Is It Morally Right To Sell Safety You Know Isn’t Sustainable?

By Phil La Duke 

I have spent twelve years yapping like a barking rat about the snake oil salesmen who sell crap they “thunk up” and started peddling like a 19-century travelling salesmen. I have often make them out to be bad guys or even evil. Most of the people shilling snake oil believe that they are doing right, in fact, many of them are honest-to-goodness zealots, practically cult members willing to kill anyone who dare propose a different methodology.

But there is another breed emerging; a new con: the safety culture change practitioners. Given that I sell a safety infrastructure intervention that has sustainable culture change as one of its outcomes I have to tread lightly, but there are a fair number of safety sales people who sell safety culture change but deliver a climate change (and as anyone who listens to politicians knows, climate change is a myth) instead.

I have been working in corporate culture change for almost three decades, and have been focusing my culture change skills on safety for the last 16 so I get a bit irascible when people who were slinging BBS five years ago have coopted my chosen career by taking one discredited methodology and repackaging it as the solution d’jour. They know that people won’t buy the crap they are selling but they sell it anyway. I understand it; everyone has to make a buck and they reason that if they don’t do it, someone else would; it’s understandable, but unforgivable. It’s the same argument that pimps and heroin dealers use to justify what they do. The top guys justify making big bucks by claiming that they are selling solutions that save lives despite having no proof beyond stats that say their customers haven’t killed anyone recently. The consultants in the field give use the Nuremberg defense that they aren’t guilty since they are only doing their jobs—that didn’t fly at Auschwitz and it doesn’t fly here. If someone dies because you are doing your job you are culpable for that death (assuming your job is selling unsustainable climate change as long-term corporate culture change that values worker safety.)

In China some business leaders were struggling to sell milk and baby formula with the sufficient percentage of protein required by law; if they met the government requirements their profits would sink and they would risk losing their jobs; indeed their very livelihoods. The business leaders hit on a simple idea—slip a small amount of a chemical, Melamine, to make it look and test as if it had the appropriate protein levels. Unfortunately, the scheme worked and the companies were able to continue doing business without being hassled by the government. Things were going so well that the businesses began adding more and more of this toxic chemical to their products. And then people started dying. According to The London Guardian, the scandal that transcended many companies, claimed 300,000 victims of which, six infants died of kidney stones caused by the toxic chemical and another 10 babies died from malnutrition (since what their parents thought was milk was essentially white paint). Arrests were made and an example was made of two businessmen who were executed, and in my opinion, more should have been.

Climate change is not unlike poison milk: it seems to work, at least for a while, but unless you keep upping the percentage of poison the climate change can’t last and in the case of safety people die. Climate change is like a speed trap, once people know that a cop is waiting with a radar gun and an empty ticket book you had better slow down. Speed traps get results: traffic slows as the ticket book fills up. Of course as soon as the trap is dismantled traffic resumes to it’s former state. Now an ambitious mayor can claim that he was successful but was he? Was he really successful? Would you pay him millions for his temporary results?

The difference between a climate change and a culture change is that in a culture change the shared values of an organization change. I’ve said before, and will say again, that there is no such thing as a “safety culture” what the uninitiated MEAN when they use the misnomer is a corporate culture that values safety as a core value, something so deeply entrenched into the collective mindset that it is a defining criterion for how decisions are made. In a culture that values safety the value placed on safety is hardwired into how people behave and what is acceptable or unacceptable.

Changing a culture takes its own skill set and requires professionals with experience and a proven track record; it’s more than adding more poison to the milk.

 

Evaluating Training Part 2

By Phil La Duke

I hadn’t planned on writing more on this subject—that is to say the evaluation of training. Not that I don’t have more to say, much more in fact; it’s just that I saw little value in exploring Level 3 of Kirkpatrick’s model of training evaluation when so few get the first two levels correct. Level 3, which measures whether or not the learning is transferred into practice in the workplace. To be sure this kind of measurement can be tricky, and based on some of the feedback I got from the first post, many of you are skipping the first two steps in favor of jumping into the third, not only is this short-sighted, it might just be dangerous.

I won’t revisit Kirkpatrick’s model except to say that it is important to measure the first two levels for the reasons I cited last week. But once we are assured that the learners understand the point and importance of the class they have completed, and we know whether or not they acquired skills as a result of the course, you have to determine whether or not they apply those skills in the workplace.

Correct application of skills is especially important in safety because it can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Before we get into that I should clarify something. While all training does not happen in a classroom (in fact while most does most shouldn’t) all training should be evaluated. I’m afraid I may have created some confusion with last week’s post when I introduced the concept of pre- and posttesting. Sometimes, for safety sake we have to assume the worker knows nothing when we evaluate whether or not non-classroom training is effective. In a particularly cost effective way of training is demonstration and practice. In this type of training a skilled trainer or veteran employee, using either a task list or a standard work instruction sheet demonstrates the correct way to do the task while the learner watches and asks questions until he or she is ready to practice the tasks under the watchful eye of the trainer. Obviously in cases where the worker could injure him or herself by operating heavy equipment or unfamiliar machinery so administrating a pretest where you let the learner jump right in just to see if he or she can operate a CNC machine or induction molder would be recklessly and provide no value except to determine if the worker already had the skills that the shadow training was meant to be imparting. In broad strokes, we don’t care whether they NEED the training we are going to err on the side of caution (not to mention avoiding legal liability and violation of the General Duty Clause) and give the training to the person.

The tendency of trainers and especially veteran employees to skip areas of the training or skimp on the demonstration and practice because the worker seems particularly adroit at the skills makes the level three evaluations critical. I tend to wait a month and ask the worker to basically perform those tasks in which he or she was trained to see if the worker is still able to perform the skills to standard. During this evaluation I would ask specific questions that align with the course objectives to see what, if anything, has been retained.

At this point, many of you are questioning, whether or not it’s even necessary that the worker retain the information presented in an orientation. The problem with an orientation is that the learners frequently lack sufficient context to synthesize the concepts presented. This may sound like psychobabble—after all what sort of context does one need to understand that fire can burn you, electricity can shock you, and chemicals can poison you? Unfortunately, after a month on the job a worker tends to start to feel invincible and the once terrifying becomes mundane and even acceptable. By conducting a level three evaluation you can both evaluate training effectiveness and provide context and much needed reinforcement of the critical safety points the training was intended to impart, and by repeated evaluations and reinforcement the training can ultimately become internalized and hardwired into the behavior.

There is a complex connection between evaluation and reinforcement, especially when we get to level 3 (and forget 4—leave that to the training professionals to argue over) evaluation this intricate connection is especially strong, which is why I didn’t want to get into it in the first place.

 

How To Evaluate Training

By Phil La Duke

Last week I stated (for the umpteenth time) that a worker’s core competency may be the best predictor of safety.  I went on to rant about how in many cases training is slapped together and shoddily delivered in an effort to check the almighty box. One of my readers asked how can one accurately assess the efficiency of training.  So here goes…

“The Kirkpatrick Model is the worldwide standard for evaluating the effectiveness of training. It considers the value of any type of training, formal or informal, across four levels. Level 1 Reaction evaluates how participants respond to the training. Level 2 Learning measures if they actually learned the material.”

 

¾The Kirkpatrick Model – Kirkpatrick Partner www.kirkpatrickpartners.com/OurPhilosophy/TheKirkpatrickModel

The Kirkpatrick Model is a simple and fairly accurate way to measure the effectiveness of adult learning events (aka training), and while every six months or so, some Adult Learning theorist will come up with some other method the Kirkpatrick Model endures because of the elegancy of its simplicity.  The Model Consists of four levels with each designed to measure a specific element of the training.

Level One: Reaction

Kirkpatrick’s first level measures the learners’ reaction to the learning event.  There is a strong correlation between how much the learners enjoyed the time spent and found it valuable and learning retention.  Level one evaluations are typically completed immediately at the conclusion of the course using what trainers euphemistically call a “smile sheet” (a reference to how many smiles you counted at the end of a class.) but a good level one evaluation should delve deeper than merely whether or not the people liked the course (people like The Housewives of The Jersey Shore and Survivor but that doesn’t make it good television).  A good course evaluation will concentrate on three elements, the course content, the physical environment, and the presentation/skills of the instructor.  You can glean important insights into the quality of your course if you have constructed a good course evaluation.  Typically this means using a Likert Scale (asking participants to match their agreement with a statement about the course using a scale of 1-5 where one indicates strong disagreement and five strong agreement).  To build an effective level one tool, you should always have statements that are positive so that a score of one is consistently bad and a score of five is consistently good. Write the statements in complete sentences and don’t ask questions.  Also, don’t write more than 10 statements as people tend to want to get out of the class as quickly as possible and if you exceed one page your completion rate goes down exponentially.  I like to finish the one page evaluation with two questions: what did you like most about the course and what could be improved?

Level Two: Learning

The second level of Kirkpatrick’s model is learning, that is, how much of the content did the people actually learn as a result of the training session.  This evaluation is typically achieved through the use of a pre- and posttest.  This causes all sorts of consternation among people who don’t understand how to evaluate training. Many organizations flat out refuse to test the workers and even those who do balk at the idea of pretest.  Pre- and posttests are key to ascertaining whether or not the participants learned anything in the learning event.  Identical (we’ll get back to that in a moment) pre-and posttests are essential because the difference between the pre- and posttest scores indicate the amount of learning that actually took place.  Without a pretest you have no idea if they already knew the material before they came to session, and unless the questions are the same one can’t be certain if they learned the material  in the session.  Of course it is important to ask the questions in a different order and also have the answers in a different order to prevent people just memorizing  the choice without having to think about the information.

I have always preferred a 20 question multiple-choice pre- and posttest because the odds of guessing a single True or false question is 50% but that assumes that the question doesn’t contain any language that tips people off for example.

 True or False: It is never safe to work on energized equipment without locking out. I have seen variations of this question asked with one author of the question believing that the answer is “True” and another believing it to be “False”.  It is pretty easy to guess true/false questions that have absolutes like “never” in the question, because for the statement to be true it means that there is no possible scenario where the statement can true.  In other words, if I can find just one instance where it is safe to work on energized equipment (say during test mode, or other conditions that require power) I can be confident that the statement is false.  Conversely, we need to have a clear definition of “safe”; if by “safe” we mean the absolute absence of risk of injury (a circumstance that is all but impossible) we can confidently answer “True”.  Considering language ambiguity and tip offs, the odds of guessing a True/False question correctly is more like 65%.

Multiple choice (or as people who mistakenly think that they are witty call them, “multiple guess”) if well written provide us with a clearer picture of whether or not the learners actually learned.  For example a pretest question might read:

  1. The element with the lowest atomic weight is:

    1. Hydrogen

    2. Argon

    3. Helium

    4. I don’t know

I get laughed at for using “I don’t know” as a distractor, but you might be surprised how often people select that as an answer.  There are certain things that make this a good question and one is that there is only one correct answer, and the distractors (the wrong choices) are correct answers to other questions.  Here again good grammar makes a difference if I were to ask a question like

  1. An element whose oxidation number is 0 prevents gas from forming compounds readily, is called an ________________ gas:

    1. Inert

    2. Low reaction

    3. Non-reactive

    4. I don’t know

Since the word “an” is used directly before the blank, basic grammar tells us that the correct answer begins with a vowel, and if we have the brains God gave geese we can assume that d) I don’t know is incorrect and by processes of elimination conclude that a) must be the correct answer as all other possibilities are grammatically incorrect. Never use answers like “a) and b) only” or “all of/none of the above” because you risk testing reading comprehension skills instead of knowledge acquisition.

I also get some fair amount of guff for having 20 questions.  “It’s too many” “it takes too long”, fair criticisms I suppose, but also enough to be statistically valid (assuming a couple of variables) but let’s assume we have 20 people in a class and each is taking a 20 question test.  For a confidence level of 95% and a confidence interval of ±5 you would need a population of 19. Once you have validated the test you can then be reasonably certain that the difference between the pre- and posttests are the result of the learning event.

When analyzing the test scores you should see them skewed to the right (in other words you should see the test scores disproportionately high (indicating that most people mastered the content).

You can further analyze the data using µ scores a µ (pronounced moo) score is the average of the averages and if the scores go up it indicates that the instructors are getting better at their jobs, while if they are getting worse it means that instructors are getting bored, taking shortcuts or for some other reason failing to present the full content. Assuming the content and the test has not changed the µ score is an accurate reflection of the performance of the instructor.

The other two levels of Kirkpatrick’s model are a bit too complex for laymen to dabble in, but this is how you can validate whether or not your training is effective.

 

 

 

Safety In The Disposable Worker Economy

by Phil La Duke

I have been saying that training in core competencies is perhaps the single greatest determinate in lowering the risk of injuries for over 11 years. In fact, my first published article was What’s Wrong With Safety Training and How to Fix It. Unfortunately the message, after 11 years, still doesn’t seem to have sunk in.

It’s pretty simple: if a person doesn’t know how to do his or her job the probability that this person will make a mistake that will cause him or her harm goes up exponentially. This equation doesn’t change no matter how many times you observe him or her, how many cards you write, or how many times you congratulate yourselves on how infrequently you leave someone battered and dying in a pool of his or her own blood.

So why don’t we do a better job training workers in the core skills (as opposed to safety training, which—in my experience—is of equal poor quality, if not worse)? Here is where we trot out all the old convenient excuses: there isn’t enough time, we do “shadow” training, “this isn’t rocket science”, etc. But lately there has been a new excuse: we don’t want to waste training dollars on temps, contractors, or a workforce that turns over quickly. People speak of the new “gig economy” as if it is a new, innovative and tremendously valuable trend that give workers freedom and flexibility. I think the “gig economy” is better described as “the disposable worker economy”. I wrote an article for Entrepreneur on the gig economy Is the Gig Economy Sustainable that asked that very question. In response to this article, which I admit paints a grim picture of those forced into the gig economy, a publicist for a profiteering pig of a man wrote to me suggesting that I write an article on “How one entrepreneur is using the gig economy to help leading manufacturers”. What was alarming was that these temporary workers weren’t being fobbed off onto small sweat shops, rather onto Honda and Toyota, in fact, he brags that 20% of his customers are Fortune 500 companies, and “how he grew his $88M business by 87% in the last two years”. These people are being commoditized; it’s one step up from human trafficking, and I don’t know how familiar you are with human trafficking, but they don’t do a lot of core skills training or place a high emphasis on safety.

Companies are behaving reprehensively for preying on temps to avoid paying unemployment and other benefits (I asked this glorified pimp three times if he paid his workers benefits and received no answer). I can only assume that they receive the typical one-hour safety talk that contract service providers typically provide and I don’t see companies spending a lot of time and money training workers that they are going to wad up and through away like used Kleenex. I have actually had safety and (sub)human resources professionals tell me that it doesn’t make fiscal sense to train workers that won’t be around longer than 90 days.

Some of you may agree with this thinking, and that’s your right (not that you need my permission) but consider this: untrained temporary workers pose a threat not just to their OWN safety but also to the safety of other workers, including you. The more marginalized and neglected the temporary workers are made to feel the less likely they are to care about the safety of those around them, and what’s more, even those who DO care about safety cannot possibly work safely if they haven’t been properly trained in the core skills necessary to properly and safely perform the necessary tasks.

This lack of training isn’t the fault, at least not entirely, of the safety professionals. In many organizations it is the Training (or talent development if you prefer) function’s job to do core skills training, but too many of these can’t see beyond the classroom. Yes, the most effective core skills training is actually on the job, but that doesn’t mean that the Training Function should abdicate its responsibility in favor of having “Subject Matter Experts” develop and deliver training. I worked for several years in healthcare where clinical training was left to nurses. Adult learning is a highly complex process and requires expertise in how to develop course material and a robust instructional design and evaluation. In laymen’s terms, you got to know how to write and deliver training and make sure that it is effective before you turn the learner out into the world. This is as true for Safety as it is for healthcare clinicians; let’s face it, when a safety professional writes a training course without having had the benefit of any education or experience with Adult Learning theory, Safety is being completely irresponsible.

Neither Safety nor Core Skills training is just something we can check a box indicating that it has been done. We have to ensure that the training providing actually imparts the required skills workers need to keep themselves and others alive, and that applies to someone who will be in the job for a day or a career.

Safety Needs to Go Back to Basics

Sorry for the late post. I delude myself into thinking that a multitude of readers sit in breathless anticipation waiting for my next post, or article. But given the metrics on my work very few people read my work, and a good portion of them read it only for the perverse pleasure they get from writing nasty emails and comments. When I started writing this blog (in 2006) I did so because it had been over twenty years since I was a newspaper reporter, and over 15 years since I was a business writer. I held blogs in disdain, and was late getting into the game and did nothing to get followers.

So while a fair amount of my work ended up in Safety magazines, some of whom heralded me as a fresh voice in safety. I made some fans, friends, and enemies. The more outrageous the post I wrote, the more people who lined up to be shocked. But today I am not feeling controversial, in fact I’m feeling minimalist. Which means that scarce few will read this, and those that do are likely to be disappointed. I won’t drop any bombshells, and this post isn’t likely to rankle anybody, but then, I have met so many honest to God lunatics doing this work I no longer know what innocuous statement will set one of you nuts off, so here goes.

Safety has to get back to basics, and no I don’t mean sketchy research done in factories by devotees of eugenics who believed that their subjects were little more than apes.

Safety is about controlling risks. We will never have complete safety, that is to say the absence of any chance of harm. Braying on about zero injuries and zero harm makes for good philosophical debate, but it’s not practical and sustainable. Without an infrastructure for foreseeing, identifying, containing and correcting hazards than nothing approaching safety can ever be achieved.

Safety never sleeps. Recently someone asked me what I thought was the biggest problem facing safety today and I said, complacency. Too many organizations believe that because its been awhile since they’ve had a serious injury that they have conquered injuries forever. Safety has to be dynamic and be continually examined—not for gimmicks or new ways to the same end—and scrutinized to ensure that our practices are commensurate with changes in the business climate.

No more monkey see, monkey do. An in ordinate number of safety professionals simply wait to see what the next guy is doing, attend a conference, or otherwise look for that magic recipe. There are too many variables for you to adopt a practice that another company used to be successful for it to automatically work for you, just do what works in your organization, and to do that you have to listen to your organization and lead them to a better route.

Is Predictive Analysis For Safety Just the Next Big Thing?

By Phil La Duke

I’ve taken a fair amount of flack about being behind on the latest and greatest in Safety theory. I’m not worried about getting a little flack from pompous, over-blown, theoreticians who pat me on the head and patronize me for being the poor stupid author of an antiquated article filled with atavistic thinking. That’s fine, but keep it respectful or I will poor more vitriol and bile then you thought possible.

For starters I have been a proponent, advocate, and user of predictive indicators since the late 1990s. But I have to tell you that I think the theoreticians are jumping the gun in saying that we can predict fatalities, or even injuries, at least not without significant education in statistics and data analysis.

Predicting fatalities is a bit like predicting the weather; that is, difficult. The difficulty lies in the many variables that can influence the outcome, and many of those variables are unknown, making a precise prediction impossible.

There is a lot wrong with the average safety practitioner’s understanding of predictive (but fortunately there are a host of consultants out there to “show them the way”). Let’s start with the difference between “prediction” and “foresight”. Prediction implies that one can, using statistical analysis with a high probability of accuracy, a certain outcome. Statistical prediction is a recognized science and my point is not to belittle it; that having been said, it requires no small amount of expertise. Foresight, means that given a basic set of facts, a reasonable person can anticipate a likely result. Again, I am not belittling foresight, but even foresight requires no small amount of skills.

Using Statistical Analysis to “Predict” fatalities is not quite as pat as it seems. For starters, many are using the word “predict” when they mean “foresee”. I can foresee that someone welding on a gas tank could cause an explosion. I don’t need anything more than a basic understanding of the relationship between gasoline fumes and explosions to be able to foresee an undesirable outcome.

Prediction is more likely to use data to produce a fairly vague prognosis; the data may show that enough variables exist that a fatality (or serious injury) will happen in a given area and even the nature of the injury, but it’s difficult to say exactly when it will occur. There is also the problem of probability (each encounter has the same probability of causing an injury, so a lucky organization could have workers engaged in extremely risky behavior and never have an injury.)

In an article in EHS Today one of the leading proponents of predictive Safety offered four “truths” of predictive safety[1]:

“#1: More inspections predict a safer worksite.” This is misleading, because it assumes that the a) the inspections are effective in identifying the hazards that are most likely to cause an injury; b) the inspections cover the entire workplace, i.e. they aren’t conducted in the same place. It also assumes that all hazards create equal jeopardy, which we no Is not true.
“Safety Truth #2: More inspectors, specifically more inspectors outside the safety function, predict a safer worksite.” Here again this is fraught with assumptions. It assume that the more inspectors are adept at finding hazards and are judicious in containing and correcting the hazards in a timely manner; this cannot be assumed. Furthermore, more inspectors don’t “predict” anything necessarily, rather this statement flies in the face of sound statistical analysis. Where is the cause and effect of more inspectors (who may or may not have the ability to identify hazards effectively). This “truth” relies only on quantitative data and ignores any and all qualitative data.
“Safety Truth #3: Too many “100 percent safe” inspections predict an unsafe worksite.” Again, there is no basis for prediction. There are many, MANY variables that could create inspections that are “100 percent safe”. The author of this statement infers (and it makes sense to infer it) that the inspectors are either derelict in doing their duties, or are missing hazards. The author may be right, but makes no allowance for the improbable scenario that all hazards have indeed been removed from the areas inspected.
“Safety Truth #4: Too many unsafe observations predict an unsafe worksite.” Here the author is mistaking foresight for predictability. This entire premise mistakes correlation for cause and effect ignores the very real need for a sufficiently large sample size before any statistical inference can be made. Furthermore it ignores margin for error, the need for a normal distribution, and statistical outliers.

They are on the right track, but too many people moving to “predictive analysis” don’t understand the differences between being able to foresee and predict, correlation and cause, and science and snake oil—the bottle has changed but the poison is the same.

 

 

[1] http://ehstoday.com/safety/news/predictive-analytics-safety-truths-0222

#safety

If you’re looking to take offense look no further

“Funny how every one of your articles is based on opinion and conjecture and offers not one iota of definitive reliable evidence. Who are all of these safety professionals you keep referring to? I don’t image you have many peers in the safety industry that would speak with you. An amazing gift you have with the ability to talk out your ass.”

Douglas Lyons

Yesterday I got another poison pen letter (as seen above) from an article I posted on my atavistic webpage Workersafetynet. The article in question proffered a simple idea, that when it comes to safety, nobody, myself included, has all the answers. The points I was trying to make was that because nobody has all the answers we have to keep looking and challenging the status quo. This sentiment should surprise no one; in one form or another I’ve been saying this for over 20 years. But this particular dullard did what most mouth breathers do, that is, attack me because my blogs are full of opinions and lack research studies and academic sources. He went on to speak for all safety professionals by telling me that he doubts that anyone likes or respects me, apparently in the ardent hope that such a revelation would trouble me deeply. Feel free to use the link to drop him a line, or better yet his boss, I’m sure he be delighted to hear from you.

In another, unrelated event a LinkedIN group member took me to task about my post on worker fatalities, but more specifically how I disrespected him. It got me thinking about respect and it’s role in safety. In both cases the individuals came at me disrespectfully and in both cases I lit them up. I was raised that you get respect by showing respect.   More accurately I was raised that a lack of respect got you beaten within an inch of your life, unless you beat the other person senseless first. No I didn’t grow up on the mean streets of Detroit, at least not until I was a teen, but long before that I lived on a farm that was slowly decaying under the steady encroachment of “city folks” who fled the suburbs for the bucolic life of farm country where they immediately built ridiculous facades of what they imagined farm houses looked like, respite with barn-shaped mailboxes and flower beds decorated with half buried wagon wheels and worked to enact local ordinances to effectively turn their new homes into what they were just so desperate to flee. Because we were out in the sticks there wasn’t much supervision and fights were common. My mother was a housewife long before “stay at home moms” were chic and had little patience for playing referee to her seven children. We had two standing rules: don’t come home crying and tattling (snitches end up in ditches as my younger brother likes to say) and you don’t start fights but you damned well better finish them.

Since the nearest neighbor with kids was a family of my distant cousins who had nine kids, of which seven were boys, fighting was a fairly regular occurrence. When I say fighting I am not talking about shoving matches, rather a literal knockdown drag out fight that weren’t over until the victor tired of inflicting pain and injury. We were tiny brutes (and I was one of the smallest); vicious and sadistic primates punching and biting our way to our appropriate station within the troop. I was knocked unconscious when I was hit in the head with a baseball bat on two separate occasions and my two front teeth were shattered in the aftermath of a fight with another cousin. I was a little guy with a big mouth and low flashpoint; fighting was never something I enjoyed, but I disliked it less than being pushed around or bullied. This went on until high school where I was faced entering an environment where I knew I just couldn’t compete physically and trying was likely to bust me up good. So I decided I would be funny. I always thought I had a quick wit and lively sense of humor, but then who doesn’t? I set out to be able to talk my way out of the most tense situations and quickly transferred to a co-ed school where my odds of survival would be significantly increased. I learned to respect people who earned it. I learned that what makes you tough isn’t how much you can dish out but how much you can take without going down; to keep throwing punches for as long as you can push through the burning of your biceps and stand the taste of blood in your mouth. At around age 17 I got into a fight where I pummeled a rival who was much larger than me. They filed charges but nothing stuck, but it was enough for me to realize physical violence was no longer be dismissed as “boys will be boys” shenanigans; if I kept it up I would end up in prison. What does all of this have to do with safety? Not much, it’s just a glimpse into how I became who I became. The idea that one has to give respect to get respect was literally beat into me, and that lesson has stayed with me and has, I believe, a profound opportunity for us to apply this to worker safety.

Safety practitioners tend toward the Rodney Dangerfields of the work world; bemoaning the lack of respect workers and leaders show them. Now some of you just took offense to that. You will send me whiny comments to the effect that “ not all safety people are like that”. I didn’t say all or even most safety professionals, but I know a lot of us have felt disrespected at one time or another. Earning the respect of the organization is essential to our success in safety. People may rightfully say, that they don’t have to be liked to be effective in safety, but I will argue until I can’t physically utter another word before I concede that one can be effective if the people in the organization don’t respect them.

Respect is earned; hear that a lot, but what does it mean and how does it happen? It begins by believing with every fiber of your being that you are no better than the people you are charged with protecting. I have heard safety practitioners refer to the frontline workers as “shop monkeys” or “factory rats”; hardly respectful ways to VIEW a person, never mind describe them to a virtual stranger. Sometimes the disrespect is more subtle. I have been asked to dumb down safety training “because the hourlies just won’t get it” I was fired from one company after giving a speech on how to connect personal and business values to safety. Management praised the speech but the top dog decided it was way too high-brow for the simple-minded workers. I was eventually replaced by a guy who used arc flash to burn stuffed squirrels (I wish I was making this up).

I was also told that I could not be friends with the “great unwashed” and be effective as a safety professional. I disregarded that directive and soon had workers pointing out hazards and asking for my advice. This didn’t happen over night, nor was it easy. I would introduce myself and get eye rolls and smart aleck comments about safety. I would always make the point that I was there to have their back, not be on their back and since I didn’t know how to do their jobs I would be asking a lot of questions. Watching those guys work convinced me that I couldn’t do what they could do and it would be the height of arrogance to assume that they were somehow of less value to the world than me or anyone else.

One particularly belligerent worker loudly announced my arrival with “okay everybody the safety guy is here everybody follow the rules”. Later he asked me if I was “making sure everyone was following the rules”. I looked him in the eye and assertively told him that I was there to help him and his colleagues make informed decisions about their jobs and that I wasn’t his boss or his mother, but would like to help him make the kinds of decisions that might just save his life or the life of another. I told him, I will never save your life, but I will do my utmost to help you to save your own. His whole demeanor changed and he looked me square in the eye and said, “you’re different than most safety people, thanks for having our backs.”

If you think you’re better than the people you work with you are being disrespectful to them.

That’s not to say you can gain the respect of everyone. I get a lot of mail from people looking to take offense. I have learned to accept most of it without firing back, because in general people who ask “what makes you such an expert?” are really pissed off that they aren’t. Experts aren’t necessarily people with alphabet soup at the beginning or end of their names; credentials are relatively easy to get—hell I’m a reverend and a shaman thanks to spending three minutes on a website—but they aren’t anything to be summarily dismissed either. Worker experience too doesn’t mean much if you’ve done a substandard job your whole career; no matter the craft someone is the worst at it. Here again, you can’t just dismiss work experience as valueless; some of the most talented and dedicated safety professionals came up through the ranks.

The people who howl the loudest that “just because he has letters after his name doesn’t mean that he knows more about safety” are typically insecure crybabies who really want validation that they are good enough despite their lack of credentials. Similarly those who belittle “uneducated buffoons who were put into safety because they couldn’t do anything else” are simply looking for respect for the considerable learning and investment in time and money that they made.

The irony of me writing a post about respect is not lost on me. I have been poking and prodding the safety community for more than two decades, and haven’t been all that respectful in many of my posts, discussions, and comments, but all I can say is if you want my respect, earn it.