This Is Not A Blog About Gun Violence

weapon-violence-children-child-52984.jpegBy Phil La Duke

This won’t be a blog about gun violence or school shootings. While these things are horrific and the subject of heated blame throwing and debate, this is a worker safety blog and while I sometimes go off on tangents this is one time that I will avoid it.  That having been said, there is a huge parallel between the gun violence/school shootings and worker safety: both don’t have easy answers.

People love easy answers whether it be about gun violence, world peace, or yes, worker safety.  Bring up the topic at your corner bar, pub, watering hole, or dive and you will invariably have someone slur out over yellowed teeth, “it’s real easy: alls ya gotta do is…”  But it’s not real easy.  When it comes to worker safety I’ve heard so many “ya just gottas…” that I am beginning to wonder why people pay me to consult at all and why people are injured and killed at work.  

For example: “It’s real easy: you just gotta get people to follow the rules and do what they’re told.  Except, one, since when has getting people to do what they are told easy?  If everyone followed the rules and did what they were told, we would have no crime, no “lifestyle” illnesses, and traffic would run pretty smoothly so and there would be so few accidents that a minor fender bender would be international news.  People aren’t going to do exactly as they are supposed to—they don’t follow directions, they get distracted, they get sick—but that doesn’t give a company license to kill them.  Two, frankly if your process is so fragile that one person working out of process is going to get them killed then it’s time to rethink your process.

I’ve also heard “It’s real easy…all you gotta do is have workers observe one another and coach them when they do something unsafe.”  I have never been a worker who had another worker watch me and “coach” me on my unsafe behavior. That’s for the best, as when I worked the assembly line I was never in the mood for a do-gooder to come up and “help” me.  Especially after I had twisted my ankle the umpteenth time in the hole left by the missing wood block that I had been asking my supervisor to get maintenance to fix for over a year.  No money in the budget they had to keep that line moving and if it killed me, well I guess that’s just the cost of doing business.  If I had someone observe me I would have likely told the person where he or she could stick that coaching.  I would irately have asked what made them think that THEY knew my job better than I did, given that they are seeing it for the first time and I do it over 1700 times a shift (literally).  I would then have called my Union rep and wrote (and likely lost) a grievance against double supervision (our contract said that we had one, and only one, boss and that was the only person that I had to take orders from.)  

My peers would have likely responded differently.  The outlaw biker who worked down the line from me would have probably caught the observer is a stairwell and when he was done with the person the only unsafe behavior they would ever turn in again would be walking in a stairwell.  The 50-something woman who worked up the line from me would have smiled as said thank you and then gone back to the way she was doing things before the observation. Most of the others would have played a little game where they would write up some innocuous bit of nonsense in exchange for the tacit agreement that when they got observed they would also be observed doing something unsafe that a) wasn’t real and b) something nobody really cared about.  The safety people would count their cards and throw pizza parties and celebrate a change that wasn’t real and that nobody cared about.

I know a guy who does ergonomics, and he has the answer as well “all you gotta do is do an ergonomic evaluation on all the jobs and engineer the hazards out.” I guess that might work, but I am yet to find the organization with the money, time, and will to do this.  Actually that’s not accurate, I know of several companies who routinely do ergonomic evaluations on a grand scale and yet they still have injuries and fatalities.

Still others will howl that you have to fix leadership, and they’re right in many cases.  But which leaders? At what level? And how do you fix them? What does a good safety leader look like? How do you know they’re fixed?

A growing number of people are screaming “it’s real easy all you gotta do is fix the culture”. But I know this: when it comes to change, culture will change the people before people will change the culture.  I’ve made my living in organizational development before becoming an organizational development consultant focused specifically on worker safety. My best clients are those who tried doing it themselves and failed.  That isn’t a plug or a commercial, it’s a fact.  Unless you have tried and failed (the more miserably the better) the less likely that you will pay me what I am worth (if you want cheap I can recommend a snake oil salesman or two.)

Why is safety so hard? Because we have convinced workers that we don’t really want safety, we want the perception of safety.  We want people to tell us that there are zero injuries and zero harm.  Sure we say we want an injury-free environment and we may in the short term achieve it.  In the long run, however, what we end up with is the blood in the pocket syndrome.  People conceal their injuries because we have convinced them that injuries are bad, and by getting injured they have sinned against God and man. People don’t want to screw up the Safety BINGO or lose a bonus, or cancel the pizza party, but most of all they don’t want to disappoint us.

We have created this mess by pretending that safety is something that it really isn’t—the absolute absence of all risk. A state of safety, a complete state of safety where there is absolutely zero-percent chance that a worker will be harm doesn’t exist, can never exist.  The best we can strive for is to make things safer, and that’s easy, all’s you gotta do is get 100% worker engagement at all levels where safety is no longer a goal, it’s a value. Oh, and good luck with that.

p.s. John F. Kennedy once said, “we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard”. Anything worth doing is hard and as long as I remain in this profession you can count on the fact that I will continue working hard to make things safer, because it’s worth it.

 

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If You Didn’t Come Here To Be Liked You Came To The Right Place

facebook-dislike

By Phil La Duke

NOTE: If you are reading this, thank you. The fact that you took the time to read this and maybe even reflected on these points before making a comment either here or on LinkedIn means a lot to me. Maybe there’s hope for us all after all. Sorry for that interruption so without further delay…

We have a lot of disagreements in the world of safety, but the one I find most interesting is whether or not the organization likes the safety professional. For my part, I would like to think the population should like the safety professional. What’s not to like, this is a person whose job it is to ensure to the extent possible that the place where we work won’t kill us. To others, being hated by the population is a badge of honor; some so much so that they mistake hatred for respect.

Some time ago I sat through a course on hazard recognition, and while the content was very good the instructor well…at one point he turned to the plant safety professionals and said with a simpleton’s grin, “you will be the most hated men in the plant”. More recently, a safety veteran told me that he tried not to get too friendly with the workers because it could compromise his effectiveness when he had to “get on them about wearing PPE or some other rule infraction”.

It gets to a “chicken or the egg” situation, do people dislike the safety professional because he or she does his job well, or is the safety professional able to do his or her job more effectively because he or she is disliked.

There are two ways to look at the job of safety professional: as a key resource for making the organization more effective, or as the hammer that enforces the rules.

At the heart of the argument is this: are safety practitioners little more than safety cops—jack-booted thugs doing the bidding of Human Resources? Or is there job to focus not on rules and enforcement but on making the company better, not just at safety but overall.

I don’t think a person can be effective in the safety role without being three things: liked, capable, and fair. If I am hated for these things, and I’ve worked for a couple of places over the years who thought I was too friendly (no I wasn’t dragged into HR, get your mind out of the gutter) but I have always put myself in the worker’s shoes and when some puffed up, self-important safety goof drunk on his supposed power told me to do something I would ask myself two questions: 1) can this ass-clown fire me? And 2) does this drooling idiot have my best interest in mind or is he just trying to show me he’s the boss? Well guess what, you can’t MAKE me do anything. I’m an adult and I will decide what I do and live with the consequences. Write me up? I’ve been written up before—it doesn’t mean squat. Fire me? Well then you just went from a guy with some meager financial control over me to a man I intensely dislike and who fired me. Just a guy. A guy I might meet at a gas station, or a supermarket, or a bar. Just a guy who took pride in the fact that people hate him, and now he’s face to face with a guy who hates him. Or maybe he won’t be face to face, maybe he’ll be jaywalking and someone he was once so proud to be hated by will be driving down the road. Just a guy. Or maybe I’ll just hate you, do EXACTLY what you say in my finest passive aggressiveness and patiently undermine everything you try to do until they fire you and can go find a job and make a whole new workplace hate you. Either way what have you accomplished besides being thought of as various body parts to which people don’t like being compared? Nothing. You have done nothing but puff up your ego. You can tell yourself you saved lives but we both know you added more risk than you subtracted.

Personally, the best safety professionals I’ve ever met, (and for the record I have met many exceptional, dedicated, fun, and all around great human beings who work in safety, but just like the chocolate covered roach in the box of Raisonettes all it takes is one to make you view the entire population with a hint of suspicion and distaste) tend to be liked and respected by the population; they’re not seen as tyrants or cops, but as pretty cool people who are watching your back and making sure (as best they can) that you work you do doesn’t kill you or make you sick; they’re the guys[1] who are there for you. If I like the safety guy and he or she knows me I am more likely to listen to what they are asking me (not telling me) to do. They will tell me why I need to do it, what the potential risks are for not doing it, and often ask me to help them out by complying. If I have a friendly relationship with the safety guy I am likely to comply just because I know that at least in his or her mind they only want what’s best for me. And if by chance there comes a day when he is just a guy I meet in a bar, well chances are pretty good I’m going to be glad to seem him and buy that man a beer; because he’s just a guy who spent so much time looking out for me and I appreciate it and I like him.

Now, which guy do YOU want to be?

 

 

[1] The word “guy” is a gender neutral term; look it up.

#attitude, #behavior-based-safety, #culture-change, #phil-la-duke, #safety, #worker-safety

True Or False: Your Evaluation of Training Doesn’t measure Jack?

true or false

Phil La Duke

OSHA requires that workers be provided training and that the results of this training be evaluated. Unfortunately most safety professionals who design training don’t know squat about designing quality evaluative tools.

For reasons I’d rather not get into, I am taking an on-line safety-training course and it is awful. Apart from the six factual errors in the first nine lessons the methods they use to evaluate training are abysmally bad. For starters, the course designers use far too many true and false questions. What do I have against true or false questions? Plenty.

I read somewhere that the odds in favor of correctly guessing the answer of a true or false questions is 63% (don’t quote me on that since I don’t remember the source or the context) but even if we assume that the true or false question is perfectly constructed the probability of guessing correctly is 50% and so few questions are perfectly written that its safe to say that the probability of guessing correctly is much higher.

True or false questions are generally the result of lazy course development. It’s seems easy to right a good true or false question but it is surprisingly difficult to so. Authors of true and false questions tend to provide clues to the answer by using absolutes, like “must”, “always”, or “never”; if you see these clues you can almost always bank on the answer being false, because one only needs to produce a single exception to the absolute rule set out in the questions. Even something like “all giraffes have long necks and spots” is probably false since if one has enough time and energy one could probably find an example of a malformed or mutated giraffe that didn’t have a long neck and the question becomes false.

Beyond the simple-mindedness of true or false questions there’s the uncertainty of just what the true or false question is evaluating. These questions cannot measure anything beyond the memorization of facts. In her book (the best book on designing training I have ever read and I have read scores of them), Design For How People Learn, Julie Dirksen distinguishes between recognition and recall. Recognition questions are the ones that we with which we are most familiar; they test whether or not we can recognize a true statement versus a false one or if we can correctly choose a correct response from a list of possibilities. Recall questions are more open and may contain numerous correct answers—essay questions. Of course essay questions may not be correctly assessing the learner’s ability to synthesize information and or apply complex concepts in the workplace. Plus they are a pain in the ass to grade and all but the most sophisticated eLearning is unable to process a recall question. So what do we do? We take the easy way out. This is fine if we are trying to teach someone trivia, but for crying out loud we are trying to evaluate whether or not someone can safely drive an industrial vehicle or work in a confined space? Forget whether or not this is the BEST way to evaluate learning and consider if it is even a responsible way of testing these skills. When we provide ineffective training—whether it be in core skills or in safety—people are injured, crippled, or die.

The only way we can truly hope to understand whether or not a worker has sufficient training to safely do his or her job isn’t to write better true or false, or multiple choice questions, it is to be on hand to demonstrate the skill and provide a safe opportunity to practice and fail. By providing this kind of training and evaluating this kind of training can we really be sure that the people we train can do the job relatively safely.

So the next time you find yourself taking a quiz, evaluation, knowledge check, or test and you are asked a true or false question, you can hold in the utmost contempt the lazy or inept developer who took the easy way out.

I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Julie Dirksen’s Design For How People Learn; it’s truly a magnificent work that is meticulously researched and cites other great books. In addition to having a lot a great advice for both neophytes and experts it’s an easy and enjoyable read. I found profound applications to safety (as I have been on about so much lately, I truly believe that if there is one element that stands above all others in providing a safer workplace it is training and competency.)

If I can just rant a bit, the only field besides safety that organizations assume any dolt can do it’s training. You got PowerPoint? You got a projector? Well then pull together a deck and train us on that stuff you know. It’s an absurd proposition. I have a degree in training, and three separate certifications in training methodologies, but in the eyes of a lot of business leaders all that means nothing—since apparently the ability to train is imprinted on us at birth like ducklings taking to water.

Never mind that the training combines graphic arts, an understanding of how people learn and retain information, the ability to quickly build a classroom rapport, and other skills too numerous to mention, in the minds of many leaders all anyone needs to be a trainer is a slide deck an audience capable of being bored to death. Things are getting so bad that we know have “webinars” where the first thing the speaker does is mute everyone’s lines so they can pontificate like a bi-polar preacher on acid while people literally work on other things, but don’t worry if you can’t make the meeting the slide deck is available on the k:/drive.

 

 

#attitude, #attitudes-toward-safety, #behavior-based-safety, #behaviour-based-safety, #culture-change, #fabricating-and-metalworking-magazine, #increasing-efficiency, #loss-prevention, #phil-la-duke, #process-safety, #safety, #safety-culture, #stop-trying-to-prevent-every-possible-accident, #variability-in-human-behavior, #worker-safety

Phil La Duke Is A Has Been

has been

by Phil La Duke

I missed last weekend’s deadline by a fortnight.  I just got caught up in other things and had taken the red-eye home from Portland and was exhausted, as time pressed on I remained too busy to put my thoughts to paper.  Then I got all my abstracts rejected by the National Safety Council for its 2016 Conference and Exposition in Anaheim.

I had submitted 26 individual abstracts and received 26 individual rejection form letters.  I admit it was a blow. This would have been my tenth speech delivered at the conference and while I hadn’t yet come to expect a guaranteed slot I had come to think that my chances were pretty good.

And before you think, “what an arrogant jerk, maybe they just wanted a new voice, someone with a fresh perspective let me remind you that this is the organization that trots out Scott Gellar to spew out the same schlocky malarky he’s been shilling for 20 years along with Charlie Moorecraft, who, while a hell of a nice guy, has told his story so many times to so many safety professionals many believe he’s an urban legend.

While it’s true that I have been an outspoken critique of the the Behavior Based Safety quasi-religion, and the NSC has been painfully slow in denouncing it, or even postulating that said approach might be out-dated or even dangerous despite OSHA’s condemnation of BBS programs for promoting under-reporting and questioning its overall efficacy I still have a soft spot for the National Safety Council so I was more than a little disappointed when I was shut out of both the NSC’s regional Texas Conference and Expo AND it’s National Conference and Safety Exposition. I did write to the organizers and ask for feedback (not an explanation, one is neither owe nor expected) as to how I might do better moving forward (the reviews from the audience were consistently positive, very positive in fact.) But these emails were not answered so I can only assume that the 26 topics were not as thought-provoking as the other 300 or so abstracts they received. At any rate as it stands right now, the only public appearance I will be making will be at the Michigan Safety Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan in April.

It’s unfortunate, I turned away other venues in the naive belief that I would as likely as not be speaking in October.  It’s not just the NSC.  Early last year, Mike Riley, the editor of Fabricating and Metalworking notified me that he would be discontinuing my column, The Safe Side saying that I thought I was becoming repetitive. C’est la vie I guess, but a troubling trend since I have 46 articles that were published in the magazine and had hoped that I would make it to 50 before being put out to pasture.

Over the past ten years I have made 20 or so public speeches and published 96 articles and posted  over 200 blog articles, all for no compensation.  I didn’t do it for the fame, glory or notoriety either—of all the things I would have love to have been famous for, worker safety doesn’t rank in the top million. Trust me, the quickest way to shut down unwanted airplane chit chat with a gabby passenger is to tell him or her that I work in worker safety.  No says, “wow, that sounds really interesting” or “wow that sounds like a lot of fun”; as soon as possible they read the book or magazine they brought with them, or lacking that read the emergency evacuation instructions over and over again.

So why did I do it? Why do I continue to do it? To give the field of safety metaphorical intellectual enigma it so richly deserves and in which it is in so dire a need. We still have too many people suffering crippling injuries because their only choices are to either listen to some water-headed simpleton who was put into safety because they were literally too useless for any other job or to figure things out for themselves.  Sure there are some great safety professionals out there, but our whole profession has been sullied by well-meaning mouth-breathers who take a make-it-up-as-you-go approach to safety who have never seen a stupid idea they didn’t immediately love.

So am I washed up? Perhaps, but like so many blasé fads I will continue to go on and on and on. I will continue to question the dubious practices of the Safety fields and the even more ridiculous claims of the snake-oil salesmen.

I’m disappointed to see the end of my 15 minutes of fame, who wouldn’t be, but what is a deeper disappointment is that I don’t see anyone picking up where I left off.  It takes courage—when one puts one’s opinion out into the blogisphere and questions the establishment one risks losing that big promotion, blowing that career making sale, or just in general having strangers adamantly dislike you.  All I can say is that for me it has been worth it, in my own small way I have shaken things up and who knows what the ripples from my tiny contribution to the field of safety will ultimately make.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It all comes down to competency.

imbecile

By Phil La Duke

In any opinion piece, it’s only fair that the author begin by disclosing his or her bias. It’s something I seldom do but I should.  I didn’t start out in safety, I earned my degree in adult education (I was under the mistaken impression that the term “adult” meant X-rated—hey I was 18) and organizational development. So it is through this lens that I see the world of safety. I think we should all be leery of any article that claims that safety all comes down to one thing, but, that having been said, I am beginning to think that selecting the right people, appropriately training people not only in safety but in the core skills they will be using day in and day out.  Unless you have people who know how to do the job you can’t expect them to do it safely. I should say, that in the many years I worked in training I would get frustrated because executives and managers would come to me demanding me to produce magical training that would get people to do their jobs.  I would explain that I could help them if the workers weren’t doing their jobs because they didn’t know how; I dealt in “can’t” behaviors, not “won’t” behaviors.  Hell I didn’t even deal in all the possible “can’t behaviors”. I once had a dullard of a director of sales tell me he wanted me to put all his staff through ACT! (a computer software that I believe has gone if not the way of the dinosaur, the way of the bison).  I asked him a couple of irritating questions: 1) why do they need it? Because I want all sales activities managed through ACT! 2) Why aren’t they doing it now? Well they don’t even have computers let alone the software.  He was, and probably remains a clueless dumbass, and I have dealt with many equally soft headed mouth breathers who believe that training, ANY training, will solve any issue. I’ve also dealt with my fair share of let’s use training instead of discipline. These cowards want training to get people to do things like follow the rules, do their job properly, and or somehow get the people to knuckle under because they’ve attended training.  I was the oddest training guy out there, here all the other people couldn’t wait to do training I was hung up on whether or not people really NEED training and will the training do what the sponsor wants and expects it to do. In short, I wasn’t prepared to do training simply for training’s sake.

And yet I sit before you today preaching that training is the key (or at least a very important part of) a successful safety management program.

I came to this conclusion not because I started out working for 10 years designing, developing, delivering, and evaluating the effectiveness of training; rather it came out of a convergence of events: 1) a colleague asked for help putting together a list of recommended readers for developing non-safety consultants familiar enough with key topics (leadership, training, communication, planning, etc.) 2) I read Julie Dirksen’s Design For How People Learn and 3) I agreed to take the OSHA 30-hour course to evaluate it for widespread use at a client.

While it makes sense that a person cannot possibly be expected to do his or her job safely if he or she has not been properly trained in the job. There are a lot of good reasons for companies doing a less than stellar job of training workers:

  1. A lot of training is just garbage; it teaches pointless trivia, is boring as watching paint dry, and is knowledge-based not skills based. Let’s take that OSHA 30-hour class I am laboring through (what a great way to spend a Saturday). I don’t know who over at OSHA (which is more protective of the content of its training than medieval father was of his daughter’s virginity) but I’m just curious here. What the hell were you thinking when you put together the OSHA 30-hour on-line course? As much as it much stroke your ego to force me to listen to the history of OSHA do I really need it? I mean if you have to grab me by the nape of the neck and force feed me the mission of OSHA can we at LEAST the facts straight—for example saying that it grew out of Triangle Shirtwaist fire is like saying food regulations grew out of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Sure people were outraged, but nobody went to jail, and according to the course it was another 20 years before Roosevelt authorized the government to “advise industry about safety matters” and it was another 60 odd years before Nixon signed OSHA into law. Dirksen has a simple test for whether or not something should be in a training class: a) ask what do they actually need to DO with this? And if the answer is “they just need to be aware of it” then ask yourself “Yeah, but what are they actually going to DO with this again (p.21) b) Ask yourself if the person would be able to do something if they wanted to badly enough. If the answer is yes, it’s not a knowledge or a skills gap (again page 21). c) is there anything, anything at all, that we could do besides training, that would make it more likely that people would do the right thing? (p.21 if you want more reference read the book, it should be required for everyone in safety.) d) and I’m paraphrasing things here, but what bad things would happen if the person didn’t learn this particular point. If the answer is nothing than you are teaching your ego and not skills.
  2. Training developers are afraid of safety. When I was developing safety training I went out and bought a series of pretty crappy safety training kits. You know the style—pop in a video, administer a quiz and viola, your people have met the OSHA regulatory standard for training in a given subject. It doesn’t matter that they are no more skilled then they were before the class but the company is protected. Internal training departments don’t want anything to do with safety because they figure (as I did) that it’s better to have crappy training that meets the regs and gives you someone to sue if it isn’t right than it is to make a mistake and either no longer meet the OSHA reg or worse yet get something wrong and lead to the injury of a worker. All and all it’s better to put up with bad safety training than risk it.
  3. Safety training is, as I said, boring. So boring in fact that it bears repeating. Julie Dirksen has all sorts of cool information on why boring training is something that we seldom retain—for the how and whys order the book you cheap bastards you get my book reports for free at least help her make a living. And no, I have never met the woman, but I hope someday I get the opportunity, she taught this smug old dog some tricks.
  4. But if we don’t fix our safety (and more important largely nonexistent core skills training) we are doomed to a workplace fraught with ignorant people trying to figure out how to do the job correctly. It’s like having the Three Stooges fix your plumbing. Next week… I’ll tell you how to do shadow training effectively.
  5. I posted a link to IMPROV training’s latest course that turns the idea that safety training HAS to be boring on its ear. IMPROV training: Making Safer Choices Excerpt I’ve seen the entire collection of micro lessons (2-3 minute lessons that teach a single point used singularly as safety messaging or combined into a class) and I’m impressed. I voted for it in the ISHN reader’s poll and I hope you will consider doing so as well http://awards.ishn.com/readers the material is good, it’s an amusing if not funny look at some serious topics and since the company is just starting out, it could use your support if not your business.

#attitude, #attitudes-toward-safety, #culture-change, #design-for-how-people-learn, #improv-training, #julie-dirksen, #osha-30-hour-construction, #pam-anderson, #phil-la-duke, #safety, #worker-safety

Dispelling the Complacency Myth

fatiguemanagement

By Phil La Duke 

The latest scape goat for injuries seems to be complacency. The latest in conventional By Phil La Dukewisdom holds that people get hurt because…well…they just need to be more careful. In fact, complacency is such a convenient villain that a major safety management system provider has built a business around it. The only problem is that many of the conditions described as worker complacency is anything but the case.

The dictionary definition of complacency, “1: self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies or 2: an instance of usually unaware or uninformed self-satisfaction”[1] which would imply that those who blame complacency for worker injuries believe that workers become over confident and therefore indifferent to the dangers around them. But according to an article on http://www.westfieldinsurance.com “complacency happens because workers, supervisors and management perform many functions on a continuous basis. Almost all jobs are repetitive in nature, and the more we repeat what we are doing, the better the chance at becoming complacent without even realizing it. Therein lays the potential danger”. It would appear that in the author’s view, complacency in the workplace is more akin to over confidence than true complacency.

Finding complacency as a root cause, in my opinion, is just another in a long line of “blame-the-injured” cop outs. If we accept the explanation offered by the article on Westfield Insurance’s website (no author is credited) complacency develops as people become indifferent to the dangers after doing repetitive tasks for hours. The answer, therefore, is to find a way to force people to pay closer attention to the tasks at hand. Unfortunately, such an approach is not necessarily supported by science.

I am not prepared to say that overconfidence and a corresponding desensitization to dangers as one spends more time in close proximity with at risk conditions isn’t a key factor in workplace injuries, but I am always a bit suspicious when safety professionals “discover” the next big injury cause. Certainly people will get complacent and over confident, but there are also other factors at play.

Mental Fatigue

If people are getting harmed because they are overconfident and take short cuts it makes sense that keeping the workers mind on task would make the most sense, but research in the physiology of the human brain[2][3] shows that intense concentration on a repetitive task causes mental fatigue, and the longer the period of time one spends intensely concentrating the greater the fatigue, and the greater the fatigue the higher the likelihood of human error[4] and the corresponding increase in the risk of worker injury.

This creates a quandary for the safety professional─ not enough focus on the task at hand and workers put their safety at risk, but too much concentration on a task also puts them at risk. What’s worse is that in the middle is behavioral drift (the practice of slowly and subconsciously moving away from the standard operating procedure.[5]

How Much Concentration Is Too Much?

Boksem, et el, found that mental fatigue was evident within one hour of intense concentration and other studies have found that moderate mental fatigue can impair judgement[6] . Mental fatigue (or sleep deprivation) leads to:

  • Impeded judgment. Fatigue impedes the worker’s judgment and reasoning ability so attempts to get workers to concentrate may actually be increasing poor decision making.
  • Lack of manual dexterity.  A loss of mental acuity because of fatigue has been shown to decrease people’s manual dexterity; assuming that the job requires some level of manual dexterity fatigue leads to greater risk of everything from slips trips and falls to the proper use of tools and even PPE.
  • Lack of alertness. Invariably, the brain will fight any efforts to maintain prolonged concentration on a task and fatigued workers may become groggy and absent-minded.
  • Diminished ability to focus on details. A fatigued worker is far more likely to miss critical steps in a process, and when a worker is working out of process he or she is far more likely to be injured.

Multiple sources list fatigue as one of the top five causal factors in workplace incidents[7] so while experts may attribute upward of 90% of workplace injuries to unsafe behaviour, most fail to answer the question of why a worker behaved unsafely. Increasingly, that answer is linked to a fatigue.

If one hour of concentration on a task is enough to increase the risk of worker injuries that how much more risk is there to workers who are working longer hours. Research has found[8] an 88% increased risk of an incident for individuals working more than 64 hours a week.

Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t

So it boils down to this: workers who don’t pay enough attention to the task at hand are at far greater risk of injury, but workers who pay too much attention to the task at hand are at even greater risk. It would be easy to either suggest unworkable solutions (a ten minute break every ten minutes, for example) but even if these techniques were enough (and research has shown that returning to a non-fatigued state where performance returned to normal are difficult and time consuming[9]). In effect, there is no practical solution to eliminating the risk of complacency, behavioral drift, or mental fatigue. We can’t ─ no matter how hard we try ─ eliminate human error and risk taking so we should instead focus our efforts on mistake proofing. We need to channel more of our energy into protecting people from their mistakes instead of trying to reengineer the human animal.

[1] Merriam Webster On-line Dictionary

[2] Effects of mental fatigue on attention: An ERP study, Maarten A.S. Boksem, Theo F. Meijman,Monicque M. Lorist

[3] Mental fatigue, motivation and action monitoring Maarten A.S. Boksema, Theo F. Meijmana, Monicque M. Lorista,

[4] Whack A Mole Marx, David

[5] For more interesting facts about behavioral drift, see Behavioral Drift’ Threatens the Safety of Flight Operations http://www.nbaa.org/ops/safety/20130909-behavioral-drift-threatens-the-safety-of-flight-operations.php

[6] For more information on the effects of fatigue on workplace safety see my article, Asleep on the Job Published: 19th Mar 2014 in Health and Safety International

[7] Chan, 2010

[8] Vegso et al (2007)

[9] Environmental Influences on Psychological Restoration, Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 1996, Hartig, Terry, Gook, Ands, Garvill, Jorgen, Olsson, Tommy, and Garling, Tommy

Your Only As Good—and Safe—As Your Process

SONY DSC

by Phil La Duke

Several weeks ago I posted an article that asked you to take a new look at safety. I asked you to consider that safety isn’t something that happens to workers or that doesn’t happen to workers, rather it is an indicator of the efficiency and effectiveness of one of five basic business elements: competency, process capability, management of hazards and risk, accountability, and engagement. In that post I explored the relationship between competency and safe outcomes, and in this week’s post I would like to continue to explore safe outcomes as they pertain to process capability.

I should begin by precisely defining exactly what I mean by process capability. Process capability is the extent to which a process (i.e. an activity designed to produce a predictable desired outcome) as practiced varies from the specification. Your process is not deliberately designed to harm workers so by definition something has gone wrong when someone is injured. Process variability is seen as the principle enemy to efficiency by most process improvement; variability is deviation from the standard and this deviation means that the process is less predictable; the greater the variability the more unpredictable the results and the more hazardous the process.

There is variability in every process; even robots and the best automated equipment are incapable of returning the exact same result in every instance. Typically machine and equipment performance measured in its ability to meet specific limits. Statistical Process Control (SPC) is a discipline developed to improve process reliability (how consistently it performs within control limits) these and other tools can improve process capability and create safe outcomes.

There are obvious things that we can do to improve process capability. For starters, we can develop Standard Work Instructions (SWI). According to the Lean Institute, “Standardized work is one of the most powerful but least used lean tools.” Standard Work involves identifying and documenting the current best practice. In so doing, the organization can identify a) differences between how the work is actually performed and how it was designed, b) the safest way to do the job, and c) identify and document continuous improvements.

Once you have created SWIs you have the means to properly train new employees, evaluate the performance and skill level of existing employees and as I mentioned in the first in this series people who have the skills to do the job are better able to do it safely and correctly. What’s more SWIs allow worker input into workplace improvements. So many organizations have invested in half-baked safety systems that pay workers to watch other people work and provide feedback, why not have them do something productive instead, like…I don’t know…develop Safe Work Instructions?

Standard Work Instructions are more than merely operating instructions, but my intent here is not to give free consulting in Lean Principles. Sufficed to say that investing in standard work improves not only your process but produces safer outcomes. Standardized work isn’t just for manufacturing—it can be applied to everything from driving to dry cleaning—but it is seldom used for non-manufacturing processes even in manufacturing, which is disappointing. Too often organizations resist standardizing non-production work by claiming that it is too difficult. If that were truly the case than how do we ever train anyone to do it?

In my experience a fair amount of workers will resist the very concept of Standardized Work, once when I was teaching a workshop in standardized work one worker indignantly told me that nobody was gonna tell him where he was going to put his (expletive) toolbox. So it’s not that easy to implement standards, of course, I was able to turn it around and win him over by telling him that he was going to tell US where his toolbox should go.

Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) is another great tool for influencing safe outcomes, while the snake oil salesmen will tell you that you don’t need to invest in capital, machines wear out, technology advances, and the design, care, and appropriate maintenance of your equipment is essential. It is outright stupid to believe that you can keep workers safe using outdated, poorly functioning, and wildly unpredictable equipment and, for that matter, battered and crumbling facilities.

Another Lean tool that has a direct influence on safer outputs is 5S, but then I’ve already written ad nauseum on the relationship between workplace organization/housekeeping and its relationship to workplace safety, and given the criticisms of late that I tend to repeat myself, I won’t go into here.

All the best tools and robust processes are of little value, however, if no one follows them. The second element that you have to consider in how process capability influences safer outcomes is “process discipline”, that is, the extent to which people work within the process. We tend to construct safety controls based on what people are supposed to do, and often forget that what happens on paper isn’t necessarily what happens in the workplace. As variable as equipment can be, this variation pales in comparison to the variability of human behavior. No amount of training, hackneyed theories, or the dubious claims from soft-headed safety gurus will change the fact that human behavior is incredibly complex, unpredictable, and rife with variability. This having been said, we need to stop trying to reengineer the human brain and start building engineering controls that protect workers when they make mistakes or even deliberately take unnecessary risks or behave recklessly. We need to recognize that everyone makes mistakes, whether it be human error or poor choices, nobody should have to die because they chose poorly. I know there are people out there who feel differently (shamefully even some people within the safety practice), people who believe that some people, because of their poor decisions deserve to be injured or killed, but for me, killing workers is still bad business.

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