Talking For the Sake of Making Noise

Safety talk

By Phil La Duke

Safety moments, Toolbox Talks, Safety Talks…whatever you call them they all amount to the same thing: discussions, often arbitrary, about safety. Conventional wisdom holds that raising awareness about safety concerns reduces the likelihood of worker injuries, but does it? And if awareness of safety concerns does indeed prevent injuries to what extent are safety talks effective in raising awareness.

Too often we in safety are Wikipidiots, we assert as fact that what is merely supposition. We accept more tripe as gospel than any other profession with the possible exception alchemists, astrologists, and professional psychics.

Is there anything wrong having a brief conversation about safety once a week? Yes and no. This is a bitter pill to swallow for some safety professionals who love to feel as though they are doing something even if that something is pointless. The major problems I have with safety talks or safety moments is that they are inconsistent, often irrelevant, frequently poorly delivered, lack context and in many cases poorly improvised.


Safety talks range from safety micro lessons to a poorly written haikus about safety that get passed around the group who then sign off on them. This inconsistency isn’t limited to industry to industry or from company to company, rather I have seen inconsistencies in safety messaging from shift to shift and from supervisor to supervisor. With this kind of inconsistent message about safety can we really expect a consistent response to safety? We bear no small amount of culpability for the lack of consistency, after all, what training have we given supervisors not only in the delivery of safety talks, but in the purpose of safety talks. We need safety talks to be micro lessons about a specific safety topic, not a perverse version of children’s story hour.


Relevancy of the safety talk might seem to contradict the need for consistency, but I really don’t think it is. If you are delivering a safety talk in the artic it’s probably appropriate to address the dangers of Polar Bear attacks but these dangers are less valuable in Equatorial Guinea. The topic is too specific and even though we want our messaging to be consistent, we never want to sacrifice relevance for consistency. Rather, we should strive for consistency in delivery while making it a point to ensure that the message is relevant to the population to whom we are talking.

Poor Delivery

The fact that many safety talks are poorly delivered is rarely disputed. Some of the best safety talks that I have seen were little more than a person reading from a sheet of paper and finishing with “any questions?”; either the message is important or it is not; if it is then we should do our utmost to deliver it seriously, deliberately, and articulately; and if it’s not important then don’t deliver it at all.

Lack of Context

Perhaps my biggest bone of contention is a lack of context. I have endured more safety talks on tick bites to last a lifetime. To be sure, tick bites represent a serious threat to many of my colleagues who routinely travel into tick-invested areas in the course of their jobs, but I don’t. Talks about ticks, while important to some, lack any context for me. Now I’m afraid to mow my lawn wearing anything less than a full Haz Mat suit. Does it hurt to warn me about ticks? Well yes and no. Yes, ticks are bad, they are blood-sucking parasites that carry Lyme’s disease, which is serious and hard to diagnose and requires lengthy treatment. (I’ve become something of both a tick expert and a tick neophyte—is there a word for knowing the all there is to know about a very vague topic?) Yet I had to do all my own safety research to work at the world’s largest abandoned factory. (Where I have been schilling safety for the last couple of months). Of course there is no value to have a safety talk to my colleagues (I work alone on this particular assignments) on asbestos, the dangers of packs of while dogs trained to fight to the death and gone feral, falling concrete, hidden tunnels that open up and swallow whole chunks of real estate, but THIS is what I needed. (For the record even ticks don’t live in this toxic wasteland, except for the feral dog and pheasants and garbage trees (poplars and cottonwoods) nothing seems capable of thriving here). So, because the context of my work differs so greatly from the context of my peers there is really no point in trying to find a common denominator between all of us. My experience is perhaps a bad example, since my colleagues and I have such diverse assignments, but what about a construction crew where the safety department compiles (and by “compiles” I mean slaps together from an online source) a serious of safety talks without considering context. Shouldn’t the circumstances of work dictate the content of the safety talk?

Poorly Improvised

Safety practitioners have to give their constituencies something to talk about otherwise production will improvise a safety talk. Meetings will begin with, “does anyone have a safety talk?” and after some awkward moments someone will sputter out something about school buses and the need to pay attention and be on the look out for school kids; not exactly what was intended when the idea of a safety talk was conceived.

I have mentioned in a couple of posts my tenure at a faith-based healthcare system and the values that were so overt that they shaped how everyone behaved, reacted, and to some degree thought. Every meeting was carefully planned and even the shortest meetings began with a reflection on one of the values, and for each meeting the organizer assigned someone to write and share the reflection. I think that companies should apply the same principles to safety. Instead of having a safety talk crammed down someone’s throat, or allow people to freewheel safety talks, why not implement the practice of safety reflections.

Safety Is No Accident


By Phil La Duke

Let me begin by saying that the title is trite, and sounds like a slogan, I have to say I thought of rephrasing it but ultimately decided that however much it made me seem like I was trying to be clever or cute that was not my intent. It pains me to know that it countless workplaces there are probably signs with this slogan.

I don’t mean it as a slogan, I mean it as a call to action. Too many of us think of safety as this passive event.  Nothing happened and therefore we’re safe.  We shift from behaviors to culture to risk to whatever cockamamie idea is slowly percolating in the mind of some PhD who has never done an honest day’s work in his life. I will confess that this post grew out, to some degree, of my post Zero Injuries Are Nothing to Celebrate, where my principle point was that, while it’s great that nobody died, what did you do to prevent it.  What one thing, or multiple things did you do that was the proximate cause that nobody died? Scarce few had answers so they instead focused on my heresy that a celebration of a perfect safety record was soft-headed.

So what can we do to act with purpose to make the workplace safer? I get criticized a lot for only pointing out what’s wrong without offering solutions; to that I say: a) I raise these points because they need to be raised, b) nobody else seems to be raising them, and c) I’m not your paid consultant so I am under no obligation to give you free advice, but that’s just me getting cranky.  The truth is, there isn’t one true path to safety.  Somehow (and I have my characteristically strong opinions as to exactly how, but that is for another article) “Safety” has become a quasi-religion with the cult of behavior, or the cult of Gellar, or the cult of…well you get my point.  I’m not going to get into a debate over whether or not there is one true religion, but I will say that, having worked across many industries that safety means very different things depending on your industry, your location, and your size.

If you work in a high-consequence industry like oil and gas—where a single slip up can have catastrophic results—you tend to have a very different view of what’s safe and therefore a much lower tolerance for risk than say a shoe retailer. So for me, or anyone else, to offer universally applicable suggestions is irresponsible to the extreme. But I will say this: we have to understand how what we do is affecting the risk of a person being hurt by hazards in our workplaces.

Take slips, trips, and falls for example. Not a big concern for a chemical company whose biggest threat to worker and public safety is lethal chemicals shooting a death cloud over the surrounding community, but a huge concern for people working at heights or around sharp materials or bio hazards.  So what YOU think might not be a big deal (and you are correct) could be a huge deal for someone else.

Safety as Superstitious Nonsense

We do so much in safety, from awareness campaigns to Job Safety Analysis (and every day some genius comes up with something else for us to do) that we lose sight of the key components of safety; we can’t separate the nice to haves from the absolute must haves. Let’s take an easy example: A worker ascends a step ladder 15 feet.  We have two probabilities to worry about 1) the probability that he will fall and 2) the probability that if he falls he will be killed (or seriously injured but for our example let’s just say killed) is 98% (I don’t believe in absolute certainties) so let’s now work through how we lower that risk from 98% to as close to 0% (again I don’t believe in absolutes) as is practicable (don’t mistake this for practical). Now bear with me here as I work the problem backwards.  If we have the worker tie off how much does that reduce the risk? To answer that we would have to know the failure rate of all the fall protection components, but for our purposes let’s say it cuts it down to 20% can we live with a 20% chance that the worker might bang his head, have a lanyard break, or have some other unforeseen hazard come into play? Probably not, so we add…a children’s poster contest to remind him not to die? A pizza party if he doesn’t fall?

No in our case we would probable decide that a ladder is the wrong tool for the job and use a man lift. Let’s say this reduces the chances of him falling to his death to 2%. Obviously all my percentages are WAY too high, but the point remains we need to know, at a minimum, if what we are doing is causing safety.

We have to stop concentrating on preventing injuries and focus on causing safety. Let us never forget that everything we do should have a direct consequence of causing safety. Sure awareness campaigns may have some effect on workplace safety, but is this really where you should be spending your time and money? In environments where you have high turnover of workers who tend to have a limited awareness of the dangers around them, then it may well be, but if you are in a factory where people do repetitive jobs that cause their minds to wander or where they are more likely to be injured by a fatigue-induced mistake it probably isn’t.

The most difficult job in safety is that there isn’t a magic formula for getting things right. We have to think.  We have to create solutions that work in OUR environments  and stop thinking that anyone out there has it all figured out and all we need do is to copy their solution and we will be alright.  This is what makes it so difficult for people to move from one industry to another.  What is important in mining may be insignificant in retail.  What’s worse is even within our own industry what works for our completion may not work for us at all.  It’s too bad really, because my experience as a person who helps companies build safety management systems and infrastructures I’ve seen some pretty cool things that are completely unworkable in other industries, geographic regions, or sites.

Unfortunately for most of us, we are barraged by people telling us the opposite; that they have figured out the magic bullet and for the right price they can sell us a solution that works for everyone like magic! I’ve reviled these people as unethical snake-oil salesmen and some of them are indeed thieves.  But more of them believe what they’re saying, which makes them more dangerous.   It’s tempting to buy in to a philosophy that just requires you to turn off your brain and drink the Kool-Aid, especially if our boss has a big vat of it on his or her desk.

It is incumbent on us to make every dollar spent on safety count and if we are spending our time and money foolishly we could get someone killed. So again, before you start a new initiative, or even continue the things you’re doing, ask yourself, “how does this cause safety?”

When the Bright Eyes of A Giant Grow Dim and Fade to Black

Grim reaper

By Phil La Duke

Just a quick postscript to this article: I’m indescribably disappointed with a) the stupidity in the threads of LinkedIn in response to last week’s post and b) the fact that nobody confronted the Crank Coxes who pounced on the post unwittingly proving my point.  Just when you give people credit for a modicum of intelligence you meet a handful that prove that LinkedIn is over crowded with mouth-breathing droolers with nothing to say but exercising there God-given right to scream it to the world.—Phil

Dedicated to Dave Collins for his years of service to the safety function.

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked… for an angry fix”

Recently the LinkedIn community lost yet another thought leader. After years of brilliant contributions to the many discussion threads of the groups to which he belonged one of the most important voices on LinkedIn was silenced. Dave Collins didn’t die, rather he was driven from LinkedIn by trolls who are, by an order of magnitude, his intellectual inferior. Dave, tired of being shouted down for having insightful views of safety and business, took his proverbial ball and went home.

Those of you who didn’t know Dave when he was a LinkedIn member really missed out. Dave is a true innovator who is not afraid to take on the most cherished sacred cows of safety. He does it with Aussie finesse to my crazed barbarian swinging a bag of broken glass but the trolls don’t understand civility. Barbarity is the only language they understand.

Dave is still maintaining his megablog, , which is the single most influential safety blog in the world. Sounds like someone we’d like to have in our community. Dave is a loss, but more importantly, Dave is emblematic of the downward spiral of LinkedIn. I have been a member for a decade or so and have seen both the structure of LinkedIn and the quality of the community.

In the words of Allen Ginsberg, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked… for an angry fix” but in my case I saw the best minds of my generation driven from the ideological threads of a once great social landscape. The golden age of LinkedIn wasn’t the wild west of America Online, or the banal photos of the “sick” brunch posted on Facebook; no, LinkedIn was a place where people could ask questions in good faith and get answers from legitimate experts. It was a place where one could talk shop with their peers, get advice and yes make friends. When I joined LinkedIn I did so I could stay in touch with colleagues with whom I had lost touch. I thought, “This is genius! Once I’m linked to my old friends and colleagues I won’t have all those dead emails.” Truth be told a friend and colleague called me at work one day and asked for me email. Exasperated, she asked me why I wasn’t on LinkedIn. “You’ll have 500 contacts by the end of the week.” She was wrong; it took two weeks. I joined groups and like many people stood on the sideline. I read the discussion threads and like most of us watched as two or more intellectual powerhouses slugged it out. I thought LinkedIn was incredible, it was one of the greatest things I had ever experienced—relative to what would later become called “social networks”.

When a troll would light me up for speaking my opinion or dare to question them, some wise LinkedIn veteran would come to my defense, point out the idiots and the crack pots (and yes even the mentally ill). There’s nothing wrong with silencing those who bully and attack, in fact, there maybe nothing more nobler.

Now all that is gone.

We all take some share of the blame from the bloated Crank Coxes  and Sparry Suckers that troll the discussion threads to all of us who say nothing as they destroy the community to those of us who whore our companies shamelessly to the water-headed imbeciles who post Facebook tripe to those who stand mute as it happens. In the words of Edmund Burke:

All it takes for Evil to prevail in this world is for enough good men to do nothing. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Dave Collins departure isn’t the death knell of LinkedIn; it’s its tombstone. Like all things once great that reach their nadir LinkedIn (recently purchased by the digital leprosy that is Microsoft) has been dead for a while but will continue for a decade as a place where the intellectually walking dead continue to feed on each other. And I will be there, not to bear witness to its painful demise, but because they are easy pickens.


Denial Isn’t Just A River In Egypt—You’re Employees are Probably Under-Reporting

bloody pizza

By Phil La Duke

Whenever I post a topic where I assert something to which some disagree invariably they attack me personally. Some mistakenly believe that I don’t work as a safety practitioner and will cease on the fact that I supposedly don’t work in the “real world”, as if writing a blog and published articles for free somehow pays the bills. Others will pay the card of self-righteous indignation, because I called someone a mouth-breather or described them as softheaded. Still others write me privately with threats of violence or even death (ironic, isn’t it? people who sanctimoniously praise themselves for saving lives and keeping people free from injury threatening me with violence.)  I might worry were it not for the fact that these water heads couldn’t kill a beer let alone me. Others fall into the calling me unprofessional for saying “shit, hell, or damn” or because I don’t worry too much about my punctuation or grammar. My point is, bring it on. If what you read here threatens you and you can’t construct a coherent counterpoint feel free to hone in on these things. Nothing amuses me more than a slack-jawed imbecile making a fool of themselves either here or in on-line threads.

Last week I committed hearsay, I said that zero injuries, without understanding WHY we had zero injuries—which is, let’s face it, zero reported injuries—was a pointless and simple-minded exercise. If that mad you angry, strap in, because this week I mean to take it even further.

I can only speak for myself; from my prospective. I started working when I was 13 as the clean up boy at the local Dairy Queen, violating damned (oooh he said a bad word) near every child-labor law. When I was 18 I was working three jobs simultaneously. I have worked as a day laborer, on the line at General Motors, a research interviewer, a reporter, a clown, an actor, a trainer, a copywriter, and a host of other jobs. I was injured on the job too many times to count and never once reported (until I became a safety professional) the injury. I am of the ardent belief that I am not alone in my situation. So here is why I said nothing:

  1. I didn’t know I was supposed to. This sounds like a cop out, especially to those who live in the insular offices and cubes where a lot of safety practitioner park their ample asses. In fairness to the average safety practitioner, he or she can’t be everywhere, and what’s more it’s not their job to sniff around like a Jack Russell on the trail of a rat soliciting injuries. My supervisor never told me that I needed to tell him or her that I needed to report injuries. I was oblivious to OSHA regs and what was a recordable and what wasn’t.
  2. If I reported an injury it pissed people off. I had seen what happened to my coworkers who reported injuries—they generally got the third degree about what they did that caused the injury and heaven help them if they had been doing something they shouldn’t have been. People got written up and even fired for getting hurt after doing exactly what their boss had told them to do.
  3. Reporting an injury was viewed as most likely a scam. As I said, I saw plenty of people who reported injuries and we would always roll our eyes—it was always the same people and they were so meticulous in documenting every detail that you just KNEW was going to come up in court (one woman in particular sued her own mother because she fell on her icy porch). Both management and hourly alike knew that if you reported an injury you were probably cheating the system in some way.
  4. I would just tough it out. The plant doctor was willing to take the enormous pay cut and work in a factory because (it was rumored, a rumor I believe) that medical malpractice suits made it too expensive for him to continue his practice—he once gave me a medication to which I was allergic to its main ingredient—and I just felt a lot more comfortable with my own doctor.
  5. Nobody cared. When, while working as a fry cook, I three fingers bad enough to require eight stitches I was allowed to leave work (after clocking out) and go to the clinic where I paid for my medical treatment myself. I could give 20 similar examples where I suffered recordable injuries that never saw an OSHA log.
  6. I didn’t think the injury was serious enough to worry about it. I worked sharp metal parts building 1600 seats a day. The company did not require safety shoes, eye protection, or Kevlar sleeves. Not a day went by where I didn’t have a cut, bruise, muscle strain, etc. You didn’t dare ask to go to medical because most of the time supervision couldn’t cover your job so you wouldn’t be relieved so you couldn’t go. The supervisor would never forbid you to go that would bring him or her real trouble, but the boss would always look at you with puppy dog eyes and ask if I could wait until break. In one case I was loaned out to the body shop, where veterans thought it was a real hoot to pull their welding guns (which were suspended on bungee cords) and let them go usually narrowly missing the new guy. I took a direct hit to the back of the head that not only knocked me out cold, but also forward into a three-foot pit. When I came too the foreman had lifted me up by putting his arms under my armpits and was putting the weld gun into my hands and kept saying “you’re okay, you’re okay”. I had a bump literally the size of a goose egg on the back of my head a deep scratch on my face and my arm was bleeding. I used an obscene simile in response to his contention that I was okay and told him I was going to medical. Medical gave me two aspirins and stitched my arm with butterfly bandages.
  7. Because it happened on a Friday afternoon. The plant I worked in had the old, oil-soaked wood-block floors and they were constantly coming loose, sticking up causing people to trip on them, or just plain missing creating a 5 x4 inch hole in the floor. Once on a Friday afternoon about 10 minutes from quitting time I stepped in one of these holes and wrenched my ankle pretty good. I could barely walk, but I managed to hobble to my car excruciating pain, but I wasn’t about to have our quake doctor spend an hour of my weekend trying to treat me in a way that would make sure it wasn’t a recordable.

I have more reasons for not reporting, but I’m already going longer than I like. But the point is when there is a campaign to stop me from doing something that, I can’t control— things that I either don’t want or intend to do; am unaware that I am doing it; taking what I think are harmless and innocent shortcuts; or from interacting with physical hazards that I don’t have the ability to fix on my own the campaign just further distances me from the people preaching it. Once the safety guy has shown me that he or she thinks that I am the problem (the one thing they can’t control) he or she become my enemy, and I lose all respect for the person, and all the pizza and candy bars in the world won’t change that. And if he or she is wrong about all these other things I become convinced that he or she is probably wrong about a lot more.

And yet every company I go into, every executive I ask, and every safety manager I seem to meet puffs up their chest at the merest suggestion that their might be under reporting until I do an analysis and find that 25–50% of the employees I talk to tell me they don’t report at least some of their injuries. In one case, an executive told me that not reporting an injury is considered an ethics violation and the person would be automatically fired. So maybe you have created a Utopian workplace where there are no under reporting of injuries, but isn’t it worth considering that you aren’t performing as well as you think you are?

“Zero Injuries” Is Nothing To Celebrate

blood candy

By Phil La Duke

I was checking out the discussion groups on LinkedIn this week when I happened across a very popular, and frankly very scary, thread. It involved a safety professional providing candy bars to the workers as a reward for a year with zero injuries.

I was alarmed at how many softheaded mouth-breathers chimed in about what a great idea it was, and what an accomplishment a whole year without zero injuries is. Before I continue this rant, I should be clear: I am not against safety incentives, but I AM against giving incentives because something didn’t happen. Rewarding your employees for zero injuries is like rewarding them when it doesn’t rain. Why not? The safety boobs ask, a day without rain is a GOOD thing, and if we want people to continue to do good things we need to reward them for it.

I think the rain analogy works pretty well—of course the workers don’t have any control over whether or not it rains, and they do have some limited—but certainly not absolute—control over whether or not injuries occur—because if we don’t understand exactly what conditions we created to achieve zero injuries it just leads to a blanket “well the recipe worked”; well maybe it did and maybe it didn’t.

The Dalmatian Effect

With all apologies to Dalmatian lovers out there, this particular breed is (at least according to my vet) notoriously difficult to train, tends toward violent outbursts, and can turn on the owner. This is not to say this is a condemnation of all Dalmatians, of course. In fact there is a darned good reason that Dalmatians have this reputation, you see, a disproportionate number of Dalmatians are deaf; it’s a congenital defect in the breed. People unfamiliar with Dalmatians get a cute little Dalmatian puppy and try to train it. They yell “no!” as it piddles on the carpet, they beat it with a rolled up magazine when it chews the credenza. The poor dog doesn’t have a clue why it’s being punished so it can’t be trained effectively. Likewise it doesn’t hear the “good dog” praising for getting things right so punishment and reward seem to be completely random and that makes the afflicted Dalmatians surly brutes waiting for some pay back. Not think about rewarding workers for zero injuries; is it so different from how we treat the deaf Dalmatian?

For many workers, rewards for zero injuries are considered patronizing and insulting. I once asked a tradesman if the company provided incentives for zero injuries and his answer was quite telling, “yeah these idiots buy us pizza at the end of the month if we don’t kill anybody as if we would deliberately get hurt if it wasn’t for their crappy pizza”. He went on to say that he and most (his words not mine) of his coworkers felt like management treated them like children and were insulted by it. “I work safely because it’s just the smart thing to do; they can shove their pizza.”

If You Reward Things You Don’t Understand You Can’t Reliably Repeat them

I used to teach problem solving techniques and one of the first steps in problem solving is to ascertain the structure of the problem: Broad, Specific, Start Up, or Positive. It was tough for people to understand the concept of a positive problem, so I would explain it this way: suppose you find an extra $50 on your next paycheck. Wouldn’t you want to know what caused you to have the additional money? (the answer was invariable a resounding yes!) So now you have a problem, right? You have a positive condition but you don’t know what caused it so you can’t replicate it.

So there you have it. Zero injuries is a positive problem that must be solved so that it can be replicated reliably and economically. Let’s face it everyone has zero injuries until someone gets hurt.

Simple (and Simple-Minded) Solutions To Complex Problems

Let’s say that instead giving adults candy bars for zero injuries we attempted to answer the question “why did we have zero injuries this year?” We might begin by brainstorming reasons that typically result in a reduction in reported injuries. Our list might look something like this:

  • Better housekeeping
  • Quicker response to physical hazards
  • Better training resulting in better decision making
  • Under reporting
  • Luck
  • Outsourcing the most dangerous work to suppliers
  • Better containment of physical hazards
  • Increased awareness of the risks associated with a given task
  • More skilled supervision (as measured by the completion rate of training
  • Higher quality training (as determined by sound course evaluation)
  • Improved case management
  • Increased scrutiny and data analysis of the risks associated with injuries
  • Reduced production
  • Higher machine reliability
  • A light winter that resulted in less slips and falls on wet or icy surfaces
  • Increased number of safety suggestions
  • Fraudulent record keeping
  • A climate of fear for reporting injuries
  • Disciplinary for being injured

These are just things off the top of my head that could cause a reduction in injuries and/or achievement of the goal of zero injuries. Which of these do you really want to reward? Aren’t there some of these that you DON’T want to reward? Aren’t some of these conditions unworthy of a candy bar? But when you give a blanket reward without understand what did and what did not contribute to an outcome you are endorsing every one of these things that are true.

Zeroes Aren’t Necessarily Heroes

What was most troubling wasn’t that a safety practitioner gave out an incentive for zero injuries, after all that IS what we want isn’t it? What was troubling was that the thread had several hundred comments praising the safety guy in question for giving out candy bars for zero injuries. I’ve asked the question before, but am compelled to ask it again, HOW STUPID ARE WE? One of my contacts challenged my assertion that maybe, just maybe, the zero injury accomplishment was because of under reporting by saying that he doubted that people would under report just for a candy bar. Okay maybe he’s right, but then rewarding them with a candy bar for zero injuries is even more pointless.

We have to stop acting like injuries are always a conscious choice to take an unnecessary risk and start acting more scientific. We have to understand the nature of the injuries that happen at OUR sites in OUR industries and stop listening to the snake oil salesmen. Only when we understand the things that people can actively DO to reduce the risk of injury can we responsibly reward them for doing so. But most of you reading this won’t do that. Why? Several reasons: 1) it’s hard 2) we like to give out trinkets and swag and 3) we don’t know how to establish and interpret good leading indicators. In the end we just take credit that is ours to take and ignore risks until someone dies.

Training Tips For the Cheap, Lazy, and Entitled



by Phil La Duke

I was torn as I sat down to write this week’s post between following up with last week’s condemnation of the abysmal state of safety training and a rant about the ingratitude of the bitch and whine safety generation. I have chosen to write a follow up to last week’s post, but before I do I want to take on some of the ass-hats who emailed me or posted negative comments because I just complained about the problem but offered no suggestions as to how to improve things.

For starters, I am under no obligation to provide free consulting to a bunch of mouth breathers who acknowledge that they don’t have the requisite skills, ambition, or opportunity to DO quality training yet they continue to do so. I thank all that is holy that these people aren’t heart surgeons. I hear daily about the millennial attitude of entitlement; how participation medals and praise for mediocrity has fostered a sense that the world owes them. Before anyone jumps on this particular band wagon let me point out that the barrage of criticism came not from millennials new to the trade, rather people who had been in the profession long enough to know better. Personally I see this not as the millennial effect but something older and more loathsome—the Napster Effect. The Napster Effect works like this: why buy something when you can steal it, and if someone gives you something for free you have a God given right to complain and criticize it; well you don’t. If you don’t find value in my blog don’t read it. You have no obligation to save people from my hearsay or to shout me down—not because you disagree or that what I am saying isn’t factually correct but because I haven’t given you enough free information.

I continue writing this for the handful of people who have written to me and have told me that they found something I wrote meaningful, helpful, or inspirational. I don’t write this to be famous (trust me if I wanted to be famous it sure as Hell wouldn’t want to be famous for safety), or for money (nobody pays me for this), or for marketing (the only time I reference what I do in safety is to provide a context for what I am saying). In short if you want more than you get for free pay me or shut up.

Whew. Glad to get that off my chest. Okay here are some basic things that you can do to improve your training without spending a ton of money and without a whole lot of work ranked in order of impact (let’s call it tips for the cheap and lazy).

  1. Understand what people have to DO. Training is about providing people skills or improving their proficiency applying those skills. You have to ask yourself what skills do people need to successfully do the job. Most of the crap spewed in the name of training is actually education (teaching people ABOUT something). I was once told that the best way to understand the difference between education and training, is that you may not mind if your 12-year old daughter receives sex education but you probably don’t want her getting sex training.
  2. Recognize that much of the education you received was crap. Typically untrained trainers, or those who learned on the job emulate their teachers. What’s wrong with that? Plenty. There are two types of learning Pedagogy and Andragogy. Pedagogy is the practice of teaching children and unfortunately most college professors still employ those practices because they aren’t trained in Andragogy (the practice of teaching adults). Research has shown that children and adults learn very differently. Children are like sponges soaking up pretty much whatever they are told (which is why every college grad with absolutely no work experience KNOWS EVERYTHING), while adults come to the learning event with a lifetime of experience. Adults like to share their experiences, but more than that, it’s important for adult learners to tell their stories so that they can process the information and so that they can see how it fits into their worldview.
  3. Ask yourself what bad thing will happen if you DON’T provide the skill. Julie Dirksen, in her terrific book, Design For How People Learn, makes this point. We have a tendency to teach people how to operate a lathe by beginning with the discovery of lumber. We love to show off how much we know, it’s borne out of the insecurity of teaching adults; we feel a need to establish our complete and other command of a subject so that the adult learner will respect us and accept what we are telling them.
  4. Show; don’t tell. There is a book out there, Telling’s Not Training. The title says it all. Demonstrating the skills you are trying to impart and then allowing the learner to practice those skills is hands down the best way to provide training. Unfortunately, WE want to do the talking. Stop thinking of yourself as a teacher and start thinking of yourself as a coach and sensei. If you have to watch The Karate Kid over and over again until you get the message then do so, but whatever it takes learn to create situations where the learner experiences the lesson instead has it force fed the lesson. Adult learning should be guided discovery—there is nothing so powerful or enjoyable than the “aha” moment where you finally get it because you experienced it. This kind of learning is more meaningful, visceral, and lasting; it isn’t something someone said in a boring classroom, it’s something you experienced and discovered for yourself.
  5. Move to micro-lessons. Every so often the training profession trots out an old concept in a new package, and that’s how single-point lessons came to be called “micro-lessons”. The underlying theme between the two is that teaching someone a single point, one skill is more effective than trying to cram everything you think the learners need into a 1–4 hour block of time. Some of you are about to cry foul—how can you release someone to a job without giving him or her the full compliment of safety training. To that I would say, “follow the law, but where you have the discretion to spread training over time, do so”.
  6. Cut the time you currently spend training in half (or more). Take a look at your course and ask yourself what can I cut out of this in the interest of time. Before you shout “impossible” think of the times where you started your four-hour training 45 minutes late and still finished on time. What did you cut out? Did the world end? Did the moon fall out of the sky? Or how about the times you taught a class over and over again and the eight hour class eventually becomes a six-hour class because you recognize that the things that you thought were essential weren’t even necessary?

Is Your Crappy Training Killing People?


By Phil La Duke

As many of you read this, someone somewhere in the world is preparing to deliver a safety training. Maybe it’s the Monday morning new hire safety orientation, or maybe it’s something more specific on hazard communication or some other aspect of safety. What all these courses have in common is they do little more than to feed the instructor’s ego and deluded sense of self-importance.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most of you reading this are familiar with the saying “death by PowerPoint” but for those of you who may not be, “death by PowerPoint” refers to the practice of sitting bored senseless while someone does a four to eight hour soliloquy about the minute (and let’s face it useless) details of a topic you neither need nor care to know. At first your just bored, and then bored and angry, and so on until you are completely checked out.

Having sat through eight hours of the crapiest safety training yesterday—training I neither needed nor derived from which I derived any meaningful benefit—I have come to the realization that when it comes to safety training “death by PowerPoint” is more than a mere figure of speech, it could be prophetic.

My first published article on worker safety was “What’s Wrong With Safety Training and How to Fix It”. That was 10 years ago and if anything the situation has gotten worse.

If training isn’t effective it heightens the risk that a worker will be injured or killed and yet scarce little is done to improve safety. A lot can be done to improve safety training starting with:

  • Needs Assessment. In some cases OSHA dictates that specific training be delivered to workers, but it very often doesn’t identify the objectives the training must have, rather it errs on the side of duration. This leaves the trainer a lot of latitude, but it doesn’t absolve the company from providing EVERYONE x hours of training on a given topic. So what ends up happening is that the trainers treat everyone the same—I have had to take courses of which I have literally written and facilitated a dozen times or more, why? Because that’s the rule. The government agencies of the world haven’t matured much beyond “training” as an abstract and don’t give a hoot whether or not the audience is more skilled in a topic than the instructor, so we are stuck with conducting the training, but we aren’t stuck with HOW we present the training, or even at what level we present it. ,
    If we were to do an accurate needs assessment and we found that most of the audience already know a fair amount about a topic we could, for example, develop a course that used case studies and small groups so that the veteran-experts could teach the novices. Granted that means less ego stroking for the instructor, but a cautionary tale from a veteran means infinitely more than a lecture from an overly earnest safety professional who has never set foot in the field.
  • Contextual Learning. Most of us don’t work in the classroom, and most of the learners don’t work in the classroom. Add to that, the fact that the further training moves away from the environment in which the skills are actually used the less effective the training is and we have an epidemic of dangerously bad safety training. When you select the location of training, ask yourself this: “would I feel safe as a passenger on a plane if the full extent of the training the pilot received was delivered in an equivalent method and location?” If you answer is anything but a resounding “NO” than you are probably snacking on lead paint chips right now. The reality is that people learn by doing, and by doing in as close an approximation to the actual circumstances in which they will use the required skills.
  • Testing and Evaluation. Okay, nobody likes tests, and most of the tests I have read really and deeply suck. I don’t remember where I read it, but in general, the odds of answering a true or false question isn’t 50:50 rather it is 63:37 so in other words just by guessing one has a 63% chance of guessing a true or false question correctly. The odds get even better when the person writing the test isn’t particularly adept at writing test questions and use absolutes (must, always, never, etc.) into the question. Since all I need to do to prove a question containing absolutes as false is to come up with one case where the statement could be true the odds are pretty high that question that contains absolutes is false, it’s pretty easy to guess correctly. So why are true or false questions so prevalent? They are easy to write.
    Of course there are the multiple choice questions that are so easy to rule out the wrong answers that one can guess the correct answer through process of elimination. What’s worse are the questions so poorly written (both c and a but not d and sometimes b or “all of the above” or “none of the above”) that the question is more a test of reading comprehension than it is of any skills supposedly imparted by the training.
    But safety people don’t like tests, particularly well written tests. It’s about checking the box. We should be evaluating people in their work areas by having them demonstrate the skills required.

The problem is we don’t really care about the quality of the training we do, or perhaps it’s better stated that we don’t really care if the training we do makes a difference or not as long as we can prove we did it.

It’s too bad because if safety teamed with the training function we might just have a big safety breakthrough, but it’s unlikely. Companies spend millions on snake oil designed to “change the culture” but bulk at the $10,000 between creating an effective elearning and one that is well…pardon the expression eCrap.