Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

Danger: Professional Development Conferences May Be A Danger To Your Stupidity


by Phil La Duke

Safety is a thankless job; there’s no disputing it. But realistically if you do a job because you hope someone will thank you volunteer. You probably won’t get thanked for that either, but at least you will have some moral standing to piss and moan about it on Facebook. I generate (on average) 6,000 words in print a month for free. I don’t expect gratitude, hell I have long since stopped expecting civility, so what I was met with at this year’s National Safety Council’s Congress and Expo took me back. I made my first speech at the National Safety Council way back in 2007 and have made nine speeches in nine years (it should be ten, but owing to a decisive screwing by an employer I was forced to drop out just before speaking in 2010. (Special thanks to Hilda for not blackballing me). When I started the speakers were given a full conference admission, lunch each day, and a small gift. Now the speakers are given a conference admission minus lunch tickets and admission to contests that paid attendees are given. I’ve heard speaker’s grumble—with the exception of keynote speakers, speakers are expected to pay their own travel expenses, and there have been at least 3 years that I have gone out of pocket to appear—but not me. I happen to believe that professional conventions (really congress IS a better term) are an important, nay, essential part of the growth of our profession. I cannot trace one single business deal to an appearance I made at one of these conferences and being famous for safety (such as it is) is sort of sad; it’s like bragging about having a 84 level half-elf wizard at your regular Monday Night Dungeons & Dragons game—cool in the right crowd, but not exactly one of the five facts you give Alex Trebeck to ask you about if you are a contestant on Jeopardy! But as I said, this year I was taken aback. I spoke on the 3Cs of safety with Rockwell International’s Mark Eitzmann and both before and after the session I was approached by five or six individuals who just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for speaking. Thank you for having written them back when they sent me an email some years ago. Thank you for opening their eyes that they may have been approaching safety, and thank you for speaking.

I have to admit it was a bit humbling (don’t worry I am and will always be the smug, arrogant son of several bitches you’ve come to expect.) These people were there to tell me how I had touched their lives in some way and it meant a lot to me. One gentleman was quick to point out that he was NOT there to kick my ass, since, as he pointed out, I threw out the challenge to those of you who can muster up the energy to punch out hate email through bratwurst fingers about how you are going to kick my ass or kill me or whatever (seriously people grammar—and yes I recognize the irony of me giving a lecture on grammar—makes a difference). So where were you cowards anyway? You are so tough when you fire off a “I’m gonna kill you and eat your brain” missive but when it comes to prying your ample ass out of your recycled Barcalounger (come on, let’s call it what it is something you dug out of someone’s garbage and you continue to use because, as you tell your wife “ya get used to the smell of cat pee”) you come up short. And you wonder why you don’t scare me.

So before I launch into my rant, I just want to thank you all. Thank you for reading. Thank you for disagreeing. Thank you for asking for my advice. Thank you for paying me to come to your safety leadership meetings and speaking. Thank you for showing your appreciation, disgust, admiration, respect and contempt. I am currently at 89 published works with five more in the works at which point I intend to stop submitting works for publication. As it stands I have no plans for a book (I won’t self- publish and I am too lazy to pursue a deal with a publisher) and while I don’t have a specific expiration date for the blog I don’t plan on doing it much longer (perhaps 500 posts). In fact, I am planning on leaving the safety field altogether although I don’t know when or for what (maybe I will just organize underground death matches with the Deliverance cast off extras). Success in life is all about knowing when to get out, and when you find yourself in a situation where you are neither respected nor valued you had ought have enough sense to fold the hand. But mostly it comes down to this. This month the first The Safe Side The Safe Side in Fabricating and Metalworking Magazine since lasts February. The column stopped running regularly because the editor, Mike Riley, decided that I was repeating myself. Mike’s a straight shooter and nicer than most editors (probably too nice, at least he doesn’t deserve someone as difficult to edit as me). During that same time the publisher of one magazine for which I wrote a desiccated turd of a man decided that I couldn’t write for him as long as I wrote for a competing magazine run by a man who gave me my start as a safety writer, so I was forced to write for a magazine that had 5 times the circulation but worked for a publisher who hired and fired my daughter for no better reason than because he has puss and bile where most people have a heart or work for a magazine that increasingly cut my articles to make room for ads. I’ve switched to writing for “business” magazines but I will spare you the indignities foisted upon anyone choosing that particular road. But hell, at least I don’t make any money doing it; and that isn’t me whining. That is my choice. But at $100 a story it just doesn’t seem worth it. I could monetize the blog, which with the right moves could bring in $50K or more a year, but screw that. I get enough shit from readers without having to listen to advertisers bitch. So anyway, the doom’s day clock is counting down on the paste (not quite pearls) of wisdom that I ooze each week.

But then I digress. My intent was not to announce my impending resignation from public (and perhaps private life—anyone out there want to hire a washed up safety pundit? —I thought not). What I wanted to address is the lost opportunity so many of you face in failing to avail yourselves of attending one of the handful of professional conferences that are worth attending. If you rely on LinkedIn to keep abreast of the latest in thought leadership you will only learn how to be stupid. You really need to get out there and learn from other professionals. Get out there and meet people. Disagree. Share ideas, share a meal, share many beers, and innovate. It may be time for me to step down (I really hope to do one more National Safety Council speech before quitting—but Anaheim? Anaheim? You know what’s fun about Anaheim? Me neither, but such is life.

Of course all that glitters is not gold. If you go to ASSE you will have to suffer through the pretentious boobs who put the Ass in ASSE and if you go to the National Safety Council you will most certainly have the opportunity to endure a pointless keynote speech by Scott Gellar and Charlie Moorecraft (one of whom is a real sweetheart) on a topic that is less credible or relevant than an episode of Hee-Haw (Google it) but that’s not the point. You will meet people in the field who need you. You can be the counterpoint that decries the emperor naked. Our trade won’t get stronger or more effective in the LinkedIn threads, only dumber and more sanctimonious. We get stronger and better by getting together and discussing topics that matter. Not in the technical sessions or the key notes, but in the bars and vendor socials. Too many of us miss out on this great experience, and well if you want to hear me speak, the next National Safety Council may well be your last chance to do so.

In case I don’t get a chance to say it before I flush this whole thing, thanks for reading and thanks for commenting even you obnoxious blowfish who couldn’t kick your own ass with an axe.

Filed under: Safety

The Anatomy Of An Injury


By Phil La Duke

Let me kick off this week’s post by reminding you that I will be speaking at the National Safety Council with Mark Eitzman from Rockwell Automation in Atlanta on Wednesday, so those of you who are there and would like to say hi I would welcome that, and for all you who have threatened my the last couple of weeks bring it on, but expect now quarter to be asked or given.  That having been said, I wanted to explore the anatomy of an injury.  Reams of crap has been written about the causes and even environments that cause injuries and I’m not so sure that anyone has a complete picture of how hazards cause injuries.

I started this blog yesterday (Saturday) and well…life got in the way.  So I hastily scrawled some rough ideas down  and saved it as a draft so I could access without my home computer.  Then I jumped on a delayed flight, SERIOUSLY when did Delta completely give up on customer service?  They have an entire customer base that just shrugs at the myriad problems that Delta routinely expects people to tolerate.  I feel like an eight year old kid who took a ride with a skeazy pervert; you know as soon as the door closes that things aren’t going go well, but you’re trapped and you can’t get out and all you can do is pray that it won’t be as bad as it probably will be. It’s gotten so bad that complaining isn’t even worth it; the best I can hope for is that I will be discussing Delta in a psychiatrist’s office using dolls to recreate the experience.

But that’s not important right now.  While on the plane sitting waiting for everyone to get herded to their seats like the opening of a Khmer Rouge reeducation seminar I occupied my time reading Guns, Germs, and Steel a great book that explores the geographic and sociological factors that cause some civilizations to advance so much more rapidly than others. One paragraph struck me. When the author Jared Diamond explained the difference between “hard sciences” and “social sciences”  he pointed out that hard sciences (my term, not his)

“In chemistry and physics the acid test of on’e understanding of a system is whether or not  one can successfully predict its future behaviors.”

It occurs to me that we may have the whole argument over safety (process versus behavior, et el) all wrong.  Perhaps we are arguing our points to justify safety as a science.  We are horrible for conniving ways to prove that we are scientists.  We write paper and speciously researched paper and only publish studies that support our conclusions and quash any that challenge our world view.  So I say screw science.  We are all (at least most of us) capable of drawing from our insights and arguing the merits in a professional manner…Oh geez I can’t even write those words with a straight face.  I am with Diamond on this, and calling safety a science is like the ex-convict fry cook at Arby’s a chef.  Whatever helps you sleep Wikipidiots, whatever helps you sleep.

So any way, back to the subject at hand.  For years I have been teaching hazard recognition and breaking down the anatomy of an injury as:

Injury=Hazard+Interaction+Catalyst, and


It makes sense doesn’t it? Let’s take the case of injuries.

Hazards Are Benign

Hazards are everywhere and most aren’t doing anyone any sort of harm.  Lava spews from volcanoes, Great White Sharks stalk cold waters in search of prey, and none us are hurt by this.  We get all bug-eyed at the thought of an unguarded machine, or rusted out cat walks, and yet we are harmed by them.  In fact, hazards alone can’t harem us unless we interact with them.  As so we work tirelessly to find a way to make those interactions safer.  And people roll their eyes at us because they don’t see the hazard as any big deal.  After all, they do the job all the time and they don’t get hurt.  The same is true with the general population—they drive while boozed up, texting, and engaging in any number of other at risk behaviors that greatly increase the probability of an injury.  And yet they survive.  In fact, far more people escape injury in these cases than those who are injured or cause injury to another. And that’s because of catalysts.  For an injury to happen there has to be more than just a hazard and an interaction, there must also be something (or things) that set the event in motion. 

I was very happy with my anatomy of injuries until I realized that I had missed an element not only of the anatomy of injuries but of risk as well: Time To Decide.  I should probably talk about this as reaction time but I know how you all HATE reaction versus proactivity. With both risk and injury prevention we need to consider how much time does the person interacting with a hazard have to protect him/herself when suddenly face-to-face with an unexpected hazard.

We teach this in driver’s education—always allow sufficient stopping time so is it really all that odd to suggest that risk assessments and job design consider the time in which a worker has to make a life or death decision?  We can teach all the decision making skills and tools we want, but if we only have a microsecond to react there is not much value in it.

I hope to see you at the National Safety Conference.

Filed under: Safety

Safety Sergeants and Invisible Risks


By Phil La Duke

In some respects the safety practitioner is like an army drill sergeant.  At first that seem like an odd coupling, but the drill sergeant has to train people to act in a way that is clearly not in their best interests and in fact, carry the risk of getting them killed to serve a greater good.  Safety practitioners, conversely, are often charged with persuading workers not to take risks that people don’t see as all that dangerous. So while the goals of the drill sergeant and the safety practitioner are at cross purposes achieving those goals both rely to varying extents on one’s ability to persuade another.

In too many cases, the safety professional misses the difference between the role of the drill sergeant and that of the safety practitioner. These safety sergeants believe that their role is to berate and bully people into following the safety rules and thereby achieving the state of safety.  Of course, lacking any context for the rule, workers tend to ignore the rule when safety sarge is out of sight.  What’s worse, is the that workers’ real bosses often encourage the workers to work unsafely as long as Sergeant Safety isn’t around.  These safety sergeants are generally seen for what they are: soft headed buffoons with little man syndrome.  This isn’t a knock on those of us who are vertically challenged some people are little on the inside, or are so eaten up with insecurity that they could be 7’ tall and still have little man syndrome.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense for people to place themselves in harm’s way, after all, our central nervous system is designed to keep us alive, and when we put ourselves in harm’s way for any length of time we get stressed out.  To be sure there is a lot to be said for our love affair with risk taking, but I’ve already written a considerable amount on the subject and I don’t feel like rehashing it here.  It is fascinating how people are simultaneously driven from and drawn to risk but not fascinating enough for me to explore, at least not right now.

Make Risk Visible

I’ve found the key to persuading people to invest in safety (whether that be a financial investment or a personal investment in making better choices) i to make the invisible risks visible.  This is more tricky than one might suppose.  We are surrounded by hazards and most of the hazards alone pose little risk of harming us. In my experience, which for the record I make no claim to its universality (I just love when some mouth breather reading this tries to argue matters of my experience as if some yahoo that I’ve never met is going to convince me that I didn’t experience something or that my perception is completely flawed because it doesn’t support their meth-head view of the world) injuries don’t result from a singular cause, rather they come from interrelated causes and effects working in concert.  So we find ourselves in a complex network of hazards, interactions, and potential catalysts and every time we emerge unscathed we convince ourselves that we were never at risk. It’s not unlike the dumb-asses who, when faced with mounting gambling debts make bigger and bigger bets in a pathetic attempt to get even (and then when they DO win it back they decide not to leave the table because they are on a roll.

Probability Isn’t Intuitive

The problem with risk of injuries is that it’s all probability.  In fact, safety can (and should) be defined as the probability that one will interact with a hazard and emerge unharmed.  The greater the probability of harm the less safe the interaction.  Unfortunately most people don’t get probability.  If you toss a coin the odds of it coming up heads is 50:50, but if you have tossed the coin nine times and it comes up heads all nine times, what are the odds of it coming up heads on the tenth toss? It’s still 50:50 but it can be tough to convince someone who doesn’t understand probability, and if you think that there aren’t many of those people you haven’t spent enough time at a Vegas craps table watching people bet Aces.  Of course the odds of injury aren’t as clean as the odds of dice rolls or against flopping a nut flush; calculating the odds of remaining unhurt depends on knowing all the variables and this is seldom the case.

Doing Our Best

Forgetting the schizophrenic crap storm that will likely follow me saying so, in all practicality we won’t eliminate all injuries.  At this point about a third of you stopped reading and are rounding up pitchforks and lighting torches to drive me from the safety village.  To those of you who remain I say this, acknowledging that zero injuries isn’t possible from a practical standpoint doesn’t obviate the philosophical position that zero injuries is the only acceptable goal.  It’s a dumb argument made by dull people with too much time on their hands. What I think we can all agree on is that while some companies may have achieved zero injuries this accomplishment, while laudable, is a poor predictor of future performance.  We still have to do our best to get as close to zero harm as possible and that is only possible through the relentless search for hazards.  The most successful approaches to safety are those that focus on reducing risk by identifying hazards and containing and correcting those risks to ensure people are subjected to minimal risk of injuries.

If you are still focusing on injuries you are really fooling yourself.  Trying to make the workplace safe by focusing on injuries is like trying to cure cancer by shaking a gourd over your leg; it might work, but if it does it’s pure luck and coincidance.

Filed under: Safety,

The Myth of the Perfect Process


by Phil La Duke

Ever since Statistical Process Control (SPC) was conceived at  Bell Laboratories by Walter A. Shewhart sometime in the early 1920s manufacturers have pursued the great white whale that is the perfect process. Anyone who has tried to implement a system of SPC (and then Six Sigma) knows that—like so many things in safety—it is theoretically possible but practically impossible. Statistical Process Control is challenging because it relies a process that is “in control” which means that it effectively returns a predictable result within upper and lower control limits.  The process must be a normal distribution (the mean, mode, and median of the data must all be equal) and there must be a virtual absence of “special cause variation”, in other words the process must be well defined, tightly controlled, and have most things going according to plan.  SPC works well when those conditions are met, but most companies struggle with getting their processes sufficiently tight.

Obviously, (or perhaps not given some of the guff I am given by people selling pixie dust that magically transform human variability into robot-like precision) the more manual the operation the more natural variation in the process because people tend to vary greatly in size, shape, aptitude, skills, and attitude, but even robots make mistake. 

There Are Limits And Then There Are Limits

I have written about Geometric Dimensioning and Tolerancing, tolerance stacking, and how variance plays into safety before, but I find that few safety professionals understand GD&T and fewer still care.  That’s unfortunate because it’s fascinating, and something that safety professionals really need to understand.  Every process has tolerances that it must make to be acceptable.  Think of a bottle of water.  The bottle and the bottle cap are manufactured separately and later joined in the bottling process.  The outer rim of the mouth of the bottle must be a very specific size, as must the inner rim, as must the inner rim of the bottle cap, etc.  Tolerance is typically expressed as x + or – y. If the bottle cap is too small or too large (i.e. outside the upper or lower limits) it won’t fit on the bottle.  Similarly if the bottle itself is too large or too small it will likewise useless.  But what if the bottle cap is just a tiny bit big and the bottle is just a tiny bit small?  In this case the tolerances have stacked (more and more variability have caused a problem because while the original specification identified how big or little a cap could be it failed to consider what would happen if BOTH the bottle and cap were out of specification. Now think about something far more complex than a bottle, say an automobile, where there are thousands of critical tolerances that must be considered.

What’s Any Of This Have To Do With Safety?

I understand that most of you don’t come to this blog looking for information on GD&T, or Tolerance Stack, or any of this other engineering crap, so why am I talking about it? Well consider a process at your site or within your company.  Assuming you have the best engineering department available you would likely have standard operating procedures, but have you asked yourself who exactly the process had in mind? How much force is acting on the body when a person does the job? How much of this force can an average person withstand before his or her knees, back, elbows, or other body parts give out? In other words what forces act on the body and what are the tolerances of both the body and the process.  There are some great companies out there that do ergonomic evaluations and that can calculate these figures for you, and there are some human factors evaluations that can test individual’s abilities to perform at a given specifications.  Both of these services, used together can give you the bottle and bottle cap numbers, figuratively speaking.  But is that enough?  While it makes sense that doing this kind of analysis would return a safer workplace, remember this only is dealing with a process that is under control and people that are operating within a normal bell-shaped curve.

Triggers and Trigger Finger

I am a strong proponent of both Ergonomics and Human Factors Engineering, but let’s not all run off half-cocked. Continuing our bottle and bottle cap analogy, would we be successful by establishing a process and expecting the equipment that makes the bottles and caps to follow it? Of course not, and yet in too many cases ergonomic studies are only ordered for processes that have already hurt someone and even the most sophisticated Human Factors programs tend to measure people’s ability to do a job before they are hired (or more likely as part of a post offer qualification) so processes that are most likely to hurt people tend to only be addressed once someone has been harmed, and people’s on-going ability to do a job are seldom evaluated. In effect, even in the best circumstances we only have a single snap shot of risk.

It’s A Start

I’m not knocking companies whose safety management system has reached this height, it’s an important accomplishment but it really doesn’t provide us with as much protection as you might think, and let’s face it most of us haven’t come anywhere close to this level of sophistication.  But even on a smaller scale many of us don’t recognize that we can have all the protection in the world but if our process is filled with variation the risk of injuries can still remain great.

Filed under: Safety

Seriously who cares?

i’m done

Filed under: Safety

The Wrong Place At The Right Place: A Study In Variability


by Phil La Duke

Recently I was talking to a friend who had been injured on the job, not seriously thank God, but enough for it to be a recordable.  I asked her how it happened, fully expecting her to give me the same old “I was stupid, I …” excuse that we tend to get when people feel that whatever they were doing right before the accident was ultimately the result of their own stupidity, carelessness, or mistakes.  Her answer surprised me—although it shouldn’t have. She said, “I honestly don’t know…I mean I did the same thing I always do, only this time I got hurt.” I questioned her further, reasoning that (as I always argue) if one does the same thing every time one will either never get hurt or always get hurt, that’s  the only two outcomes. While this makes for good hazard recognition training (it refutes the whole “I didn’t do anything wrong I swear” argument) it is yet another instance where I am chiefly full of crap.

I don’t expect many of you to argue (I get virtual reams of eHatemail telling me such) and I am neither fishing for compliments nor feeling sorry for myself.  The simple fact is that my friend could be absolutely correct: she may have done things exactly the same and still got hurt.

It’s worth saying that she probably wasn’t doing things exactly as she “always does”.  This doesn’t make her a liar, but it does demonstrate the mistaken believe under which most of us labor, that is, that we do things the same way every time.

Let me illustrate, I walk my two rowdy black labrador mixes 2 miles every morning; I do the exact same thing—we walk the same route, stop at our neighborhood party store where I buy 4 Diet Dr Peppers and head home.  We do the same thing every day…except when we don’t.  You see, while it’s easy for me to SAY (and believe) that I do the same thing every day I really don’t and here’s where it get’s messy. First we have to define “the same”. To be sure I have a process, I get up, put the harnesses on the hound, grab a couple of plastic bags or disposing of waste and we head out westbound on our route.  But how much is this really the same from day to day? My alarm goes off at 6:52 every morning, of course there is variability in the cheap alarm clock that I use but so little that it’s not worth mentioning, but it still is VARIABLE.  Sometimes I get up full of energy and am ready to go, other times I may hit the snooze and get up 10-20 minutes later. I get dressed, use the bathroom, and head down stairs. About half the time I forget my phone on the charger in my room and head back to retrieve it Sometimes the younger of the two dogs decides to wriggle and growl and squirm which she thinks is great fun. Sometimes the older of the two balks at the sit command usually we take our respective pills before we walk but sometimes I forget and we take them when I get home. These variables (and many more) effect exactly what time I leave the house, and each one of these variables exist in a universe filled (with what are, for all intents and purposes) are infinite variables. (I know that there are theoretical limits, but for practicality’s sake there isn’t much difference between the infinite and the finite in this case.) I have been doing this routine most every day for the last 13 years and I am essentially doing the same thing every day.  If my assertion that “if you do everything the same way you either always get hurt or you will never get hurt” is correct than I should never be injured on my dog walk.

Mostly the Same Isn’t Exactly the Same

I have been injured three times on my dog walk, fortunately never seriously, but I have seen my fair share of near misses.  There are several areas of my walk where there are uneven rises in the concrete sidewalks, on at least four occasions I nearly tripped on these hazards. Given that I have interacted with these hazards approximately 28,840 times (approximately 700 walks a year (two a day less a conservative estimate of how many I may have missed because I was traveling, sick, or unmotivated) times 13 times the number of hazards) the fact that I have only had four near misses is remarkable. So, since we’ve established that I do things “mostly the same” and not “exactly the same” we can readily explain why, despite so much interaction, there have been so few incidents, because the many factors that must be present for me to stumble, fall, and injure myself .  In fact, the near misses have been so far apart that  I am surprised each time I stumble.  If this were a workplace incident what would be Safety’s response?  We may well cordoned off the area until maintenance can correct the hazard. Keep in mind, I am not the only pedestrian who walks this portion of the route so while my experience is real and valid it is only one data point and we can not assume that my experience is universal. Additionally, while my risk is seemingly low, what about children who bicycle on the sidewalk? (in my municipality, it is illegal for people over the age of 13 to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk, a law that is almost universally ignored) or people who run on the sidewalk? The risk differs in each case because of the variability in our behavior and interaction.

Are We Miscalculating Risk?

The risk of me falling on these hazards are presumably pretty high, but they aren’t really.  We tend to calculate risk as Duration x Probability x Severity and when we do so we tend to treat all three of these factors as carrying equal importance.  Anyone who has risked being injured because he or she was only going to be interacting with a hazard “for just a minute” can tell you that the duration of exposure is not necessarily equal to the severity of injury. We we in a laboratory we might be able to come up with reliable statistical models for the average duration, average probability (which is subdivided into probability of interaction and the probability that such interaction will result in an incident) and the most probable severity (almost any hazard has the theoretical possibility of causing a fatality, just as almost any hazard has the theoretical possibility that a person can interact with the hazard and escaped unharmed), but think of how “dumbed down” this risk truly is.  For it to be meaningful it needs to be a calculation not just of MY risk of injury but EVERYONE’s risk of injury, so we talk about averages: “what is the average duration of exposure?” “what’s the AVERAGE probability?” “What’s the most likely severity?” Can we ever get a statistically valid (assuming that we are dealing with a normal distribution) predictor of risk of injury, and what’s more, is it really that important that we do?

Balancing Risk

Risk is not constant, it’s contextual.  While we might talk about conditions as “safe” or “unsafe” we are really deluding ourselves.  There is no such thing as an absolutely, 100 percent “safe” condition because everything carries with it some risk and if there is a trillionth of a chance that something can harm you, well then there’s a chance that it can harm you and the best we can say is that something is “safe enough” or “safer” than an alternative. The minute we start preaching safety (and that ship sailed a LONG, LONG time ago) we start advocating for the impossible.  If we ask our people to make binary decisions—that is, a choice is either “safe” or “unsafe” we effectively force people to get comfortable making unsafe choices because, let’s face it, something done as frequently as driving is unsafe and, because there are no desirable alternatives we do it any way.  Is the workplace so different from our day-to-day lives?

Safer Choices Not Safe Choices

The key to a safer workplaces lies not in getting people to make safe choices (nothing would ever get done) rather in getting people to make safer choices. Instead of having people ask themselves if what they are going to do is safe, we should be encouraging people to ask themselves how they can make what they are going to do safer.  Through relentless pursuit, not of the safest POSSIBLE solution but, of a safer solution we stand the best chance of making advances in workplace safety.

Filed under: Safety, , , , ,

The Forework at Stirling Castle

Originally posted on Patrick Mackie:

Forework, Stirling Castle

View original

Filed under: Safety

Safe As We Want To Be


By Phil La Duke

Some weeks ago I was in Huntington Beach California, a four-hour plane ride from my home of Detroit.  I was in Los Angeles for business and took some time to relax.  Whenever I get the chance to do so, I surf.  I am, I admit, the world’s worst surfer but as it is an individual (as opposed to a team) endeavor I reason that my poor surfing skills are no one’s problem but my own. As it happened, the beach had been closed the previous weekend as a result of one surfer’s encounter with a particularly aggressive Great White shark.  The surfer wasn’t harmed (nor was the shark for that matter) but as a matter of precaution the beach was closed.

The days that I were there the beach was crowded, it being a hot and sunny day, but there were no surfers and scant few swimmers.  Those who did choose to go into the water chose to stay in water that was knee-deep at best.  I paddled out.

For some, surfing in shark-infested waters may seem foolhardy, even reckless.  But for me the fact that I so seldom get an opportunity to surf far out weighed the incredibly remote chance that I would encounter a shark let alone be attacked by one.

Was my behavior at risk? To be sure, it was.  But was it reckless? Or even unsafe? Well…I don’t believe so.  Recently I read a book about workplace safety.  Like most of the self-published dreck that is churned out in the name of safety it was obvious the author had never worked in an industrial setting.  The author (and I am deliberately withholding the title and author, not because I fear reprisals like lawsuits or customers deserting me, but because I honestly think much of the book is dangerously stupid advice that would do more harm than good and I don’t want to promote it) cites “thrill seeking” as a principle contributor to unsafe workplaces.  Of course the author has no research to back up his position and most of the book is seemingly based on one man’s opinion (and if that is what the author intended he should have written a serious of blog articles instead of a book, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Identifying thrill seeking as a causative factor in worker injuries is, in my opinion, simply another way of blaming the injured party for getting hurt.  As Dr. Robert Long says, “Risk makes sense” (numerous times in his book of the same name, which I do recommend, not because I agree with it (I do, but that is beside the point) but because it cites reams of research that supports his positions.)

While it makes a great story, surfing with the sharks, wasn’t thrill seeking.  If I believed that I was in serious jeopardy of a shark attack I wouldn’t have paddled out.  In fact, the local authorities publicly stated that they didn’t believe there was an elevated risk, but warned that surfers and swimmers should be more watchful for sharks and if one should make an appearance cut it a wide berth.  So I reasoned (correctly it would seem) that I was not in any more danger than I normally would be (primarily from sports injuries or drowning).  My behavior wasn’t “thrill seeking” in that I derived no extra adrenaline-induced pleasure from my surfing (in fact the waves were soft and crappy, but everything is better wetter as they say.

Are there crazed adrenaline junkies who are recklessly pursuing a rush by being reckless? Sure, but what percentage of your workforce is comprised of these people?

We as safety professionals have to stop treating 100% of the population like they are thrill seeking halfwits when less than 1% actually are.  We need to weed those people out of our workplaces (I honestly don’t believe you can coach someone out of daredevil behavior) but we also have to recognize the limits of what we as safety professionals can safely require. Take Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for example.  I know of one safety professional who wanted to require electricians to wear head-to-toe fire resistant clothing while changing light bulbs!  Before you defend this requirement let’s think about this.  While it is certainly possible that one could be burned changing a light bulb, how likely is it that someone changing a light bulb is going to be burned by an arc flash? Given that in my 30+ years working in industrial settings I have never once heard of a case of this happening I am going to say the possibility, while real, is extremely remote.  Add to that the fact that the duration of exposure (how long is a maintenance worker exposed to the possibility of an arch flash from a light fixture (that is supposed to be powered off during the changing)? Some would argue that the length of exposure is considerable, but I think these people are plain dead-ass wrong.  If we were to pie chart all of the activities spent by a maintenance worker the amount of time he or she spends changing light bulbs (in an industrial setting) would probably be so small that it would be unrecognizable on the chart.  Of course, in those cases where there IS an arc flash the severity can be cataclysmic, but there are better ways to mitigate those risks than to require full fire resistant clothing for all maintenance workers. Hell if it is THAT big an issue the organization could simply require it be worn when changing light bulbs.

Too often we exaggerate the risk of a hazard and categorize what is merely possible as probable because it is easier to enforce than if we make an honest assessment.  Some safety professionals, in the name of “zero-injuries” will heap regulation after regulation on a job until the organization rebels and simply refuses to comply.  When it comes to making the workplace safer, the more complex and/or burdensome the solution the far less likely the compliance.  We have to understand that there are limits to the amount of protection we can provide to people and if when exceed the perceived reasonable limits we not only fail to protect in that instance but we lose credibility and jeopardize compliance with safety protocols that are essential for basic safety.

When safety professionals’ risk tolerance is out of alignment with societal norms the safety professional is doomed to a life of frustration.

Filed under: business, Phil La Duke, Risk, Safety

Is Killing Kids Good For Small Business?


by Phil La Duke

When we hear about worker fatalities I imagine we picture a number of tragic but, let’s face it, predictable scenarios. Maybe someone took a short cut, maybe some won grew complacent, maybe…well we all have our presuppositions and our biases that help us to accept that while workplace deaths. Whatever preconceived notions about workplace fatalities that help us sleep better at night, and whatever it is that makes us believe that we and ours are better than that, immune to the carnage, protected because of who we are, nothing much prepares us for deaths like that of Martha Hochstetler. The 14 year-old girl died horribly after a portion of her clothing was caught in farm machinery while she was loading straw bales onto an elevator

I grew up on the ruins of a farm and can’t accurately tell you when I started working. My parents never paid me for the work (unless you count, food, shelter, medical treatment, cloths, dental care, and an education) but I did it all the same. Mostly I cared for chickens—cannibalistic brutes. You’ve heard of the pecking order? That’s based on chickens. If a chicken develops an open sore we’d have to put tar on it or the other chickens would slowly peck at it and eat it to death and then eat the dead body. I don’t even like the taste of chicken but I order it in restaurants just for the satisfaction of knowing that another one of those filthy little bastards is dead, but then I digress.

When I was about Martha’s age I took a job outside the home. The job violated damned near every child labor law on the books. I was a clean up boy for a nearby Dairy Queen. I know what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong; if you have a job with “boy” in the title it is NOT a power position. It doesn’t matter what adjective you put in front of “boy” it can never make the job seem important. I imagine that even “Super Boy” was a disappointment to his parents who had to think that if only the young Clark Kent had applied himself a little he could have scored a job as a dishwasher or a bus boy. I worked from March to October for three years, working from 11:00 p.m. until the work was done, typically around 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. It was a salaried position I made $35.00 a week, $28.28 after taxes. Even in the late 1970’s not much money. I worked completely unsupervised mopping floors, hauling boxes of stock in from the stock room, and running hot water and disinfectant through heavy machinery. Thinking back none of my duties were all that dangerous, at least nothing seemed so at the time. I got lucky; I never got hurt, but many of our other children aren’t so lucky.

My Godson worked for a fast food company where he was instructed by his late teenage manager to use hazardous chemicals in a confined space; he passed out and (I believe) struck his head. After being rushed to the hospital he was okay, but he was needlessly put in harm’s way.

I could go on and on, listing the litany of gore, the horrible ways my childhood friends and acquaintances died on the job before seeing their 20th birthdays, but after awhile it just seems pointlessly gratuitous, and seriously what’s the point. Barcardi killed a young man in the first hour, of the first day, of his first job and nobody cares. Before you puff up your chest in righteous indignation and say, “Well I care” I define caring as being motivated enough to DO something about it, and you won’t.

Our Children Are At Risk

Remember your first job? Remember how proud you felt when you got hired? Or if you’re a parent remember how proud you were when your child got his or her first job? Like me you probably never considered that there wasn’t even the most remote possibility that he or she would die there. That this thing of which you are so proud would lead to the greatest tragedy a parent can face. This is a serious problem. Politics have painted regulations on small businesses (that disproportionately hire children) as so onerous that the owner of a small business can’t be held to basic safety standards; it’s more important, apparently that small business stay afloat than it is for their teen employees to stay alive.

Jobs for Teenagers Are Important, But Are They Worth Dying For?

In a July 2014 article the Boston Globe reported that studies show that adults who worked as teenagers (about 30% of the current adult workforce in the U.S.) tend to have better careers and make more money than those who didn’t work. But what good does it do to have a job as teenager if you don’t live long enough to have a job as an adult?
Everyone seems to be talking about changing the safety culture of the organization but few seem interested in how these dysfunctional cultures developed. Teens learn to either respect safety or develop contempt for it from there first jobs, and if they work for mom and pop shops who flout safety regulations and treat employees like cheap and disposable chattel these teens will grow into young adults who think that safety is a big joke. We could safe a lot of time and money if we just put some attention into the safety of small companies. If we made the effort to drive safety to these companies—not by throwing them off the bid list if they have poor safety records, but by proactively interceding and teaching these small companies the value of safety.

So what can YOU do? Personally, I have provided safety consulting pro bono to several small businesses and I encourage you to do the same. Some will rebuff your offer but you have to keep trying. If you aren’t prepared to volunteer your services—and let this serve as a call to all you safety practitioners and organizations that are quick to tout your commitment to safety to put your money where your mouth is. If these companies and you as individuals can’t see it in there hearts to do this for these small companies, to invest in tomorrow’s workforce by teaching them sound safety values than they must forever relinquish the moral high ground forever and admit your culpability in the deaths of people like Martha

Filed under: Safety

Changing The Safety Culture: You Got To Want It

By Phil LaDuke


To some extent the world is driven by desire, and I have said (quoting a long-time friend) that you always have the time and money for what is truly important to you.  As I continue battling to sell safety systems to companies who truly do need to change their cultures I am continually beset by companies who are quick to say all the right things but when it comes to making a commitment they just plain lack the political will to get things done.

Of course no one will ever admit that they don’t want a safe workplace; to do so would brand them a villain worse than any war criminal.  So why is it so difficult to sell companies who employ large staffs dedicated to making the workplace safer? And why is it harder still to maintain the momentum it takes to drive lasting and sustainable change in an organization?  Will.  So many companies are so fixated on finding a magic bullet for safety that anything that is of any magnitude is quickly disregarded.  But it’s not really the difficulty in selling safety solutions that is troubling, rather, it’s the lack of commitment to sticking with change when things get tough, or scary, or chaotic.

In my many years as a corporate culture change agent I have found that the strongest driver of change is the desire for success—and that applies not just to safety, but success at everything.  I am reminded at the biblical story (and forgive me folks by I am by far no theologian or biblical scholar although I did get ordained on the internet but given that the entire ordination consisted of me filling out a form and having Reverend credentials emailed to me I don’t think it qualifies me as a religious scholar) where a man approached Jesus and asked him what he had to do to gain salvation.  Jesus told him that he must sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor and come follow him, AND THE MAN WENT AWAY SAD.  Wow.  And I thought I made poor life choices (and for the record I have) but what a whopper that guy made.  It doesn’t matter your religious persuasion (or lack thereof) what is important is that this guy believed that Jesus could deliver the goods and when he heard what it would take he decided that it was too high a price to pay for eternal life.  And he went away sad.  Was he disappointed that the solution was so life changing or was he expecting Jesus to say something like, “don’t sweat it, I can get you in, I know people.  When you get to the gates of heaven just tell them you’re with me”?

I think there are strong parallels between this biblical story and the state of safety.  People come to the providers of culture change solutions and expect the answer to “the key to culture change is taking this course, or having your employees read this book,” or “all you need to do is…”  I think when they realize that culture change is a laborious process that involves engaging outside experts and changing the way the organization operates and a foundational level they go away sad.  Or they buy snake oil and hope it will work.

Of course some try the longer term, more holistic approaches, and many of them are successful (I have a pretty good track record of helping companies be successful if I do say so myself) but so many others give up, and having given up refuse to be “fooled again”.  I am partnering with a company who is really excited about my approach to culture change, but there is one snag.  The one person within the company who has the most power and influences to get me in front of his customers doesn’t believe that sustainable culture change is possible.  I have provided him with case studies of customers I have successfully served 10 years ago who are still sustaining the gains that I helped them achieve.  I have provided references so that he could hear testimonials from the proverbial horse’s mouth all to no avail.  The lessons he learned from the snake oil salesmen will not be easily unlearned and in fairness to him, I would meet anything that promises safety salvation with a sharp dose of skepticism.

Why do so many change initiatives fail? Too often it’s because the organization wants to take components of the solution and expects that implementing a “lite” version of the solution.  In the 1980’s the Japanese Management was all the rage.  Many companies tried to emulate the results that the Japanese companies achieved, but when they looked at all the components that the Japanese style of management required they quickly started eliminating practices. The resulting watered-down solution was completely unrecognizable as an effective management system.  We see the same thing today as companies try to imitate Google or Yahoo, taking ingredients of the recipe only to be surprised that the effort completely fails.

But in the final analysis, it’s not a lack of time, money, resources, or solutions that get in the way of safety; it’s a lack of desire.  If leadership continues to value productivity over people, the bottom line over the front line worker, tactics over strategy, the immediate business needs over the long-term solid business decisions, all efforts to improve safety will be transitory at best.  You can’t change anything and expect it to remain the same.

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