4 Tips For Engaging Millenials in Safety

By Phil La Duke

It can and has been said that a little of me goes a long and tedious way, and I suppose that’s true.  I just wrapped up a 2300 word beast of an article for Health & Safety International, a collaborative effort on working at height.  It’s the third article I’ve written for the publisher in just over a month and the whole ordeal has left me a bit beleaguered and not particularly interested in anything remotely connected to safety.  I want to run through a crowded shopping mall snipping scissors in both hands or swing a bag of broken glass in a crowded room of hemophiliacs; in short I need a break from writing about safety for a while.

Entrepreneur provided me a nice outlet where I could let my hair down a bit and take the leash off.  After 80 articles, over 70 of which were written in just 14 months, my editor either got tired of defending why he was publishing what could best be described as the lunatic rantings of a seriously deranged and dystopic freak or he himself just got plain sick of my articles.  I went from three a week to barely two a month, not that I didn’t put in the work—I have somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 articles in the limbo of the Entrepreneur contributors page about half unread, and all of which highly unlikely to ever see print.  Ostensibly the reason is that the water-heads and mouth breathers that read the book don’t read me in enough number to justify giving me space that earnest young writers with 5 Tips for Hiring Millenials; it’s a fair criticism.  I don’t get a bunch of indignant safety drones frothing at the mouth over my business writing and writing is a numbers game.

So it’s within in this context and against that backdrop that I give you this weak’s (sic) blog post.

  • Stop killing their family and friends and bragging about how great a job you’re doing. An alarming number of these spoiled little crybabies actually think that getting their digits torn off by poorly guarded equipment is a bad thing.  Hell when I was their ages you weren’t even considered a real worker if you could count higher than seven on both hands, and real men couldn’t count to 15 even when completely naked. Try telling these delicate porcelain dolls about how worker injuries are trending downward and your much-earned self-praise will fall on deaf ears (and not even deaf ears caused by years of exposure to high levels of industrial noise—their deafness is metaphoric.
  • Pretend that their Workers’ Comp claims are real. I know I will get push back on this, but the new hipster thing is to not fake injuries. These craft beer swilling, beard waxing, prima donnas think that their college educations mean that we don’t know that for the most part all injuries are fake.  I once witnessed a man stage his own decapitation and apply for WC claiming he was disabled because he couldn’t wear a hardhat! Does he think we’re simple?!?!? If you want to keep these delicate flowers called millenials involved in worker safety you have to bite your tongue (which, for the record you better not claim as a job-related injury) if one of them gets hurt, and play a long even if the injured youth is clever enough to actually qualify for disability.
  • Allow for injury causes that aren’t the fault of millennial behavior. We’ve known for almost 100 years that over 85% of injuries are because some jackass did something stupid.  We know this because a statistician and eugenics enthusiast said so, and he had it on good authority because he asked the injured workers’ supervisors.  We know this even though he lost his (or took no) notes. We know this despite growing evidence that he never even left his office at the insurance agency, but especially we know this because the National Safety Council reaffirmed this sometime in the 1980s and our pantheon of safety heroes and gods grew fat of profits from Behavior Based Safety; somethings you just gotta take on faith. (Not the effectiveness and relative safeness of vaccines or the moon landing, of course, but SOMETHINGS). But the voice of entitlement rings out of the mouth of babes; they greet on about mechanical failures, process failures, about lightning strikes and acts of God.  It’s as if they never even heard of Heinrich and his pyramid!
  • Do more than remind them not to die. I can’t tell you how many times my life has been saved because I saw a crayon poster slathered on the wall reminding me not to die.  The wisdom of a child’s drawing begging daddy not to die at work is all but ignored by the young whelps in the workplace today.  This spoiled, entitled, generation of special, special, snowflakes want their employers to do more to protect them than having safety BINGOs and pizza parties when they go a month without dying.  By the way at what point did pizza become the currency of safety? Is it because pizza looks so gory? That makes some sense.
  • So there you have the secret to engaging these young workers: stop hurting them, don’t treat them like liars and thieves when they do get hurt, stop funding the retirement funds of the greedy behavioralist authors who slap a different label on 100 year old junk science and sell it to another generation of the lazy and foolish.


    Six Simple Ways to Change Your Life

    by Phil La Duke

    Years ago I worked in talent development for one of the largest faith-based healthcare systems in the United States. I left it to pursue other career goals but it never left me, at least not completely. The system was founded when two religious orders merged after discovering that the youngest among the two orders was 78 years old. They came together to preserve a way of life that had existed over 500 years. Sure it ran hospitals, but more important was the spiritual community that it had created. Faced with extinction it set about an elaborate plan for turning over its legacy to the laity. I always took that very seriously. For me it wasn’t about organizational development or training, although these were certainly a big part of my job, rather it was about preserving a way of life.
    Some time ago I shared the podium at the Canadian Society of Safety Engineers with an anthropologist and National Geographic photographer who talked about cultural extinction (which interestingly enough, he attributed to the growth of the written word). According to him, cultures are going extinct at a far faster rate than animals; it’s scary really, thousands of years of knowledge lost as cultures die daily. I was determined that I would do everything in my power to save this one culture to which I had been entrusted.
    I wasn’t the only one so entrusted; there were scores of professionals whose primary jobs were to preserve the mission, culture, and vision of the consolidated order. One of the tools they had for preserving the culture was the Guiding Behaviors (note to the grammar vigilantes: I know this sounds like number disagreement but the Guiding Behaviors is considered one tool). As I reflected this morning, as I do every morning, on these behaviors it occurred to me that these would serve the safety professionals as much as anyone else. I have changed the wording of some of these to make them less specific to healthcare, but I doubt the surviving members of the orders will mind too much.

    “We support each other in service”
    The first of the behaviors is “we support each other in service” what better way for a safety professional to sum up his or her job? We don’t really save lives—not the way doctors or nurses do anyway—but we can always support people in making better decisions and while not directly saving lives influencing people to save their own lives or the lives of a coworker.

    “We communicate openly and honestly, respectfully, and directly”
    I’ve written volumes about the importance of open and honest communication. I still believe that the only path for safety professionals to get respect is by truly respecting the people and organizations they serve. It’s disappointing how many safety professionals disparage the people they are charged with protecting. People who feel respected tend to respond respectfully. We must always strive, not only to be truthful, but truly honest and not just with the people we serve but with ourselves as well. And let us never confuse hurtful speech with honesty. Before speaking we should ask ourselves, “is what I want to say true? Is it helpful? Is it intended to help someone or merely to make ourselves feel better? And finally, is it necessary?” if all of these things aren’t true then maybe we should just keep it to ourselves.

    “We are fully present”
    Perhaps the behavior I struggle with the most is “we are fully present”. Being fully present means that you keep your mind on the job—no multitasking, no distractions, no dreaming about the weekend. While it’s easy to see how staying fully present on the job would greatly benefit most workers—distraction on the job can be deadly—we also need to be fully present as safety professionals. This means really participating in meetings and really listening (not just waiting to talk) and working with others to accomplish things. Keeping your head in the game every minute of every day is really tough and if you try to do it you will come home exhausted.
    “We are all accountable”
    “We are all accountable” means more than holding others accountable, although that is certainly a part of it. We also must strive to hold ourselves accountable. Each day we must ask ourselves if we earned our pay. Did we make a positive impact in people’s lives, not just in the context of safety, but did we make the workplace (and the world) a more pleasant place? Did we really bring our “A” game or did we merely phone it in? We must also remember that we have a duty to be just in holding others accountable. We do not stand in judgment above those we serve, but we owe it to the organization and to the entire population to hold people answerable—both positively and negatively,
    “We trust and assume goodness in intentions”
    People screw with our work, our day, and our heads on a daily basis. But trusting and assuming goodness in intentions has taught me one of the most powerful lessons of my life: we screw with our own work, our own day, and our own heads far more often than anyone else ever could. They say that forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves and it begins by never taking slight in the first place. Instead of assuming that the Operations leadership is throwing us under the bus we should ask the person some questions. Most often we will find that because we assume that the person meant us no harm and was probably completely unaware of the issues he or she was creating for us. Assuming goodness in intentions brings a person real peace and strengthens relationships. There is a saying that if you keep meeting jerks all day long the jerk is you. I say that if you assume goodness of intention in all you meet you will live in a world like you could never imagine. Send out good stimuli and you receive good responses.
    “We are continuous learners”
    Too often we strive to teach. We are, after all, the experts in safety and what good is that expertise unless we share it with the organization? We get sad and frustrated when people don’t want to listen to what we have to say. But when we are continuous learners, when we focus not on what we can teach others, but what we can learn from them, we find that we end up teaching other so much more of value than if we were to just spout facts at them. Continuous learning involves a lot of introspection—we have to examine our mistakes and try hard to understand why things went wrong and what we can do to fix things them.
    The World Loves a Hypocrite
    While I try to live by these simple six statements I don’t always succeed; in fact I fail a lot. But the beauty of these guiding behaviors is that they are things to which I aspire. So now I charge you to share these aspirations with me. Try doing these six things for a week. You may fail, but remember in some cases success comes, not in the outcome, but in the attempt.

    #attitude, #attitudes-toward-safety, #behavior-based-safety, #behaviour-based-safety, #change, #criticisms-of-bbs, #culture-change, #driving-while-distracted, #fabricating-and-metalworking-magazine, #happiness, #human-error, #increasing-efficiency, #joy, #mining-safety, #national-safety-council, #oil-and-gas, #operating-efficiency, #organizational-change-2, #peace, #safety-incentives, #stop-trying-to-prevent-every-possible-accident, #worker-safety

    Misleading Indicators

    trash graphs

    “If you don’t know where you’re going, how do you know you aren’t already there?”

    By Phil La Duke

    Nearly every safety professional worth his or her salt has been told that he or she needs to look at both leading and lagging indicators; it’s good advice, in fact, it’s advice I’ve given many times in articles and speeches over the years.  But in my last post (two weeks ago—I spent the last week at a customer site and with the travel travails I just couldn’t bring myself to hammer out a post, deepest apologies to my fans and detractors alike) I questioned the value of tracking (not reporting or investigating, mind you, just tracking) near misses.  Well, as you can imagine the weirdoes, fanatics, and dullards came out in droves to sound off and huff and puff about things I never said (reading comprehension skills are at a disgraceful low these days).  Not everyone one who reads my stuff is a whack-job however, and some of the cooler heads insisted that tracking near misses was important because near miss reporting is a key leading indicator; it’s not…and it is, but like so much of life, it’s complicated.

    Near misses in themselves aren’t leading indicators; they are things that almost killed or injured someone, and most importantly, they are events that happened in the past.  Not that anything that happens in the past has to be automatically counted out as a lagging indicator, but unless you still cling to the idea proffered by Heinrich that there is a strict statistical correlation between the number of near misses and fatalities, near misses are no more a leading indicator than your injury rate, lost work days, or first aid cases.  They simply tell you that something almost happened, and nothing more.  Now some of you might try to argue that if you have ENOUGH near misses you are bound to eventually have a fatality, but that does hold up to careful scrutiny.  Leading indicators are often expressions of probability, and like the proverbial coin that is tossed an infinite number of times, the probability of the outcome does not change because of the frequency of the toss.  If you were to toss the coin 400 times and it came up tails, the probability that the 401st toss would come up heads is still 50:50. So knowing that tracking near misses doesn’t really shed any light on what is likely to happen mean we should stop investigating near misses? Certainly not, but we really do need to stop thinking that the data is telling us things that it isn’t.  On the other hand, near miss reporting is indeed a leading indicator; if we accept (as I do) that when people report near misses they: a) are more actively engaged in safety day-to-day (and I suppose someone could argue that this doesn’t necessarily correlate) and b) the more the individual reports near misses the better he or she is at identifying hazards (again, this is a leap of faith, but  I believe in most cases this to be true.) So if you want to gage the robustness of your safety process I suppose the level of participation in near miss reporting is a good indicator.

    The whole exercise got me thinking about indicators, and how often safety professionals (and everyone else on God’s green Earth for that matter) tend to be mislead by data because of the erroneous belief that the data is saying things that it isn’t.


    Regular readers of my blog will recognize the concept of “causefusion”.  The term was coined by Zachery Shore in his book, Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions which he uses to explain how people mistake correlation and cause-and-effect.  According to Shore, causefusion works something like this[1]: People who floss their teeth live longer than people who don’t floss or who floss irregularly therefore flossing your teeth makes you live longer.  It makes sense, right? Yes, except that it is wrong.  There are other possibilities for this correlation, for instance, isn’t it possible that people who are more interested in their health overall might be more likely to floss regularly? In a world where eager safety professionals provide data to Operations people who are hungry for quick fixes, Causefusion happens a lot; and it’s a real danger because it leads us away from the true causes of injuries and may blind us to real shortcomings in our processes.

    Another way that we can be lead by indicators is the paradigm effect. When we think of the word “paradigm” we think of the definition, “a typical example” or “viewpoint”, but in the world of science paradigm there is another, lesser known definition, “a worldview underlying the theories and methodology of a particular scientific subject” Joel Barker pointed out how damaging paradigms (in the scientific sense) can be.  Barker believed that there were many instances where the worldview is so powerfully believed that any new evidence that does not support the worldview is ignored. Consider the dangers of ignoring critical new information relative to worker safety because you believe in a particular tool or methodology so strongly that you can’t even consider another viewpoint.

    A third way that we mislead ourselves is when we see patterns that aren’t there.  This phenomena is wonderfully described in another book that I really believe is important to the world of safety, Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average by Joseph T. Hallinan. According to Hallinan—and the latest in brain research supports his contention—the human brain tends to see patterns even where there are none.  So in cases where safety professionals desperately seek answers and are under pressure to initiate action, the pressure to see patterns where there are none can be extreme.

    Perhaps the most misleading indicator is one of the most common: zero recordables.  Too often safety professionals (and operations, as well, for that matter) see a trend of recordables as evidence that they are at far less risk of injuries and fatalities than they are.  This isn’t to say that they AREN’T at less risk, but there isn’t anything more than a correlation between the two elements; they might be good but they are just as likely to be lucky.

    [1] The example is mine and mine alone, don’t get all huffy and bother Shore.

    #lagging-indicators, #leading-indicators, #measuring-safety, #phil-la-duke, #phil-laduke, #philip-la-duke, #philip-laduke, #predicting-injuries, #safety-measures, #worker-safety

    The Greatest Threat To Safety Might Be Your Safety Training



    By Phil La Duke

    To assert that most safety training sucks is to reveal no great insight; it’s practically an O’Henry short story: training professionals steer clear of safety courses for fear they might miss some important point and imperil the learners and safety professionals lack the requisite knowledge of knowledge of adult education to construct an effective course. The result is well-intentioned organizations wasting millions annually on weak safety training that not only doesn’t protect workers; it puts them at risk.

    There are a couple of basic things you have to decide whether you believe or not before you can draw any accurate conclusion. First, you either believe that safety training protects workers or you do not. (It’s something of a mute point, because in most countries Safety training is required.  It’s not required to be good mind you it’s just required that people complete it.) Second, you either believe existing safety training is sufficient or it is not.

    Researchers in adult learning paint a fairly bleak picture of training in general.  Research has shown that up to 85% of the skills learned in training courses is lost before it ever has a chance of making it to the workplace, and further research shows that no skills taught in a class are retained unless the skills are applied within 48 hours of the course.

    Before we continue I should make something clear. I use the term “training” not “learning” not “teaching” and not “education”. I know some people bristle at the term, “you train dogs, not people” but I was taught the difference between teaching and training through the following analogy: “you might be in favor of your sixth grade daughter receiving sex education in school, but you probably don’t want her getting sex training”.  Some of you might be offended by that example (lighten up) but I think it creates a visceral mental image of the precise difference between training and teaching.  As far as I’m concerned, education is learning ABOUT something and training is learning how to DO something.

    This distinction has profound implications in worker safety.  Safety professionals pull their hair out in frustration, concoct elaborate schemes, and tilt at ludicrous organizational windmills in an effort to influence, motivate, coerce and cajole workers into working safely, when I put it to you these workers were never taught to work safely, they were taught ABOUT working safely.   This might sound like I’m playing semantic games here, but think about it.  What do people learn how to DO in a hazard communication course? That’s not to say that safety education isn’t important, and awareness too, while were at it, but if we want people to change how they behave—and despite whatever position you take on behavior and its relationship to safety I think we can all agree that safe behavior and good decision making is an essential to a safer workplace—we have to first give them the skills they need to behave safely.

    This distinction also lies at the heart of why so few safety professionals, academics, and consultants have any real credibility with workers.  Credibility is only really gained when a person knows how to DO the job, irrespective of how much the person knows ABOUT the job.  This creates a problem for safety training; many decision makers assume that subject matter experts will make great trainers because they will have so much more credibility with the learners.  Of course not all grizzled veterans are horrible trainers, but many are really bad at teaching people the skills they need to do a job.  Any time I have endured a training course on any subject where the instructor takes pains to brag about his or her having spent 87 years doing blah, blah, blah…I knew I was in for long, pointless class.

    The secret to better safety training starts with a professional designed course. I’ve explored that topic in greater detail in previous articles and blog posts so I won’t go into it much here, except to say that a well-designed course is like having a concrete plan for imparting the skills; a “learning road map”, if you will. The development of the course requires two kinds of expertise: expertise in the content, and expertise in adult learning.  There are no short cuts to this formula. If you try to cut corners you will end up not only wasting time and money, but potentially putting workers at risk.

    But a professionally developed course is only the start.  The delivery of quality safety training is every bit as specific and important a skill as any other. Just because someone LIKES to present in front of a group or that fancy themselves a trainer.  A good safety trainer should be an expert in the discipline of training. Of course the instructor has to have credibility in the content, but that doesn’t mean that the instructor has to have complete mastery of the subject and have 150 years doing the work.

    In the best classes, either a subject matter expert has been given training in presentation skills or is teamed with an experienced trainer.  But too often those charged with ensuring that courses are delivered simply trust the subject matter expert to “pull together a course” or worse yet, trust them to deliver the “course” they’ve been regurgitating for years.

    As I’ve said in so many other posts, the best safety training isn’t the regulatory training most of tend to think of when people mention safety training. Rather the most important safety training is effective core skills training. Unfortunately, this training tends to be even worse than regulatory training and is even less formal than the worst regulatory training out there.  This is where things get dangerous, if we don’t provide quality training in how to do the tasks required of a job the workers will figure out a way to do it, and the way they find to do it will be the most lasting learning.  It’s tough to unlearn something that you learned from your own experience and even tougher to change those behaviors.

    #education-versus-training, #poor-training-makes-the-workplace-unsafe, #safety, #safety-training, #worker-safety

    Process Improvements May Be Hazardous to Your Healthj

    By Phil La Duke

    Processes are hazardous

    There are a lot of useful things that safety professionals can learn from manufacturing, particularly Lean Manufacturing, yet surprisingly few safety practitioners—even within manufacturing—see the connection.  Two of these concepts that have a profound value on safety and risk are cycle time and takt time.  Takt time is generally defined as the maximum time per unit that it takes to produce something to fulfill the customer’s demands, and cycle time is the time it takes to do one job. Both terms are measures of capacity and key elements of efficiency.

    That might not seem to mean much in terms of safety and risk, but it does.

    Shorter takt times mean that providing goods (or services) to the customer is happening faster. This fact in itself doesn’t mean very much, but if you consider that to improve efficiency (for our purposes, efficiency will mean producing goods or services as quickly as possible without compromising cost, quality, or safety) you have to reduce your takt time, we start to see implications for safety.  Few of you would argue that “haste makes waste” and in fact, rushing to complete a job introduces the risk of injury, and that is exactly what can happen if we try to reduce takt time simply by cracking the whip and force the workers to work faster.

    Similarly, cycle time is the time it takes to do one job. In manufacturing, it is the time it takes  to complete all the tasks at one station and this is typically described in minutes or seconds.  Years ago when I built seats for one of the Big Three auto manufacturers my cycle time was 55 seconds, and our takt time was around 16 hours (the time it took for one car  to go from hunks of metal, plastic, and cloth to a fully functioning automobile.) To improve the takt time you generally have to reduce cycle time.  The key to both these activities is to eliminate waste.  In the discipline of Kaizen there are seven kinds of waste, or muda as they like to call it, mainly so that there job feels like a cool karate class, but then I digress. The seven wastes are:

    1. Defects (and rightfully this should include injuries and damage to facilities or equipment, or environmental spills, from a process stand point, when a process fails, whatever the unintended consequence is waste)
    2. Overproduction (work done without an immediate order for it)
    3. Inventories waiting to be  \processed
    4. Unnecessary movement of stock (like moving things around your operation)
    5. Unnecessary motion of employees (people having to walk farther than necessary, for example)
    6. Overly processing (quality checks or redoing job because it wasn’t done correctly in the first place)
    7. Waiting (workers standing idle because they have nothing to do)

    All of these sources of waste introduce variation into the process and where there is variation there is risk of injury.  So we want to eliminate waste and be sure that we preserve the safety of the workplace; sounds simple right? Well, predictably, it isn’t.

    Apart from the obvious risks of rushing, let’s assume that there is an unidentified hazard in a job (for our purposes, it doesn’t matter if the job is taking orders at a logistics company, running a ride at a theme park, or building jet engines) if the cycle time is decreased it means that the job is done more times a day (assuming a steady flow of consumer demand) which means that the probability that the worker will be injured through interaction with the hazards grows proportionately. Think of like this let’s say you are a shoplifter (relax I know some of you aren’t really shop lifters) and you decide to steal a steak from your grocer. Two things come into play (actually more than two, but bear with me) the length of time to steal one steak (takt time) and the number of times you go back to the store to steal a steak (like any good shoplifter you go back to the same store over and over again because you know the layout and routines of the staff). Unlike the odds of say, flipping a coin that remain 50:50 each and every time you flip it, our scenario is a bit different.  While the coin will never change in a way that will affect the probability our chances of successfully shoplifting are in almost constant flux (security measures are likely to get “beefed up”, the store staff is more and more likely to recognize you and suspect that you may be the thief (assuming you weren’t seen in the act).  To reduce your risk you might decide to steal something else, something that reduces your takt time because it is closer to the exit, or you might decide to lower you cycle time to let things “cool down” before trying it again.

    How is this important to safety? Well ergonomic strain can build to create the most costly injuries, and you don’t have to be swinging a sledgehammer to get one. A worker may be able to process invoices safely at three an hour, and might be able to ultimately increase his or her time to say, six an hour, without noticing any immediate discomfort.  But after doing six invoices an hour, 5 days a week, 8 hours a day for a month, he or she may begin to show symptoms of a repetitive strain injury.

    There are other exposure risks as well.  Let’s say a doctor sees 4 patients an hour.  Each time a sick person comes in for treatment (assuming it is a contagious disease and not a chronic complaint or injury) the doctor risks getting ill.  If the doctor increases the number of patients (and in turn decreases his or her takt time) he or she increases the likelihood of contracting an illness. You can carry this example to working with asbestos or a radioactive activity. The more times you are exposed to a hazard the more likely it is that you will be harmed by it.

    What this means in practical terms is that when we calculate probability we need to remember that: a) we are calculating not the chances that someone will interact with a hazard, but also the likelihood that that interaction will cause harm and b) both the number of times a worker interacts with a hazard and the duration of the hazard are important things to think about when considering probability.

    The safety professional must be involved in these efforts to improve workplace efficiency not just to add value, although that is important, but also to ensure that the improvement effort doesn’t just trade one set of wastes for another, in this case, injuries.

    #cycle-time, #exposure-risks, #exposure-to-hazards, #muds, #process-improvements, #takt-time, #waste, #worker-safety

    When it Comes to Safety the Surest Way to Lose Is to Think You’ve Won



    By Phil La Duke

    Injury rates are down, the safety function is running like a well-oiled machine and senior leadership is happy, so now you can relax right? Wrong.  If safety is the probability of injuries and we know that the risk of injury is never zero, then most of us understand that we have to remain vigilant in our efforts to create a workplace with the lowest possible risk…blah, blah, blah. But realistically do we really need to keep trying new initiatives after we have licked the biggest hitters in safety? Isn’t that just some academic argument? Well, yes and no.  In some cases, we truly can wind down some of our safety efforts.  After all, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to be hyper-vigilant in workplaces where most of our hazards are well managed and quickly contained or corrected—that’s like continuing to look for your car keys after you’ve already found them (“where else MIGHT they have been but weren’t?”) Unfortunately, most of us aren’t working for organizations that are quite there yet and still have some work to do.

    In fact, it’s highly unlikely that we will ever get there.  We tend to think as safety (and other business systems) as its own system when, in fact, all our business systems are interconnected in highly complex ways.  What’s worse is that all our business systems operate in a dynamic business climate and this continuously changing environment makes it impossible for us to ever pronounce the workplace permanently “safe”.


    When we are confronted with a new situation we generally feel nervous, or tentative, or unsafe in some way.  Even the boldest among us is likely to exercise heighted care when first confronted with a new situation, but as we get used to the situation we become more comfortable. We acclimate to the changes and feel more comfortable taking what a less seasoned observer might describe as unwarranted or even reckless. This same process of acclimation that allows us to perform our jobs with greater levels of skill also puts us at higher levels of risk.

    Over Confidence and Complacency

    Many organizations fail to recognize that the hazards shift and evolve.  These organizations, reckoning that they have solved the safety puzzle become less vigilant.  It’s a dangerous phenomenon.  Hazards insidiously grow while the perception of danger diminishes, leaving the organization open to unexpected catastrophe. Some of you may be skeptical; it’s often difficult to accept that you may be losing ground when all indications are to the contrary. But as long as the work environment changes and your safety management system stays the same, you are at significant risk.  And the kinds of catastrophes that strike seem to come out of nowhere.


    A key source of variation in organizations is turn over.  We talk a lot about the effects of employee turnover on the safety organizations (well at least I talk a lot about it) but one of the most destructive changes to the organization is executive turnover.  Executive turnover can throw the vision of the organization into a tailspin, but even moderate turnover at the middle of the organization can change the environment enough to cause variation sufficient to pose a significant hazard to the workplace.

     Disruptive Technology

    A prime driver for change in an organization is disruptive technology.  Clayton M. Christensen Harvard Business School professor coined the term “Disruptive Technology” to describe a new technology that unexpectedly displaces an established technology. Most companies are successful because they have mastered sustaining technologies.  But disruptive technologies introduce hazards far beyond the changes brought by the technology itself.  Disruptive technology generally produces ripple effects that, owing to the organization’s lack of experience and familiarity with the nuanced nature of the new technology, can manifest in lethal hazards.


    Drift is the natural tendency to move away from a standard or a norm.  When we drift we tend to believe that risks are justifiable and fairly benign—like driving a car and thinking yourself safe even though statistically the faster we drive and the longer we drive we will make dozens of poor choices, risky choices and errors.  Our subconscious minds experiment with ways in which we can drift from the norm; it makes us make mistakes to test the safety of quickly moving from one environment to the next. This process allows us to quickly adapt when our survival depends on it, but it also subjects us to the risk of injuries.

    All these factors—from acclimation to drift—build to put us in harms way.  But the biggest thing we have to fear, isn’t, as FDR once said, “fear itself”, but the absence of fear.  We are often most at risk when we believe ourselves to be “safest”.

    #acclimation, #complacency, #feeling-safe-versus-being-safe, #over-confidence, #turnover, #worker-safety

    Mind Your Own Business: The Far From the Last Word On Building A “Safety Culture”

    photo of the Diego Rivera Mall at the Detroit Institute of Arts taken by Phil La Duke

    There is a nearly ubiquitous conversation ragging in the safety forums: how can one create a “safety culture” within my organization. This debate is troubling from a couple of perspectives.  First, there really isn’t any such thing as a “safety culture” the fact that people blather on about this topic shows a very deep ignorance of organizational culture.  Every organization of more than five people has a culture. In simplest terms, a culture is the codified collection of the norms, shared values, and rules of an organization. Cultures evolve to protect the organization’s interests and to determine what is acceptable behavior. In so doing, corporate culture makes it possible to govern the organization.

    In some organization’s the corporate culture is so strong that changing from within is almost impossible, in fact, it is far more likely that a new hire will adopt the corporate culture rather than change it, no matter how strong the desire or ardently the new employee works for change.

    I’ve studied corporate cultures and worked in OD for years.  I won’t bore you with a lot of pedantic excrement filled with a lot of jargon and theory, but if you want that, believe me there are plenty of people out there to fill your head with it.

    Cultures are made up of shared values—kind of shared opinions of how important something is relative to the other elements of an organization.  Organizations tend to have a value of safety, that is, the organization places some value on safety relative to the other activities on which it can expend its resources.  Some cultures view safety as unimportant while others view it as of paramount importance, but all cultures place some priority on worker safety, and therefore, all organizations have a “safety culture” albeit some have a strong safety culture while others have a weak safety culture.

    Even if a safety culture could be achieved (at some point it becomes a purely semantic argument) such a culture would neither be advisable or desirable.  A safety culture would mean that safety would be prioritized above all other business elements. Customer satisfaction, productivity, profitability, quality, and profitability all would take a secondary role over worker safety.  It sounds great, but in practical terms,  it doesn’t exist, nor should it.  No company exists primarily to ensure the safety of its workers.  In fact, most companies exist to make money.  This isn’t a bad thing; the safest companies in the world are the ones who went out of business because they didn’t make any money. Pursuit of a safety culture is a mish mash of Polly Anna idealism, cheap sales talk, and excuse making. (“I’ve done all I can; the culture is broken”).

    As for the larger issue of a culture change, that may be necessary but that isn’t the job of the safety professional.  There are people with degrees in Organizational Behavior, Industrial Psychology, Organizational Development (OD), or other advanced degrees that qualify them to create culture change interventions. These people have years of Organizational Development experience before they are able to lead such a change; they aren’t safety professionals who have read a couple of books or attended a couple of speeches at a safety conference.   It’s been suggested that the skills of the safety professional and the organizational psychology field aren’t mutually exclusive; perhaps not. But just because someone read a couple of books about airplanes and has a flight simulator on his PC doesn’t make him a pilot. And frankly I would prefer a cardiac surgeon perform my coronary by-pass surgeon to a butcher, but effectively they share as many skills as a self-important puffed up safety huckster who believes—however earnestly—that he has the same skills as a professional skilled and experienced in OD.

    So let’s shut up about creating a safety culture; it makes us seem even more out of touch than we already do.  We should however, foster an environment where safety is valued, but that isn’t a culture change, it’s a change in values.

    Changing the values of an organization doesn’t take a whole lot of special skills.  A tenacious and conscientious safety professional can immediately start creating a heightened sense of value for safety within his or her organization.

    Engage Leadership

    I have written and spoken extensively on ways to engage leadership so I will just quickly summarize the key points here. In organizations that place a low value on safety professionals tend to have little or know credibility with the senior leadership in an organization.  Building credibility begins by speaking the same language and relating safety to the things that senior leadership find most compelling.  If the organization values sales above everything else, the safety professional should express the cost of injuries in terms of the amount of additional revenue it will take to replace the money spent on worker injuries.

    Run the Safety Function Like a Business

    Every safety function that is run like a business (i.e. the primary purpose of the function is to provide some service that is of quantifiable value) is much more likely to survive and thrive than those that are manage like overhead.  When the safety function sees itself as a for hire service provider it is far more likely to instill the kind of confidence required to build demand for safety.

    Position Safety As a Partner In Improvements

    For far too long, the safety profession has seen itself as serving a greater good that the rest of the organization, while the other departments busied themselves making money or improving quality, or making materials flow more efficiently, Safety saved lives. And while that is beyond important, it positioned safety as a parent and a policeman, but never a partner.  Safety became the smug outsider in the organization and then wondered why nobody trusted it.

    But it doesn’t have to be like that, the Safety function plays an important role in bolstering operating efficiency (worker injuries interrupt production and make the operation less efficient), increasing profitability (worker injuries cost money), and creating a lean workplace (injuries are  waste).


    Day after day I interact with safety professionals who deride leadership of their organization as indifferent or even hostile to safety.  These sad sacks talk in “us versus them” distinctions that make me wonder why they have jobs at all.  If safety professionals want to effect real change in how much value and priorities they have to be credible leaders not whiny crybabies who feel powerless to effect change.

    People listen to those who have something to say, they learn from those who have something to teach them, and they follow people who are going to take them someplace better.  If you can’t these things for others there’s probably still important role you can play in worker safety, but shut up about culture; you don’t know what you are talking about.

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