Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

Feeling Unappreciated? Maybe You Invite the Abuse

By Phil LaDuke

There’s no denying the job of a safety professional can be tough. Between opportunistic vendors pushing snake oil, trenchant Operations leaders willing to take unreasonable risks, and petulant workers who passively (or belligerently) resist any and all efforts to make the workplace safer it’s easy to see Safety as a thankless profession.  But I’ve it occurs to me lately that many in the safety community bring this suffering on themselves and I think we would all—those of use who work within safety and those who work on it’s periphery—be a lot better off if Safety ended the adversarial relationship.

What’s that you say? You don’t see us as having an adversarial with Operations? Congratulations; if that is the case you are in the minority, at least in my experience. While it is easy to see the safety practitioner as the put-upon, long-suffering victim in many cases we invite this abuse, how? By:

Wrapping Ourselves In the Flag. When we tell Operations that they must make the workplace safer for God and country, that we must be the protectorate of all things safe an humane, that in Safety we trust…we come off as self-righteous and delusional jerks without the business acumen of a water buffalo.  Too often safety professionals default to the “it’s the right thing to do” argument for safety.  What’s wrong with pursuing safety because it’s the right thing to do? absolutely nothing, but when we tell someone that safety is the right thing to do we are implying (or could create the impression that we are implying) the person to whom we are giving our sanctimonious sermon can’t (without our help) tell right from wrong.  As much as we all like condescending lectures it does tend to set up a dichotomy where we have a monopoly on all that is just and holy.

Answering To a Higher Calling. I have met many safety professionals who believe that their jobs are more than just an occupation it’s a sacred calling.  While one is entitled to believe what one wants, believing that one isn’t a slave to the almighty buck and whose purpose on this earth is to protect the great unwashed from unscrupulous employers who otherwise would prey upon them and break their backs against the capitalist anvil gets a bit old to those of us who work for a living.  I won’t apologize for making my living from safety, I think it’s a noble profession.  I have often said that engineers believe the whole world would be an engineer if only they were smart enough, and nurses believe that the whole world would be a nurse of only they cared enough.  If that is true then may safety practitioners believe that the whole world would work in safety if only they were both smart enough and cared enough.  I freely acknowledge that our chosen profession requires a certain skill set and a specific personality, but the whole world doesn’t want our job—or even value it.

Taking All Of the Credit And None Of the Blame. Too many people in safety play the “I save lives” card without acknowledging that if our effectiveness saves lives then our ineffectiveness gets people killed.  How can we claim success without acknowledging our role in failure? When we do this we trivialize any contribution toward success made by Operations and inflate our own role and conversely we quickly blame Operations when things turn sour.  Operations, for their part see this hypocrisy and resent it.

Pretending That Safety Is the Ultimate Goal. I know many safety practitioners who act as if they are somehow external from the money-making arm of the organization.  Imagine how irritating it is for Operations personnel to have someone act as if it makes no difference whether the company is profitable and who sees themselves as the watchdog of safety, implying that but for them you would act with wanton disregard for worker safety.  If safety were truly the organization’s ultimate goal it would close its doors and bubble wrap all the workers before laying them off.

Filed under: Awareness, Safety Culture, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Lone-Gunman Based Safety

Multiple causes

By Phil La Duke

Ever since Jack Ruby gunned down Lee Harvey Oswald while being transferred from a Dallas police station to county jail debate has raged as to whether or not Oswald acted alone or if he was part of a larger conspiracy. There’s not much satisfaction in the “Lone Gunman” theory; it lacks the panache and high drama of a conspiracy, but beyond that, the Lone Gunman theory seems too simple, too convenient, and too pat. I got thinking about the Lone Gunman theory as it pertains to safety and think the comparison is apt.

I came to realize that most safety professionals see injuries as the result of “Lone Gunman” thinking after listening to yet another argument about the nature of injures. “Injuries are caused by behaviors” “no they’re caused by process flaws” “no they’re caused by…” it sure sounds to me like the people who argue whether or not Oswald acted alone. Sound crazy? Think about it: if you believe that the majority of injuries are caused by a single thing you are essentially dismissing the possibility that worker injuries are caused by a complex situations with multiple and often inter-related cause and effects.

The lone gunman theories are attractive; they boil our problem down to a single factor that we can rigorously attack and solve it. This kind of thinking is satisfying because it means that all we need do is to solve one problem and we don’t have to be distracted by all the other things that may or may not be causing injuries.

Now some reading this will immediately hide behind the fact that they never said that ALL injuries are caused by (fill in the blank) but that MOST injuries are caused by (fill in the blank). That’s a convenient (albeit cowardly) way to stack the deck in your favor but it’s a specious and facile argument, even if we can say with credibility that 99% of injuries are caused by a single cause we have always have that 1% that aren’t and that allows us to dismiss it as an outlier.. Dismissing causes that don’t neatly fit into your view of the world as statistical aberrations or outliers is just another form of calling a fatality an unforeseeable act of God.

No One is So Dangerous as the Man with the Whole World Figured Out

When we start to see any topic with a fanatic’s singularity we become dangerous. If we believe that most injuries are caused by a single cause—whether it be leadership, or culture, or process failures, or human error, or risk taking, or pixies, faeries, and trolls—we create a world where anyone who disagrees must be heretics and heretics must die or at very least publicly mocked behind the walls of anonymity of a LinkedIn discussion thread.

Call Us Legion, For We Are Many

I am distrustful of the “one-size-fits-all” approaches to injury reduction, which let’s face it, isn’t the same as safety and yet many of the programs, snake-oils, and magic bullets our there promise safety and only sometimes deliver injury reduction. It’s dangerous to think in terms of a lone-gunman cause for injuries (even when allowing for the possibility that there could be other lone gunman working simultaneously. The opposite of lone gun thinking is conspiracy theory, which okay, I admit, makes me sound like even more of a whack-job than usual. But for our purposes think of injury causes as being somewhat, or at least potentially, benign by themselves. We interact with hazards every day and in the fast majority of those interactions we don’t get harmed. But the more hazards that are present the greater the probability of injury and the presence of some catalyst causes us to be injured. Think of the straw that broke the camel’s back: up until that last minute the camel was uninjured, but given enough objects loaded onto the camel’s back eventually the camel will exceed its capacity to hold the weight.

There are many things, often working in tandem, that cause injuries and we have to stop arguing over whether the straw broke the camel’s back or whether the man who overloaded the camel was to blame, or whether the camel made poor choices, or whether both camel and man had been poorly trained, or whether we could provide an incentive for the camel’s back not to break and realize that there is seldom only one thing going on, and in most cases hazards work together to achieve a lethal synergy that can maim, cripple, and kill.

We Need To Look for Questions Not Answers

I taught problem solving for many years. One technique we used was called Situation Analysis. This technique is used to solve problems with more than one cause, has inter-related causes and effects, and grew over time. The technique was useful for solving broad problems (like…I don’t know…injuries). What I found interesting is that this technique taught people that if you only focus on one of the causes and ignore the others you won’t really SOLVE the problems you would merely make the symptoms go away until the other causes would cross a threshold causing the problem to return even worse than it had been before. I think of the conundrum of fatalities. Injury rates seem to be going down (although many believe that this is largely the result of under-reporting or more rigorous case management) while fatalities are staying flat or in some cases rising. This is the exact pattern one would expect from methodologies that attack one cause while ignoring others─ the problem seemed to be going away until it roared back worse than ever. It has left safety professionals scratching their heads, but if we attack the lack of safety as a complex problem that has multiple causes that are interrelated we might just be able to manage things better and save some lives.

I’m Not Alone

I know I may sound like a broken record, but when you sell hammers all the world looks like a nail, and while I have heard many say “well BBS is just a tool in my toolbox” (and I use BBS as an example because I hear this more then let’s say “human performance” or “leadership improvement”) I get skeptical. I want to ask what other tools do you use? When do you use them? When is it inappropriate to use them? But I don’t; frankly I’m tired of arguing with fanatics. One bright spot is that I am meeting more and more people who are beginning to think like me. Rockwell, for example, talks about the 3Cs of safety. The 3 C’s are Capital, Compliance, and Culture. Now I’m not here to promote Rockwell but I like where their heads are at on this. I’m over simplifying their spiel here but effectively what they are saying is that you have to consider all three of these things when attacking safety issues. Capital-you have to make capital expenditures to fund projects to improve your equipment. I would expand that to include your facilities as well, but I think their point is well taken. Compliance-let’s not forget that we have to follow the law and that basic compliance is the gateway to more advanced safety solutions. And Culture-hiring qualified organizational development professionals to make substantive changes in how your organization views and values safety is important. To hear Rockwell tell it, you can’t expect great results without looking at all three; I think they are right.

Filed under: Phil La Duke, Safety, Safety Culture, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Where’s the Value In “Safety Day”?

safety day graphic

By Phil LaDuke

Next week I will be conducting the activities surrounding “safety day”. As leader and as a safety practitioner I was the logical selection. The notion of me getting up in front of a group of associates and trumpeting on about safety one day a year may seem laughable to some of my more loyal readers and downright hypocritical to my devoted detractors.

Years ago, as a relatively young man, I made myself a promise: I would never teach or promote something that I myself didn’t believe in or support. That has made it tough in some cases, as I have had a lot of bosses and customers—internal and external—who wanted me to present what at first blush seemed to be propaganda. It sucks having principles. I was true to those principles and pushed back and challenged the presentation sponsors until I was convinced of the value of the topic.

But “safety day”? I mean…come on, right? Doesn’t taking a day to focus on safety mean by implication that there are 364 days where we can take foolish chances, ignore performance inhibitors (thus making more mistakes) and engage in outright recklessness like some sort of misguided version of The Purge?

I’ve done a lot of soul searching and reflecting on the value of having a “safety day” and it may surprise you to learn that I happen to support safety days, health & safety fairs, and similar efforts provided they are done properly. I happen to think these events serve a number of wonderful purposes and can provide real value by:

  • Taking Stock of Safety. Whenever we pursue a goal we need to stop and take a look around every once in a while to ensure that we are making appropriate progress a safety day isn’t about doing something differently (i.e. working safely for a day) but about gauging the effectiveness of what we are doing better. Think of a well-executed safety day as a way of checking your organization’s pulse in terms of safety.
  • Clarifying your safety messaging. We often cling to safety messages that are either inane, soft-headed, or out dated. Having a safety day is a good way to review the messages are delivered and received. You can open a frank dialog about what messages the organization is hearing and compare that to what you had hoped to communicate. On safety day, people tend to feel more comfortable being candid about the real message being sent (“you tell us you want us to stop work when it’s not safe but then you gig us for lost production.”) Instead of arguing about the veracity of people’s opinions, you should listen to what they are saying. Don’t dismiss it as so much hogwash or griping or whining and recognize that when it comes to messaging perception IS reality irrespective of your view of the world.
  • Celebrating your success. Safety is an ugly business with the best news usually being pretty lousy “hey everybody, we didn’t kill anyone last year! Or our injuries are down, huzzah! Huzzah!” Even so, there is usually plenty to celebrate. By focusing not on injury reductions but on positive, proactive behaviors you can generally find something worth celebrating without being trite or contrived. Even if things are looking pretty dismal you can always celebrate your efforts to improve.
  • Recalibrating your tactics. Everyone plays a role in safety, but unfortunately there is no cast in stone recipe for making the workplace safer. Safety day can be a great time to take a look at your tactics and asking all who participate what is working, what is not working, and why? From hear you can recalibrate your safety tactics and, because most of the organization has participated in deciding what should be done, you will have greater buy-in then if the safety committee had made these decisions in a perceived vacuum.
  • Demonstrating commitment. I am giving up a BIG opportunity to make a series of sales calls so that I can lead safety day at my office. Why? Certainly sales are important, and sales I make have a specific and meaningful impact on my success, but I am choosing (as a partner, no one is forcing me to do this) to lead safety day instead. It’s that important to me. Demonstrating commitment is more than waiving your hands around the room and saying “see how much we value safety? We brought in lunch! We are paying you to be here. It’s about making tough choices and putting aside what might be great sales opportunity or an important client meeting to participate in a day focused on the organization’s safety performance and the importance of committing to people and their safety.
  • Modelling behavior. The world loves a hypocrite, and for whatever reason, people tend to take a hard look at safety practitioners for any sign of hypocrisy. I’ve always thought it was because if you could point out that the safety guy is inconsistent or doesn’t walk the talk it absolves you from ever listening to him or her. If safety truly is important than we have to live it, and living it means planning, supporting, and leading safety. Modelling behavior is so important because it tends to be what people end up doing when they are stressed, working unsupervised, or having to make the tough decisions. If people don’t clearly understand and believe that you value safety—above and beyond the other distractions in your life—then they will only value safety when it suits them; when it’s convenient for them.

So while it may surprise, even shock, some of you come Thursday, I won’t be working on client accounts, writing proposals, or flying off to exotic locales to pitch my wares. Instead I will be meeting with a group of people who I like and respect and having a frank conversation about leading safety.

Filed under: Phil La Duke, Safety, Safety Culture, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Expectation of Safety


By Phil LaDuke

I hate the Darwin Awards. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the Darwin Awards are “commemorate those who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it.” Effectively people post stories about people who died doing something stupid. I admit that in the past, I have read these posts and chuckled at the stupid people who died, I’m ashamed that I once felt that way, and anyone who knows me knows that it takes a lot. The Darwin Awards are popular among safety professionals. We like to look down our noses (like I once did) and think, “well yeah, stupid people die don’t they.”

But are the people stupid? Unlucky? How are they different from the rest of us?

I find something about the ubiquitous “funny safety photos” equally loathsome, and here to I admit to having laughed at how many people took stupid risks. But think for a moment about the context in which that photo was taken. Either the photo is staged, in which case it is kind of pointless and not at all funny, or someone, perhaps a safety professional happened upon the scene and instead of immediately correcting the situation, he or she instead took a picture. In these situations seconds count. Every instant of exposure increases the probability that there will be an accident and perhaps a fatality. Let us suppose you are on a jury for this safety professional who instead of correcting the situation decided to take picture for his collection of whacky photos. How would you find on the charge of negligence or depraved indifference? I’m not judging, I’m really not; I wish I could say that I never laughed at these photos or even circulated them, but as a safety professional I had ought to know better.

Dying is Scary

“It’s the same with men as with horses and dogs, nothing wants to die”—Tom Waits

None of us likes to think about dying. Some people will wince at the merest use of the word “die”. Accidents kill people of all ages and walks of life. It comforts us to think that the people who get killed deserve it in some way; they are fundamentally different than us. They were asking for it.

People Die In the Workplace Because they are Stupid

They easiest way to differentiate between ourselves and others is to think that we are smarter than the other person, but that probably isn’t true. Joseph T. Hallinan book, Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average make a strong argument that while most people believe they are “well above average” in terms of intelligence the fact remains that most of us aren’t. We all fall pretty close to the norm.

All Because Some Idiot Got Hurt and Sued

Whenever I tell people I work in worker safety the conversation seems to invariable come around to “aren’t we going a little crazy with safety?” When I say, no, I don’t think we have gone far enough in regulating safety, people usually counter with some version of “I don’t know, have you seen all the stupid stickers and warning labels they put on something because some idiot got hurt and sued?” First of all, most warning labels aren’t the result of a lawsuit; in fact, slapping a warning label on a hazard could conceivably be seen as knowing that a hazard exists and inadequately guarding against it. In the US there has been a shift in this kind of thinking. Take for example the sign, “Beware of Dog”. There was a time when these signs were common. Now many of them were either taken down or replaced with “Dog on Premises”. What’s the difference? The first sign clearly warns of a known hazard, i.e. come near my dog and it may harm you. The second sign warns of a potential hazard, i.e. come near my dog and it may or may not harm you; it’s a dog after all. One could argue that in posting the first sign you know of a hazard but are not adequately controlling it while the second one could be argued as a simple courtesy of letting one know you have a dog and that it may lick you, get its hair all over your clothes, or hump your leg—inconvenient and unpleasant to be sure, but not life threatening.

But then I digress. As disappointing as it is for the “the world is going to Hell in a hand basket crowd” warning labels are neither products nor symbols of an over litigious society, rather it is borne of safety practitioners and product engineers doing their jobs. They do a Failure Modes Effects Analysis (FMEA) and essentially after they’ve done everything they can think of to reduce the risk of injury or misuse they slap a label on the things that they can’t. The more remote or ridiculous the danger the more likely it is to get a sticker. We Have the Right to Expect a Safe Workplace

Despite all the warnings and engineering controls, people get hurt. Not just stupid people, but capable people like most of you and I. In many cases we get hurt because we assume situations are safe when they are not. Before you cluck your tongue and say, “well I certainly don’t take anything for granted when it comes to safety” consider this. If you have ever travelled (or even left your house) you have probably done many of the following things. Stupid things when it comes right down to it. Things that seem pretty risky and even reckless when you think about it:

  • Eaten a meal prepared by a stranger, using ingredients purchased by strangers, from other strangers who bought them from still other strangers, served to you on dishes washed and manufactured by strangers, using utensils washed and manufactured by strangers, in a building designed, built, and inspected by strangers.
  • Ridden in an airplane designed, built, maintained, and piloted by strangers.
  • Slept in a hotel bed on sheets washed by strangers.

I could go on and on but I think enough of you get the point. We don’t pull the inspection records for elevators before getting in them. We don’t demand to see the building permits and blueprints before we enter buildings. If we did these things we would look like nuts. We assume things are safe because it is someone’s job to make SURE these things are safe. Is it so wrong for people in the workplace to assume the same; that the people charged with making sure a process is safe have behaved responsibly and done their jobs?

Filed under: Risk, Safety, Safety Culture, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Maybe You REALLY Can’t Fix Stupid

By Phil La Duke

In a recent blog entry on the blog, Fuel Fix  Oil & Gas executives were quoted as saying that 80% of offshore accidents were caused by human error.
According to the article, Jim Raney, director of engineering and technology at Anadarko was addressing the Ocean Energy Safety Institute at the University of Houston when he said, “You can’t fix stupid…what’s the answer? A culture of safety. It has to be through leadership and supported through procedures — a safety management system.” I’m careful not to use the stupid brush to tar too many people in worker safety. Are their stupid people out there working? I think it’s safety to say yes. But can we blame 80% of worker injuries on stupidity? I don’t think so, at least not among the rank and file. Let’s face it, if 80% of your injuries are because of human error, as the article later suggests, you have some big issues and I would be careful who you go around calling stupid.
Even Smart People Make Mistakes
I’m not going to beat up on Jim Raney. My guess is that at his level he isn’t doing the incident investigations personally, and therefore he is being fed conclusions by his safety practitioners that lead him to believe that the vast majority of the incidents are because he has a bunch of idiots working for him. But stupidity is not the same as making a mistake, and while everyone makes mistakes (it’s a biological imperative) no one should have to die because of it. If there is stupidity in this process it lies with the person who designed it; he or she either refused to believe that people make mistakes or knew people would invariable make mistakes but refused to protect those that did. Stupid? It’s damned near depraved indifference and gross negligence.
Dispelling the “Operator Error” Myth
For years I taught problem solving courses as part of lean implementations. For generations engineers (the folks typically charged with finding out what caused a quality defect) would ultimately conclude that someone screwed up; the report would conclude that “operator error” was the proximate and root cause. The problem was that the engineer never asked “why?” the operator screwed up. I’ve written reams on performance inhibitors, those things like worker fatigue, stress, distraction, drug use, et el, can cause even the smartest people to make mistakes so I won’t revisit them now. But I wonder how many of those 80% of the people working on offshore rigs had been working long hours without a day off or with inadequate sleep? Keep anyone up for days on end working 16+ hour shifts in the elements and even the brightest among them will seem like a drooling idiot. Simply denouncing the people as stupid and then doing nothing about the system issue will not create a culture of safety, it will create a culture of stupidity. If I can go off on one of my well celebrated tangents for a minute, why are Oil & Gas companies hiring so many stupid people? While you may not be able to fix stupid, you don’t have to hire it, you don’t have to seek out the dumbest in society and offer them a job.
Injuries Are Seldom Caused By a Single Root Cause
A part of the problem solving training that I taught for many years dealt with selecting the right tool from the tool box. Traditional root cause analysis, repetitive whys, and similar tools are designed for use in solving problem of a specific structure and a sudden occurrence, that is to say, issues that develop rapidly and happen in response to a single cause. Situation analysis, fishbone analysis, and other tools, are better used for problems of a general structure and a gradual occurrence, in other words, incidents that are the product of a multiple, inter-related elements. In these types of incidents, many factors have to be present to cause an injury, and it is only after a threshold is reached that we see a process failure. In my experience, injuries tend to be the product of multiple factors that contribute to the incident. As long as we continue to use inappropriate tools to find the cause of injuries we will continue to mask hazards instead of removing them. The fact that Oil & Gas executives are concluding that 80% of the workers’ injuries are caused by “human error” leads me to question their methodology used to identify injury causes. Yes people make mistakes, but if those mistakes are leading to injury you have more at play than stupid people, you also have a process that hurts people when they make mistakes.
Protect the Stupid
We may not all be stupid, but we all do stupid things from time to time—we make poor choices, take unreasonable risks, allow distraction, fatigue, or other factors to impair our performance, or generally act in a way at odds with our safety. Some seem to forget that not all safety is about prevention; probability of interaction is only PART of the formula, there is another key component, reduction of severity. Engineers use this formula when identifying which of the hierarchy of controls to apply to everything from the machines we use in the workplace to the consumer goods we use every day. If the probability of interaction is high (people will almost certainly interact with the hazard) but the severity is low (most of the people who interact with the hazard won’t be seriously injured) they will generally slap a “no-kidding?” warning label on it. But if the probability of interaction is low, but the severity is lethal, they will take greater measures to protect people. I don’t believe that 80% of the Oil & Gas injuries are the fault of stupid people making mistakes; frankly it sounds suspiciously close to Heinrich’s Pyramid. But if the processes used in Oil & Gas are so fragile that human error is going to result in injury, the safety practitioners had better take bold initiatives to make these processes safer.
They Have the Answer; They Just Don’t Know It
The last part of Raney’s statement, “It has to be through leadership and supported through procedures — a safety management system” is right on. Unfortunately, organizations can’t achieve a sustainable safety management system that is built on the belief that you can’t fix stupid. Leadership has to drive good decision making and has to reward and encourage worker engagement based on respect; and describing workers as “stupid” is far from respectful.

Filed under: culture change, Injury reporting, Just Culture, Phil La Duke, Safety Culture, Worker Safety, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What Every Operation Leader Should Know About Safety



 By Phil LaDuke

Every day I hear another safety professional bemoan the fact that Operations (or leadership) doesn’t support safety.  It’s a tired bleat from whiners who should know that I would have no patience for it.  I generally turn the conversation around and ask flat out what they have done to educate operations leaders on safety and they begin to drone on and on about incident rates and lost work days and whatever the latest fad in safety of which they happen to currently be enamored. As safety professionals we have to drive these eunuchs from our chosen field with knotted chords and send them scampering like shocked money changers.

It seems that every month or so I get a wild hair up my small intestine and advocate throwing a beating into some poor schmoo who’s trying to make a buck.  Maybe that’s unfair, but who cares, I care not one whit about fair and when someone is trying to make a buck by undermining the foundation of a profession that, for all its warts,  is ostensibly about keeping people alive long enough to toil another day. So for those of you who are reading this in hopes of yet another viscous attack against the ugly brutes schilling snake oil, sorry; you will be disappointed, perhaps on several levels.

But then I digress.  The target of this week’s blog is the self-castrated safety professional who simpers and whelps about the grave injustice of being saddled with a clueless Operations managers who just don’t get it when it comes to safety.  I freely accept that there are many Operations folks who don’t get safety, but why is that? We’ve made the topic of worker safety about as interesting as the farm report.  You want to shut down the conversation with the hyper caffeinated goofball seated next to you on a plane? You don’t tell them you sell insurance, or that you’re a realtor (when did real estate agents decide that their chosen profession needed to be pronounced real TORE instead of realter? Call it what you want your still selling real estate; case closed) No to strangle the conversation in its infancy you simply need to say, “I work in worker safety, what do YOU do?” The conversation will die quicker than if you said you enjoy watching snuff films.

Let us assume that you’re able to truly able to have a frank conversation with Operations management about worker safety, what would you say, what are the five things you would want  every Operations leader know about safety? First of all, if you need to have this conversation if you hold out any hope of making things better, and some of you, I’m convinced, don’t want that. Many of you are only content to be malcontents, to be the pitiful victims who are under appreciated; those of you who work so hard and receive so little reward.

For my part, here are the five things that every Operations manager should know:

  1. Injuries Aren’t Unavoidable.  Generally speaking there is a correlation between a tightly controlled process that has little variation and a safe workplace.  When people get hurt it’s obviously out of process, as your process (unless it was designed by the Marquis de Sadd) wasn’t designed to deliberately injure workers. So if a leader strives to make sure that people work within process (including things like following safety processes and procedures) they will tend to have less injuries.
  2. Injuries Are Inefficient and Cost A Lot.  When people get hurt it shuts or slows everything down; everything, and not just at the time of the injury sometimes for weeks or months afterward and far beyond the confines of the area in which the worker was hurt.  Depending on how gruesome the injury (or Heaven forbid a fatality) the witnesses may be forever shaken by what they’ve seen, some may not be able to return to work ever (and this isn’t me being melodramatic, I’ve seen strong men unable to cope—and therefore work—-because they saw a friend pulped and mangled before his or her agonizing death on a dirty factory floor.) Even those who didn’t witness the event first hand are shaken and the macabre cacophony that travels through the organization like ball lightening is sometimes far worse in its imaginings of the scene the bloody reality. It’s tough to give work your all when you wonder if you will be the next to shuffle this mortal coil in the name of building widgets. Okay so maybe I am being melodramatic, but what’s a bit of melodrama between us safety guys?  The efficiency goes on and on through investigations internal, corporate, and criminal.  It takes a lot of time to kill or cripple a worker, given all the paperwork and associated loss of production and time is, after all, money.  So when the final cost of carnage hit the bottom line it hardly seems worth it.
  3. 3.    If It Looks Dangerous It Is; So Shut It Down. Too often people assume that because the boss (whether it be the team leader or the CEO) allows an activity it must at a minimum be “safe enough”.  In a lot of those cases the boss is counting on the worker to make a judgment call and to keep him/herself out of harm’s way.  So on it goes with both parties counting on the other to prevent the accident that will kill the worker. 
  4. 4.    Giving People Credit For “a Little Common Sense” Is like Giving Them Credit FHaving Super Powers.  We could argue whether or not common sense exist ad nauseum and all that would come of it would be that eventually I would want to back hand you right in the mouth; probably more than once.  The bottom line is that whether or not you believe common sense exists to any great extent (it doesn’t) trusting it to keep people from doing something they never foresaw or intended (i.e. injuring themselves or others) is a pretty stupid way to run a business.
  5. 5.    Work is Intrinsically Unsafe and the Only Way to Make It A Bit Safer Is to Stay Actively Involved. All jobs carry with them some risk of injury so leaders have to be mindful of the risks endemic to a job and, yes, actively work to reducing the risks to the lowest practicable level.  We can pretend that people don’t commit errors, make bad decisions, take risks, behave recklessly, and generally do stupid things.  We can act as if we live in a utopia where machines don’t malfunction, tools don’t wear out, and equipment never fails.  We can do these things but when we do we do nothing to reduce the risks and we count on luck to protect people.  Lucky people win lotteries, date people way more attractive that any sense of justice would allow, and find hundred dollar bills on the ground. LUCKY PEOPLE DON’T NARROWLY ESCAPE DYING ON THE JOB.      

Are these the right five? Are the really ten? Fifty? A thousand? Maybe you have others you think they should know, but if you think they need to know about how hard your job is, how to calculate Incident Rates or how to conduct a JSA I would put it to you that you’re probably as dumb as the Operations leader thinks you are; maybe more even.

Filed under: culture change, Just Culture, Phil La Duke, risk management, Safety, Safety Culture, Worker Safety

Breaking Down Resistance



By Phil La Duke

When it comes to Organizational Change, for my money you can’t beat the work of Edgar Schein. Schein is considered by many to be the father of Organizational Development; he coined the term “corporate culture” and if for that fact alone should be revered in the same hushed tones in which people talk about Edison, Deming, or Jobs. I’ve written about Schein’s work before, but a thousand or so words ranted in frothy hyperbole from what amounts to a hot head and malcontent is hardly sufficient to explain the great man’s thoughts, let alone apply them to safety.

Schein postulated that organizational change can only come when the resistance to change is less than a combination of dissatisfaction, vision, and next steps. (Although, in fairness, Mao said “all change comes from the barrel of a gun” and I think that there’s a fair amount of truth in that as well, but given the sad fact that most worrisome Human Resources toadstools won’t allow firearms in the workplace—never mind pointing them at the heads of those mouth-breathing dolts unable or unwilling to change—Schein is what were left with, and we could do worse. But then I digress.)

I have devoted much digital ink to fomenting discontent, casting the vision, and crafting logical next steps, in fact, I make my living doing all three; but what about resistance? How do we recognize and attack it. Week after tedious week I work with organizations that seek rapid change—a means of accelerating culture change without merely masking symptoms by obfuscating them with a climate change. Some say it can’t be done—that culture change is a long and laborious process, but since time is money, most notably money that ends up in the pockets of safety culture salesmen (mostly through greed or stupidity) I distrust the argument—I say it can be done. I’ve done it.

Tackling the resistance is the toughest nut to crack in Schein’s formula; chiefly because it can be so tough to spot. I’ve found that people offer clues to their true feeling in the language they use so recently I set pen to paper to identify some of the most telling signs of resistance to change.

“We’re a lot better than we used to be”

People love to get credit for growth, even when the growth they’ve achieved is inconsequential. I’m a big fan of the cartoonist, Al Martin. Martin’s glimpses into human relations in comic strips like Mr. Boffo and Willie and Ethel are without peer; I urge you to seek it out. In one strip I particularly like, Willie and Ethel are having a conversation, and I’m paraphrasing here so if I don’t get it exactly right bear in mind that sending me an indignant email will only result in me unleashing a response so filled with bile and venom it would make Linda Blair’s Regan in the grips of full demonic possession gasp in incredulity, disgust and shock. So ANYWAY, Ethel says to Willie, “Mr. Johnson takes his wife out to dinner once a week. Mr. Johnson, brings his wife flowers. Mr. Johnson takes his wife out dancing…” Willie responds “Hun, why don’t you do us both a favor and stop comparing me to Mr. Johnson and start comparing me to some of those guys on death row.” Essentially, when someone in the organization tells me how much better than they were than they used to be they are telling me that any future change must be seen in the context of the wonderful things they have already achieved. I’m not handing out blue ribbons, and you wouldn’t get any credit for sucking less than you used to even if I was. Similarly, you get no credit for “we’re better than industry average”. Okay, so effectively you are telling me that you kill less people than the competition. That’s like John Wayne Gacey saying, “hey, at least I didn’t kill as many as Ted Bundy’ at his sentencing hearing. When people defend their mediocre safety performance by comparing it to the way it was when mastodons roamed the earth it makes me want to puke; I can feel myself getting dumber for their company.

It’s easy enough to refute the position that the organization isn’t quite as bad as it seems because they used to be worse. Doing a crappy job at safety is doing a crappy job, irrespective if you are doing a less crappy job that you used to.

What’s the requirement?

When governments started issuing regulations for workplace safety they never expected that businesses would see the rules as the gold standard for Operational Excellence, and yet those who resist change are quick to challenge suggested changes with a smug “what does the law require?” There is often a chasm between what is right and what is legal, and an even larger gap between the smart thing to do and what it takes to comply with a regulation. People asking what the government requires are the equivalent of the four-year old who reminds his mother that she said he couldn’t have A cookie, not the 15 he ate. When I hear this I silently wonder where Mao’s gun is when I need it.

How do we respond to “What’s the Requirement?” Simple: “what does your business sense tell you is required?”, “What do your ethics tell you to do?” and “what would someone with the sense God gave geese do in this circumstance?” Remember when asking these questions to resist the temptation to backhand slap the people who asked what the government requires as much as is practicable and reasonable.

We’ve Been Doing It This Way For Years and Nobody Ever Got Hurt.

This statement comes in many forms from the pleading ignorance of the implied, “why do we need to change when it’s obvious that it’s working” to the obstinate smirking challenge of “hey, you don’t know @#$%, we work here and this is fine, if you had a modicum of sense you wouldn’t drag your sad-assed theories here; go play and let the grown ups talk.” I had a social maladroit skulk up to me after one of my speeches where I made the statement that the “absence of injuries” does not denote the presence of safety. He smiled one of those smug, “gotcha” smiles and said that I was wrong because safety by very definition meant that nobody got hurt. I smiled politely and congratulated on his fortune of being immune from dying in a car crash. He looked puzzled, so I explained that by his reasoning the fact that he had not yet been killed in a car crash meant that such an event was impossible and he was immune from a death from this cause. Hell, he may have well been immortal—God, after all, looks after the stupid.

How Safe Does It Need To Be?

I usually get asked this question more in the form of a challenge than a good-faith request for information. This question might seem an expression of tolerance of risk, but in reality it’s usually a way of condescending the point of safety, a way of rolling your eyes and saying “can’t we give people a little credit?” I’ve found that the best answer to this is “how dead do you want your people?” or “how quickly do you want to kill your people?” When dealing with resistance to change, I’ve found that escalating rhetoric can be useful.

What About Common Sense?

People have a deep and abiding need to blame people for not having common sense; it’s a neat way of garnering agreement that the injured party deserves to go home on slab or in a body bag because they exercised inferior judgment. It’s reassuring to know that only the stupid and careless get hurt; it won’t happen to us, because we would never act so irresponsibly, do something so stupid, or behave so recklessly. Dr. Robert Long does a nice job dispelling the myth of common sense in his book Risk Makes Sense (note: I continue to plug Long’s book even though I don’t think he’s speaking to me at the moment owing to one of my sharpish replies to one of his patronizing comments he made on one of my posts; he essentially took his ball and went home. That not withstanding, his books are really insightful and worth the read.)

Common sense is essentially the collective wisdom of a population. Those of us who grew up in small towns understand the way folk wisdom grows up out of the collective experience of yokels who meet in the post office lobby and worry over the price of corn and the amount of rain we’re getting this year. But now that we live in a truly global community and are part of the world population there is no common sense. My life experience is far different than an urban Britt, a rural Chinaman (is this still an acceptable term? No slur is meant; I just don’t have the energy to change the nomenclature every time someone halfway across the world get’s chuffed because they prefer to be called something different. Note to all: If I am looking to insult you, my message will be clear, and if I am successful, I will leave you wondering at the accuracy of my slurs until you shuffle this mortal coil. So if “Chinaman” offends you, grow the @#$% up.) or many of my coworkers. So, no we can’t rely on common sense in the same way we can’t rely on magic, divine intervention, or blind luck to keep the work place safe.

Words alone won’t end resistance but having the dialog that challenges these statements undermines the resolve of those who resist change. As Edgar Schein notes the most effective path toward organizational change lies in attacking all elements across the formula.

Filed under: culture change, Just Culture, Phil La Duke, Safety, Safety Culture, ,

The Folly Of Safety Reminders


Don't forget

by Phil La Duke

It’s been awhile since I blogged about the role of behavior in worker safety.  Truth be told, despite the tonnage of digital ink I have devoted to criticizing Behavior Based Safety, I am a firm believer in an organization’s need to address worker behaviors that cause injuries, but I differ with many BBS devotees on the best way to do so.

Variation in human behavior represents the biggest challenge to maintaining a robust and reliable process; whether you are seeking to prevent quality defects, reduce cost, or eliminate injuries you have to consider the effects of human behavior on your process.  That having been said, if we are going to address behavioral causes of Injuries, shouldn’t we concentrate on behaviors we can do something about?

Human Error

Human error is as much a part of being human as anything else; it’s practically encoded in our DNA.  Researchers estimate that the average person makes five mistakes an hour.[1] There seems to be a biological imperative that compels us to make mistakes.  Some believe that mistakes are our subconscious’ way of testing the safety of rapidly adapting to our surroundings.  Irrespective of why we make mistakes, it’s certain that people will make mistakes no matter how hard we try.  Not that we should give up.  While we can’t completely eradicate mistakes we can reduce the probability that human error will result in serious injury or death. Mistake-proofing equipment and processes is an integral part of any safety management process.  We should think of mistake proofing as making our process more forgiving, more tolerant of mistakes.

Of course, we can’t bubble-wrap the world, and any control has limits.  We may not be able to prevent mistakes or protect people from their mistakes, but we can work on ensuring that factors that make mistakes more common are controlled.  There are many things that can make mistakes more likely—from fatigue, drug- or alcohol abuse, to lack of training or stress.  Organizations should redouble their efforts to help workers to manage the things in life that make mistakes more common and potentially, more deadly.

Flawed Decision Making

While human error is inevitable, flawed decision-making need not be.  Workers often make decisions that result in injurious consequences.  Organizations wishing to reduce behavior-related injuries should seriously consider training workers in decision analysis and decision making techniques.

Not all bad decisions are the product of a lack of decision making skills, however, and if an organization discovers a pattern of poor decision making it should take a hard, diagnostic look at its communication.  Often decisions that end in injury are poorly made because someone believed something was true when it wasn’t or didn’t believe it was true when it was.  A lack of communication, or poor communication channels can seriously disrupt the decision making process.

Risk Taking

Every action carries some element of risk with it.  Risk is neither good nor bad, and often we are called on to take risks as part of our daily jobs.  The key is not to have workers become risk averse, instead, we should develop the skills so that workers can take educated, controlled, and planned risks.  When teaching workers how to manage the risks they take, it’s important that organizations train the workers in core skills. Unless workers understand the limits endemic to their processes the risks they take will be more gambles than controlled and planned risk.  While you can coach workers on the inappropriateness of the risks they have taken, it’s far better to educate workers before they are faced with the decision than reactively.


Sometimes workers are so derelict in their duties that we describe their behavior as carelessness.  While some argue that carelessness doesn’t truly exist—that the behavior is really poorly managed performance impediments or recklessness—there are times when a worker is so distracted, manages his or her performance impeding factors, or simply cares so little about the quality of his or her performance that one could accurately characterize the behavior as carelessness.  Carelessness is likely a disciplinary issue; it is unlikely that training, coaching, or mistake proofing will have any meaningful effect.


Sometimes workers will—out of frustration, belligerence, or maliciousness—act in a way so fraught with danger that it can only be categorized as recklessness.  Recklessness is not the act of a mature, responsible professional and it should be addressed surely and immediately.  If the reckless behavior continues the worker should be fired; as drastic as that sounds it may be the only way to protect the organization from the extreme dangers associated with reckless behavior.

Incenting Safe Behaviors

What all these behaviors share is that there is little use in trying to use antiquated behavior modification techniques to change the behaviors.  Traditional incentive and awards is not likely to change subconscious behavior, and attempts to do so can be costly and destructive.  In fact, there is very little we can do externally to change behaviors that aren’t deliberate or that are the product of poor decision making or inappropriate risk taking.


Just because behavior modification and incentives are of limited value and effectiveness doesn’t mean that we can’t do anything to reduce the variability in human behavior that causes injuries.  The first and most important step is observations.  There is a pervasive belief that the only effective way to do safety observations is peer-to-peer; I don’t believe this, but I will leave those criticisms for another day.  We can’t address unsafe behaviors unless we know when and why they occur.  A safety observation can be as simple as a supervisor walking his or her work area talking to workers and watching them as they worker work.  Supervisors can coach workers on managing performance impediments, risk taking, and decision making while being alert for carelessness or recklessness.



[1] I’ve cited this research many times.  I saw a speaker on patient safety at a medical conference.  I took detailed notes as to the research that concluded this, but sadly lost it in a flood (along with many other irreplaceables).  If anyone knows the study, the researcher, or a parallel source of the findings I would sure appreciate hearing from them.

Filed under: Behavior Based Safety, Hazard Management, Just Culture, Mistake proofing, Phil La Duke, Safety, Safety Culture, , , , , , , , , , ,

The Rise of The Safety Extremist

By Phil La Duke

 Stop extremsim

“’Isms’ in my opinion are not good”
—Ferris Bueller, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off 

fa·nat·ic (fuhnat-ik) noun

  1. a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal, as in religion or politics.

ex·trem·ist (ik-stree-mist) noun

  1. a person who goes to extremes, especially in political matters.
  2. a supporter or advocate of extreme doctrines or practices.

I write provocative material.  I deliberately try to elicit a visceral response and take people to a place where they can explore their deepest held beliefs and question basic ideologies of safety. The latest in neuroscience suggests that our decisions or made and our ability to change reside deep in our subconscious beneath our defenses. When something strikes a nerve at that level it can be difficult to  have a rational conversation, but in general, if one can at least reconsider one’s belief set maybe its worth it.

Why is it important to reexamine our deepest held beliefs? Because the world is a dynamic place and if our beliefs are static we become increasingly out of touch.  If we cling blindly to our beliefs and lash out to anyone who threatens our worldview then we run the risk of becoming completely and dangerously out of touch with the realities of your profession and become a useless relic.  That should be career suicide, but sadly even the most out of touch hacks can usually find work based on their years and years of experience.  But what good is 40.2 years of experience if that experience consists chiefly of self-congratulatory affirmations and retreads of theories that are a century old.

Not that every new idea is a good one.  There is as much crap spewed by the idea d’jour pundits today as there ever has been. And just because an idea or theory is new doesn’t make it any better than conventional wisdom, but it’s important that any professional consider new ideas and emerging thought with an open mind.

That’s getting tougher and tougher to do in safety, owing to the rise in extremist thought in safety. The merest suggestion that we discard a safety truism is likely to to create nothing short of a public out rage.  Take for instance the response to Heinrich’s Pyramid.  A recent thread on the social networking site LinkedIn elicited 3,186 comments ranging from the intellectually bantering to the crackpot personal attacks. The thread quoted a recent assertion by EHS Today:

“Heinrich’s assertion that 88% of accidents are the result of unsafe acts has been dismissed as something he just made up. There was no research behind it whatsoever. “ and asked the simple question “What’s your opinion? And why?”

According to a recent article by Ashley Johnson in H+S Magazine a poll the magazine conducted found that 86% of respondents believed either completely or somewhat in Heinrich’s theories, while another 10% reporting that they weren’t familiar with Heinrich’s theories.  The article is a scathing indictment of Heinrich’s theories from experts who question his methods, his conclusions, and generally speaking nearly everything had to say.  The article was balanced by a half-hearted defense that the numbers were never meant to be statistical predictors (the were, by the way) and that Heinrich never blamed the workers (he did. In fact Heinrich was a devotee of eugenics and believed that one’s race and ethnicity played a factor in the likelihood that a worker would be injured or cause an injury to other.)

The What does this all have to do with extremism? Plenty.  This demonstrates that  despite a growing body of evidence that deeply held belief will hold sway.  This in itself is not extremism, but it does create an environment where extremists thrive.  Why do people cling to beliefs that are refuted (there are still people who deeply believe in fake photos and film footage of the Loch Ness Monster and Big Foot, even though the perpetrators of these hoaxes[1])? People tend to want to believe in what they’re doing and when people chip away at the foundation.

Its not just the Heinrich supporters who will lash out against any suggestion that doesn’t support their world view.  If you don’t believe me just publish something critical about Behavior Based Safety.  Within hours extremists and fanatics will marshal their forces and begin attacking you.  The problem has grown to such an extent that several editors of leading safety magazines actively avoid the debate more out of a desire to avoid arguing with fanatics than out of fear or intimidation.  But intimidation of the press is a goal of extremists everywhere —from Al Quida to the Ku Klux Klan to the Neo Nazis to the safety extremists—is to discredit, attack, intimidate, and generally silence the media which, if it is truly unbiased—will never buy there bill of goods.

Extremism Is Rooted In Fear

Let’s suppose you have 40.2 years of experience in safety where you served with distinction, and someone comes along and asserts something contrary to the foundation on which your entire experience is predicated.  What happens to your credentials and accomplishments and very identity as a safety professional when all on which it is built crumbles? People will protect their beliefs with a wildness typically reserved for mother grizzlies defending their cubs; they will make ugly personal attacks and seek to gather together like-minded souls close to them.

Extremism Loves Company

Social networking sites make it easy to reach out to a world of people. Some credit social networking with ushering in Arab Spring, but it also has a darker side.  Social Networking affords us the opportunity for the fanatics to get their ideas out to a sympathetic ear. Unfortunately, when it comes to safety, people are dying in the workplace while crackpots are postulating theories that are given equal weight with responsible theorists in safety.  I will leave the readers to decide which slide of the equation on which I fall.

[1] I’m speaking of the most famous loch ness monster photo and the actual film footage of a reputed big foot. The very people who first produced them convincingly disproved both of these.  If you want to believe in the Loch Ness monster or Big Foot God bless you, but what was the most compelling evidence has been disproven. And don’t even get me started on crop circles.

Filed under: Behavior Based Safety, Phil La Duke, Safety, Safety Culture, Worker Safety, , , , , ,

Phil La Duke is Full Of @#$%


By Phil La Duke

On Tuesday of this week I will be presenting Hardwiring Safety, Seven Tips for Changing Culture; it’s a topic I know well, having spoken on it in one form or another for the last nine odd years (if you know me, you understand how odd these years have been).  I thought that given my familiarity with the topic I would blow it up here and see what new insights I might be able to glean from it.  Too often safety pundits keep parading out the same old tired schlock in a marginally different package.  Not me; I’d like to think that I’ve grown over the last decade and a half (my waist-line sure suggests it) and so here is my attempt to tear down all I’ve said on the subject and start anew.

The Values of A Safety Culture

In my original speech, some years ago I prattled on about the values of a safety culture; I was an ass. The term “safety culture” is a misnomer.  At best safety could be a subculture, but it is not—in even the broadest sense of the term—a culture.  A culture is the codified set of shared values, rituals, rules, and taboos of a population.  In simple terms (and I am over simplifying it here) culture is how a group of people with common interests view various topics, like, for instance safety. So every organization has a safety culture to some degree—some have cultures that think safety is a bunch of nonsense while others feel it is the only true measure of their success.  Furthermore, changing a culture is more than just about changing the way a population does things, it’s about sharing what it values.

Changing the Culture Is More About Understanding Change Than it Is About Understanding Culture

Noted thinker on the topic of culture change, Edgar Schein developed a simple formula for organizational change.  Shine believed that change could only come when:

D + V + N > R

In this model D = Dissatisfaction, V = Vision, N = Next Steps, and R = Resistance.  In real terms, Shine’s model suggests that we can only exact real, lasting change by increasing dissatisfaction; creating a compelling vision of the ideal state; creating practical and easy next steps, and/or reducing resistance.

So throughout this discussion we will explore how my previous presentation matched up with this model, I suspect it will do so poorly. Before we move into the values, I should note, without realizing it, my efforts were aimed at vision-setting and viable next steps.  And I’ve never failed to change a culture, in fact, I was so wildly successful that many of my customers mistrusted the numbers, even though they gave them to me.  Of course I cheated.   I wouldn’t take on clients who weren’t already deeply dissatisfied with the performance of their safety efforts, so I didn’t really have to do too much to increase dissatisfaction, but if you are going to change your culture you likely will have to create some serious dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Value One: All Injuries Are Preventable

I’ve written several times on the hypocrisy and condescension of slogans like “Safety Is Our Number One Priority” and “Safety First”.  Such platitudes are disingenuous and the people who perpetuate them are either liars or fools or both. For some reading this, this is fairly obvious, while others will furrow their sub-simian brows and hammer out an angry email filled with mouth-breathing outrage.  So why revisit it? I am continually surprised at the shear volume of safety professionals who continue to self-righteously lie about this to his or her constituency.

This particular value conceals a prevalent belief that “that’s nice to say, but that’s not how it works out here in the world”.  I have since come to believe that this value should really read: “Accidents are inevitable, but injuries are not”. Things go wrong all the time, but with enough information about how workers are hurt, we can prevent injuries.  This seems tough, and mainly because most safety professionals work on the probability side of things instead of the severity.  Organizations often overlook the very real human drive toward expediency, and as a result they are surprised when people remove guards, take dangerous short cuts, and in general recklessly put themselves in harm’s way.  If organizations channeled that energy into reducing the severity of contact with a hazard, far more injuries would be prevented.  And while we’re on the subject, let’s not forget that safety is merely a relative expression of probability.  When we say something is unsafe we are describing something that has a high probability of in jurying someone.  There is no such thing as absolute safety, because for that to exist the probability of injury must be zero, and that is never the case.

Value 2: Compliance is Not Enough

Compliance is a poor measure of workplace safety.  Nobody was ever saved by compliance, but a company that doesn’t value compliance as part of an overall safety strategy is unlikely to be successful.  The idea that “okay is good enough” or that the bare minimum as defined by a third party that doesn’t understand fact one about your business, your operating climate, and your work constraints is a pretty good indicator that your organization’s leadership has its head stuffed in an orifice that would make a master yogi green with envy.  Companies need to build a foundation of compliance.  Compliance is a good place to start, and a useful argument to make for those reluctant to do the right thing as it pertains to safety, but making the argument that we have to do something because OSHA requires it is akin to having to convince someone not to torture and kill a child because its illegal.  No, we comply with the law because: a) we aren’t criminals, b) because following the spirit of the law is in the interest, not just of our workers, but our business overall; and c) because if we aren’t able to do the bare minimum how can we ever hope to do better? People who are satisfied with mere compliance have no business working anywhere; the aspire to mediocrity they are the static noise that interferes with the clear signals we try to send to the workers.

Value 3: Prevention is more effective than correction

This value is beginning to seem trite to me. If someone were to come up to me and say, “We’re world-class because we believe that prevention is more effective than correction” I might not laugh in his or her face, but I would almost certainly roll my eyes and make fun of them behind their backs.  I’m not disagreeing with the sentiment, but it seems so painfully obvious that it’s tough to take the speaker seriously.  When I hear some of the things that I’ve said about this in the past, I just want to say to myself, “no kidding? You just figuring that out now?”  The problem is that for this to be a value, instead of a tired platitude, this has to spur some operational behavior.  The response I would have for those (including myself) who spout this rhetoric, would be, “congratulations, now what are you doing about it?” Values have to be more than sentimental aspirations; they have to be the kind of non-negotiable absolute truths against which the quality of the leadership decisions is measured.  They have to be the acid test that tell us whether or not we are ethical or cowards.

Value 4: Safety is everybody’s job

The fact that I every preached this dribble is embarrassing beyond words, but I’ll go on for another couple of paragraphs anyway. Safety isn’t everyone’s job, well at least not the way that people think.  It’s nice to say while you polish the seats of cheaply made office chairs with your ass and think of what a swell job you would have if those idiots out in the field, or on the shop floor, or wherever their jobs take them would just step up to safety and stop hurting themselves.  Yes, I will acknowledge that we all have some responsibility for keeping ourselves safe, but the role the worker plays in keeping themselves safe is minuscule compared to the responsibility borne by the supervisors, engineers, and decision makers who blissfully think that the one thing that all injured workers have in common is that had ought be a damned-sight more careful.

I’ve written about how everyone plays a role in workplace safety, and certainly the worker has the responsibility for following safety rules and doing the job as specified, but many injuries are caused because the operation is working out of process.  I think that everyone has the right to expect that his or her employer has exercised reasonable judgment and taken appropriate measures to ensure that my job is not going to kill me.  A lot of people decry the rise in frivolous lawsuits, but they lose sight of the reason we have the right to bring action in civil court: it keeps people from killing people who have wronged them. Seems like a good system, but then I still pray, “if I should die before I wake…avenge me”; it doesn’t rhyme but then I’ve always been more interested in justice than in poetic meter.

Certainly this value applies to leaders who believe that they don’t have the time or inclination to protect workers from their own stupidity. Show me a safety system that promises to hold workers accountable for their own culpability in injuries and I will show you a system that sells, and a line of drooling consultants with the greedy pinched faces of ferrets and the amoral spiel they intuitively sense in lazy executives.

I think this value should be updated to: “Everyone plays a role in safety, and the organization takes pains ensure that everyone understands their roles and is accountable and engaged in fulfilling the role requirements.” It more wordy I grant you, but do you want it short or accurate?

Value 5: Safety is a strategic business element

I believe this value more now than I did when I first wrote it. People get to wound up in the emotional side of safety. Yes injuries are tragic, yes it leaves people horribly maimed and scarred and yes, it creates widows and orphans. Stating the obvious doesn’t really do anyone any good. And telling people “safety is the right thing to do” is condescending and insulting. In saying it we are implying that but for the intercession and wise advice we would turn the workplace into a site of such carnage that it would leave Pol Pot sleeping with the light on for the next decade.

Beyond the obvious moral and social benefits of safety, it is the smart business decision to make.  I speak to a lot of C+ executives (as in CEO, COO, CFO, somewhere along the line it became cute to call them “C+” executives…get it , they have a “C” + some other letters.  Clever.  I’ve found that in a fair amount of cases the C+ appellation is more appropriate in the grading system before grade inflation meant students got 4.9 gpas (what does it say for the state of mathematics where a student can get a 4.9 on a 4-point scale?) for trying hard and sucking up.  No, I like to think that a lot of C+ executives are just that, slightly above average, but not willing to put in enough extra effort to move that grade up to a B –. I realize I’ve wandered off track a bit. But even a C– executive can understand that hurting workers costs money, a lot of money.  In fact, I’ve never met an executive who said, “I’d love to hurt more workers, (especially that sonofa so-and-so Cranston he’s just begging for it) but I just can’t afford it.

When we are able to quantify in real, honest terms exactly how much it costs to hurt workers we are talking serious money, and that wasted purchase of human suffering gets even the thickest executive’s attention (well, not the thickest, I once met with a healthcare Human Resources Vice President who said that it didn’t cost them anything to hurt workers because they treated them on site.)

Value 6: Safety is owned by operations

It’s heartening to know that I wasn’t completely wrong about everything.  Safety absolutely has to be owned by those with the greatest control and clout in an organization and that is Operations.  Operations, for lack of a better definition, is how the organization makes its money. When Operations leadership say job, typically the rest of the organization says how high on the way down. Only Operations can create the sense of urgency needed to effect real, sustainable change.

So there is the value setting portion of the equation. As for the next steps, well I think you have to figure that out for yourselves, or better yet, hire me to help you find it, but anyone who promises you a universal solution without even asking question one about your organization is either a fool, a liar, a thief or that all too common combination of the three.

Hardwiring safety into all activities cannot be achieved through sermons and scoldings. Hardwiring safety requires a reimagining of the nature of safety itself.

For some safety professionals, the role of the safety professional is cheerleader;  a perpetually perky advocate of all things safe.  Unfortunately, this kind of safety professional typically has only the most superficial understanding of what it takes to make a workplace safer.

Other safety professionals see their roles as parental, eternally haranguing a petulant workforce into straightening up and flying right.  Command and control approaches to safety don’t require much more awareness of the nature of safety than that required of the cheerleaders.

Some safety professionals are witnesses to business.  They walk around the workplace worrying over charts and counting boo-boos.  These safety professionals are too busy looking at what happened that they can’t ever internalize the true nature of safety. In most cases they don’t really care about the nature of safety. They content themselves with passing charts to Operations.

Until safety professionals can see safety as an expression of risk and can advocate for risk reduction through coaching Operations can safety become imbedded into all our activities. Safety has to be more about removing variation from our processes and protecting people from injury when things go wrong and our processes fail.

Filed under: Phil La Duke, Safety Culture, , , , , ,



Guest blogs

La Duke in the News


Press Release

Professional Organizations


Safety Professional's Resource Room

Social Networking


Web Resource


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,098 other followers

%d bloggers like this: