By Phil La Duke
There’s an issue that’s been bugging me for a while, and it bubbled up again this week. My uncle, who was my dad’s older brother and last surviving sibling died. Since he was 94 and was my dad’s older brother there is every reason to believe that had it not been from unscrupulous asbestos manufacturers who hid the dangers of their product, my father might have lived another 20 years. As I sat in the church during the funeral and saw all the grandkids and great-grandkids and even a great-great grandkid I thought of all of the great grandkids my dad would never know.
Safety practitioners have been trumpeting their successes in lowering workplace injuries and yet they remained stymied by the fact that for the past eight years or so (and I am approximating; it’s 90° out and mysteriously my office is the only room in the house seemingly impervious to my air conditioning so if you want the actual statistics to niggle overlook it up yourself.) worker injury rates continue to decline. It’s a stone “who done it?” in safety circles, but need it be?
I had been struggling with how to tackle this issue and so I put this question to my romantic vis-a-vis, a very bright woman who makes hot air balloons for a living who has no background in worker safety”: “If I told you that worldwide injury rates were trending down year after year at a steady rate, but that workplace fatalities remained trending effectively flat over that same period, what would you conclude?” She thought for a minute before, responding. “So let me just paraphrase what you told me so that I make sure I have this straight…you’re handing out fewer band-aids but more wreaths?” I told her that this was precisely the case, to which she, without missing beat, said, “I would say that most likely injuries are being under-reported; I mean you can’t NOT report a fatality, right?” I explained to her that in Mexico a worker isn’t considered a workplace fatality if he or she dies in an ambulance or some other vehicle used to convey the doomed party to the hospital, and that in China injured workers are routinely fired so—and I don’t know this for sure—if you fired an injured worker who subsequently died his or her death wouldn’t count.
Now granted I am biased, I happen to think that my romantic entanglement is more intuitive and smarter than average, but there is no reason that someone completely removed from the field of safety (except for the osmosis of being around someone so obsessed with safety that he has been driven to the verge of madness, (like Odysseus bound to the mast of his ship so he could hear the siren’s song) and most particularly fatalities, should so quickly conclude that the numbers are hinky, while grizzled veterans of the trade still ponder this mystery like it was an unfinished Agatha Christie novel.)
There is no way to know for sure whether or not the books are cooked (and I am not, at least not yet, accusing anyone of any nefarious act) but it stands to reason that if we were truly successful in making the workplace safer we would see a decrease in recordable workplace injuries that corresponds to a similar decrease in worker fatalities. But we’re not seeing that. What we are seeing is an opportunity to run to our bosses and tell them what a great job we’re doing in safety. “Okay boss, ignore the fatalities for a second and look at what a great job we’re doing in lowering injuries! How about that raise?” It reminds me of the cover of the 50th issue of National Lampoon magazine where a crowd of stricken people are gathered around Abraham Lincoln’s deathbed, and a reporter is sitting with Mary Todd Lincoln and the caption reads, “apart from all this Mrs. Lincoln, what did you think of the show?”
That’s what we seem to be doing, focusing on the play (Our American Cousin for you trivia buffs) and ignoring the assassination.
This all can be reduced to a discussion about risk. The risk of injury exists and we are so focused on the bottom of the hierarchy of controls because it’s easy that we are ignoring the top of the hierarchy because it’s hard and a lot of engineers are far more interested in designing equipment that meets the customer’s specs than in making something that is safe. I’m not blaming engineers, oh who am I kidding screw the engineers, they don’t read this and I’ve eaten enough shit from pompous engineers over the years to say that I am yet to meet one that put the safety of his or her design over the sheer technological brilliance endemic to their creation; engineers designing for engineers.
I am indeed biased (what with having lost two grandfathers, a brother-in-law, and a father to workplace controls that failed to prevent them from being killed) but I come by it honestly. We need to do a better job not just in how we protect workers but in how we MEASURE how we protect workers. The way we approach safety feels too much like we’re feeling around in the dark for a light switch instead of a scientific method for identifying our risks, lowering them, and mitigating the results of the injuries that result from those risks. And there are plenty of ways of doing this, but we have to admit that what we’re doing now isn’t working; it isn’t adequate. The safety function is in essentially the same place that the quality function was in the 1970’s and yet even though a better way has been demonstrated to us we still persist in focusing on the behavioral aspects of safety instead of the many process and system issues. Instead of attacking safety the way it should be—calculating the Cost of Safety in much the way Quality calculates the Cost of Quality, for example—we treat it emotionally, getting all gooey and wiping a tear from our eye as we say “we don’t need to know the cost of injuries, it’s just the right thing to do”. Protecting workers is the right thing to do, but so is protecting the environment, ensuring sustainable practices, producing goods and services, protecting stockholder interests by controlling our costs and increasing efficiency, and being a good corporate citizen. Yet we don’t feel like cold, callous creeps because we measure these costs, now do we? We have to mature as a function and manage safety like a business because killing workers is bad for business.
Did you like this post? If so you will probably like my up-coming book which can be preordered here http://www.marriahpublishing.com/iknowmyshoesareuntied 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..