into the third (the details are all very sketchy) but several doctors told him that they could not explain how he was alive, never mind able to walk.  One doctor told him that he would require surgery that would leave him in a body cast all summer and had less than a 20% success rate. Eventually, he found a surgeon who performed experimental surgery using cow bones to repair the damage, there would be no need for a body cast, no prolonged hospital stay, but he would never work again and that he could never lift over 50lbs again.  Several years later the pain set in. It got worse and worse but doctors told him surgery was no longer an option. He moved from opioid to opioid until he, even know he despised junkies, eventually settled on Heroin. It ate through his family like a wildfire and before long his sisters and my ex-wife were all addicts. Then he found out he had mesiothema. He declined the chemotherapy that would have kept him alive for a year instead of six months. He was tired, he had been struggling for almost 30 years all because of one screw up by a supervisor—the one guy who absolutely should have known better.  Defiant to the end, he lived 18 months longer than the doctors said was possible. His daughter died six months later of a heroin overdose; another life destroyed by that single act of negligence. Her two daughters barely knew their mother clean and sober, and to be sure she had made some poor choices and absolutely expedited her death, but that does mean much to my kids. All they feel is the crushing loss. They were both very close to their grandpa, and are haunted by the fact that their mom will never be at their wedding, or know grandchildren, or be anything but gone. When my ex-wife died, one of my daughters said sobbing, “I thought we would have more time”.

So how does it feel? It feels horrible. It’s a combination of pain, anguish, and a sense of loss that I hope you never have to feel.  Every minute of every day the losses are there, and with the exception of my ex-wife none of the people I have lost behaved unsafely. None of them failed to exercise appropriate care. So when I go off on safety practitioners it’s not because I don’t think they care, or that they are implementing some safety fad, it’s because in these cases when I needed companies and their safety leadership to be there for ME they weren’t. It’s the manifestation of all the loss I have experienced because people I knew or could never know, made one simple mistake: they went to work.


Safety: The View From The Outside In

woman sitting on red and green suede sofa facing well lighted room

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By Phil La Duke

I never wanted to work in safety. Despite, or perhaps owing to, the fact that my father dying of mesothelioma, my brother-in-law being  cut down in his prime from silicosis, my brother’s friend dying after less than a month on the job, a friend of a friend who died at twenty when he fell in a vat of acid, and both grandfathers and a great uncle being  killed on the job, I honestly didn’t see it as being all that effectual, and if anything, I saw the safety people as being complicate in those deaths.

I also had my own negative experience with a quack doctor in the medical department at the factory in which I worked who was more concerned about getting people back on the line than in treating injuries.  When I reported safety issues nothing happened, nobody responded and the issues remained hazardous pieces of the jagged landscape the was my workplace. I had to fend for myself.

Later, as an organizational consultant, I met safety professionals who literally cared more about whether or not I tied my shoes and used the handrail than ensuring that no one died (which at least three did) on the job. These puffed up and sanctimonious boobs spent most of their time in their offices doing…well God knows what.

When I was offered the opportunity to interview with a firm that was working to make a company “the safest company in the world”  I turned my friend and ex-coworker down flat. The safety professionals I had encountered were more interested in being seen as important than making the kind of structural changes required to become the safest company in the city let alone the world.  No thank you, I was not interested in dealing with a bunch of change adverse people who were stuck in the position because they were politically connected but were as useless as the nipples on the tits of a ceramic bull.

Eventually, I relented and the project was a huge success and much to my surprise I met safety professionals who were ambitious, hard-working, and smart.  They actually CARED about people and when someone was seriously injured or killed they grieved and to it to heart; all the while wondering what they could have done differently to have prevented the tragedy.

When the company and Union consented to allow my employer to create a similar offering for other customers, the Union lead on the project said, “I’m not going to play politics here. If it saves lives it should be shared.”

So for the next five years, I went on to work my magic and helped to transform companies from death traps to continuously improving companies who cared about safety.

But even though I could demonstrate case study after case study it was a hard or even impossible sale to make. I had so many safety guys waste my time by having me come in only to brag about what a great job they were doing in safety. It felt like being invited to dinner and then being ambushed with a pitch to sell Amway.

Now I’m on the inside, and I can see many of the kinds of safety guys who killed my dad and brother-in-law; feckless bags of flesh who expend ten times the energy explaining why they can’t do their jobs as they do trying to actually DO their jobs.  To be sure, I’ve met many absolute superstar training professionals, but that’s not the people who are shaping the view from the outside in.

The outsider’s view of the safety guy is important because too often safety is seen as existing outside the business.  The executives support the concept of safety without truly understanding it or owning responsibility for it. Middle managers continue to see the safety departments as the rat squad akin to the police department’s  Internal Affairs. Front-line supervisors are forced to please their bosses or the safety guy, and finally, the frontline workers see the safety practitioner as a schoolyard snitch, and we all know, “snitches end up in ditches”.

This problem isn’t going to go away until safety is so deeply integrated that it is no longer seen as external from Operations, and I am seeing some companies starting to get there, which is great, but in many others, the safety function is completely content to be the long-suffering victim; unappreciated and unwanted; the last kid picked for kickball.

Cognition Versus Muscle Memory


By Phil La Duke

My romantic vis-a-vis works as a seamstress making hot air balloons. The work is hard especially for people just learning to operate an industrial sewing machine, pulling heavy fabric into position and using the tools of the trade. She was telling my a while back about a new worker who was struggling because she was trying to cognitively override her muscle memory. You see, while the work is never easy, you’re muscles and brain get into sort of a familiar rhythm and when you think too much it muddles things up and makes the job harder.

It’s funny when you think about it. We spend so much time trying to get our workers to be aware of the hazards around them and to think about what they are doing, when in some cases thinking is our worst enemy.

It’s a bit like becoming aware of your tongue. It sits in your mouth all day minding its own business and you don’t think about it and then suddenly you become aware of your tongue and it’s torture; okay maybe that’s just me, but I have experienced first hand the power of muscle memory, work hardening, and the danger of cognition in a repetitive process.

When I worked the assembly line way back in 1980, Safety really hadn’t taken hold. OSHA had been around for over 15 years but it wasn’t really clear to many employees what had to be done to meet regulations. I wasn’t required to wear safety glasses or steel-toed shoes (although I did—even then I was a safety nerd), in fact i was discouraged from wearing them by my coworkers who spread myths about PPE (how I was better off without steel toed because if I got my foot run over by a fork-truck they would cut my toes off. I judged that dropping one of the 15 pound metal parts on my foot was a far more likely scenario, and that if I got my foot run over by a fork-truck it didn’t much matter what footwear I had on at the time.

My work was physically demanding and the boredom of doing the same tasks over and over again was greatly fatiguing. My job consisted of at least ten steps that I had to do the exact same way, once every 55 seconds. My job was to attach a seat lock(the metal club-like plate) to either a recliner mechanism or to the base of the seat. Recliners were tougher and required more steps. In less than an hour the cotton gloves I was given to handle sharp metal parts were both filthy and shredded, but it was absolutely forbidden for anyone to have a second set of gloves (heaven forbid the company might have spent an extra $1.50 keeping me safe. So I performed between 10 and 15 steps making 850 sets of seats a day (1700 individual seats).

My first 90 days (significant because that was the probationary period before I was officially in the Union) were hell. I would come home filthy, blowing metal shaving from my nose multiple times an hour, coughing up the dust and grime that I inhaled for 8 or 9 hours. We were never told when “line time” (the time at which we could go home) was until 1:30 and my heart always sank when the loud speaker would sputter Line time for today…9 hours across the board. Talk about stressful conditions. But worst of all, when after showering and washing my clothes I would lie down and try to take a name, but the room seemed to be rolling past me like an assembly line. Throughout those 90 days my hands would lock up on the weekends and I would literally have to pry them apart. I was miserable but I wasn’t going to give up that kind of money after working so hard to get the job.

Eventually my arms started to look like Popeye, my forearms bulged, and my biceps gave the cheap t-shirts I bought wore once and threw away a run for its money. To this day I have to be careful not to crush someone’s hand when I shake it because the screw gun required me to squeeze an oversized trigger some 4250 times a day, more with overtime. Even so I came home tired and sore and hated every bloody moment of that job. But I did it well. I could do it half asleep, I could do it drunk (drinking on the line was rampant but I rarely partook, the last thing I want to do after a couple of drinks was hump an assembly line), I could do it hung over, I could do it miserably ill with the flu and each time to spec and at rate; so nobody much cared what condition I was in. I was able to do all those things without thinking, but if someone threw a monkey wrench into the works and I had to THINK about what I had to do it slowed things down, introduced a high probability of defects and injuries. It was in cases like this that I would get injured.

If you (or me from the future) would have lectured me about making safe choices or some nimrod suck up would have “observed me” things would have gotten real in a hurry. In my world of that time, you don’t get to lecture me, or observe me or tell me much of anything until you’ve done that job, and not for a cycle, or an hour, or a day, no do it for a week and then tell me I’m not doing it safely enough for you.

Of course I could have been better trained. Of course I could have had proper equipment, but I played the cards I dealt and if I didn’t think about things I could do my job just fine. I wonder how many jobs like that are still out there.

Spitting on Forest Fires


By Phil La Duke

My battle for the safety of my neighborhood continues.  One would think that my request that heavy equipment stop plowing through stop signs at 20+ mph adjacent to a popular park would be a no brainer, and in a way it is.  The people involved seem to have no brains at all. This has got my brain twisting and turning with questions. Why do otherwise reasonable people fail to see the risk endemic to this situation? Why do people defend their reckless behavior in an environment where there is most certainly not going to be any meaningful consequence? Beyond the questions it’s got me thinking about courage and cowardice.

I don’t ask for much from the readers of this blog, but I am going to ask you to indulge me a bit this week as I meander away from the edge of the topic of WORKER safety and into the world of safety as a whole.  

You see I met some friends at my local watering hole.  It’s a faux Irish bar with the only real irritants being the occasional Journey or country music song on the jukebox and me of course.  It’s a largely homogeneous crowd where everyone looks like they belong there. You might get the occasional stranger from the Elk’s lodge across the street, but for all intents and purposes you can tell who’s there for a drink and who is up to no good.

Into that mix, a couple of minutes apart walked two parties, an aging drug addict (believe me having an ex-wife who died of a drug overdose after a decades long downward spiral) accompanied by a young girl of about 11 or 12.  They sat at the bar looking like a turd in a punchbowl, and immediately caught my eye. The bar was crowded and the people who ordinarily would have quickly interceded were too busy to notice. About five minutes later, a man who looked like someone had sent down to central casting for a child molester came in and sat next to them.  The adults chatted in conspiratorial tones and the woman and child moved to a table near the door. The man kept manufacturing reasons to go to the door, each time stopping to chat briefly while looking around to see if a bouncer, or cop, or for all I know a rhinoceros. This went on for 10 minutes or so. I brought it to the the bar owners attention and she said she was monitoring the situation, but I knew she was just too busy to do much about it.  Soon the woman and child left. Moments later the man got up and followed and I was tight on his tail. When I went outside I saw the woman and the man negotiating something so I walked up and asked flat out if there needed to be some police involvement. “In what?!?!” The man screamed in alarm. I told him I would let them suss that out. Then I did something that I did often. I took his picture and those of his companions. The man nervously asked what I was going to do with that and I said, “well that depends on how all this turns out.” They quickly went their separate ways.

Was the safety of that young girl my responsibility? Did I do anything but forestall the inevitable? Should I left it to the police? I don’t know.  But I do know this: intervening isn’t easy, and most people won’t thank you, especially if you point out that what they are doing is wrong. But not intervening is cowardice, and I have always been too quick with my mouth and my fists. I’ve learned better ways, and that as one coworker once said of me (referring to the staggering amount of work that I am able to produce in such a short time) that I cannot hold people to the same standard I hold myself to.

Recently I met a safety leader and truly remarkable thinker who turned me on to the Hummingbird Effect but in a simplified form that could be applied to safety.  Now bear with me because I am creating this from memory as I can’t find the original text. Here is a link to a version

The crux of the the story is this:  The animals of the forest are awakened to a fire that was raging out of control and threatening to consume their home.  They all fled to safety and stood idly by as the only home they had know their whole life was engulfed in a fiery holocaust.  At some point they noticed that a hummingbird was flying from the lake and take a mouthful of water and flying to the fire and spitting the water onto the flames.  The other animals were incredulous and asked the hummingbird what it hoped to accomplish; that it’s efforts were too little and could not possible work. The exhausted hummingbird said, “I’m doing the best that I can.” The other animals, perhaps shamed at their own reluctance joined in the effort and ultimately extinguished the flames.

I thought back on this story as I contemplated the what ifs of my intervention both with the people in the bar and with the construction workers who are indignantly and unabashedly hostile to safety. I talked to my romantic vis-a-vis about it.  I was troubled that my efforts amounted to nothing, that like the opinion of other animals watching the hummingbird my efforts were futile, pointless, and even stupid. Keep in mind that my dad used to say to me, “you get no points for doing your best; I can get a baboon in here to try hard. What counts is results.” (My dad knew that without his prodding I would half-ass every task given me.) But what my romantic entanglement said to me, made me think better of things.  She said, “you did what was appropriate, you did enough. People like that (she was speaking of the people in the bar but might as well been talking about the construction ninnies) count on the fact that no one is watching; that no one will say something and once they recognize that someone is watching and that people WILL confront them things will change.”

I think maybe we ask too much of workers and people in general.  We throw all the world’s problems at them and tell them to fix them.  We create lofty ideals and visions of a Utopian safety culture and leave them helpless in the face of the enormity of the problem.  Maybe we had instead ask them to do just a little bit to make things safer. Maybe it’s as easy as asking them to consider the example they set to new workers and colleagues who respect them, Maybe we can just ask them to do what they can.

Refuting Forward Facing Parking


by Phil La Duke

The National Safety Council Driver safety course recommends that when parking one should pull through a parking space and into the adjoining space such that your vehicle is facing forward. The claim made by this course, and to be fair many safety professionals, is that forward motion from a parking space is safer than backing out of a parking space.
This is the kind of reasoning on which every urban legend is built; it sounds reasonable, credible it makes perfect sense, but just as it bears the characteristics of an urban legend it likewise bears the fatal flaws that reveal the lack of veracity of an urban legend.
This is not a condemnation of the course overall; in fact, there are so many horrible drivers on the road (and according to 1.3 million people are killed in car accidents each year. Moreover, my personal experience with the Allen Park Department of Public Works has convinced me that public safety as it pertains to the driving habits of its contractors is of no concern.) So while I think that defensive driving courses are a necessary part of any comprehensive worker safety program, I am going to pick a nit when it comes to parking forward-facing parking.
I have some personal experience in this regard. Long before I took the National Safety Council course I took a competitive course that also recommended the forward-facing parking practice and I adopted it as common practice.
One day I parked my mid-size passenger car in the parking lot. It was early and there were few cars in the parking lot. I easily pulled through the parking space so that I was forward facing with no other vehicles around. When I went to leave at the end of the day the lot was crowded and I found that two pickup trucks large enough to leave no doubt as to the insecurity of the driver’s masculinity. My view was blocked in both directions and I had no choice but to inched out slowly forward. Before I could establish a clear line of sight, a speeding motorist slammed into my front end. She narrowly missed striking the truck and fortunately, no one was injured but my car was damaged.
I went over the situation with a friend who also teaches problem-solving and why did a situation analysis on the contributing factors. We recognized that while theoretically forward facing parking is safer, it negates three important safety devices that make backing up (despite the lessened visibility) safer than forward facing.
First of all, the premise that forward-facing parking is safer is predicated to a large extent on the fact that you have greater visibility than if you are backing out. This is often completely outside the driver’s control. When I parked I was able to see for miles and I had absolutely no control over who would park next to me and this often as a profound effect on the driver’s visibility. So giving the advocates for forward-facing parking the benefit of the doubt in a perfect world, where large vehicles don’t park next to you forward-facing parking may well be safer, but again, it also negates several engineering controls.
The first engineering control is brake lights, which act as visual warnings that a driver is backing out of the space. When a forward facing parked vehicle enters traffic the brake lights are not visible and therefore while the driver entering traffic arguably would have greater visibility (again assuming it is above the surrounding vehicles) the car entering traffic is LESS visible. Furthermore, while it is foreseeable, even probable that there will be traffic that one will encounter when leaving a parking space (and the driver MUST yield the right of way) it is less foreseeable and probable that a vehicle will be pulling out of a parking space; add to this that a forward facing vehicle is more likely to enter traffic more quickly the absence of brake lights can be a deciding factor in whether or not there is an accident.
Similarly, the second engineering control, backup lights, are also neglected, and in addition to the visual cue that it provides to approaching traffic, unlike brake lights that indicate that the vehicle has stopped or is stopping, backup lights indicate that the car’s transmission is currently in reverse, providing additional information to approaching traffic.
The negation of these two engineering controls reduces the reaction time of oncoming vehicles.
There are other safety features that are nullified by forward-facing parking, most notably rear collision alarms and back up cameras. Of course, not all vehicles are equipped with these devices, but if they are, they further deflate the argument that forward-facing parking is intrinsically and safer than pulling into a parking space.
So in the final estimation, drivers should make a judgment call when parking and like in so many other circumstances use good common sense instead of blindly adhering to conventional wisdom.