Have Safety Trade Shows Become Just a Place to Buy Gloves?

By Phil La Duke

Two weeks ago I spoke at my favorite safety trade show, the Michigan Safety Conference. When I am at a show I like to spend a fair amount of time in the exhibit hall.  Exhibitors and speakers make conferences possible.  And while—with the exception of the Michigan Safety Conference—speakers and generally treated pretty poorly (one is forced to jump through many hoops, typically bring your own computer, have sketchy AV support, and conference organizers who generally act as if they are doing YOU a favor. I get their attitude, after all, as a speaker I get to travel at my own expense and sometimes on my own time for the honor of speaking at their shows.) exhibitors really get mistreated.  For starters the national conferences charge you for everything from the carpet in your both to transporting your booth and giveaways from the loading docks to the exposition floor.  Again, I want to say NONE of this applies to the Michigan Safety Conference which is less a trade show and more of gathering of safety professionals organized by and for working safety professionals, no, it’s more the National Safety Conferences and Expos with whom I have a bone to pick.  The Michigan Safety Conference was well attended this year drawing in around 4,000 attendees and a nice selection of exhibitors.

I have noticed big and unsettling changes in Safety Trade shows lately, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I talked to the sole exhibitor that sold machine guarding. He pointed out that we KNOW that the controls at the bottom of the Hierarchy of Controls are least effective, and yet he was the vendor selling solutions at the highest point on the H of C.  Gone were the BBS consultants (that all that is holy) gone were the theoreticians hawking snake oil, gone were consultants with new methodologies, instead there was a room fool of people selling software, administrative controls and mostly PPE.

The speakers too were different too. There was nary a one BBS huckster, no sullen looking women staring out with dead eyes from BST’s booth (mainly because BST, DuPount, SafeStart and the usual cast of “let us safe the world” characters failed to show this year, either as speakers OR as exhibitors. (Don’t worry I’m sure they will all be there at the next National Safety Conference you attend.) There were far fewer speakers talking about strategy and big picture topics and more speeches about regulatory compliance and specific technical subjects. It’s good to have a nice selection of technical and regulatory topics but the gentleman selling guarding’s observation really stuck with me. Both in the speakers’ rooms and in the exposition hall the lower 2/5ths of the Hierarchy of Controls were disproportionately represented.

You can’t blame the conference’s organizers. Getting exhibitors is tough so in general you will take anyone willing to shell out the sizeable fee for floor space.  It’s tough to convince people to exhibit because there is seldom a quantifiable return on investment (this is MARKETING not SALES) but it is a great place to entertain clients, meet with people that it might otherwise be too expensive to jump on a plane, and above all get your name out there.  So don’t expect conference organizers to turn anyone away.  The speakers are much the same, now let me be clear hear, I have a bug up my butt about the National Safety Council for which I am blacklisted.  Why? They gave me a long and convoluted explanation that made no sense (“We took all the speaker evaluations and dropped the lowest scores.   Then we took the top half and divided that by two and gave only the top highest-scoring speakers preferential treatment, and you were in the lower half of the second cut.  Maybe when you have polished your speaking skills you can reapply.”  For the record I review all of my evaluations and get top marks for my presentation skills, and even though it is less popular than my presentation skills my topics get good to excellent marks (with the occasional satisfactory mark.  I submit up to 30 abstracts on a range of subjects and the organizers CHOOSE the topic on which I will speak, so I ask you, whose fault is it if people don’t like the topic.  Also, what kind of water head comes to a topic in which he or she isn’t interested?). My grey-listing (after nine speeches in eight years) has nothing to do with me suggesting that they find different key note speakers than repugnant Scott Gellar informercials and the great guy who hasn’t had a different message for 25 years Charlie Morecraft.  For the record Charlie is a great guy who has a really compelling story, he’s approachable, down to earth, helpful and free with advise and I really don’t have anything bad to say about him and Scott Gellar wrote a book, so…um…there’s that. What does it say about us as a community if our trade shows have devolved into little more than quilting circles where, instead of talking about quilting and buying quilting supplies, we instead get together and talk about theoretical (albeit untested) topics and compare prices on gloves.

Increasingly, speakers, exhibitors, and even attendees are finding it more and more difficult to justify the cost of these National Safety conferences and are opting for the smaller regional conferences. Judging from how unaffiliated regional conferences in Michigan, Ohio, and other states are growing it makes me wonder how long the National Safety conferences will continue. Should we fight to save them? Hell I like going to Vegas, or New Orleans, or San Diego, but is it worth the cost? You can find more conference attendees at the local pub than at a speech or in the exhibit hall. And incidentally I spoke at a regional ASSE PDC and it was great, but professional development conferences are a completely different, and dare I say better, animal.

I think the answer is DEMAND that the National Safety shows improve. Contact the organizers and tell them that if they want you to attend then they have to get better speakers and that the speeches can’t just be commercials.  That they need to get speakers and exhibitors that better represent the solutions from the Hierarchy of Controls, that they had ought to treat their speakers (who, except for the keynotes, they don’t pay at all and expect to absorb all their travel expenses) and exhibitors better (many exhibitors complain that either the conference organization actively competes against them; selling their products adjacent to the exhibitors or that there is too little time on the agenda for people to visit the exhibit hall.)

This year’s key note for AIHA is Ken Jennings the longest running Jeopardy! contestant; I’m sure the audience will learn much from Ken’s extensive knowledge of both game shows and Industrial Hygiene, but heck he’s likely to be more entertaining than most key notes so who cares if he isn’t even related to the topic in the most tangential measure?

Too lazy to look up the organizers for the shows? Here you go: (and no, you don’t necessarily have to support me, in fact you can tell them that the best move they ever made was dumping me as a speaker, it’s not like I can think of a circumstance that I would consider returning, eight years of providing services for free is enough)

The National Safety Council Hilda Koskiewicz (Hilda.Koskiewicz@nsc.org)

The American Society Of Safety Engineers Dewey Whitmire (dwitmire@asse.org )

American Industrial Hygiene Association Bethany Chirico (bchirco@aiha.org )

If we don’t act now in ten years these shows won’t exist, but maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Academics: Go Back To Your Ivory Towers

broken cross

By Phil La Duke

I really need to stop reading LinkedIn discussions. Recently Alan Quilley (a smart guy and truly thought provoker) posted a link to his article Risk Analysis and Management in a discussion thread. True to form the mouth breathers and water heads attacked the article like howling rabid jackals. I don’t, no let’s make that I WON’T, rehash the argument, but sufficed to say, there was a lot of trash slung by smug academics who have never once set foot in anything approaching a medium-to high-risk workplace. Their claim was that the equation Quilley proffered, Risk = Probability x Severity x Exposure, was too simplistic and that Quilley didn’t understand the math.

There was some validity to the argument, which Quilley freely admitted. Both sides agreed that the average safety person doesn’t really understand the nuances of risk, and for that matter probability. I may not have accurately captured Alan’s arguments, and if you’re reading this Alan, my sincerest apologies, but my intent as I have stated is not to rehash the argument, but it did get me thinking about how irresponsible some safety practitioners apply concepts they only sort of understand; strike that; that they don’t understand at all.

Let’s take probability; pretty easy right? If you’ve ever flipped a coin or shot craps you understand probability, right? Wrong. There is a lot more to understanding probability than calculating the odds. There is sample size, and margin of error, and so on. But let’s deal with the simplest definition of probability I could find (I won’t site a source because it appears in about nine different places and none of them site a source so I won’t give credit to someone who is plagiarizing, and before anyone accuses me of doing the same, I freely and wholeheartedly admit that I am not the author of this definition): “Probability is the chance that a given event will occur divided by the number of possible outcomes.” (Feel free to argue amongst yourself). Probability isn’t subjective; it’s absolute. The probability of flipping a normally weighted coin heads side up is 1 in 2 or 50:50, but even in this simple example there is a third, extremely remote possibility that the coin will not flip on either side but land on its side; (let’s just chock that up to “margin of error”) even so, there is a remote possibility that the coin will land on its edge. So while it is generally accepted that the chance of a flipped coin is 50:50 it really isn’t. If we further consider that all coins are not the exact weight and shape (whether because of minor deviations in the minting process, wear from the time and condition of the circulation of the coin, or some other reason for which I can’t imagine) then there is even less certainty of the 50:50 probability. The point is, if we can’t even count on the purity of the odds of a coin flip how can we expect to calculate the odds of an injury.

We tend to think of the probability of injuries as fairly binary—there are two possible outcomes: injury or no injury. This thinking sounds reasonable but it is deeply flawed. Take a look at a person completely a task as part of his or her job. There are more than two outcomes, clearly there is the chance that the worker will be uninjured, we cannot treat the employee being injured as a single outcome because there are multiple causes for a worker injury. Not only that, there are several other outcomes we may forget to consider. For example, a worker could be killed, or at the other extreme the worker could suffer a near miss.

Just as the weight and shape of an imperfect coin can artificially impact probability so can things like the worker’s capability (training, natural aptitude, risk taking, behavioral drift, performance inhibitors, etc.) the process capability (process tolerance, reliability, etc.) in fact there are so many variables at play in worker injuries it’s a wonder we try to calculate probability at all.

To be fair to Quilley, his formula was never meant to be a scientific predictor of a given outcome, rather it is a workable formula for prioritizing injuries, and yes to be fair to the academics Quilley has over simplified probability. So what are we to do with all this? I for my part agree with Alan. The safety practitioners and frontline supervisors shouldn’t have to work differential equations to calculate risk. We need a practical, usable, and simple way to determine whether or not a given task is too risky to perform, which risks on which to concentrate, and which risks are more likely to cause the most severe injuries. A safety practitioner should not have to be Euclid to calculate probability, but then again one should also know that his or her calculation of probability is little more than a guess. A good guess to be sure, but a guess nonetheless. It’s an educated guess based on years of experience

To some extent it comes down to just plain sense. We know drunk driving is dangerous because we have seen too many tragic accidents caused because a driver was drunk, and you don’t have to be Pythagoras to foresee that a teen (or worse an elderly) driver texting is a high risk behavior.

What I am saying, in my round about way, is that arguments over whether or not a safety professional can accurate calculate probability of injuries is of far less important than whether or not we can prioritize the correction of hazards. Someone once said, “if you can’t say something nice about someone, then don’t say anything at all”. To the academics who went to such pains to argue against Quilley’s points I say, “shut up”. Not that I want to stifle freedom of speech, but yammering on and on about how wrong someone is without offering some useful counter suggestion is tantamount to bullying, and as much as I enjoy bullying, I say to the academics, take your theories back to the ivy towers where you can poison the minds of tomorrow’s leaders; they’re not welcome here and we’ve got work to do.



Compromise Is A Big Part of Safety

by Phil La Duke

Two weeks ago I spoke to a fine group of safety professionals at an ASSE PDC on the dangers of complacency and in two days I will speak at the Michigan Safety Conference about shifting the focus away from body counts in favor of the things that cause safety. In preparing for both of these topics something that had always bothered me became clear: Safety is a series of trade-offs and compromises.  I can already hear my detractors, “That’s La Duke endangering the workplace with more his safety  heresy.”

But think about it, “safe” is a relative term. Is it safe shooting a movie at the Packard Plant?  No when compared to shooting in a sound studio, yes compared to Detroit Animal Control capturing a scared and agitated tiger in the abandoned and unsafe labyrinth of tunnels below the plant (it had escaped during a German video shoot).

This weekend I saw a “health tip” on avoiding the flue: “get the flu vaccine, wash your hands often, and don’t touch handrails.” Now I know of at least four workplaces where an employee can get written up for NOT touching the handrails while traversing steps.  When I worked and Trinity Health (by people who really KNOW about the subject) we were a) required to get a flu shot, b) had ample dispensers of hand sanitizer conveniently located and c) were told not to touch the handrails, rather to hold our hands slightly above the rail so that should we begin to slip and fall we would be able to catch ourselves.  For the record this is how handrails are intended to be used.  The idea is less about eliminating the risk of falling, and more about the mitigation of the risk of injury; to reduce the consequences of slipping on the steps.

Tradeoffs are part of our job we want people to be alert and vigilant and to focus on the tasks at hand, and yet we know that remaining hyper-focused tends to lead to attention fatigue, where are minds can no longer focus at such a high level and errors become exponentially more common. So by pushing awareness and focus we at some point actually create hazards.

Complacency is another area where we have to pick our battles. On one hand we want workers to be confident and competent in the tasks they do, but on the other hand we don’t want them to get TOO confident either; it’s an on-going battle.

Just Say No Doesn’t Work

Too many safety professionals see themselves as guardians of all their flock. These safety professionals tend to discount the life experience and decision making abilities of their people and think they know better in all cases. And when safety professionals develop this attitude they get in the business of saying “no, that’s too dangerous”. I have occasion to be the Production Safety Consultant on a big budget action film. Action films, despite the extreme precautions to reduce the risk of undesirable outcomes (it’s not just injuries, but destruction of property, damage to equipment, etc.) action films remain a fairly high risk endeavor (as compared to shooting at an outdoor Paris café) but safety people need to recognize that the old adage, “the show must go on doesn’t just apply to Hollywood or Broadway but to oil fields, and auto manufacturing, or logistics, or bio tech, or well… you get the picture (no pun intended).  Everywhere the work has to get done, ideally safely, but if you tell them “no” they will just wait until you aren’t around to do it.  And hidden risk is deadly risk. Our jobs in safety has to be about helping people make informed decisions about the risks they take, not making global rules and procedures because one person made a bad decision. We have to be better than that, but being better than that is a lot more work.  Safety is not a profession for the lazy, and point of fact I haven’t met that many lazy safety practitioners (the problem is the ones who are stick out in my memory).  I’ve met plenty of crusaders who have an exaggerated sense of their own importance to the organization, and I’ve seen my fair share of bellyachers (you have to remember that through my writing, blogging, speaking, and consulting I meet a LOT of safety professionals that traverse geographies, cultures, industries) but mostly I’ve met good safety who are earnestly trying to do the best job they can. Most are respectful, thoughtful, and intelligent, and most would agree that safety, and the steps we are forced to take are often compromises that keep us up at night.

Who Wants Safety?


By Phil La Duke

Why don’t people care about the costs of savings associated with reducing injuries? I have devoted my career in safety trying to sell the idea that: a) injuries cost money that returns no value; b) the right improvements not only will pay for themselves, but will show a return on investment; and c) there is nothing gauche or vulgar about saving money along with saving lives, in other words just because you save money by lowering injuries doesn’t mean you care any less about the human costs of injuries.

It would appear to be a no brainer, wouldn’t it? If you could spend $150,000 and see a tenfold return on the money, while at the same time reducing human suffering wouldn’t it just make unequivocal sense to do so? Yet companies will spend ten times that much without a ghost of a hope of getting a sustainable return on the money they spend.

For some companies saving a couple of million dollars a facility is thought of as practically not worth the effort it would take to earn it. I had an executive tell me more than once that the cost of injuries is inconsequential compared to the other costs associated with running their respective businesses. What they fail to recognize is that these dollars represent the seriousness of an injury, so while an 80% reduction in injury costs may seem like chump change compared to savings in even a small improvement in productivity, injury dollars represent misery. They forget about all the ancillary payoffs associated with less blood money spent. They forget about all the other good things that come along side reducing worker injuries.

Other companies are so heavily invested in a water-headed methodology or philosophy that they can’t see tear themselves away from it to try something potentially more effective. Day after day they throw good money after bad. It’s the business equivalent of having a car or a home that is just a money pit—you justify spending more money than you should because you already spent more money than you should have. I’ve seen this phenomenon more time than I can count. “I’d love to try this methodology but we just heavily invested in brand x” or “brand x is so much a part of our culture that I doubt we can justify quitting.” In both cases, the safety function went to the matt and vouched for a particular approach, and now they have to defend it, particularly if it doesn’t work. It’s like the old joke about the restaurant where the food was awful and they didn’t give you enough of it. I know safety directors who spent gobs of money on something that failed to deliver and lost their jobs because they advocated for something that didn’t work.

Finally, in some cases the organization is so zealous about Safety the philosophy they can’t sully the sacred the purity of their intentions by saving money. The mere mention of saving money by reducing injuries is considered so base, so crude that they won’t even listen. “Preventing injuries is just the right thing to do, we don’t care about the money it costs or saves.” I can fully understand not wanting to seem mercenary or money grubbing, but speaking as someone who lost a father and brother-in-law (not the same person I am not entirely the product of incest) to industrial illnesses, have had two brothers seriously injured on the job, and had both grandfathers and a great uncle killed on the job, I am no stranger to the depth of human suffering that workplace injuries and fatalities can cause. But I can’t quantify those deaths, I can’t give you a figure that would adequately compensate me or my family for those deaths or injuries.

So why are so many companies so completely disinterested in saving money by reducing injuries? I was speaking to a fellow consultant when I was speaking to a fellow consultant who agreed that it was difficult to sell safety using dollars and sense (not a typo all you uptight sexually frustrated wannabe editors). In the final estimation he said it best. “You have to want safety, and either you want it or you don’t.”



To Hell With Safety Goals

By Phil La Duke

Preface: I reached some deep insights about worker safety this week. That’s not much of an achievement as some may think but after 11 years of writing thousand-word articles on the same subject week after week it gets tougher and tougher to go to the well. It’s been a rough couple of months I walked away from a great project that I designed only to see it poisoned by a toxic person who was equal parts ego and sewer. This week I heard that this ichor-hearted brute told the client that I was dismissed from the project because I wasn’t contributing. Well what goes around comes around and in rare cases we get to watch the traitorous villains get their just desserts. All that is beside the point, I include it just so you can have some idea the state of mind I’m in—sick of putting up with shit and being to told to play nice with globs of animated excrement. Life has just put me into the kind of funk that makes you question whether you want to continue helping people like that or is it better to go to the competition and help bring the person ruin and misery. Add to all this quasi-drama the fact that my editor, at Entrepreneur—once an ardent fan and supporter of my work—has reduced my contributions from twice a week to twice a month. He said that I don’t draw enough traffic (literary speak for readers) to justify giving me the slots I had. While I certainly don’t disagree that I don’t draw the kind of audience that authors with big PR departments shilling my work, I suspect the guy soured on me, follow me long enough and generally that will be the case.

To hell with safety goals; there I said it. We are acting like simpletons having a goal of zero harm, or zero injuries (and if I get another drooling rant, from the psycho who challenges me to a debate every time the subject comes up I might just snap myself and fly to Australia and choke him out) or putting a numerical target on the number of injuries with which we’ll be satisfied. Think of it this way, if I were to ask you how many people it’s okay to hurt, what would your answer be?

When people tell me their goal for injuries is zero I just want to smack them, what the hell else would it be? Having a goal for injuries implies that there’s a number of injuries that it acceptable. So if there is only one acceptable goal what’s the point of having one?

And let us suppose you achieve your goal of zero injuries, what then? It’s rather like having the goal of finding your car keys. The reason your car keys are always the last place you look is because what kind of an imbecile continues to look for something they’ve already found? So you’ve achieved your goal, and you have zero injuries, now what? The mountain’s been climbed, where do you go from there?

We don’t need a goal for safety. Somebody PLEASE tell me why we need to have a goal for safety when everyone has the same goal? This makes us a laughing stock.   That’s all I’m going to write this week.

Post script

It’s been two days since I wrote the original draft, and upon reflection I must say that I don’t think I provide very much thought leadership, or anything of much use.  So in way of consolation, I thought I would add just a touch more substance and a lot less whining about people who really don’t matter; lying and deceit eventually sort themselves out.  My apologies for an emotional, although heartfelt rant.  So back on topic, to sum up, we need safety to stop being philosophical and make it operational, but making it operational isn’t about giving it a goal, it’s about embedding safety into OTHER operational goals.  For example, you can’t be considered successful meeting your production goals if you injured workers to do it.  You can’t get your gold star for quality if, while achieving zero defects you injured workers.  Safety exists outside the functions and needs to be the thread that pulls an organization together.  Last week on the local news they showed gruesome footage of the events just prior to a road worker getting killed.  In Michigan we get monster potholes this time of year and crews are sent out to patch them with hot blacktop.  They tend to do this on the busiest streets during rush hour, that is to say, at the height of risk of worker/traffic interaction. The manner in which they do this job is water-headed and criminal.  Several men with shovels dart in and out of traffic throwing hot asphalt in a hole and tamping down with the back of a shovel.  They violate laws against illegal lane closure (last time I checked it was 2 miles prior to the work and a mile after.  The process involves two trucks one in front that carries the crew and the asphalt and another behind with a big arrow for the traffic approaching the work area to veer suddenly into the adjacent lane.  But as often as not I have seen near collisions with the back truck, and worse yet, workers patching holes in the very lanes to which traffic has just been suddenly and with little warning directed.  I personally have witnessed many close calls and have even stopped to talk to the crews about what they were doing.  In this case, and the details are still sketchy, the driver of the rear truck failed to stop and struck the front truck, striking two workers and killing one.  I saw the footage that the news ran over and over again with them stopping the footage just seconds before the collision, leaving viewers to use their imagination as to what came next.  A horrific but wholly foreseeable tragedy that effected me deeply, not the least of which because it happened just a few miles from my house. A 47 year old man died because of wanton recklessness, not by the drivers, or the workers, but whatever imbecile decided that this INCREDIBLE risk was worth it.  He died so we wouldn’t have potholes.  This as well as the issues I mentioned in my crybaby rant weighed on me as I wrote my blog. It may not excuse it, but maybe you will understand my state of mind and give me a pass for my writing.  It made me question why I do this at all, because it seems like all I get these days are arguments about how safe the workplace has become.  I don’t think it has, I think we’ve just become desensitized to the risks we take we are overtaking by complacency because we have so many fewer injuries than we once did.  As I said,  the level of injuries used to be criminal, now its just less criminal.  The point of me bringing up this tragedy is that I am sure Michigan Department of Transportation has a goal of not killing anyone, but it isn’t a value.  If it were a value they would have looked at the risks of how they currently patch potholes and judged it too dangerous to be doing during rush hour, too dangerous to have workers in between two large trucks where they are virtually invisible until it’s too late, or if someone collided with the rear truck it most likely would lurch forward and injure those workers.

It has to be a value that permeates all we do not something that hangs on the wall.


Bragging Ourselves To Death

LoudmouthBy Phil La Duke

“Who takes all the glory and none of the shame”—Tramp The Dirt Down, Elvis Costello

Yesterday I received two white papers forwarded. The crux of these papers was something that should surprise none of us: 1) Companies world wide are increasingly using the Safety Function as a dumping ground for everything from case management to organizing the company picnic and 2) Companies are actively looking for all functions to do more with less resources (and particularly less people).

It’s causing ugliness—like the boorish warthog who pushes you out a project to claim it as her own all the while besmirching your reputation—and this ugliness is likely to get worse. Competition for the rapidly evaporating big-ticket ($100K +) safety opportunities is getting brutal and when it comes to messing with someone’s livelihood quarter is neither asked nor given and viciousness becomes the rule of the day; like rats in a cage we turn on each other.

All over the world corporate leaders are asking have we gone too far with safety (and environmental protections). Someone once said that you can’t claim credits for improvements without taking responsibility when things go sideways, and when it comes to safety things ALWAYS go sideways eventually. Safety as a function isn’t yet dead, but it’s coughing up blood and we are treating it like it’s just a cold; it will get better with time. They say time heals all wounds; I say time eventually kills us all—if you live long enough you will die of something.

“And if I could chose a place to die, it would be in your arms baby”—Eric Clapton, (Derek & the Dominos) Bellbottom Blues. Nobody chooses to be cut in half by a sheet of freshly manufactured glass, or be buried alive because a supervisor was either too stupid, lazy, or greedy to dig a trench properly. I don’t know how or why I would chose to die (I assume I will eventually be gunned down by one of you nuts) but it damned sure wouldn’t be on the job.

The worst thing about the siege under which safety currently finds itself is that we the Safety community are responsible for our current state. We have been bragging for years about what a fantastic job we’ve been doing. We tell the C-suite that our injuries are down (even if its because we have set up systems that reward under-reporting or dubious case management) and make excuses (and even argue with alternate facts) for the fact that fatalities remain flat.   We have done such a great job convincing our bosses that we have won the war on injuries that the big bosses are deciding we can do with less troops, we can do more with less.

We conveniently convince ourselves that all the bullshit we’ve been slinging is true; we have done a great job, our snake oil really does work, and mostly if we don’t spend our budgets they will take it away. Ideally, a safety practitioner should work him/herself out of a job, but not like this. We should be out of a job when we have established systems that identify and mitigate risks and that give the highest priority to the most lethal risks, not as we have done by bamboozling the bosses that because we haven’t had a fatality in three years that we have cured cancer. Three years is not enough data to make accurate statistical inferences, but who gives a crap about that, our jobs are on the line and instead of demonstrating the enormity of the problem we talk about what a great job were doing not killing anybody lately. We have screwed ourselves: we’ve spent ten years convincing the organization that they NEED us to get to zero injuries, that without us there will be a blood bath. And when the injury rates were bad we simply excused it by telling the organization that we work in a dangerous industry and that compared to our competition…well we aren’t any worse. When things got better we ran to the bosses looking for a gold star; many of us didn’t have a clue why things were better except that we were doing a good job.

The problem we created is in the haste to cover our collective asses and save our jobs was that we avoided talking about risks and talked about injuries; body counts. The thing is, it’s tough to get people to care about workplace fatalities when more people are killed in traffic accidents. It will take a massive horrifying workplace catastrophe that kills a couple of hundred people before people will once again care about worker safety and even then I doubt it will be enough to save us, unless it is happens life on cable news. People have just stopped caring about worker injuries—hell when I hear someone is on medical disability my first thought is “this malingering bastard is probably faking it”, and intellectually I KNOW most people aren’t. So what do you think people who are outside safety are thinking?

As governments set out to gut OSHA and it’s overseas governments follow suit, as the National Safety Council looks for ever more simple minded safety issues to concoct (prescription drug abuse might well be a problem, but in all the incident reviews I have conducted not once has the misuse of prescription drugs been a problem) it’s chicken-little, “the sky is falling approach to safety” makes us look like water-headed dimwits who couldn’t pour pee out of a boot if the instructions were written on the bottom.

We have to immediately stop finding that little golden ray of sunshine in worker deaths and serious injuries (Our numbers are down!! Let’s get pizza!”) and start taking a hard and scientific look at the risks and hazards of our own house. I have been divorced for almost 30 years and live in squalor, but I never excuse the mess by telling visitors how much cleaner my house is than my next door neighbor’s house. WE are essential. WE are overworked. WE have to communicate that much as we may have claimed credit for the reduced injury rates we haven’t done much, or at least we don’t really know what we did that made the difference and we sure as shit haven’t done anything to quantify and mitigate our risks. A new day is coming and we had better stop bragging about improvements in safety until we understand WHY things got better, otherwise we might as well claim credit for a beautiful temperate and sunny day. We have bragged ourselves out of a job, and we are well on our way to bragging ourselves to death.

If I Had A Hammer…

By Phil La Duke

Last week one of my LinkedIn contacts posted a discussion regarding eLearning. Long before I started in the field of instructional design (when people still called it training—I remember being admonished by a fellow trainer who look at me disdainfully and said, “You TRAIN a dog, you educate people” without missing a beat I shot back with “you may not mind your fifth grade daughter getting sex education, but you probably don’t want her getting sex training”) companies and vendors have been pushing technology-assisted training. First it was video, than laser discs, then video conferencing, and so on. Based on the discussion it was easy to see that the principle advocates for eLearning remain the people who sell it and the people who have to pay for it.

If (as I firmly believe) training is about teaching someone skills, that is, to DO something, and education is about teaching information, that is, ABOUT something, then the limitations of eLearning become immediately obvious. For the builders of eLearning there is no down side, they are selling the figurative hammer and every opportunity looks all the world like a nail. They will make absurd arguments about the value of replacing almost all training with eLearning. On the other hand, professional instructors will argue that the best training is always an instructor.

The problem is that both groups are both right and wrong. eLearning can and should play an important part in any blended learning curriculum (where multiple techniques are used to train workers) and there is a simple rule for determining when each is appropriate: am I building skills or am I building knowledge.  The easiest example is Right To Know training, I mean the word “know” is actually in the course title.  Unfortunately, OSHA’s requirements for live instructions or onerous proctoring requirements make it too easy to say “the hell with it” and do it via live instruction.  The same is true with Hazard Communication (which is typically rolled into the same class) but regulations get in the way of common sense.  OSHA’s issue seems to be “how can a company be sure that the employee (and not someone else) took the course?  I say “who cares?”  As one of the discussion participants pointed out, at some point personal responsibility comes into play.  If you knowingly and willingly violate the law and company policy by cheating in an eLearning (or any training) course you should be fired for ethical violations and for putting yourself and others at risk.  These and other courses that are little more than a data dump should be presented using technology.

Another good use for eLearning is testing. People should be allowed to test out of training that they don’t need. The government, trainers, and even some executives I’ve met have taken the view of “what can it hurt to train everyone?” Well for starters, training the entire organization is costly and time consuming (and if you want to get the most out of training PAY people to go to training). Additionally, bored learners don’t learn and often can be disruptive preventing the people who need training from getting it.

Course evaluations should be done on-line—there is scarce little value in keeping people after class to complete the forms; you will get a more candid response by having them complete a time-sensitive course evaluation sheet.

A lot of eLearning is gawd-awful—the so-called interactions are trite and do little to advance the learner experience. Why? Because building good interactions cost money (not a lot actually, but money nonetheless) and the cheap bastards who are buying it typically don’t care if it’s of sufficient quality.  There are some people doing truly leading edge things with eLearning (usually around ensuring that the correct person is completing the course). Improv Driving immediately springs to mind. Better than half of driving is knowledge of the rules and laws governing traffic and Improv Driving hit upon the idea (which is based in strong scientific foundations) that learning is easier when people are laughing while they learn.  People even have been known to watch a course multiple times simple for the entertainment value, and yet the course integrity is very strong.  Now this alone isn’t sufficient to send a neophyte driver onto the road, but it provides a solid foundation.  This company has even used technology discovered in the development of the enigma code breaking in World War II to use the unique typing characteristics to verify identity. There are lots of good eLearning providers, but there are also a lot of real and true hacks out there that know as much about what constitutes a good training course as I do about heart surgery; what’s worse is they don’t even know how bad their courses are. The lion’s share of eLearning are what’s known in the trade as “page turners”. In a page turner if you’re lucky a narrator (and I’m not joking many don’t even bother with that) literally reads a page to you  and then you are eventually asked to complete a quiz (or in the nerdy parlance of the trade a “knowledge check”) which is typically a matching exercise or similarly lack luster and amateurish activity.  Some eLearning providers brag that you can’t just skip to the end—that you have to sit and listen to the garbage narration before taking the (usually poorly written) test. eLearning of this sort is a waste of time and money and yet it is far and away the most prevalent.

I was in charge of procuring training for a large (one of the largest in fact) hospital system when it moved from the coding system of International Coding for Diseases (ICD-9) to ICD-10 This involved training 85000 people in less than six months.  Instructor lead training alone was impossible so we selected a company that not only had exceptional on-line training, but included games designed to teach anatomy and physiology, basic coding structure, and several other topics.  The idea was that after completing the on-line training learners would play the games to retain the knowledge.  This knowledge was an essential prerequisite to the instructor led training that only a fraction needed. After the instructor led training, coders were put into a computer “sand box” where they could practice coding without fear of screwing up a patient’s file.  It was expensive, to the tune of about $3 million, but divide that by the number of learners and the overall effectiveness and it was an outstanding value.  But let’s face it, most eLearning sucks.

This is not to say that Instructor-Led Training (ILT) is all that great shakes. I have been subjected to some horrific ILT, particularly in college.  Were it up to me, most if not all, college would be on-line; think about it, name four college courses that taught you how to actually do something. Most are a professor spending 2 hours lecturing about crap that you could have learned on line.  What’s worse is that much of the safety training out there isn’t designed by instructional designers.  Trainers don’t want the liability of developing safety training, and most safety folks (while having years of experience conducting ILT) would know good training design (or even facilitation for that matter). So when it comes to safety training, arguably the most important training one can have, we have a preponderance of quacks and hacks selling inferior products at inflated prices to customers who either don’t care or don’t know any better.

To be sure, training, particularly custom training, is expensive, but—and this is especially true in worker safety—consider the price of poor training. And if we don’t care then why do we waste so much time and money on it.