This Is Not A Blog About Gun Violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Who Will We Kill Today?

The Tomb of the Unknown Worker

By Phil LaDuke

Somewhere in the world someone will die on the job today.  Maybe it will happen across the world from you and maybe it will happen next door to you, but they will die nonetheless.  Whoever it is who loses his or her life on the job, some things are likely to be true. The about to be recently deceased person is disproportionately likely to be poor, have less than average education, and or working in an unskilled position. There’s a good chance he or she will be young and in many cases he or she will be either a temporary worker (“temp”) or a contractor.

In the U.S. April 28th   is Worker Memorial Day; it’s a day not widely celebrated in the U.S. We love to remember our war dead and herald their sacrifice and we should. On Memorial Day, we remember our war dead because they laid down their lives for a greater ideal, whether we agree with the cause or reject it with all our being, whether we are hawks who are ready to go to war at the smallest provocation or doves who oppose war at every turn, we remember and honor those who answered the call. What then of those who died on the job, those young and old whose deaths served no noble purpose? What do we owe those slaughtered and maimed in our mills and mines, factories and warehouses? Unless these deaths spur us to action—meaningful, substantive changes in how we view the death of a worker (and what we do in response to these incidents) whether they be full or part-time, contractor or employee—we not only fail to honor their lives but we cheapen their horrible and untimely deaths.

I have heard one too many time the tale of a worker killed on the job. After the crocodile tears are shed and words like “senseless tragedy” and “completely preventable” roll off people’s lips in somber tones invariably someone makes will sigh and shrug in a what-can-you-do?” dismissal of the horror of dying while at work. And what’s worse is that in many of these cases, the safety professionals breathe just a little easier, when the worker is a contractor (at least it wasn’t one of ours).

While much fuss and fury are made about those who die at work, I haven’t really seen a lot of progress in reducing the risk of fatalities; it’s like Mark Twain’s famous quote about the weather “people are always talking about (it) but no one ever does anything about it”. To be sure things seem to be getting safer. Injuries are down. Well not all injuries—serious injuries and fatalities remain flat—but some injuries are down. Unless they’re not.

Let’s not deceive ourselves anymore. A good share of the reduction in injuries has nothing to do with less people getting hurt. There’s the issue of under-reporting (hell there has been a whole cottage industry within safety that either deliberately or inadvertently encourages workers to lie and say an injury was non-work-related or not.), but there is also the trend toward outsourcing the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs to contractors. I’ve written several pieces on the sickening trend toward pushing the most hazardous jobs onto small, mom-and-pop contractors.

The smaller the contractor the less likely that it will be subject to OSHA regulations, have properly trained employees, or even the right tools. Whenever I see a residential roofer working hauling roofing materials up and down an unsecured ladder, working with no fall protection, and generally doing things that would make a suicidal tightrope walker cringe I think about the tens of thousands of people who are working for small firms who have little to no regard for worker safety.

Small businesses have become iconic in the United States. Want to cut business taxes? You need simply reference struggles of the small business. Want to ease (or eliminate) safety regulations? Again all you need do is point at the poor suffering small business. Wanton disregard for a worker’s basic human right to live through the workday is being justified in the name of easing the burden of small businesses. Before anyone shakes their fist at the sky and decries me a Bolshevik, I have, throughout my career owned small businesses, and while I am at it, at 5’7” I am still a small businessman. I know the pressures of trying to make payroll and trying to manage cash flow. I am not indifferent to the very real challenges of running a small business, but my sympathy stops at killing my friends and family, at allowing my children or the children of others to die simply because the mom-and-pop shop can’t afford to protect them.

The blame doesn’t lie completely on the shoulders of the small business. Many and most big companies have transitioned from having large full-time workforces in favor of smaller core workforces augmented by contractors. In the1980’s in U.S. the move to sourcing work traditionally done by employees to “independent contractors” was fueled by an increasingly tighter global market coupled with the recession and greed. Fobbing work off on to contractors was smart business: you could pay the same wage (or less) without the burden rate (typically the worker’s wage, benefits, and sundry employment costs). What’s more you didn’t have to provide benefits, and a smaller workforce (that is, fewer fulltime employees) meant that in many cases your company would be were exempt from regulations they would have faced if they had more fulltime employees). Add to that the fact that independent contractors are far less likely to form unions, and that you don’t have the hassle of wrongful discharge lawsuits if you decided to throw away the contractor like a used Kleenex, and fewer full time workers meant lower payroll taxes and you have a real tempting alternative; so much so, it seemed stupid to have employees at all.  As time went on, companies saw an even bigger benefit: a company could outsource the most dangerous jobs and lower its Workers’ Compensation and or insurance costs. Hiring contractors to do the jobs that were most likely to get your people killed or seriously injured would get you off the hook if something went sideways. Of course, as many companies have since found, things don’t always work that way, legally speaking.

In the minds of too many corporate cultures the death of a contractor is someone else’s problem.  The loss of life is terrible, but there are many terrible things in life that we just can’t concern ourselves with, like world hunger or unrest in faraway places the death of other people’s employees is a shame, but it isn’t our problem.

Like Lambs to the Slaughter

Many of us view the issue of outsourcing our fatalities as one of those far away problems (I am willing to bet more people worry about contracting Ebola than they are about losing someone close to them in a workplace fatality) but in the U.S. we have a generation of new grads who cannot find jobs. Saddled with predatory student debt that can routinely rise above six figures, these recent grads are forced to work for temp companies just to subsist. My daughter has two degrees from Loyola (Journalism and English) and has an impressive résumé as an editor and writer (she would want me to emphasize that she does NOT edit my misspellings-and-grammar-abominations infested blog posts) and yet she works as a teachers’ assistant making a pittance above minimum wage. It’s people like her and her peers that are forced into “subemployment” and who we, as a society throw to the wolves of the contractors.

We love to get high and mighty in safety and talk about making safe choices and exercising stop work authority, telling our workers that no job is worth dying for, but what choice do twenty- something workers have when the decision before them is to risk their lives (and let’s face it, most probably be okay) or use stop work authority and lose their subsistence jobs that they struggled hard and long to get.

We may not have been able to save our war dead, but we can damned sure save the workers employed in these deathtraps. We can start by asking questions; what kind of safety records do the companies we employee personally (roofers, landscapers, etc.) have? What about the companies we do work with professionally? What about the companies in our stock and 401K portfolios? If we look the other way in the name of profit we are as guilty as the foreman who tells the temp to do something life threatening the first day on the job. Unless we do all this and more we are complicit in these deaths.

#5s, #accountability, #aerospace, #at-risk-behavior, #attitude, #attitudes-toward-safety, #awareness, #behavior, #behavior-based-safety, #behavior-observations, #behaviour-based-safety, #branding, #change, #combustible-dust-2, #construction-safety, #continuous-improvement, #contractor-safety, #core-skills-training, #criticisms-of-bbs, #culture-change, #deming, #workplace-fatalities

Your Only As Good—and Safe—As Your Process


by Phil La Duke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#5s, #accountability, #aerospace, #at-risk-behavior, #attitude, #attitudes-toward-safety, #awareness, #behavior, #behavior-based-safety, #behavior-observations, #behaviour-based-safety, #branding, #change, #combustible-dust-2, #construction-safety, #continuous-improvement, #contractor-safety, #core-skills-training, #criticisms-of-bbs, #culture-change, #deming, #distracted-driving, #driving-while-distracted, #empowerment, #enforcement, #engagement, #fabricating-metalworking, #fabricating-and-metalworking-magazine, #fleet-safety, #guiding-behaviors, #happiness, #hazard-management, #healthcare, #human-error, #incident-investigation, #increasing-efficiency, #individual-accountability-for-safety, #injury-reporting, #joy, #just-culture, #kan-ban-systems, #line-of-fire, #logistics, #loss-prevention, #manufacturing, #mining-safety, #mistake-proofing, #mistakes, #national-safety-council, #near-miss-reporting-2, #oil-and-gas, #operating-efficiency, #organizational-change-2, #organizational-development, #peace, #pedestrian-safety, #performance-improvement, #phil-la-duke, #phil-laduke, #philip-la-duke, #philip-laduke, #poke-yoke, #process-capability, #process-improvement, #process-safety, #regulations, #risk, #risk-management, #risk-taking, #root-cause-analysis, #rules, #safe-work-culture, #safety, #safety-branding, #safety-culture, #safety-culture-development, #safety-incentives, #safety-observations, #safety-slogans, #safety-tours, #safety-training, #selling-safety, #selling-safety-in-tough-times, #stop-trying-to-prevent-every-possible-accident, #systems-based-safety, #talent-management-2, #texting-while-driving, #the-enforceable-rule, #the-nature-of-mistakes, #traffic-fatalities, #traffic-safety, #training, #transformational-safety, #values, #variability-in-human-behavior, #why-we-violate-rules, #worker-safety, #worker-safety-net

Taking a New Look At Safety

fresh look

By Phil La Duke

 Let me begin by thanking all of you who voiced your support for me over the past week. As you may have surmised I get frustrated from time to time, mostly because so many safety practitioners still don’t get it—despite cognizant arguments (I’m not talking about what I have been saying, I’m arrogant but I’m not THAT arrogant) made by really smart people so many in the field of safety cling to shear stupidity. Arguing a point that should have been conceded long ago gets exhausting and it got to me. Add to that a moderate case of writer’s block and it’s been a rough couple of weeks.

But enough about that, some time ago I posted an article that postulated that safety in itself wasn’t something we should be managing, that safety is an outcome not a priority or a factor or…fill in the blank. Safety isn’t what happens to or doesn’t happen to workers it’s an indicator of business efficiency. We have to view safety in a radically different way and I realize going into this upset some of the delicate sensibilities of some in the safety community, but safety cannot be effective on a functional level, it needs to be managed by operations. Operations ownership of safety isn’t a new idea, and certainly not a radical change, but what I am suggesting is more than simply moving a corporate function out of administration or compliance to under Operations leadership. What I am suggesting is that Operations needs to view safety as an indicator of the health of the organization, as a criterion for judging the effectiveness of Operations management.

If safety is truly a value (and it really should be) than what is it that we are valuing? A lack of injuries? Can we really say that is a value? But let’s back up. “Value” is one of those words that simpletons bandy about without really having a clear understanding of the definition of the word. I realize that in the age of Wikipedia people feel that it is an inalienable right to assign whatever definition they want to a word; sorry imbeciles it doesn’t work that way. “Values” are your personal code of beliefs, and one of the elements of a culture is “shared values”, that is, the most deeply held belief set that guides our decisions. So if “safety” is a core value it should guide our decisions as we manage our operations in five[1] key areas: Competency, process capability, hazard management, accountability, and engagement. This week I would like to tackle competency.

I tend to boil this down to a single statement: “if people don’t have the skills to do their jobs they can’t do them safely.” I stand by this, and it makes for a great “elevator speech”[2] but there is so much more to this. Recruiters have to find the right people to do the job, people capable—physically, mentally, and emotionally—of doing the job as designed. There is a lot of cowardice in recruiting and many in Human Resources will hide behind antidiscrimination laws for not doing a thorough job of screening people for their ability of inability to do the job without hurting themselves or others. The difficulty in hiring the right people isn’t completely the fault of recruiters. In many organizations the jobs are so poorly defined that it is for all intents and purposes impossible to identify which skills and abilities are bona fide job requirements. Companies, often abetted by misguided hackneyed legal advice deliberately add competency-risk to their organization because they are afraid someone will use his or her job description as a shield. In a well-managed organization competencies are mapped so specifically that an intern can see the skills and experiences that he or she would need to master/acquire to become CEO. Before you scoff and pooh-pooh the idea as nonsense, I developed such a system for a large, tier-one Automotive supplier, not only did it help in succession planning, but it helped individuals to own their own careers, and yes, an output of a good competency management system is a safer operating environment. Competency cannot stop at the date of hire.

There is seldom, if ever, a perfect hire. Even in the best case there is at least some gap between a new-hire’s skill set and the requirements to expertly do the job. Unfortunately, in most companies the training department doesn’t do individual placement testing to ascertain a new-hire’s true competency level and tends to train to the lowest common denominator (which here again they really can’t know without testing) and over train, often with a schlocky eLearning module that is about much like actual skill building as I am like a flamenco dancer. So there is much work to be done to increase true competency in our hiring and training process.

And it doesn’t end there, once someone has been hired and appropriately trained, there is still a large degradation of skills and behavioral drift where people move away from the established process, so the organization has to have a strong performance evaluation process that focuses on performance improvement and not on pay increases or cover your assets thinking that pervades so many performance evaluation processes. At this point you’re probably seeing where there begins to be overlap between the five antecedent processes. You can probably also connect the dots between getting these basic management practices right. Not only will the organization see it’s safety increase, but in all the other business elements as well.


[1] I used to have seven, I have colleagues who have identified ten, others who have as many as 35, but I’ve found that much more than five of anything confounds the organization so I simplified mine to five

[2] If someone ever gave me a little speech about what they do while I was riding in an elevator I would be tempted to smack them, but I digress.

#5s, #accountability, #aerospace, #at-risk-behavior, #attitude, #attitudes-toward-safety, #awareness, #behavior, #behavior-based-safety, #behavior-observations, #behaviour-based-safety, #branding, #change, #combustible-dust-2, #construction-safety, #continuous-improvement, #contract-house-safety, #contractor-safety, #contractor-safety-training, #contractor-training, #core-skills-training, #criticisms-of-bbs, #culture-change, #deming, #distracted-driving, #driving-while-distracted, #empowerment, #enforcement, #engagement, #fabricating-metalworking, #fabricating-and-metalworking-magazine, #fleet-safety, #guiding-behaviors, #happiness, #hazard-management, #healthcare, #human-error, #incident-investigation, #increasing-efficiency, #individual-accountability-for-safety, #injury-reporting, #jim-raney, #joy, #just-culture, #kan-ban-systems, #line-of-fire, #logistics, #loss-prevention, #manufacturing, #mining-safety, #mistake-proofing, #mistakes, #national-safety-council, #near-miss-reporting-2, #oil-gas, #oil-and-gas, #operating-efficiency, #organizational-change-2, #organizational-development, #peace, #pedestrian-safety, #performance-improvement, #phil-la-duke, #poke-yoke, #process-capability, #process-improvement, #process-safety, #regulations, #risk, #risk-management, #risk-taking, #root-cause-analysis, #rules, #safe-work-culture, #safety, #safety-branding, #safety-culture, #safety-culture-development, #safety-incentives, #safety-observations, #safety-slogans, #safety-tours, #safety-training, #selling-safety, #selling-safety-in-tough-times, #situation-analysis, #situational-analysis, #stop-trying-to-prevent-every-possible-accident, #systems-based-safety, #talent-management-2, #temp-agencies, #temp-agency-safety, #temp-safety, #temporary-workers, #temps, #texting-while-driving, #the-enforceable-rule, #the-nature-of-mistakes, #traffic-fatalities, #traffic-safety, #training, #training-safety, #transformational-safety, #values, #variability-in-human-behavior, #why-we-violate-rules, #worker-safety, #worker-safety-net, #workplace-fatalities, #you-cant-fix-stupid

Baked: Dealing with the Growing Problem of Workplace Drug Use


By Phil LaDuke

Continuing my series of blog coverage of the EH&S Today’s Leadership Conference I wanted to point out another great session that I attended. In High Society: Substance Abuse Challenges in Today’s Workplace. This is a keen area of interest to me, since many of my clients are high-consequence industries, that is to say, one screw up and kill many.

Regular readers of this blog will recognize the importance I place on having clear-headed employees, particularly in the context of “performance inhibitors” (those things that increase a person’s tendency to commit errors, make poor choices, and engage in risky behavior). One would think that achieving a “drug-free” workplace would be far easier than achieving an-injury free workplace, but after attending this session I’m not so sure.

The session was a panel discussion with Fisher & Phillips LLC, partner Danielle Urban moderating. The panel initially was to be Doreen Shaw and Marilynn Zolanek both of the MYR Group Inc. and Shannon Dennis from Industrial Safety Solutions, Inc.

The session kicked off by asking what would seem to be a fairly obvious question, “Why should you care (about drug addled employees)” Ms. Urban dutifully read from a slide of fairly obvious answers, mostly the usual suspects and what you expect as responses that according to the National Institute on Drug Abuses “Employees who abuse drugs and/or alcohol are more likely to be:

  • Absent
  • Late to work
  • Unproductive at work
  • They also change jobs more frequently and file more workers’ compensation claims”

(Nice heads up findings there NIODA, seriously? Nothing on worker safety?)

Despite the obviousness of the slide, the accompanying commentary from the moderator and panelists was anything but obvious or trite. As the speakers pointed out, 23 states and Washington DC have legalized the medical use of marijuana and Colorado has legalized it outright. The use of marijuana has become so widespread that many companies have stopped drug-screening for fear that none of their employees would pass or that they would not be able to attract viable candidates were they to exclude pot heads.

It’s As Bad as It Seems

The speakers shared some pretty alarming statistics, particularly if you are purchasing goods or services from Cheech and Chong Construction or are walking in front of the Pineapple Express:

  • The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. estimates that prescription drug abuse costs employers $81 billion annually. (National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc.)
  • 70% of the estimated 14.8 million Americans who use illegal drugs are employed. (National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc.)
  • Marijuana is the third most popular recreational drug in the U.S. (presumably behind alcohol and nicotine[1] (NORML.Org.)
  • The nation’s fastest growing drug problem is the abuse of prescription drugs. (White House Office of National Drug Control Policy)

The abuse of illegal drugs in the workplace is fairly straightforward: most organizations have provisions in their codes of conduct that prohibit the use of illegal drugs while in the employ of the company whether or not the drug use takes place. Typically, such behavior results in the dismissal of the employee, but may also allow for therapeutic treatment for first offenders. Managing the abuse of legal drugs is somewhat dicier; approach the problem inappropriately and you may find yourself violating HIPPA or the American’s With Disabilities Act. In some states, (like Michigan and Arizona for example) employers are forbidden from disciplining employees for the use of prescription drugs under certain circumstances.

So what can employers do? Well for starters, I should point out that Marijuana is still illegal under U.S. Federal law so any claim a worker has for protection under state law probably won’t get very far. But the panelists did have some great suggestions for employers struggling with increasing drug use by their workers:

  • Try to Avoid Hiring Active Drug Users. While it is possible that people may develop a drug problem AFTER you have hired them, you stand a better chance of hiring someone who already has a drug problem (remember 70% of drug abusers are employed). Sure you can put applicants through a drug screen, but that won’t catch them all. Drug abusers may be easier to spot than you might believe, as the speaker’s pointed out, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, workers who report having three or more jobs in the prior five years are twice as likely to be users of illegal drugs (compared to workers with longer tenures.)
  • Revisit Your Drug Policy. The speakers had great information on how to craft a good drug policy. According to the panel a good drug policy should:
    • Clearly state the purpose of the policy. There is nothing wrong with spelling out the reasons why your organization has a policy against drug use, including the fact that impaired employees put the safety of others at risk.
    • Identify who is subject to policy provisions. The nature of some work may require a different standard of testing and screening. Make it clear who the policy covers and any exceptions that will be made to accommodate special circumstances.
    • State expectations and prohibitions. Specifically identify the types of substances that are prohibited. If your organization is going to prohibit the use of medical marijuana, for example, spell that out to workers; many may erroneously believe that a prescription entitles them to use a prohibited substance.
    • Explain how you will enforce the policy and the consequences for violations. Your disciplinary process must be clear and consistently applied to all employees. Explain your company’s disciplinary and Investigative processes.
    • Identify when and why testing will occur. Do yourself a favor and let your workers know when and why you will test them for drug use. If you are planning random, post incident, or reasonable suspicion testing workers should know this in advance to avoid any claim that they are being unfairly persecuted,
    • Testing procedures. Clearly detail how the drug tests will be conducted.
  • Focus On Fitness for Duty. Even states that prohibit employers from disciplining or discriminating against workers for using prescription drugs make exceptions for jobs or situations where the use of legal drugs would jeopardize workplace safety. The panel suggested that in some cases where a worker admitted using a prescription drug on the job it is wise to require the worker to get a letter from the physician that states that the doctor understands the job requirements and is confident that the worker can do the job while taking the medication. Ideally, this communication should identify any restrictions on the worker while under the influence of the drug.
  • Train Supervisors and Managers to Spot Drug Abuse. Nipping drug abuse in the bud is an important tactic in the battle against a drug-abusing workforce and to do this you should train your supervisors to spot drug abuse. Workers who abuse drugs may:
    • become more moody or have mood swings.
    • seem more tired, and have difficulty concentrating, or demonstrate uncharacteristic lapses in judgment.
    • neglect their usual responsibilities.
    • have an increase in performance or disciplinary issues
    • be more anxious or worried than normal.
    • unusual smelling clothes or body odor.
    • shaking, poor co-ordination.
    • exhibit changes in behavior and even engage in bizarre or violent behavior.
  • Implement Reasonable Suspicion Drug Testing. Having a clear definition of what constitutes “reasonable” suspicion is key to having a viable for-cause drug testing policy.

The message I took away from the session was that while drug use and abuse is increasing (particularly prescription drugs) companies still have many tools for combatting impaired workers jeopardizing safety. Perhaps the greatest tool is the same for drug abuse as it is for most policy infractions: focus on the behavior and be consistent in enforcement

[1] The drugs in order to popularity according to are 1) Cannabis 2) Heroin 3) Cocaine 4) Ecstasy 5) amphetamines 6) Barbiturates 7) LSD 8)Opium 9) psychedelic mushrooms 10) Solvents

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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.

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Has The Battle Against Distracted Driving Gone Too Far?


Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

By Phil La Duke

In the United States April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month so you can look forward to a barrage of earnest and well-intentioned campaigns to ensure that drivers are aware of the dangers of distracted driving.  Is distracted driving an issue? You bet.  The ubiquitous nature of cell phones[1] and smart devices—not to mention GPS systems, car radios, and myriad other sources of distraction—in use today makes the dangers of a traffic accident much greater than it has been in the past.  According to “An estimated 421,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver, this was a nine percent increase from the estimated 387,000 people injured in 2011.”  The problem is compounded by some of the other statistics from the website:

  • 10% of all drivers under the age of 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crash. This age group has the largest proportion of drivers who were distracted.
  • Drivers in their 20s make up 27 percent of the distracted drivers in fatal crashes. (NHTSA)
  • At any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving, a number that has held steady since 2010. (NOPUS)
  • Engaging in visual-manual subtasks (such as reaching for a phone, dialing and texting) associated with the use of hand-held phones and other portable devices increased the risk of getting into a crash by three times. (VTTI)
  • Five seconds is the average time your eyes are off the road while texting. When traveling at 55mph, that’s enough time to cover the length of a football field blindfolded. (2009, VTTI)
  • Headset cell phone use is not substantially safer than hand-held use. (VTTI)
  • A quarter of teens respond to a text message once or more every time they drive. 20 percent of teens and 10 percent of parents admit that they have extended, multi-message text conversations while driving. (UMTRI)

Clearly some of these statistics are misleading, especially the ones involving teens.  When we read that teens are involved in the most accidents while distracted it can lead us to believe that the problem is those damned irresponsible teenagers.  The fact is that texting is a new communication vehicle and is disproportionately used by young people.  As these people mature, they don’t necessarily abandon the practice, rather young people become a smaller percentage of those who use texting to communicate.  Also, while headset cellphone use is not substantially safer than a hand-held device, that is only true during the conversation itself and a hands-free device is significantly safer when placing or receiving a call.  But all of this aside, the response from safety pundits seems to be, don’t do anything in the car except drive (I’ve even seen an ominous statistic about the dangers of having a conversation with a passenger while driving).  This works on paper, oh hell who am I kidding, this is a stupid idea even on paper.  First of all, none of us are going to do this. Imagine the car ride where you ignore everything except the tasks required to drive.  You sit stone faced while you and your passengers keep a solemn silence and you do nothing but scan the road, check your mirrors, and keep your hands at the ten and two position.

Some Distraction is Actually Valuable

Way back in college, when I was studying adult education they taught us about how the mind works.  As you can imagine, classroom distraction can seriously disrupt the learning experience.  Now it’s been a long time since I was in college, but at the time experts calculated the attention span of the average American at something like two and a half minutes. [2]  The thinking is that our brains take in information for about two minutes and then spend about 30 seconds processing it.  At the end of a cycle we are most easily distracted because the brain is actively seeking out new information.  This cycle continues for about 10 minutes before—unless interrupted—the brain starts to fatigue. In other words, if we concentrate too intently for too long we start to stress ourselves.  Changing things every 10 minutes or so sort of resets our brain and refreshes us.  After about four hours, however, even a proverbial change of scenery is enough to keep us alert and we quickly see a diminishing return at about six hours we become fairly rubber-headed and incoherent.

I was thinking about this the other day as I was making a four-hour drive home from a client site.  My company has a strict “no cellphone use while driving” policy and as a partner and leader I feel that I have to have a “no exceptions” standard of compliance for myself; if I can’t exhibit these behaviors myself, how then can I in good conscious hold others to this standard?  So there I am barreling along with the cruise control set (to ensure that I didn’t inadvertently creep up above the speed limit) listening to my iPod on auto shuffle so I don’t have to find another radio station or fiddle with selecting a song (I set it up to shuffle before leaving so I literally don’t have to touch or look at the device while driving.

Now this particular drive involved me driving for all but the last 20 minutes on a single expressway so I didn’t need directions, or the use of a GPS, or even have to think about things like where my exit was or how far away I was from my next turn.  Ostensibly this should have been the very safest driving experience (for most of my trip I was the single car on the road).

The lack of distraction meant that I soon started to feel very fatigued, I felt the beginnings of what they used to call “white-line fever” where the hypnotic pattern of the dotted white lane markers made me feel drowsy and made it difficult to concentrate.  I was in a particularly desolate area where pulling over and resting for 15 minutes or so seemed not only stupid but potentially dangerous.  And even if it was the smart move, I wasn’t about to stop for fifteen minutes an hour and extend my already long car ride for an extra hour.  I did recognize the danger however and, drawing on my experience as a trainer, I minimized my risk by introducing…distractions.  First, I turned off the cruise control and began checking my speed periodically.  Next I began counting the number of deer I had seen on my  trip home (13, in case you secretly wanted to know) and finally I would look at the mile markers and mentally calculate how long, at my current rate of speed it would take me to get home. When I got to the next exit that had a gas station I got out and stretched my legs, filled up the tank (because gas was relatively cheap there) used the restroom and stocked up on water and some snacks.

The result was I was far less fatigued than I was prior to when I was driving in a distraction-free environment.  I was no longer on auto-pilot and I believe I was safer because of the mild distraction.

For safety pundits to advocate that people drive without any distraction is the same old time-tested imbecility with which most safety professionals attack an emerging threat, that is, prohibition.  Prohibition is a dangerous and stupid approach to distracted driving.  Instead of telling people not to be distracted (which is like telling people to be taller) we need to encourage people to manage distractions.  After all, the distraction in and of itself is not dangerous, rather prolonged distraction is the problem. In fact, when we examine the examples of so-called distractions we’re really not talking about distractions, rather, we are talking about changing the primary activity from driving to something else. offers these examples:

  • Texting
  • Using a cell phone or smartphone
  • Eating and drinking
  • Talking to passengers
  • Grooming
  • Reading, including maps
  • Using a navigation system
  • Watching a video
  • Adjusting a radio, CD player, or MP3 player

Clearly texting is dangerous because the average time it takes to text is 15 seconds and let’s face it, it is exceedingly rare that one sends or receives just one text so the time spent with one’s eyes not on the road is likely best measured in minutes not seconds.  But what about talking to passengers? This has been around since the invention of the automobile and until the distraction hysteria has never been taken seriously as a cause of a significant number of traffic accidents.  In fact, how many times have you had a passenger interrupt the conversation by alerting the driver of a hazard? Two pair of eyes on the road is safer than just one. Using a hands-free navigation system is clearly safer than reading a map or cutting across three lanes of traffic so that you don’t miss an exit or the not insignificant distraction of being lost and not knowing how to get back on track.

What’s the difference between prohibiting distraction and managing it? Scope.  Whenever any activity replaces driving (or working at heights, or operating machinery, or assembling a widget, or operating a crane) as the primary activity we endanger safety.  Simply telling people NOT to do anything else except…hasn’t worked since the dawn of time (it only drives the prohibited behavior underground and does nothing to protect people) so we need to help people learn to manage distraction instead.  Clearly some of these behaviors (texting, reading emails, answering emails, reading a book) are just plain reckless while others (having a conversation, eating, etc.) represent mild risks that if managed properly can actually reduce driver fatigue and make the roadways safer.

Beyond this, however, is an underlying cause: the privatization of driver’s education.  Drivers are far less prepared, in my opinion, to acquire good, safe driving habits and driving skills when they learn to drive from a place that I wouldn’t trust me to sell me a lawn mower rather than our public schools.  We need to invest in driver training and do a better job of enforcing the laws on the books and worry less about telling people not to drive while distracted; this is just another way of telling people to be more careful and it won’t do anything but make us feel like we are doing something when we are not.



[1] According to the Pew Center for research 91% of adults now own cellphones (I have to guess that this is in the United States since the research wasn’t clear, but I know some estimate that worldwide there are more cellphones/smart devices than people on the planet; a claim I find dubious, but the fact that credible people are making it speaks to my point none-the-less

[2] Surprisingly, this number wasn’t markedly lower than other parts of the world and it seems to be the way the human brain was designed; a physiological rather than cultural phenomena

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