Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

Combustible Dust: How Crackpots Endanger Safety

By Phil La Duke


Most of us know the dangers of combustible dust, how when there is a critical mass of fine explosive material—whether it be flour or sawdust—all it takes is a spark to set of  catastrophe.  But there is an equally dangerous situation in the world of safety, the combustible dust of thought.  Combustible Dust Thought is prevalent in LinkedIn discussion groups and other safety forums. I call it combustible dust thought because it’s old and dusty defense of obsolete or just plain simple-minded thinking and practices, and combustible because the old “safety by experience” “we don’t need no education” cranks who blow up at the merest mention of a new idea that isn’t theirs. The Crank Coxes of the world belch out bile and hatred of anything new in safety in bellicose mockery of the modern safety professional.

Take for example “Crank Cox” (a pseudonym of course and an amalgamation of numerous persons I have encountered.  Let me put it this way, if you are reading this and are offended because you think I’m talking about you then I probably am.  Feel the hurt and let it go). Crank is a soft-headed blowfish of a man who trolls the discussion topics looking for things over which he can react  to in self-righteous indignation.  How dare, he asks, can anyone suggest that anything he does do might be a better way? After all, Crank has over thirty years in safety and that should qualify him in all things safety, he’s SEEN things you know? Why should he listen to anything that he doesn’t already know?  In his decades of experience he has learned all there is to learn and people with new ideas are just “college boys” who don’t really work for a living. Crank is a not so bright dinosaur, a vestigial organ from the days when industry didn’t really expect a lot from safety professionals.  A time when a degree in a safety-related discipline was neither required nor expected.  A time when safety was where you put people who couldn’t do much right but you didn’t want to fire them, “put ‘em in safety; what can it hurt?”

Doing Something Poorly For 35 Years Isn’t Valuable Experience

Whenever I take on one of these sub-simian mouth breathers invariably he puffs up his chest and through a face ravaged by too many Chesterfields and cheap malt liquor they go off on me because they have been in safety since before I was eating solid food.  They go on and on about how they have worked at such and such for 40 odd years as if that proves that they have mastery of something.  I started piano lessons at age 4 and have plunked on the ivories ever since. Despite almost 50 years experience on the piano I really and truly suck at it.  I stopped taking lessons at around 18 and much as I enjoy playing I just don’t have the discipline it takes to practice several hours a day to keep my skills sharp.  Similarly, I have been surfing since 1996 and am arguably the world’s worst surfer (it doesn’t help that I’m 1,000 miles from the nearest decent surf spot) but on paper I am an experienced surfer with almost 20 years of paddling out.  So forgive me if I am unimpressed by someone who likely spent the better part of 4 decades sitting on an ass the texture of cottage cheese being squeezed through a plastic bag in an office with “Safety” stenciled on the door like some sick inside joke.

Safety Ain’t What I Used to Be

Safety is a relatively new function and when it was created in the mid 70’s it was typically an assignment tacked on to someone’s existing job.  There were no instructions, or templates for doing a good job. Most safety people were expected to make it up as they went and predictably many were successful while many more were not.  This “do whatever you think is right” climate created a host of really creative ways of blaming injured workers  for getting hurt.  It also promulgated the idea that injuries were inevitable.  Safety was like a sick joke, “what do all injured workers have in common? They need to be more careful.”  It was also this climate where the seeds of the worker as lazy, stupid, and disobedient children were sown.  Truth be told industry didn’t expect much from the folks in safety back then, but that was then and this is now.  Now the safety function is expected to partner with operations and reduce operating risk and to devise and deploy interventions designed to directly mitigate the risks associated with doing one’s job.  In short, today’s most successful companies expect tangible results from the safety group and these safety groups deliver. The Crank Coxes of the world have been driven out of industry and have settled into half-assed consultancies where they have hung out their greasy shingles and lay in wait for customers who don’t know any better.

This Brush Doesn’t Have Tar Enough For All

I don’t want to imply that everyone who has spent decades in Safety are automatically Crank Coxes.  In fact, most of the people who have taught me the greatest lessons and provided me with the deepest insights about safety have half a century or more in the field.  While it’s true that we stand on the shoulders of giants, it’s equally true that just because you’re  tall doesn’t mean you’re a giant, you could be little more than an oversized goof-ball with hurt feelings and a big mouth. So what creates a Crank Cox? Two things: fear and stupidity (or the all too rare combination of the two).  The Crank Coxes have adopted a pattern of dysfunctional behavior that has garnered them some measure of success—think of the most dysfunctional turd of a person, a complete teardown of a person that adds nothing to the workplace but carbon dioxide and occasionally methane—and continued success is predicated on nothing changing in the workplace.  These people fear new ideas because real change will expose their inadequacies and may force them out to pasture.  If they are incapable of change then the only option left to them is to yowl and attack those advocating change.  Some of these people are simply too stupid (not ignorant which implies an honest and correctable lack of information, but true belligerence to education) to learn the emerging skills and ideas presented and rather than try to learn or admit their lack of understanding it’s easier and more comfortable to slobber and snarl in discussion groups like closed-head injured bull mastiffs than it is to admit that maybe they lack the chops to continue in this field and need to take their cantankerous asses to the local Walmart where they can greet people as they enter.

Is This Really A Threat?

I have had plenty of discussions with people who waive me off as Chicken Little.  They roll their eyes and say, “just ignore them”.  These people don’t see a problem with the Crank Coxes of the world.  They say that nobody takes them seriously.  They say that these people are just harmless blowhards who are just one cheese pizza away from ceasing to be a problem to anyone or anything.  To them (and to you who agree with them) I say, with sincerest respect, on the contrary, these people, like a rabid raccoon shot dead in the street, are as dangerous to our field now then they were just years ago.  As long as we allow these miscreants to shout down new ideas, make personal attacks in LinkedIn, and otherwise shape the debate of safety thought these people will drive the people who we most need to participate in these forums forever away.  Unless each of us confront the Crank Coxes and sweep there poisonous combustible dust out of our field they will continue to speak for us and ruin our reputation and make us irrelevant.  Do I sound like an alarmist?  Perhaps, but I know of at least 10 leaders in the field of safety (many with decades of truly useful and valuable experience) who have been forever driven from the forums by these barking rats.

What About Freedom Of Speech?

Invariably posts like this will elicit emails questioning my support of free speech.  For the record I wholeheartedly believe in the freedom of speech, but freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from the consequences of said speech.  Can we support a teacher’s freedom of speech when he or she teaches children fairy tales as history? Can we support a researcher’s right to free speech when he or she falsifies findings because he or she earnestly believes that given just a bit more time his or her conclusions would eventually be supported?  We live in a world where wikipidiots believe that all opinions (no matter how lunatic fringe) are as valid as carefully researched facts.  As in so many other areas of life, we get what we put up with, and if we put up with the Crank Coxes of the world then we can’t exactly cry foul when the world sees all safety professionals through that same lens.

Disclaimer: Crank Cox is a fictitious amalgamation of numerous piles of steamy excrement of people that I have been met.  Any resemblance to any person living or deceased is purely coincidental.  No animals were harmed in the writing of this blog, although if I catch that squirrel that has been poaching my tomatoes I will wring its little neck.

Filed under: culture change, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Feeling Unappreciated? Maybe You Invite the Abuse

By Phil LaDuke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


by Phil La Duke

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

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

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

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

Mostly the Same Isn’t Exactly the Same

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

Are We Miscalculating Risk?

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

Balancing Risk

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

Safer Choices Not Safe Choices

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

Filed under: Safety, , , , ,

The Forework at Stirling Castle

Originally posted on Patrick Mackie:

Forework, Stirling Castle

View original

Filed under: Safety

Safe As We Want To Be


By Phil La Duke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Killing Kids Good For Small Business?


by Phil La Duke

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

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

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

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

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

Our Children Are At Risk

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

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

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

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

Filed under: Safety

Changing The Safety Culture: You Got To Want It

By Phil LaDuke


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filed under: Safety, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Porn Safety

porn safety

By Phil La Duke

Two days ago I visited the porn capital of the world; no I wasn’t making a pornographic film. The fact that my business in the area seemed lost on friends and colleagues, who saw fit to ask with a smirk if I was going to provide safety services to the porn industry.

The matter got me thinking if, ethically speaking, it is right to turn down business because of one’s personal beliefs. Naturally there has to be a moral line one needs of which one must be cognizant when doing business, but can one politely decline saving lives just because one finds an industry distasteful? I understand that many of you have already made up your mind and are ready to quit reading before really asking the really hard (no pun intended) questions.

Over the course of my career I have worked with clients who have run the spectrum from those who want me to take their already exemplary safety programs to the next frontier to those who want to do the bear minimum to be compliant without the quietest whisper of concern for the safety of their workers. If I turned down every client because of my politics, moral indignation, or personal preferences I would be derelict in my duties.

Who is the moral reprobate? The professional fornicator or the safety professional who refuses an industry in need because they find the product morally objectionable.

“Conscious Do Have a Cost”—Bunk Moreland to Omar, The Wire

Perhaps it’s easy to shy away from porn—it’s not like most of us have an off-the-shelf course in fluffer safety —but where is the line? Can we shun the porn industry on one hand and accept jobs in other industries that are guilty of worse sins? To be sure pornography is obscene, but how much more obscene is war? If it is okay for us to provide safety services to companies that build missiles, land mines, and bullets how is it not all right for us to provide safety services for the adult entertainment industry?

The Slippery Slope Argument

Some would argue that providing safety services to the porn industry starts us down a slippery slope. If, they ask, we provide services to the porn industry, then where does it end? Should we provide safety services to prostitutes and pimps? Should we sell safety to drug cartels and contract killers? Well for starters the production of porn is legal, and no one can ethically provide professional services to criminal enterprises without aiding and abetting a crime, so I think this argument is moot. Again we come back to is it okay for us to refuse to provide services to individuals and industries simply because we find them distasteful. The other side of the other side of the slippery slope argument is this: can you refuse to provide safety services to a company because of their gay friendly policies? How about refusing to provide services to hospitals that perform abortions? Conversely, can you in good conscious refuse to provide safety services to companies who discriminate against gays, blacks, midgets, albinos, or women?

The Hypocrite’s Oath

While it’s true no one (at least no one I know) in safety has taken an oath to provide services to any and all that need them, I feel an ethical responsibility to not refuse work on ethical grounds. Perhaps I sound like a morally vacuous whore, but it’s often the worst of companies that need me the most. I often work with companies who don’t really see an issue with killing workers provided that they don’t kill too many. Many more companies just don’t understand safety and how to manage it so they need me to help them mature as an organization. It seems like everybody and the neighbor’s monkey is out their preaching “change the culture” and “we have to change the way we think about safety” mantras. Who better to serve than the rogue’s gallery of companies who are making the news for gory butchery of their employees? If we say that every worker has a right to go home unharmed, how then can we pick and chose which workers won’t get the benefit of our services simply because of the job they do? Is a bull semen collector (an actual job at breeding ranches) that far off from porn? Is the manufacturer of the gun of choice to street gain killers that different from the sociopath who pulled the trigger?

If We Don’t Have a Moral Code Who are We?

I am not suggesting that each one of us doesn’t have the right to refuse work if said work is so at odds with one’s value system that to agree would deeply conflict with one’s value set. I am suggesting that we as safety professionals routinely turn a blind eye to the ugly realities of our business. We can’t make manufacturing weapons of war more effective and not acknowledge that we blood on our hands, so in that respect if we oppose a company’s business (or politics) and we still provide services one could justifiably brand us hypocrites.

For my part I see myself as akin to a criminal lawyer who believes that even the worst of society deserves competent representation and that defending loathsome criminals does not abet the crime, rather it is in furtherance of justice and results in the betterment of society. I will work with anyone who will have me, not because I believe in their products, purpose, or politics, but because I believe that everyone has a human right to be safe on the job and if that means that I have to do business with organizations that others (or even I) loathe (all though I have found that it’s tough to loathe anyone writing you checks) so be it. My job is to help companies protect their workers, their profits, and their very existence; a noble calling to be sure, even if there is nothing noble about customers that I serve.

Quick disclaimer: My existing client base is in no way engaged in politics or practices that I find objectionable but that doesn’t mean I won’t sometime soon.

Filed under: Safety

The Zero-Injury Witch Hunt


By Phil La Duke

Sometime ago I wrote, almost in passing, about the rift that James Reason first identified in the safety community between those who believe that injuries are primarily the result of individual choices or systemic causes. As deep and destructive as this riff, another deeply divisive issue threatens the safety community the argument over the possibility of Zero-Injury goals.

On one side of the argument zealots argue that the only acceptable goal in safety is “Zero-Injuries”. After all, if our goal isn’t the complete elimination of injuries that what our goal? How many people can we kill a year and still consider ourselves successful at providing a safe work environment?

Critics of this thinking counter that the belief that zero injuries can be deliberately achieved and sustained is naïve, even simple-minded. These critics argue that zero injuries can only consistently be achieved when an organization achieves zero risks and that is impossible, at least in any sort of sustainable state.

Most critics of zero injury goals are increasingly reticent to voice their criticism for fear of loss of their livelihoods. This fear is far from unfounded; many Fortune 500 companies have so institutionalized the religious fervor around zero injuries that to question the wisdom of zero-injuries as a goal is to be branded a heretic and to become a pariah. Many of these same companies make “Zero Injuries” a condition of providing services to them.

For my part I believe that zero injuries CAN be achieved, but in most cases most of the most ardent supporters will never achieve it. The reasons are simple:

  1. For an injury to be prevented it must be foreseeable. Anyone who has ever been injured will likely attest to the fact that they “should have seen that coming”, but there are always those bolt-from-the-blue injury causes that we never could have seen coming.
  2. Foresight can only prevent injuries if there is time to act on this foresight. Consider this: you are walking through a store and you notice that the stock on the top of the aisle is stacked too high and before you have time to react it begins to shift. You can foresee that you will be injured but you don’t have time to react; foresight provides you no advantage.
  3. Any foresight must have perfect information. A colleague of mine likes to tell people he is training in hazard recognition that whenever an injury occurs it is because someone either did something they shouldn’t have or didn’t do something they should have. This may sound simplistic but it makes profound sense. What I have found is that in many cases is that the reason people make the choices that they make because they lack perfect information. In other words, people who make decisions erroneously believing that something is true (“I thought it was locked out”) when it was not (yes I realize the redundancy but it reads better that way) or that something wasn’t true (“I didn’t know the gun was loaded”) when it was. That having been said, how often do we truly have perfect information?
  4. Zero-Injuries depends on an extremely low tolerance for risk. Organizations and cultures that reward the risk takers for their bold decision making and “save-the-day” approach to life open themselves up for increased risk and increased risk correlates to increased injuries. You’ll notice I used the word “correlates” rather than causes; some of these companies go years without an injury just because of dumb luck. They operate at a higher risk level and thus a higher probability, but probabilities are just that; not certainties.
  5. Some industries lend themselves to zero-injuries more readily than others. It’s a dirty little secret that some injuries are just plain more dangerous than others. Okay so maybe it’s not all that secret but it isn’t talked about all that openly either. This isn’t to say that all industries can aspire to be safer, but some industries are going to face an uphill battle. Of course all work carries with it some chance of injuries, but a greeter at Walmart is statistically less likely to be gored by a bull than a bullfighter or a rodeo clown. I won’t open the whole can of works that comes with saying that this or that industry is safe, but a quick glance at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics website will prove my point: some industries are intrinsically more dangerous than others.
  6. ZeroInjuries depends on workers accepting onerous controls put on them. While I ardently believe that no one in his or her right mind wants to get hurt, I also believe that we all have our own idea of when the quest for safety becomes ridiculous, intrusive, and downright simple minded. People fight for the right to ride motorcycles despite evidence that suggests that one is much safer in a car. Some of those same people fight for their right to ride motorcycles without a helmet despite evidence that wearing a helmet significantly reduces the chance of head injuries. We all have different tolerances for risk and as long as we do we will have different probabilities of injury.
    Who among us hasn’t violated a safety rule for no better reason than because we thought the rule was stupid, over protective, or otherwise shouldn’t apply to us. Deep down we all harbor a “you’re not the boss of me” or “I don’t want to and you can’t make me” attitude (some of us have it buried deeper than others) that makes us want to passive aggressively resist the safety rules?

So let’s avoid the Zero-Injury witch-hunt. Let’s recognize that we all want the same thing—to hurt fewer workers in the workplace. Let’s acknowledge that whether or not we believe it’s achievable zero-injuries, at least conceptually is a noble pursuit. If you don’t believe it’s possible then at least recognize that you probably believe dozens of crazy, ridiculously implausible things that they don’t buy. And to all of you who would deprive others of their livelihoods and run people out of the business simply because they don’t believe in one of your most cherished beliefs, lighten up; there are lots of right answers and you don’t have a monopoly on the truth.

Filed under: Safety

Safety Never Sleeps: Creating A Culture of Vigilance


By Phil La Duke

Creating a safety culture is all the rage today, and whether you are a snake oil shyster or an organizational psychologist working in safety everyone seems to agree that we need to create cultures of safety to be successful in reducing injuries.  I don’t know about you, but I get a more than a bit nervous when everyone agrees on a single course of action.

The concept of a “safety culture” in itself is both widely known and impossibly vague.  In broad strokes a safety culture is a state where “safety” is a shared value.[1]  I put the word “safety” in quotes because it is the most basic definition of our profession and the most poorly defined.  I have had people define it as the absence of injuries, but that doesn’t necessarily make one safe.  I have been in plenty of unsafe situations where I never even came close to being injured.  Some say that safety is the absence of risk, but since such a thing can never be true defining safety as such is to admit that safety is an impossibility. There are even some that will say that safety is a state of mind, that we either feel safe or we don’t, but if that’s the case pursuit of safety is the pursuit of complacency (a feeling of quiet pleasure or security, often while unaware of some potential danger, defect, or the like; self-satisfaction or smug satisfaction with an existing situation, condition, etc.[2]) and since one of the major players in the safety community now openly claims that complacency is the cause of something like 60% of all injuries this creates a circular logic—we can only be safe if we feel safe and if we feel safe we are complacent and if we are complacent we can never be safe.

Safety is too broad a concept, too philosophical on which to build a culture.  So if not safety what then?  A couple weeks ago I began toying with the concept of a culture of vigilance.  What, I asked myself, if we decided to pursue a culture of vigilance instead of a culture of safety? Could it work? What would it look like?

I envisioned a culture where people valued the approach more than the result, where risk taking wasn’t a sign of bravery and ingenuity but of recklessness and irresponsibility, I asked myself what might that look like.  It’s tough in a world where the “cowboy culture” is no longer a uniquely American thing the world loves an action hero and the ubiquitous rogue anti-hero pervades pop culture from Australia to Greenland, from Hollywood to Bollywood, from Argentina to Japan.

Arsonist Are the Best Firefighters

There is nothing like the feeling of sweeping into a mess and saving the day.  Unfortunately, too often we idealize people  for cleaning up their own messes.  We rarely praise someone for planning and executing a task with such precision that nothing even comes close to going wrong; it’s boring, and as my daughter (and Chris Rock) are fond of saying, “you don’t get credit for doing the things you are supposed to do”.  But maybe we should give credit for the people who get it right, and that’s what I think lies at the center of a culture of vigilance.

Rewarding someone for putting out the fire he or she set is a bit like the puzzling practice of having far less harsh penalties for attempted murder than for actual murder, I mean, in so doing aren’t we just rewarding failure? Not to make light of murder, but if we adopted a culture of vigilance the penalty for TRYING to commit murder (the intent or the action) would be the same as it would be for SUCCEEDING in killing someone (the outcome).  We need to focus on what we can control and stop focusing on those things beyond our control.

The Values Of A Culture Of Vigilance

If such a thing as a Culture of Vigilance can be said to exist there must be shared values associated with it.  I would like to submit the following for your consideration:

  1. Success is borne of planning. Solid planning is required for Operations to run smoothly with minimal variation and lowest possible risk; the better we plan the safer we are.
  2. We Cannot Prevent What We Cannot Foresee.  One of the first things we should be asking ourselves when someone is injured is not “what could the injured person have done to have avoided being harmed” (not that this question isn’t worth asking, but it shouldn’t be the FIRST question), rather we should be asking “was this foreseeable?” and if so, “why did we fail to foresee this?” and then “if we did foresee this, what did we do to mitigate our risk?”
  3. An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Cure.  It is always smarter and more effective to prevent injuries than to react to them and we need to build safety systems that spend far more effort preventing injuries than in treating them and preventing recurrence.
  4. Safety Never Sleeps. A culture of vigilance means that we are relentlessly pursuing the prevention of injuries and that we can never be fooled into thinking that nothing can go wrong; we are piloting The Titanic , a ship that once regarded as the safest ocean going vessel, right up until it sank.
  5. Vigilance is Exhausting So It Takes Everyone Working Together.  Constant vigilance creates a state of chronic unease that leads to stress and injuries so we have to get as many people involved as possible; many hands make for light lifting.
  6. Knowledge is Power.  We won’t be perfect, but as long as we learn from our mistakes we can continue to improve, and continual, incremental improvement will make the workplace safer.
  7. Every Injury Is A Big Deal.  We may never achieve zero-injury, and zero-harm may remain an ever elusive goal, most certainly we can never achieve zero risk,  but its never okay to hurt workers.  People can argue whether or not the idea of zero injuries is a faerie tale or the only acceptable goal, but both sides should agree that hurting workers is never okay and that anytime  a worker is harmed we have failed at our jobs.


[1] Before anyone runs off at the mouth about how this isn’t how he or she defines safety culture please read and then kindly keep your definition to yourself; I don’t care Daniel Webster you don’t get to just make up definitions to suit your purpose although I guess that’s essentially what I’m doing, but hey, it’s my blog; such is my right


Filed under: culture change, Safety, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,



Guest blogs

La Duke in the News


Press Release

Professional Organizations


Safety Professional's Resource Room

Social Networking


Web Resource


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,110 other followers

%d bloggers like this: