Is Safety A Value, A Priority, or Neither?


Note: I don’t think anyone noticed, but I didn’t post last week.  Just too much other unpaid stuff to do for people who don’t appreciate it. Just kidding, I was lazy and the subject I wanted to talk about is one about which I feel very strongly. So here you go, not 5 days late, but 2 days early

By Phil La Duke

A kind reader suggested that I write a blog about the difference between safety as a value and safety as a priority, and as luck would have the alignment of a company’s values with its safety practices is one of my favorite subjects.  Too often people say something is a value when it is in fact a priority.  So what’s the difference? a lot actually.  Values are more than things we believe, they guide our every decision and how we react to issues and solve problems. Some psychologists believe that our personal values are fixed and hardwired into our brain by the time we are 7 or 8 years old. When we act in a manner that is inconsistent with our values we feel guilty and ashamed.  So if we truly value safety then safety tends to shape our decisions—we don’t need to be told to behave safely, it comes naturally to us.  While we may make mistakes (human error) that put us or others in harm’s way, we don’t take unnecessary or uncalculated risks and we don’t put up with people who do; to value safety is to have it shape your whole world view.

Priorities on the other hand are flexible; even fluid.  What is a priority come Monday morning may fall off the list completely by Monday afternoon.  Priorities HAVE to change because life throws all sorts of things at us.  For example, for years I worked in an auto plant building seats.  When I first started our priority was production; my personal success was gauged by whether or not I could read a ticket, retrieve the correct part from dunnage, retrieve the correct screws from my tool caddy, install the part and drive five bolts every 55 seconds and keep up that pace for anywhere from 8 to 9.5 hours.  If that sounds easy you should try it.  Production was sacred and so much so that we quickly learned the exact cost of shutting down the line for a minute. They talked a good game for quality, but it we weren’t there yet, and while quality might have been a priority for the guys in the front office or at headquarters that sense of importance didn’t trickle down to shop floor.

Not that we didn’t produce quality vehicles—I’m still proud of the work I did and when I see the cars I built on the road 32 years later (and I do see them) I feel a sense of accomplishment and will often talk to the owners about the car. But given that I was busting my hump to keep up with the line, and that no fewer than six inspectors would ensure that I put on the correct parts I didn’t value quality. Quality wasn’t my job that was the quality department’s job. Sure I would get chewed out if I put on the wrong part, but so what? They weren’t going to fire me. If I didn’t keep up with the line however, I had three chances to find a job that I could do at pace and if I didn’t I was out the door. I never saw a safety guy and to tell you the truth I’m not sure there was one.

We had several fatalities in the short time I worked there but no one took much notice of them—not to sound cold but I didn’t know these guys so while I wasn’t glad that they were dead I wasn’t too broke up about it either.  In fact, I used to joke that we shouldn’t think of them as much as fatalities so much as job opening. I know a crappy thing to say, but I was young and had not yet come to appreciate the true importance of safety.  Then one day someone I knew died.  An electrician with whom I would have breakfast with darned near every morning was electrocuted when he failed to lock out and at shift changed the supervisor (who had no idea the electrician was in harm’s way) threw the main breaker on and killed him.  That hit home, but the reaction of the front line supervisors seemed indifferent to me; this was before my dad and brother-in-law would die from work-related illnesses so while it shook me that my friend had died it didn’t change my fundamental values.  In fact, it showed me that culturally safety was not a value nor a priority.  Production was a priority. If safety would have been a value the supervisors would have asked why the main breaker was off, he would have searched the area to see if anyone was working on electrified equipment, and he probably would have disciplined the worker for not Locking Out.  But production was the priority and it was costing a fortune not running the line so the supervisor did what he had been conditioned to do and threw the switch.

If you want to find out what you truly value in your life see how you spend your time and money.  A good friend of mine once told me, “you always have the time and money for what’s truly important” I have had people argue against this statement but I stand by it.  If you would have me believe that your kids are the most important thing in your life and yet you spend no meaningful time with them then they aren’t something you value.  Don’t get me wrong, you probably love your kids, and it’s difficult for a parent to admit that there are more important things than time with your kids (watching football, going to work, watching television, or going out with your friends).  You SAY you value your family but you have other priorities that take you away from your family.  Saying that your family is a value isn’t quite right anyway.  Your family’s health, happiness, well-being, and security may well be a value, and you understandably will prioritize the things that enable those things, like going to work or on an important business trip during your kid’s birthday. You will know that this is a value because it’s going to feel like hell doing it even though you know it’s important to your kid, it’s more important to continue your employment and put food on the table and clothes on your kid’s back but it still sucks and you don’t like it. On the other hand if you valued time with your child enough, especially spending time with them when it’s most important to them, you would find a job that accommodates you or you would quit and find other employment.

A priority is always a choice and always feels like a choice; we know it’s a choice, whereas values just feel like the right thing to do. Our values are so sacrosanct that if we find ourselves in a situation that does not align with our values we tend to get out of that situation.  My ex-wife and I had very different values and so we divorced. Value misalignment can not only break up marriages, but cause us to quit jobs, and threaten safety bloggers with death or violence at the merest perception that what has been said does not align with values.

We can often excuse people who have different priorities than ourselves but it’s much harder to forgive someone (or at least see him or her as your equal) if they don’t share our values and that has created much discord in the world of safety.  If your priorities get out of whack it’s easy to recalibrate and (often with the help of your boss or close confidante) realign your priorities to your values.  In philosophical terms we all at least pretend to share the belief that everyone should go home in the same condition for which they reported to work, but too often that isn’t really a value, and sadly in many workplaces that isn’t even a priority.



Extra: Ask Me Anything

On Tuesday, September 26 at 10:00 a.m. I will be conducting my second Ask Me Anything session.  The first one was one of the site’s most successful.  You can post questions ahead of time but the answers won’t be published until the time of the event.  So Go to and post a question.  You may wish to read first, however.

Do You Need Some Help With Your Baggage?

By Phil La Duke

Do you remember your first workplace injury? I don’t, I started working at 13 as the cleanup boy at a privately owned Dairy Queen.  I worked after the store had closed and was completely unsupervised.  The work wasn’t particularly dangerous but I had to run close to scalding water mixed with disinfectant through the machines and then run three buckets of clean water through the machines.  I had to sweep and mop (and dry—a lost art I can assure you) the floors and move boxes of stock.  I’m sure I fell on slippery floors, burned myself on hot water, and strained my muscles moving boxes too heavy for my 13-year old body.  I don’t remember any specific injuries because none were serious enough to require medical treatment.

I remember being injured numerous times in my second job, a dishwasher and then a short order cook (in those days you weren’t considered a “chef” unless you: 1) completed culinary arts studies; and 2) apprenticed under a master chef; and 3) received your credentials from a master chef.)  I was burned repeatedly by grease splattering against the bare flesh of my exposed arms, or by incidental contact with a hot grill or char broiler, but I never told anyone because my peers would have made fun of me  and the restaurant owner wouldn’t have cared.

One day I cut myself as I, following the accepted norm (like many workplaces there were no procedures just tribal norms) I cleaned a knife by wrapping a towel around the blade and pulling the towel firmly across the edge of the blade from hilt to tip.  Unbeknownst to me, the towel only APPEARED to be covering the blade and I ended up with a deep cut across four fingers.  A co-worker got me clean towels and I applied direct pressure.  The owner looked at what had happened and said, “I don’t think you need stitches, but you can’t cook like that; go home.”  I went home where my mother cleaned the wounds and applied butterfly stiches (it’s worth noting that I lived in a rural area and a trip to the hospital for stitches really had to prove itself necessary.) The butterflies worked well enough and even though I was in excruciating pain I was back on the job a couple of days later.

Several jobs and several injuries later, I entered the adult work world working an assembly line at an automobile plant.  But by this point, I had 12 years of on-the-job safety training.  That training consisted of being laughed at or mocked by coworkers, dismissed as “not tough enough” by managers and business owners; in short I learned that safety doesn’t matter.

My point is that even though we tend to think of new employees as blank slates, by the time we get people into our new employee safety orientations they have had a decade or more of experience (the best teacher after all) with safety, and before we can change how our workers think about safety we have to have them unlearn the powerful lessons that they have learned and had reinforced by the death houses that are many small businesses.  If the first thing workers learn about safety is that it’s all bull excrement we have to deal with that perception before we can have a serious and effective discussion about safety in our work places.  These workers will definitely test the norms of the organization and if their leaders (who by the way are often NOT supervisors or managers, but a charismatic veteran) reinforce the perception of safety formed by working for years in workplaces that are antagonistic of safety, then this perception will become even stronger.

So we can’t treat new employees as blank slates, we can’t count on common sense (which is simply the shared knowledge and perceptions of a situation), and we can’t count on workers taking safety seriously because many others have already taught them that safety is a big joke.

How do we break this cycle? By driving the company’s values around safety deep into the culture. New workers need to hear a consistent message from the senior leader to their peers on the shop floor.  Changing their perceptions about safety won’t be easy—they will look for confirmation of their world view in every subtle message our nuanced action—but we have to universally reinforce our company values and norms around safety or the preconceived notions of safety will eventually erode the value the company places on safety.

Is the Hierarchy of Controls a Useful Tool Or Safety Trivia?


By Phil La Duke

In most cases when an author asks a question it’s rhetorical.  He or she isn’t really looking for an answer; rather, the author just wants to make a point.  That’s not the case with this particular article.  I have developed—both for internal use and for sale—scores of safety orientations, and contrary to the prevailing belief among safety “professionals” that it’s okay to steal such materials (mawkishly regurgitating the same material over and over again while presenting it as a new unique product) I start each one fresh and each time I do I ask myself “why do the learners need to know this?” and “what will they do with this knowledge once they have mastered it?”  Which leads me to the question about the Hierarchy of Controls, and frankly, I’m not sure it passes the sniff test of these two questions. Virtually every safety orientation includes the Hierarchy of Controls and I have to ask,why?

For those of you outside the safety trade or who are in the safety trade and have been living under a rock your entire career, the Hierarchy of Controls is a tool for protecting workers…except it doesn’t really.  It’s not a tool in the traditional sense, instead it is a conceptual approach to protecting workers that holds that some measures are more effective (and therefore more desirable) than other measures to protect workers.  Best of all it works…except when it doesn’t.

So let’s see if I can answer the two questions.  “Why do the learners need to know this?” and “what will the learners DO with this knowledge?”  When we’re conducting safety training if we ask for four hours we get two and generally have to split it with benefits, an explanation of the employee handbook and Lord knows what else.  I have seen the safety orientation whittled down to little more than a 15 minute pep talk, so in that context I have to wonder at the value of teaching the concept of the Hierarchy of Controls to front-line workers. I’ve gotten off on a bit of a tangent here, but back to our question “why do workers need to know this?” (I mean it is an absolute requirement in most of the safety orientations I have seen and commissioned to develop.) Proponents will insist that this is a valuable concept that teaches workers that the company puts in guards, rules, and PPE to protect them, but so what? When I worked the line, I assumed that the company designed safety measures into my job was a given. In my defense I was young and not yet jaded by the horrors I would witness over the subsequent 30 odd years.  Before anyone taps out an angry defense of the invaluable nature of the Hierarchy of Controls I’d just like to point out that I’ve not seen any study showing a correlation between understanding the Hierarchy of Controls and proper use of PPE, adherence to the safety rules, or even not by-passing safety devices. In my experience nobody has ever by-passed a safety interlock or failed to control hazardous energy because he or she had never heard of the Hierarchy of Controls.  One way I test the “does the learner need this” question is to ask “what bad thing will happen if the worker doesn’t know this” sadly, I am yet to come up with a single bad thing that will happen because the worker didn’t know about the Hierarchy of Controls.

Another issue with the Hierarchy of Controls has little to do with the Hierarchy of Controls itself and more to do with how it is taught.  We tend to teach it as “the best way to protect workers is to eliminate the hazard altogether, but sometimes that’s not possible so we move down the pyramid to the next level of protection: substitution. When substitution isn’t an option we use engineering controls like safety interlocks and guard…” and so on until we say something like “PPE is the last, and least effective way to protect you.  Now there’s a ringing endorsement for wearing cumbersome and uncomfortable gear—because it’s better than nothing.  Not only does teaching the Hierarchy of Controls not benefit workers in a practical way, it may create the impression that the company is doing the bare minimum to protect workers.  In practice, however, this is not how the Hierarchy of Controls is used.  We do try to eliminate or substitute the hazard for something benign or at least less hazardous, but then we use a combination of guarding, rules and signage, training, and PPE to form protective layers around the worker.  Explaining WHY we do this is so much more important than the philosophical concept that led us to those decisions.  This of course, is not the fault of the Hierarchy of Controls rather it is the fault of the instruction and explanation of the Hierarchy of Controls.  So why do people need to know about the Hierarchy of Controls? Because it teaches a necessary thought process that people need to make informed decisions about their safety.  “What bad thing might happen without this knowledge?” People could attempt to try work without the proper protection.

So putting in information that a) no protective measure is 100% failsafe and b) all protective measures rely at least to some extent on the active participation of the worker, and c) when these measures fail people often die or suffer crippling injuries; but can’t we just say that to front-line workers without filling the lesson with jargon.  One of the most difficult assignments in developing a training course is getting stuck with a subject matter expert, who ardently believes that people must be taught everything—to the minutest detail—about a subject.  It becomes one long fight with the expert over whether or not the person needs to understand the complexities of gravity to avoid slip, trip, and fall injuries.  I think to some extent we are all guilty of this type of behavior when it comes to the Hierarchy of Controls.  We know it. We like it, and we find it interesting therefore it most go into the training.  But in a real way it’s like teaching the principal of gravity to a swallow.  The swallow doesn’t care WHY it doesn’t fall out of the sky when it flies, it only cares that it doesn’t, that is to say, if swallows care about anything I’ve never been that emotionally close to a swallow to really say definitively.

On the other hand I like the Hierarchy of Controls; it makes safety seem scientific even if it isn’t. (And I’m sorry but it isn’t, half the safety community still believes that the best way to protect workers is to draw pentagrams on the floor.) The Hierarchy of Controls is easy to explain, it makes a super pyramid graphic (and who in safety doesn’t’ LOVE pyramids?), and above all it demonstrates that when it comes to safety we’re at least TRYING to approach things systematically.  The problem is this: who in that audience cares about our stupid pyramid, and frankly, it could create the impression that since PPE and Administrative controls are the least effective then there is little point to adhering to those policies.  So I guess at the end of the day I am left feeling as if we are better off using our limited time with that audience focusing on something other than the Hierarchy of Controls.


Everything Is Going Great In Safety!!

kittens-cat-cat-puppy-rush-45170by Phil La Duke

Over the past weeks, I’ve gotten a lot of flack from some wonderfully helpful salt of the earth readers who, citing my less than positive tone of my introduction stopped reading.  So this week I am making every effort to avoid offending these precious snowflakes so that they can feel at home reading my blog.

Let me begin by saying that all is well in the world of safety.  As far as I can tell we’ve climbed the mountain, to quote Walt Whitman “the ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won”. Not only have we eliminated workplace fatalities, no one anywhere in the world is so much as at RISK of being injured.  Congratulations all around.  Really you’ve all done a top-shelf job.

Okay, I’ll stop.  I just had to get one last jab in at the people who, unable to construct a cognizant argument against my points, just to hide behind faux self-righteous indignation rather than think.  Some have suggested that I might reach a wider audience by printing watered-down pablum instead using a harsh tone; tough.  This is how I write and I will continue to write this way as long people risk their employees lives in the workplace. Platitudes and niceties don’t bring change, and as long as the workplace continues to change so too must safety.

All that is an aside. Today in the U.S. is Labor Day, a National holiday in which we recognize and honor organized labor.  Today there are plenty in the safety community quick to forget the role of organized labor played in pushing for workplace safety.  From the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire to the enactment of OSHA legislation and many points in between Organized Labor has pushed, and literally fought with fist and ax handles for the rights of workers—not the least of which, being the right to come home unharmed after a hard day’s work.

Labor has been under siege for decades but safety professionals would be well-served to remember that as goes Labor so goes Safety, and whether you are an entry-level safety coordinator or a senior manager in safety to either a small extent or a large you owe that job for protections fought and one by the Unions around the world.


Some reading this will balk at this and say that they owe nothing to “those no good so-and-sos” in the Union.  But just as Unions fought for safer work environments, companies without Unions often emulated the practices of Union shops to keep Unions out of their shops.  Organized Labor in the U.S. fought for legislation governing the safety of the workplace as did their counterparts in Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and other countries.  The idea that workers had a RIGHT to come home alive and uninjured grew out of the ideals of organized labor, few large companies viewed workers as anything more than disposable tools that, when broken, could be thrown out and cheaply replaced.  Unions created the idea that workers were people and had the right to work safely.

Hopefully it won’t take another The Jungle to wake people up to the sorry state of working conditions both in the U.S. and abroad, but until then enjoy your holidays and weekends and remember every step you take that is pain free, every time you stand at a barbecue with a beer in your hand without excruciating back pain, or simply have a conversation with someone who might otherwise not be there were it not for worker safety, and raise a glass in respect to the many who fought and died for your right to a safe workplace; we stand on the shoulders of giants.

In the World of Safety, Political Correctness Endangers Lives


By Phil La Duke

Please note: If you are reading this with the sole intent of becoming offended, or if you read this to natter in my boss’s ear about what utterly shocking thing I said THIS time, please stop reading and go to Hell.  It’s exhausting dealing with you people and you care more about being offended than having your beliefs challenged.  And I as I am expressing my OWN opinion and only my OWN opinion unless I have personal slandered you in some way, what I have to say is really none of your business.

When I was a kid I worked with a man who was mentally retarded. He wasn’t “special”.  He wasn’t “mentally challenged”. He wasn’t “alternatively gifted”.  He wasn’t “a little slow”. He was retarded.  The word was never meant to in any way denigrate, degrade, or insult him.  It was a medical term in wide-use at the time. We didn’t call him “retarded” we called him “Larry” and we treated him just like anyone else, while at the same time understanding that Larry had limitations and would, from time to time, need help.  We just accepted it.  In fact, the word “retarded” rarely came up except maybe when someone asked about why he behaved the way he did.

Then one day along came political correctness. I am a lot of things.  I am a lot of ugly things; but I am not politically correct.  I have always tried to see people as people and I have found that people who have some sort of handicap generally don’t want to be seen as well…whatever cutesy label you want to put on them.  I have always suspected that the ultra-politically correct secretly harbor a bigotry that they mask through carefully designed meticulously measured language designed to hide the fact that when they see a person in a wheel-chair they don’t see a person they see a cripple.

I once worked with a woman who forbade us from using the term “flip chart” because apparently “flip” can be used as a derogatory term for a Filipino. Frankly, I had never heard the term and it made me wonder about the woman who brought my attention to it.  I have never known a bigot that didn’t know every ugly pejorative for the people he or she despised.  I worked at another company where we were forbidden from using the terms bullet point (it denotes violence even though the word predates the projectile by several hundred years), negative (we had positives and deltas), and a host of other words.  It was counterproductive and stupid.  I never thought about shooting someone because someone said “bullet point” and  damn it all, some things ARE negative.  Some things are problems and NOT opportunities.

I recently saw a comedian who was a self-described “midget”.  He told the story of an indignant woman who came up to him and berated him for using the term “midget”.  At first he was genuinely concerned that she might have a loved one or friend who was in the same condition as he; but she didn’t.  She was merely a busybody. So after tell her to do a very nasty thing he told her. “You don’t get to be offended on someone else’s behalf”. He went on to say that when you get offended on someone else’s behalf it’s like saying “you’re too stupid to know that you are being insulted, but don’t worry I’ll take care of it.”

A blind man can decide what he wants people to call him (probably his name) but he can’t decide what all the blind people in the world want to be called, and the sighted community needs to get out of the labeling business.

It all comes down to intent. Words only have the power we give them, but when it comes to safety sometimes we have to call things like we see them. Sometimes the most effective way to get through to someone is to say “doing that is dangerous and stupid” not “doing things that way isn’t optimal and perhaps not the wisest choice”.  Academics love political correctness, but the people I’ve met in mines, on shop floors, in distribution centers and on oil & gas rigs tend to see the politically correct safety person as fools who can’t relate to doing an honest day’s work.  And this divide erodes all credibility and trust in the person.  When you are taking life-saving advice from someone you really need to see them as credible and smart.  What they say has to make sense and it can’t be covered in a frosting of BS. We need to feel that their true intentions are to help us to stay safer in an intrinsically unsafe world.

Safety professionals need to stop hiding their contempt and patronizing attitude toward workers and tell it like it really is.


The Rise of the Safety Jihadist

Safety Jihadist


By Phil La Duke

I have written a lot about the danger of safety professionals so convinced in the rightness of their cause that they find any disagreement a threat. Their feelings for their profession have surpassed passion and have drifted solidly into fanaticism. They are safety jihadists, and like all jihadists they are dangerous; they cannot be reasoned with nor can they be swayed from their zealotry. The life a life of singularity of purpose and anyone who dares disagree with them are at risk. One of my readers commented that I rail against these safety extremists and yet here I am week after week the insulation that I too was a fanatic hanging in the air like the victim of a lynching pecked clean by crows, but I am no fanatic.

That having been said, I feel strongly that change is necessary, that safety as a function has a lot of room for improvement. I’ve never claimed to have all the answers; in fact, I pose a lot more question than I answer.

EDIT: I think I should provide some context here throughout my 11 years of writing this blog I have been threatened with violence, received several death threats, had people tell me that they hope that my family is killed in industrial accidents, and last month someone called me and told me they were going to bring a bomb to my house.  In one case a man threatened to kill me because I asked what kind of sociopath introduces the idea that a parent might die at work to a 6 year old (through children’s safety poster contests)?  I think it’s a valid question, he thought it was justifiable homicide.  Not everyone who is passionate, heck even zealous about there work is a jihadist. Not everyone who is a nutcase fanatic about safety is a jihadist.  But when one crosses the line and advocates violence against someone for speaking out against misguided safety practices or merely suggest that we question what we do, that person is a jihadist.  And before grousing about my use of the word, perhaps learn a bit more about it from this nifty link I found. Jihad: a misundertstood concept from Islam.  It probably isn’t proper for me to mix religious terminology with secular and if anyone reading this is offended or upset on that basis I am truly sorry, but given the misappropriation of the term by the general public I think it applies her.  Now back to our regularly scheduled blog already in progress.

There’s a lot of talk today about culture. We rightly say that safety cannot improve unless we change the culture and yet we so seldom change ourselves. I have been heavily criticized of late for being too negative, too controversial, and too provocative. That the things I say might upset a client or chase away potential business. Of course, the slimly little snitches don’t say it to my face, but that’s to be expected cowardice is the defining characteristic of a lot of people.

This isn’t going to be one of those “woe is me” missives; in fact, almost the exact opposite. Don Rickles entire act used to consist of insulting members of the audience at the end he would always finish with something that would prove to the audience that he was really a nice guy after all. I despised that. If you’re going to adopt a certain style you can’t cave it because someone got offended; the ending always ruined the show for me. It’s a lot like that with what I do. I provoke, I prod, and I poke people until people start to think about and question their deepest held beliefs about safety. I call them out. Do I think they are bad people? Most are not. Do I think I can persuade people to believe what I am saying? That’s not really my goal. In the song Imagine John Lennon doesn’t say there is no God, he merely asks people to imagine what the world would be like if there was no God. My goal is for people to look at safety a different way; safety practitioners most particularly. I don’t praise them for working hard because I can get a monkey to work hard and fail. In matters of life and death, we need success, not effort. I’m not here to build the fragile self-esteem of the delicate flowers in the field of safety.

A colleague of mine does a powerful Safety Transformation intervention and invariably people, confronted with their own shameful inadequacies want him to acknowledge all the good things they are doing. He won’t. As he puts it, “when you go to a doctor because you’re having a terrible pain in your abdomen, you want the doctor to concentrate on that ailment. You don’t want him to tell you what a great haircut you have.”

Questioning any part of your world view is scary, and many of us would rather read either heart warming stories that reaffirm our world view or about some horrible tragedy that we know we would never let happen on our watch, which also confirms our world view.

I am here to focus a lens on some areas of safety that we really need to work to improve and I can’t do that by worrying about whether or not someone’s nose get’s pushed out of joint.

The most common compliment I get is “I read your work, and while I don’t always agree with it, it always makes me think.” Don’t always agree with me—I don’t have a monopoly on the truth but recognize that neither does anyone else. And that’s what separates me from the safety jihadist; I don’t want you to always agree with me. Always agreeing with me leads to zealotry and fanaticism and the last thing we need more safety jihadists.