People Don’t Respect You Because You Act Like An Idiot

Somewhere, right now, in a LinkedIn discussion group someone is posting the 245th  opinion on “Should a Company considering itself world class have the right to fire employees for their private unsafe behaviors? For example, if employees are seen during lunchtime jaywalking, or riding a motorcycle without a helmet (where legal), using stairs without handrail, etc. How about during the weekend at a non-mandatory Company picnic? Do you think a “world class” company should be protected from lawsuits when letting go these employees? Or, is the Company going too far?” As simple-minded as this topic is, it has generated a mob-mentality thread where people seem to shout out opinions without reading the other posts.

At the risk of offending my esteemed colleagues this thread is what is wrong with safety these days.  As governments chip away at safety regulations in the name of saving jobs, as businesses actively order shortcuts that undermine workplace safety, and as 50 years of progress in worker safety is threatened to be rolled back, THIS is how safety professionals choose to spend their time. THIS is the problem that they decide to commit time and energy.  I’m stunned. For the first time in history, safety professionals from all over the world can virtually gather and discuss the most compelling issues in worker safety.  We can share ideas and debate the best methods for solving lingering problems.  Manufacturing can talk to Oil and Gas, Energy and Utilities can share the wealth of experience with Logistics and Aerospace and yet time after time we see threads like this.

Earlier in this blog I used the term “simple-minded” to describe the thread.  That was unkind; true, but unkind none-the-less. Before any of you wet yourselves allow me to break it down and tell you exactly WHY this debate is so stupid.  Let’s start with the first bit, “Should a Company considering itself world class have the right to fire employees for their private unsafe behaviors?” I’m going to ignore the capricious capitalization of the word “Company” (it is not a proper noun so it should not be capitalized), the lack of a hyphen in the word “world-class”, not because I think it’s acceptable, but because I routinely butcher the English language not out of ignorance, but from sheer laziness, arrogance, and indifference. Let’s focus on the fact that the asker doesn’t tell us for what the company considers itself “world-class”.  If the company in question considers itself an overly controlling corporate douche bag, then I would have to agree. But if it considers itself a world-class safety organization, I would have to say that they are perhaps a bit misguided. Without knowing exactly what context in which the company is considering itself world-class, no one can proffer an intelligent response (which by the way, didn’t stop me from posting not once but multiple times).  And what precisely, does considering oneself world-class at anything have to do with whether or not one should be protected from lawsuits?

The next part of the question is an attempt to clarify the asker’s point: “For example, if employees are seen during lunchtime jaywalking, or riding a motorcycle without a helmet (where legal), using stairs without handrail, etc.” The asker really doesn’t get into substantive examples here.  What company would ever consider firing someone solely for lunchtime jaywalking? Sure they may use this as an excuse but show me a company who fires workers for something this petty and I will show you a company about to unionize.  As for riding a motor cycle without a helmet? Well I guess if I was the Human Resource director and some half-baked safety manager came to me with this, I would be questioning the competency of the safety manager, not the motorcycle rider.  And not using the handrail? Please. I used to work in construction and I was told by people who design and build structures that hand rails are not in place so people can hold on to them every time they walk up or down stairs, they serve to protect people by giving them something they can grab to break their fall.  To even suggest that someone would fire an employee for not using a handrail, and while on their own time and off company premises is beyond stupid.  When I read this topic heading I was embarrassed to ever to have been called a safety professional.

The author goes on to ask “How about during the weekend at a non-mandatory Company picnic?” the more he asks the dumber the question becomes.  A non-mandatory company picnic? Okay, so apparently there are now companies out there somewhere who are mandating picnics—but then I digress.  Finally, the author asks,  “Do you think a “world class” company should be protected from lawsuits when letting go these employees? Or, is the Company going too far?”  On what legal basis would there be any expectation of protection from the company? How could any rational person believe that the company is doing anything but going too far?

What is more troubling than the simple-minded question is that it elicited nearly 250 responses so far and the count is still rising.  To paraphrase the Social Network they did this instead of doing what? The fact that so many safety professionals felt compelled to weigh in on this topic is bone chilling (made even more upsetting were the numerous safety professionals who thought the company had every right to behave this way.) When I asked, on several occasions, exactly what company had the resources to engage in off-work  surveillance of its workers, I was ignored; why let logic torpedo a good conversation? I also asked how many of the respondents knew of any company that had the safety of its workplace so completely under control that it thought the only way to improve was to meddle in the personal lives of its workers.  Again, the silence was deafening.

But the issue here isn’t about worker privacy rights.  The larger and more disconcerting issue is that hundreds of safety workers think that this is something that is worth discussing (some of which I think we can safely assume were doing so during work hours).  I hear safety professionals bemoan their lack of stature in their organizations, that Operations leadership doesn’t take them seriously, and that in general, no one listens to them.  Well if this is the kind of dreck that you find worthy of your time and the kind of dreck that you want to talk to leadership about, well… no wonder people think you are a fool; you most probably are a fool.

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Are Safety Professionals Endangered Species?

The safety professional has been falling in status of late. I suppose one could blame the economy after all, troubled companies just don’t have the money that they might have ordinarily spent on new fangled safety processes. One could also blame the politicians—some the vacuous gas bags that pass as politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have characterized safety as costing jobs, being overly protective of workers, and in general needlessly wasting business’s valuable time. But I prefer to place the blame squarely on the safety professionals themselves. Safety, in its present form, really hasn’t been around that long. Sure there have been attempts to protect workers—most notably the efforts of organized labour to improve working conditions and the safety of the work environment—but safety as a mega industry is a relatively new phenomenon. The rise of safety has seen the function move from the position companies stuck good-natured and well-meaning dim-wits to the rise of snake oil salesmen who fancy themselves Machiavellian grand master puppeteers capable of manipulating the behavior of the workers with a bell and some pizza. And as funds get tighter and resources increasingly scarce there isn’t a whole lot of adaptation happening in the safety community. Too many safety professionals still try to compel that which they cannot inspire. After 15 odd years of trying to change things Safety remains a police force, although now some try to do police the populace with complex schemes dressed as culture change. When the environment changes only the most adaptable are able to survive and thrive. And while changes to the business landscape have been profound the reaction from the safety community have been all but imperceptible. To find one of the best examples of the “let them eat cake” mentality one need not look very far. The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) is sponsoring a people-to-people safety delegation to Brazil. The cost per individual is substantial, and it’s fair to say that most of the participates won’t be doing so on their own dimes. I am not trying to denigrate the program, although personally I can’t find a sound business justification for sending a safety professional to Brazil to attend meetings with their South American peers. But forget the specifics of this program and focus, if you will, on how out of touch a safety professional has to be to even suggest that his or her employer. Even with my relationships with several safety magazines I wouldn’t dream of suggesting they fund this boondoggle. The problems facing the safety profession go deeper than expecting companies to make expenditures on questionable trips. Safety still hasn’t found its Deming, when Deming developed his revolutionary approach to quality, an approach that would ultimately form the foundation for Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma, he didn’t immediately go door-to-door like Moze Pray hawking Dixie Bibles. Safety professionals, conversely, show very little decorum in their haste to commercialize every half-baked scheme that flashes across their minds. And if the theory has holes in it, no problem, just sponsor a research study that supports your junk science. A good safety process should be malleable and evolve over time. Once an organization has mastered compliance it needs to concentrate on lowering injuries through hazard management. Solid hazard management works very well in injury reduction, but too often safety professionals lose steam after the low-hanging fruit has been picked. From there Safety professional need to be prepared to tackle the tough problems of serious injuries occurring seemingly randomly. To face those challenges safety professionals need to have a significantly deeper understanding of probability and statistics. Throughout this evolution safety professionals need to do a better job at linking their activities to strategic initiatives of the overall organization. If Safety is going to survive it needs act quickly and decisively. First, safety professionals have to demonstrate the value they provide to the organization and to advertise the contributions that they make to the overall operating efficiency. If your overly complex safety initiatives are costing the company more than it can ever hope to recoup you need to simplify your process and connect it to the continuous improvement of business systems. If Safety can’t directly impact the bottom line, it can indirectly impact the cost of injuries by reducing its expenditures, or at very least it can stop pissing away profits on non-essential safety activities. The economy will eventually rebound and recover, but unless Safety begins to see itself as a partner in making the workplace more efficient it may not survive in any meaningful way. Those safety professionals who ignore the changes in the business landscape will go the way of the Moa, the dodo, and the Tasmanian Tiger, but hell, they got a free trip to Brazil out of it.

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