What’s Wrong With Drinking The Kool-Aid

poison kool aid

By Phil La Duke

Recently ISHN published an article by me (about the uselessness of slogans) that has drawn a fair amount of both criticisms and questions. In one case, a long-time reader and friend posted something of a response, and though I am arrogant, I am not arrogant enough to believe that his LinkedIn post was completed directed at me I am arrogant enough to believe that his post was at least somewhat prompted by the article. A few days later, I received a request to join the network of someone who too read the post/article and voiced her concern on how best to address the tendency on the part of both safety “professionals” (her quotes, not mine) and corporate leaders to push, slogan-based pseudo-psychological time and money wasting activities so pervasive in the safety field.

I believe that there is a great philosophical divide in safety that one can illustrate as a four quadrant model. On one axis we have behavior (I adopt the Anglo spelling of the word because that’s the way most of the world spells it) on one end and process at the other; all safety practitioners fall somewhere along this continuum. The other axis is bordered by individual responsibility versus organizational responsibility. What this means is that everyone who derives a living from safety believes that either injuries are caused by behaviours or process flaws or either the organization or the individual bears primary responsibility for safety. For the record I am a centrist in this debate although like most I can drift to a quadrant depending on my mood or the topic.

safety quadrant

As I have said on many occasions, I ardently believe that there are tools that simply don’t belong in the safety tool box. For example, there are still people out there that believe that disciplining workers for getting injured is a useful tool. While it is certainly appropriate to discipline people for recklessness, I don’t believe that it is ever appropriate to discipline people for human error, that is, something they didn’t intend to do and yet made an honest mistake. This is just one example of a “tool” that I think most people would agree doesn’t belong in the safety toolbox. I am taking the easy way out, of course, but there are a fair many more controversial tools that I could have mentioned but that would simply raise the hackles of many safety professionals and would interfere with an unemotional debate.

I have posted that “it’s just a tool and every tool in the toolbox has a use” is a tired argument and I believe that it is; it’s what people say when they can’t construct a logical argument against a point I make that questions the value of a “safety” activity. Saying “twisting the heads of ducks is just one tool in the safety professional’s toolbox” is just a passive aggressive way of saying “well that’s YOUR opinion”. Say what you want about me, but there is nothing passive about my aggression. I make these points because I want to get to the heart of the issue, and that issue is the alarming frequency with which safety practitioners use superstition and folk wisdom instead of science. Nobody likes to be told that their cherished tools are useless gibberish but at some point we have to call the emperor naked.

Too often we in safety start with a solution and work backward to make it fit the problem; we begin using the tools and methods that we enjoy, find easy to use, or understand. It’s human nature to gravitate to the familiar and safety practitioners are no different. I’ve called techniques psychobabble and antiquated. Some of these “tools” flat-out don’t work and others may still work, but there are far better, more effective and less expensive ways of accomplishing the same thing. I include Behaviour Based Safety as one of these tools. As many of you know, I am an outspoken critic of BBS. Why? because if you ask 10 BBS proponents to define it you are likely to get 11 different responses. How can a methodology be effective when its top proponents and advocates can’t seem to agree on its very definition? I honestly believe that it does lead to a “blame-the-worker” mentality. Not in all cases of course, but the danger is real and always there. When I make these criticisms people don’t defend BBS they say I don’t understand it or that the organizations that I have seen have implemented it inappropriately. We can blame the organization as improperly applying the methods or tools, and we can blame the BBS practitioner as being misguided, or we can blame a host of other things, but the damage is still done.

For the record I don’t believe that everyone who sells or advocates BBS is selling snake oil or a knuckle dragger, but some are. Many believe that what they are doing is the best bet for improving worker safety, other have spent their career selling something that is increasingly dubious and when it comes to safety this is unconscionable. But as my LinkedIn colleague pointed out, clouding the water by filling the C+ suite’s heads with ill-defined schemes for making the workplace safer puts workers at risk.

Many BBS practitioners advocate behaviour modification as a useful tool for “changing our lives for the better” and I couldn’t agree more. But shy of a cult, behaviour modification is typically not successful in changing the behaviour of a population. The workplace is an interactive population and the sciences of sociology, anthropology and other social sciences are ignored by many BBS theorists. Frankly were it possible to use behaviour modification to change the behaviours of a population we could end war, crime and a host of societal issues by using it. We would live in a Utopian society…and yet we don’t.

When I post it is my ardent hope that safety professionals will rethink their practices and ask themselves if what they are doing is returning value that is commensurate with the cost and effort that it requires. Alas, far too many in the safety community are unwilling to even consider change and will always keep tools in their toolbox solely because they like them and are comfortable using them even if they are destructive and dangerous.

How do we make these safety practitioners that their ideas are misguided, nonscientific, and dangerous? Sadly I don’t have any answers. How do you convince Jenny McCarthy that her contention that vaccinations cause autism? People argue that her position is not supported by science but their arguments fall on deaf ears. How do you use logic to sway people from the persistent emotional belief? You don’t. Now, imagine these people who are so emotionally tied to an erroneous belief derive their incomes by getting others to invest in these emotional beliefs. You don’t have another tool in the toolbox you have another glassy-eyed convert lining up for a glass of Kool-Aid. And what’s wrong with someone “drinking the Kool-Aid”? Let us never forget that the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid” refers to the mass murder suicide of the members of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple followers. So what’s wrong with “drinking the Kool-Aid”? It’s laced with cyanide.

#88-of-injuries-caused-by-unsafe-behavior, #accountability-for-safety, #at-risk-behavior, #attitudes-toward-safety, #behavior-based-safety, #behaviour-based-safety, #change, #criticisms-of-bbs, #drinking-the-kool-aid, #flaws-of-behavior-based-safety, #hazard-management, #human-error, #kool-aid, #near-miss-reporting-2, #operating-efficiency, #organizational-change-2, #paradigms, #phil-la-duke, #phil-laduke, #philip-la-duke, #philip-laduke, #process-improvement, #risk, #risk-and-worker-safety, #risk-management, #risk-taking, #safety, #safety-culture, #safety-tools, #safety-training, #stop-trying-to-prevent-every-possible-accident, #the-nature-of-mistakes, #variability-in-human-behavior

Maybe You Weren’t Fired For Sticking To Your Principles

By Phil La Duke

“I was sad because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet; so I took his shoes.”

hung over mandrill

In case you were wondering, this is what I imagine a hung-over mandrill looking like

The other day I met a man who lost his job. His tale of woe may ring true for some of you; he squared off with a company leader over a safety issue. Things got heated and when things cooled down he found himself sacked…again. You might suspect that I would devote this week’s post to all the injustice associated with people, particularly safety professionals, who lose their jobs because they are forced to choose between their principles and their livelihoods, but alas, sadly you would, yet again be wrong. The person in question is a known hot head who, apart from being euphemistically described as “rough around the edges” has a penchant for going on rabid attacks. He is disliked by many and respected by few. I’d like to assume the best about people, but when you’ve lost your job several times because you’ve lost your cool…well at some point I’ve got my doubts.

If You Can’t Tell Who The Mark Is, It’s You

There’s a saying going around that says, in effect, and I will clean this up for those of you of delicate sensibility, that if you keep meeting “jerks” all day, than you’re the “jerk”. Speaking as a “jerk” of note I can attest to the truth of this saying. As it happens, I’ve also heard a lot of safety professionals bitterly complain about being fired, admonished, disciplined or otherwise pimp-slapped by their employers simply because they were trying to do their jobs. These, the wretched refuse of the safety profession, commiserate with each other, their shoulders sagging, spirits broken, kept upright only through the inflation of self-righteous indignation, decrying the injustice of it all. But is it really unjust? Or is it as likely that these buffoons were served their just desserts and found the taste unpalatable? Of course it’s true that there are safety professionals who have been unceremoniously relieved of their positions for no greater offense than advocating for safety. I only say this because I can here the murmuring of the pain-in-the ass contrarians that will inevitably throw up statistical outliers as proof that I don’t have standing to speak out on a subject. So while I make no claim of the universality of situation I will say this: a lot of safety professionals who believe they have been fired, censured, or otherwise have suffered unpleasant consequences have actually been fired because they have the interpersonal skills of a hung-over mandrill.

I’m Only Doing My Job

A lot of malcontented safety professionals will loudly protest that they got into hot water when they were only doing their job when in fact they were doing their job poorly. Maybe they did; history will judge them. The point being that, from the guards at Auschwitz to the surly safety manager, many people try to excuse some pretty reprehensible workplace behavior as merely doing your job. The more noble the calling the more likely one is to excuse dysfunction as a necessary, if not admirable part of the job. Safety professionals often believe that the fact that they are “trying to keep people safe” excuse some pretty awful “bedside manners”. It becomes more a matter of HOW the job is done than whether or not the job is done at all. It’s like the policeman who writes you a citation and throws the book at you while adding a little sermonette as he hands you the ticket. Even though you know you are in the wrong and that the officer is under no obligation to give you a break, you may still prefer that he keep the commentary to himself. And many policeman will be jerks to you when you get a ticket and—despite being jerks about it—puff out their chest and steadfastly refuse to apologize for “doing their jobs”. Now, suppose you are in a position to influence that officer’s career advancement? Are you going to be able to overlook the fact that he does his job while acting like a jerk? If so, you are a better man than I. If not you can probably understand where I’m coming from.

Life Without Consequences

It seems to me that there are many people—not just safety professionals, but workers of all stripes—who believe that they can treat others in the workplace (coworkers and even customers) however they see fit in the name of being plain-spoken, tough, or “keeping it real”; these people believe they can live a life without consequences. This idea is typically reinforced throughout their careers because their technical expertise makes them seem invaluable to the company. Some are legitimately bent—either functionally mentally ill or simply social maladroit—while others simply behave like bullies, fussing and fuming their way through life. Add to that the mistaken believe that some safety professionals have that they are the policemen of the workplace.

It’s Not Always The Jerk’s Fault

Loud-mouthed jerks typically remain loud-mouthed jerks because they are rewarded for it. They snarl at waitresses and get refills of hot coffee, they yell at coworkers and things get pushed through; special exceptions are made just for them. They come to see themselves as perfectionists, tough-but-fair, and no-nonsense. Meanwhile the bar tender is slipping a few drops of Visine in their meticulously specked Old Fashion. I’ve long thought that society in general would be more polite and generally more civil if more people had been beaten within an inch of their lives after some of the stunts they’ve pulled, but alas folks have just got too civilized I guess. What’s more, most of the biggest workplace jerks I’ve ever known—the type of people who throw tantrums the envy of a silver-spoon 4-year old, put like felt up prom dates, and generally act in ways that make you shake your head—have had numerous warnings and “one last chances”. If the behavior works why not stick with it?

The Things We Don’t Remember And the Things We Can’t Forget

I can already hear the murmurings from people who will accuse me of suggesting that safety professionals need to sell out if they want to keep their jobs. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, even a cursory read of my body of work will demonstrate my deep belief that safety professionals who remain passive in the face of gross violations, ethics abuses, or other attempts by employers to subvert their legal or moral obligations are cowards and thieves ; shirking one’s responsibilities to avoid conflict and even to save one’s job is tantamount to malpractice.

That having been said, today’s safety professional has to be persuasive and understand that his or her opinion, professionally informed not withstanding, just that: opinion. If people can’t hear past the dysfunction we cannot be effective in our roles . Maya Angelou said, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” I think this quote is the essence of what I’m trying to say. People will forgive us for being incompetent screw-ups who don’t know beans when the bag is open, but if we’re jerks, they will lie in wait for us to screw up. You don’t have to be popular to be an effective safety professional but it sure helps.

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When It Comes To Unsafe Behaviors There’s Plenty Of Blame to Go Around

By Phil La Duke

scissors 2

If you’ve made even the most cursory read of my articles and blogs you probably already know that I don’t hold much stock in Behavior Based Safety (BBS).  I believe that except for the odd statistical outlier nut-job, nobody WANTS to get hurt and unless they were designed my the Marquis De Sade you processes aren’t intended to hurt people.  If those two things are true no amount of behavior modification—whether it be incentive programs or telling people to be more careful—is going to change much of anything.  But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe unsafe behavior is the single largest cause of injuries, and if so, we have to manage those behaviors.

Before we can manage unsafe behaviors we have to understand the context in which the behaviors occur.  We can’t take effective action unless we understand precisely why people behaved in an unsafe manner.  A couple of days ago an acquaintance told me about how he had been injured on the job during the third week of February on two consecutive years (he was nervously praying for the first of March to come so he could relax a bit).  “It was my own fault,” he explained, “I was rushing to get things done because my boss was standing over my shoulder saying ‘we gotta get this order out’”.  Unsafe behavior? sure;  the fault of the worker? I don’t think so. Most traditional BBS programs focus on the unsafe behaviors of workers. Productivity is sapped as millions of hours are wasted insisting that supervisors watch people work and coach them on their unsafe behaviors.  Don’t the people whose unsafe decisions and insistence and encouragement of unsafe behaviors bear any culpability in worker injuries? I think they should.

Here are some incredibly unsafe behaviors (attitudes + action) up-stream in the process that organizations need to address:

  • “I Don’t Care How; Just Get It Done.” Whether it’s manufacturing, or construction, or mining or oil and gas there are supervisors, and site managers, and even executives who reward the people who ignore safety protocols and procedure to “get things done”.  This sends a strong message to the workers: you will get rewarded for violating the rules.  Ask these leaders about this behavior and you will likely get a sermon on how they will never tolerate unsafe work and a worker has a right to go home in the same condition…blah, blah, blah.  But when the rubber hits the road and they are faced with falling behind schedule and giving a nod-and-wink “work safe” while telling the workers that the job must get done by Thursday at all costs.  Workers aren’t stupid; they know that they can take risks and nine times out of ten nothing bad will happen.  They understand that probability favors them not getting hurt and if they “get the job done” they will be seen—and more importantly treated—like heroes.  It’s the guys who get things done who get promoted, get the plum assignments, and get fat raises.  They will take unnecessary risks because they are rewarded for doing so, while the people who work safely are punished.  A pizza party at the end of the month for zero loss time injuries can’t compete with the raises, opportunities, and job security afford to those who “get things done”.
  • “I Don’t Care If the Safety Rule Makes It Impossible to Do the Job You Must Follow The Rule.” This behavior is most prevalent among the “command and control” safety professionals who neither know, nor care to know how the work is done.  It’s an ignorance borne out of laziness.  Workers are told they can’t do the job in the most expeditious and efficient manner because doing so is unsafe, are given an unworkable solution, and an expectation to perform to standard. Faced with this choice they take unjustifiable risks, and why wouldn’t they? We can cluck our tongues at the violations of the workers but really whose unsafe behavior is truly to blame for the hazardous situation?
  • “What Can I DO? I Can’t Make Them Work Safely.” In the grand scheme of things there is no such thing as working completely safely.  Sure we can work in ways in which we minimize our risk but even the best set of rules can only protect us from hazards that have been anticipated. It’s tough to anticipate every conceivable hazard in a dynamic and rapidly changing environment.  Too many safety professionals act like institutional eunuchs, trumpeting their emasculation to anyone they think might listen.  The lack of a safe behavior can be the same as an unsafe one.  When safety professionals or supervisors turn a blind eye toward hazards—behavioral or physical—the effect is every bit as dangerous as the unsafe act itself.
  • “I Don’t Have Time”. The lack of time has become the rallying cry for every aspiring martyr. Where the quality of a person’s work was once the measure of his or her performance now, in many organizations, bellyaching about how little time you have has become the new hallmark of an employee’s contribution.  I have heard so many safety professionals, supervisors, and operations managers whine about their lack of time to get everything done that I involuntarily roll my eyes when I hear it.  What am I supposed to do with that information? Praise you for doing a half-assed job? Sympathize because you can’t manage up? Studies have shown that people tend to do work in the following order: tasks they enjoy, tasks that are easy, tasks that are fun, and then everything else.  If you don’t have time for safety—from the maintenance managers who can’t find the time to maintain equipment or repair facility issues to the safety person who can’t find the time to do a proper incident investigation to the materials manager who doesn’t have time to get stock out of the aisle ways, to the site manager who padlocks emergency exits because he doesn’t have time to discipline the people who are using it inappropriately, to the supervisor who doesn’t have time to inspect the work area to ensure it is free of hazards—you need to either reprioritize your work or get out before someone get’s killed.
  • “They Wouldn’t Get Hurt If they would Be More Careful.” Blaming the injured is a staple of many Safety Management systems. I have heard safety professionals describe workers who have suffered repeat injuries “frequent flyers” and plant managers insist that workers are hurt “primarily because they take short cuts to get more ass time”.  I have heard that safety is everyone’s job so many times that I want to vomit.  If safety truly is everyone’s job then where is the culpability for those of us who make decisions who jeopardize the safety of others?

So maybe behavior is a key component in worker safety, and maybe we bear some responsibility for our own behavior.  If safety truly is everyone’s job than there is blood on our hands every time someone gets injured on our watch.  We bear as much of the responsibility for the gore and carnage as anyone. Maybe it’s time we take a hard look at OUR behavior before we start pointing fingers of shame at the injured worker.  Maybe it’s time for us to ask ourselves what did we do TODAY to help worker’s make safe decisions? Maybe it’s time to turn the lens of judgment on ourselves and ask what we could have done to prevent the injury that took the life of a coworker, and how we will change our OWN behavior to help workers make better, safer choices from now on.

#88-of-injuries-caused-by-unsafe-behavior, #at-risk-behavior, #behavior-based-safety, #improving-worker-safety, #safety, #the-myth-of-95-of-injuries-are-caused-by-unsafe-behaviors, #worker-safety

In Defense Of Not-invented-Here Thinking

fa·nat·ic noun

  1. a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal, as in religion or politics.

A couple of weeks ago a post I wrote found its way onto a LinkedIn Group discussion thread. The group in question is devoted to behaviour-based safety zealots who apparently enjoy telling each other how slick they are and how one methodology should be used at the exclusion of all others (or at least as the primary methodology)
This got me thinking about blind devotion to a methodology. And then I read an article that was yet another  criticism of Heinrich’s pyramid of risk. And then I read another article that defended Heinrich and asked if his critics might be too harsh in their comments.

And then it hit me,  the realization that growing  fanaticism, zealotry, and extremism is imperiling worker safety and enough’s enough. Here’s the bad news.  Working as a safety professional is hard.  There is no area of expertise that will make a one a safety superman, no single methodology that has a monopoly on making the world a safer place; there’s no panacea, no magic bullets, just hard work and dedication.

I know this isn’t exactly a epiphany—I’ve been warning people of the rising tide of people who place their ability to make money over the effectiveness of the snake oil that they continue to promote to people who don’t know any better—but it was none-the-less a fairly profound realization.

For those of you who don’t know, Heinrich was an insurance investigator who in 1931 wrote the book, “Industrial Accident Prevention: A Scientific Approach.” In this book, Heinrich asserted that  88 percent of accidents are caused by “unsafe acts of persons”.  Statistical analysis was in its infancy (at least in and industrial setting) and Heinrich’s risk pyramid: that is there is 330 accidents, 300 will not result in injury, 29 will cause minor injuries, and one will result in a major injury or a fatality.

What I realized was a) Heinrich was full of crap  b) it’s not his fault, and c) while he’s not all right, he’s not all wrong either.  His research methods and results are, after 6 decades or so, increasingly questioned.  But even if he didn’t fake his research (personally I don’t believe he did, at least intentionally) his methods, population, and conclusions were hopelessly broken.  The manufacturing environment in which he conducted his studies bear little to know resemblance to today’s workplace.  In those days, asking supervisors the causes of injuries was not likely to yield many answers that didn’t lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of careless workers.  I don’t disparage these supervisors or Heinrich; they reached the conclusion that any reasonable person of that period would have given their time and experiences.  But let’s consider the time,  in 1931 eugenics was considered legitimate science, Social Darwinism was one of the most popular social science theories.  Henry Ford was spouting White Man’s Burden, and Nazism and Marxism were both rising in popularity.  In short, there was a pervasive environment in which workers were believed to be little more than clever primates who once in awhile  could be expected to have the occasional lethal mishap.

In most parts of the world, we it is no longer acceptable to see workers as chattel. And if Heinrich were to have completed his study in these more enlightened times what percentage of worker injuries would be attributed to “unsafe acts of persons” aside from the zealots and fanatics who start with an answer (90%, 95%, etc.) and then conduct research to prove what they already believe.  Beware the man who conducts research the outcome of which can either preserve or endanger his livelihood.  If your livelihood depends on the world being flat, count on finding facts to support your need.  It’s human nature.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that Heinrich had the right of it; let’s pretend that his findings were accurate and correct. All that would mean is that given his population his conclusions were sound.  It wouldn’t however, mean that his findings were universal truths.  It wouldn’t be applicable to all industries, all areas of the world, or people. And yet, people continue to promote one methodology as applicable in most cases, even when they aren’t.

This may sound like yet another attack on BBS;  it isn’t. While there is certainly a time and a place for Behaviour-Based Safety (I am accused of being so virulently anti BBS that I can’t see the value in it, this is a false charge, but one I suffer relatively cheerfully.) it is the height and breadth of  arrogance to assume, without investigation, that worker behaviour is the primary cause of injuries.  But then again, it’s just as arrogant to assume that the process is to blame.

For years I sold a process that I invented as a work for hire. SafetyIMPACT! was a fairly prescriptive methodology that yielded terrific results.  But what made it tough to sell was the “not invented here” push back.  I spent 6 years working on safety improvements in the automotive industry, but the first time I tried to sell SafetyIMPACT outside the auto industry companies responded with “this isn’t the auto industry” and then “this is aerospace” and then “this is healthcare” and then “this is mining” and then…well you get the picture.  I always sort of rolled my eyes and thought these narrow-minded goofs just don’t get it; that they just didn’t understand that they weren’t that special, not that unique.

So I modified my style.  I turned the system I developed into a structure diagnostic tool that in one year would assess the situation, use the methodologies most appropriate to the situation, and build an infrastructure that would work for the organization.  After 15 engagements without a single failure I began to think that I had all the answers, that I had developed the magic bullet.

Last week I realized I was wrong.  I realized I didn’t have all the answers, in fact I didn’t have many answers at all.  I realized that all those people who refused to buy my snake oil were right; I don’t know who they are and I don’t know their specific challenges.  But if that was the case why was I so wildly successful? Because the key to success lies not in knowing what the organization needs, but in knowing that you don’t know what an organization needs and that you will have to research the situation.  You need to invent it here.

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