Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

Safety In the Age of Wikipidiots


wikipeidiot1

By Phil La Duke

“It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt”—Mark Twain

I haven’t posted an original post in over a month. I decided a while back that posting for the sake of posting served no good purpose. Not that I haven’t had anything new original to write, it’s just that I have started no fewer than six pieces that degraded into lengthy meandering pieces with which I was never quite satisfied; those of you who are long time readers must know that my bar for satisfactory work is set pretty low and can conclude that while the pieces have had some kernels of truth and fresh perspectives they weren’t worth the paper on which they were printed. I have been working on an original published piece for the Michigan Manufacturers Association which will be out in the organization’s digital June issue, a follow up piece for the same magazine for June, three pieces for Entrepreneur which are far and away more of a pain in the ass than they effort could ever be worth, and my monthly column for Fabricating & Metalworking which inexplicably haven’t even been read by my editor let alone seen print (do me a favor and drop him an email and ask him why mriley@fandmmag.com I’m more than a bit curious myself.) But most of my in the last two weeks has been spent sparring (both publicly and privately) with one of my many detractors; the particulars of said feud aren’t really important, but what IS important is that all of the back and forth has inspired four different posts (the first one being the one you are reading).

The argument devolved into a “is so, is not” where the detractor did nothing but heap condescension and abuse on anyone who dared question his interpretation of what I found to be specious conclusions to dubious research. I quit the exchange early, as it was, as I am so found of saying “like trying to do a card trick for a dog—no matter how hard I tried, how slowly and patiently I explained my point, or what I said, he just wasn’t going to get it.”

One of the other participants in the public quarrel quoted something that James Reason said of the safety profession in the early 70’s (those of you who simmer in pedantic rage at my lack of citation can look it up, I have neither the desire not the ambition for such an undertaking). The quote had to do with the great schism in the safety community over whether or not injuries were the outgrowth of individual error or system flaws. I’ve spent the better part of two years reading scientific and behavioral science research on why we make mistakes and I am somewhere in the middle of this debate. But the concept resonated with me (and I use the word “resonated” in the truest, purest form) I found the concept of this most basic philosophical disagreement echoing through my thoughts, coming to me at odd moments, and nagging at me. I realized that my work in safety is probably a waste of time, that I might as well be standing on my balcony addressing an army of ceramic lawn gnomes; in other words I am not likely to change anyone’s mind about safety.

Who Needs Facts? I Got Me An Opinion!

When future historians trace the origins of the demise of Western Civilization my guess is that the Wikipedification of society will be seen as a key factor. People today are quick to believe what they want to believe, seek out other opinions disguised as facts that support their largely untenable positions. It’s not just Wikipedia that has created this “if enough people believe it then it must be fact” mentality. A few years back Google modified its search algorithm to steer people to web pages that were aligned with their beliefs. It seems that people don’t want to have their beliefs challenged and learn; rather they want to be reassured that whatever stupid dreck they’ve come to believe isn’t nonsense after all. We have created a world where facts, logic, research, and even scientific findings are subject to a vote; while Lot looked for ten just men, today all one need do is find one delusional crackpot with a message we find reassuring and we can discount science, history, and…well just about everything. It doesn’t matter if we have a smoking gun definitively and indisputably disproving a methodology or belief, the people who derive a living from spewing their soft-headed pabulum will simply shout it down whilst speaking to rapt audiences eager to believe in their hog wash.

So What’s the Point?

Ostensibly, this doesn’t seem to have much to do with safety, but it does. If we continue to give equal credence to charlatan and visionary alike people will die. Innocent people are being killed in our workplaces every day. And when people over simplify safety with their magic bullet solutions—which are lucrative and easy to sell—they have blood of innocents on their hands. I know of a company that invested heavily in a well-known snake oil solution and had a fatality. I am still haunted by the blood-splattered poster and I wonder if the victim was able to see the irony in his gore festooning a poster reminding him to work safe. I wonder as he lay dying if he was able to think of anything beyond what must have been incredible pain, and if he was able to think, if he would care that so many people around the world bought the snake oil worked, drank the Kool-Aid, or simply agreed that reminding people to work safe would save his life. Or did he think of his widow and his children, if the dead could edit Wikipedia what would he have to say on the subject?

The Attention Spans of a Fruit Fly

I write for a lot of outlets, and when I am given my first assignment I always get the same spiel: No more than 500 words. Why? “my reader’s don’t have time to read anything more than that, and frankly 500 words is too much”. We aren’t just getting dumber as a society we are demanding that people dumb it down. I gave a speech recently where the second of two was cancelled because my message was “too sophisticated for workers” (my speech was on what it meant to have safety as a value) I was literally replaced by a guy who set fire to stuffed squirrels to demonstrate the dangers of arc flash.

Stupid Is As Stupid Does

I have never wanted to be stupid. I have had a strong thirst for knowledge and seek out opinions diametrically opposed to my own. It can be scary to read books by experts that artfully lay out an argument that makes such perfect sense that it shakes your beliefs to the core, but it’s necessary to grow as a person. I don’t think I’m in the minority but you will never go broke selling stupidity to the stupid. I spend my spare time reading non-fiction books on safety, just culture, mistake making, the physiology of the human brain and how our emotions shape our decisions. It doesn’t make for fun weekends or scintillating dinner conversation. (You might be surprised at the level of uninterest (apparently this is not a word, but I don’t mean “disinterest” which means not really caring one way of the other, but of the absolute dearth of interest) in how synapsis work, or what part of the brain we use to make decisions, or why biologically making mistakes is not only unavoidable but necessary for survival.)

Is There No Hope?

I realize, I confess, that I print a pretty bleak picture. But when we stop listening to experts in favor of money-grubbing mouth-breathing safety profiteers we risk more than our own careers we risk the lives of others. I should note, for the record, I don’t really think of myself as an expert on worker safety, rather I think of myself as a guy who reads all the articles, books, and opinions of true experts and translates their work into simple truths that I share with a handful of safety professionals who by and large are just looking for solutions to problems that are beyond their ability. They’re looking for fast answers and quick fixes—in safety time isn’t money time it’s blood—and I do my best to find and share them.

I started this post with a quote (at 1388 words I wonder if anyone is still reading this) about staying silent and being thought a fool (I guess we’ll know by the number of people who post comments correcting me on the source. I checked my sources (as I generally do) and found that this Mark Twain quote had been attributed to no fewer than 8 sources. I thought it appropriate to start the article with something so easy to verify (who said what) on which know one seems to be able to agree. For the record, Abraham Lincoln said something similar (“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt”) but both he and Mark Twain were both quoting (or more accurately paraphrasing) Proverbs 17:28, or Proverbs 18:28, or A Farewell To Arms, or Curious George Goes To The Beach let’s put it to a vote; what difference does it make?

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

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.

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

Who Will We Kill Today?


The Tomb of the Unknown Worker

By Phil LaDuke

Somewhere in the world someone will die on the job today.  Maybe it will happen across the world from you and maybe it will happen next door to you, but they will die nonetheless.  Whoever it is who loses his or her life on the job, some things are likely to be true. The about to be recently deceased person is disproportionately likely to be poor, have less than average education, and or working in an unskilled position. There’s a good chance he or she will be young and in many cases he or she will be either a temporary worker (“temp”) or a contractor.

In the U.S. April 28th   is Worker Memorial Day; it’s a day not widely celebrated in the U.S. We love to remember our war dead and herald their sacrifice and we should. On Memorial Day, we remember our war dead because they laid down their lives for a greater ideal, whether we agree with the cause or reject it with all our being, whether we are hawks who are ready to go to war at the smallest provocation or doves who oppose war at every turn, we remember and honor those who answered the call. What then of those who died on the job, those young and old whose deaths served no noble purpose? What do we owe those slaughtered and maimed in our mills and mines, factories and warehouses? Unless these deaths spur us to action—meaningful, substantive changes in how we view the death of a worker (and what we do in response to these incidents) whether they be full or part-time, contractor or employee—we not only fail to honor their lives but we cheapen their horrible and untimely deaths.

I have heard one too many time the tale of a worker killed on the job. After the crocodile tears are shed and words like “senseless tragedy” and “completely preventable” roll off people’s lips in somber tones invariably someone makes will sigh and shrug in a what-can-you-do?” dismissal of the horror of dying while at work. And what’s worse is that in many of these cases, the safety professionals breathe just a little easier, when the worker is a contractor (at least it wasn’t one of ours).

While much fuss and fury are made about those who die at work, I haven’t really seen a lot of progress in reducing the risk of fatalities; it’s like Mark Twain’s famous quote about the weather “people are always talking about (it) but no one ever does anything about it”. To be sure things seem to be getting safer. Injuries are down. Well not all injuries—serious injuries and fatalities remain flat—but some injuries are down. Unless they’re not.

Let’s not deceive ourselves anymore. A good share of the reduction in injuries has nothing to do with less people getting hurt. There’s the issue of under-reporting (hell there has been a whole cottage industry within safety that either deliberately or inadvertently encourages workers to lie and say an injury was non-work-related or not.), but there is also the trend toward outsourcing the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs to contractors. I’ve written several pieces on the sickening trend toward pushing the most hazardous jobs onto small, mom-and-pop contractors.

The smaller the contractor the less likely that it will be subject to OSHA regulations, have properly trained employees, or even the right tools. Whenever I see a residential roofer working hauling roofing materials up and down an unsecured ladder, working with no fall protection, and generally doing things that would make a suicidal tightrope walker cringe I think about the tens of thousands of people who are working for small firms who have little to no regard for worker safety.

Small businesses have become iconic in the United States. Want to cut business taxes? You need simply reference struggles of the small business. Want to ease (or eliminate) safety regulations? Again all you need do is point at the poor suffering small business. Wanton disregard for a worker’s basic human right to live through the workday is being justified in the name of easing the burden of small businesses. Before anyone shakes their fist at the sky and decries me a Bolshevik, I have, throughout my career owned small businesses, and while I am at it, at 5’7” I am still a small businessman. I know the pressures of trying to make payroll and trying to manage cash flow. I am not indifferent to the very real challenges of running a small business, but my sympathy stops at killing my friends and family, at allowing my children or the children of others to die simply because the mom-and-pop shop can’t afford to protect them.

The blame doesn’t lie completely on the shoulders of the small business. Many and most big companies have transitioned from having large full-time workforces in favor of smaller core workforces augmented by contractors. In the1980’s in U.S. the move to sourcing work traditionally done by employees to “independent contractors” was fueled by an increasingly tighter global market coupled with the recession and greed. Fobbing work off on to contractors was smart business: you could pay the same wage (or less) without the burden rate (typically the worker’s wage, benefits, and sundry employment costs). What’s more you didn’t have to provide benefits, and a smaller workforce (that is, fewer fulltime employees) meant that in many cases your company would be were exempt from regulations they would have faced if they had more fulltime employees). Add to that the fact that independent contractors are far less likely to form unions, and that you don’t have the hassle of wrongful discharge lawsuits if you decided to throw away the contractor like a used Kleenex, and fewer full time workers meant lower payroll taxes and you have a real tempting alternative; so much so, it seemed stupid to have employees at all.  As time went on, companies saw an even bigger benefit: a company could outsource the most dangerous jobs and lower its Workers’ Compensation and or insurance costs. Hiring contractors to do the jobs that were most likely to get your people killed or seriously injured would get you off the hook if something went sideways. Of course, as many companies have since found, things don’t always work that way, legally speaking.

In the minds of too many corporate cultures the death of a contractor is someone else’s problem.  The loss of life is terrible, but there are many terrible things in life that we just can’t concern ourselves with, like world hunger or unrest in faraway places the death of other people’s employees is a shame, but it isn’t our problem.

Like Lambs to the Slaughter

Many of us view the issue of outsourcing our fatalities as one of those far away problems (I am willing to bet more people worry about contracting Ebola than they are about losing someone close to them in a workplace fatality) but in the U.S. we have a generation of new grads who cannot find jobs. Saddled with predatory student debt that can routinely rise above six figures, these recent grads are forced to work for temp companies just to subsist. My daughter has two degrees from Loyola (Journalism and English) and has an impressive résumé as an editor and writer (she would want me to emphasize that she does NOT edit my misspellings-and-grammar-abominations infested blog posts) and yet she works as a teachers’ assistant making a pittance above minimum wage. It’s people like her and her peers that are forced into “subemployment” and who we, as a society throw to the wolves of the contractors.

We love to get high and mighty in safety and talk about making safe choices and exercising stop work authority, telling our workers that no job is worth dying for, but what choice do twenty- something workers have when the decision before them is to risk their lives (and let’s face it, most probably be okay) or use stop work authority and lose their subsistence jobs that they struggled hard and long to get.

We may not have been able to save our war dead, but we can damned sure save the workers employed in these deathtraps. We can start by asking questions; what kind of safety records do the companies we employee personally (roofers, landscapers, etc.) have? What about the companies we do work with professionally? What about the companies in our stock and 401K portfolios? If we look the other way in the name of profit we are as guilty as the foreman who tells the temp to do something life threatening the first day on the job. Unless we do all this and more we are complicit in these deaths.

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

Indicators Are Meaningless Unless They Lead to Managing Performance


broken cross

By Phil La Duke

You don’t get great outputs by managing results, you get great outputs by managing performance such that you produce great results. In safety we have spent a century trying to manage outputs and we wonder why our results are less than spectacular. To be sure safety has improved over the past hundred odd years, but this week marks the anniversary of two big events that serve both as an important reminder of how much we have accomplished and of how much work we have yet to complete. March 25 is the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaste Factory fire that, in 2011 galvanized the nation and opened the eyes of many about the unsafe working conditions in industry. March 23 saw the anniversary of the explosion and fire at BP’s Texas City refinery. So while a lot has changed and improved in safety Texas City (and the Gulf spill) shows us that we have to be ever vigilant. I won’t draw any more comparison between the two events—to do so would be unfair because there is little similarity between them except that they were safety disasters that killed or injured over a hundred people most of whom did nothing more unsafe than reporting to work that fateful day. But one thing they did have in common is that when it came to safety they managed outcomes. They absolutely made changes to the workplace in light of their respective disasters. They continued as they had done for many years; they managed outcomes.

Most of us continue to manage outcomes despite our fascination with leading indicators we still tend to manage in response to something that has already happened; we react, sometimes without even realizing it. There is an emerging debate as to whether serious injuries/fatalities have the same root causes as more minor injuries and first aid cases. I don’t think that’s the case, that is, I don’t believe that causes of fatalities are significantly different than the causes. What I DO believe is that we tend to be able to reduce minor injuries by managing outcomes but can only prevented by managing performance, not by managing outcomes.

I’ve written about five areas that, if managed properly, will produce safe outcomes. Just to refresh your memories these are:

  • Competency;
  • Process Capability;
  • Hazard and Risk Management;
  • Accountability; and
  • Engagement

To manage our performance in these areas we have to have leading indicators that meaningfully equate to actual peak performance in these respective areas, but also we need to act on the leading indicators to improve performance.

Let’s take a look at just one area for example; the first area where we need to manage performance is competency. When we put people in jobs for which they are not physically or mentally able to perform—not just at the date of hire but through the length of their employment—we put them at risk of acute injuries, long-term ergonomic issues, and of causing other workers to be injured as well. Even if we select workers aptly suited for the tasks we must train them to mastery-level skill level and ultimately we must make periodic assessments of the workers’ continued fitness for duty.

So essentially we need to manage three areas (minimum) for competency: 1) recruiting and screening 2) training and 3) performance management. Unfortunately, most safety practitioners aren’t qualified to judge the effectiveness of any of these areas, so they will have to work with other areas to develop metrics that measure not just whether or not something happened, but also how effective it was. For example, while the number of people trained on time is an important indicator of the importance placed upon training by an organization, what if the training is ineffectual? What if the training is poorly designed “death by PowerPoint” dreck? I’m afraid that we have gotten so enamored with indicators that we have forgotten that the point isn’t a binary “was it done or not?” but to analyze the indicators and intervene. Sure it’s important to know whether or not people received training before they are expected to work production, but it is as important (arguably more important) that those trained are trained effectively.

Leading indicators without any analysis of what the data is telling you and without any intervention to improve the activity is like taking attendance on the Titanic. Sure it’s important to have everyone accounted for, but if you don’t get into the lifeboats there is scarce little value in the exercise.

Many people complain that they can’t find the right leading indicators. Others complain that leading indicators don’t seem to be effective at preventing fatalities. In my experience both complaints are valid. If you don’t have the right indicators, and by the right indicators I mean indications that one of the five areas I mentioned above, you aren’t likely to get good results and if you don’t manage the performance in these areas you may even make matters worse.

To make managing performance for safer outcomes a reality the safety function must partner with other functions to enable and enhance operations. By partnering with groups like Human Resources, Training, and Continuous Improvement the safety function makes the entire organization more effective. As Safety contributes to the overall success of the organization its credibility and influence in the organization will grow and the safety profession will get the respect it deserves.

Managing performance is bigger than safety, in fact managing the five areas will produce more than just safe outcomes it will produce success.

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Safety Slogans Don’t Save Lives


safety-is-our-business-slogan-sign-s-4137

By Phil La Duke

It’s tough to bring professionalism to a trade that actively looks to make itself look stupid.  There’s only so many hours in the day and only so many resources and if we are wasting either it’s tough to go to the well and ask for help and money. And let’s face it, as safety professionals we to love make fools of ourselves.  On one hand we are perpetual victims, unloved, over-worked, and most of all, under-staffed and under-funded. On the other hand we spend our scarce time and meager resources doing things that don’t reduce the risk of injuries, reduce our operating costs or do really much of anything.  Chief among the waste of time activities that make us look soft- headed goofballs that are completely out of touch with any semblance of reality is the creation and promotion of safety slogans. What is the purpose of safety slogans? Deming specifically signaled out slogans in his tenth point for management, “Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.” Do safety slogans create adversarial relationships? In way they do.  The fact that we post safety slogans imply that were it not for our little gems of wisdom the great unwashed would stick their entire heads in the machinery.  At their worst, safety slogans patronize and demean the worker.  Am I stating things to strongly? I don’t think so.  Safety slogans don’t raise awareness of safety; it raises and reinforces the awareness that safety professionals think themselves superior to the people who turn wrenches for a living.  It widens the gulf between blue and white collar. And while safety professionals may not recognize Deming for his genius, I think he hit the nail on the head with this point.  If we believe that all but the rarest injuries are the result of either unintended actions (human error/accidents) or poorly calculated risks, then a pithy saying isn’t likely to have much of an effect.

Safety First

Who among you has ever read a safety slogan and thought, “holy crap, I’ve been approaching my life completely wrong, I’m completely turned around on this. I need to make some changes”.  The long and the short of it is that safety slogans serve no purpose, offer no benefit, and yet we devote precious time and money to thinking them up, launching campaigns around them, and promoting them as if they were a crucial part of our efforts to lower risks.

So Why Do It?

Why do we persist in engaging in an activity that does nothing but make us look ridiculous in the eyes of the organization.  And make no mistake, thinking up safety slogans doesn’t garner safety professionals the respect or esteem of the organization simply because they coined the phrase “Safety: It’s Better Than Dying”.  We do it because we like it, and we never asked the question, “is this activity in the furtherance of safety?” Sometimes misguided executives press us to come up with a slogan and eager to curry favor, we rush forward in an orgy of sycophantic fervor, delighted at the exposure to the C-suite.  Trust me when I tell you this is exposure you can do without.  As uncomfortable as it may be, we are better served by declining this request and fetching coffee and bagels instead.  Exposure that perpetuates the C-suite view of safety as simpletons who you call when you want something a kindergarten teacher would refuse to do.  Far better to explain to the executive that your finite time would be better spent engaging in an activity that would return real business results.  Not a lot of safety professionals would feel comfortable speaking up to an executive, but your first interactions with executives set a tone for the relationship; do you want to be taken seriously? It begins here.

What’s Wrong With Having A Little Fun With Safety?

When I have railied against safety slogans before, I invariably get some soft-baked safety guy roll his eyes, smirk and ask, “what’s wrong with having a little fun with safety?”  I am something of an expert in fun (I have had fun that will forever keep me out of any elected office, has gotten me barred from entire countries, and damn near got me killed on multiple occasions), and I am here to tell you that if you think that coming up with safety slogans is fun you are out of your mind; you are doing “fun” completely wrong. I wouldn’t even categorize thinking up safety slogans as amusing or as a brief respite from mind crushing boredom. Let me be clear: I think safety slogans are stupid and make us look like simpletons.  Deming was right, we have got to get rid of them.

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I Factory Rat


By Phil La Duke

This week I conclude my series of posts on safety as an outcome. I began these articles by asking you to rethink safety; to think of it not as a discreet element unto itself, but as the outcome of well-managed business systems, particularly in the areas of competency, process capability, risk and hazard management, accountability, and engagement.

Engagement is one of those words that softheaded HR folks use that makes me nervous. It’s not that engagement isn’t important, in fact, it’s critical, but as Dr. Paul Marciano points out in his books Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work and Super Teams true engagement begins with respect, and I am here to tell you respect is in short supply.

Empowerment, employee involvement, human capital, etc. all sound great, until you get to the root of things and understand that in many cases these words mask the company’s true intentions. The idea that a front-line worker would ever have something worth listening to is an absurd concept to many of the salaried ranks, and the contempt with which many salaried workers feel toward their hourly colleagues is often palpable. Where there should be respect there is condescension, and workers can smell it as surely as whatever they stepped in that is currently stuck to the bottom of their Red Wings.

My view of the world is jaded. In 1985 I took a job working the line at General Motors building seats. I was a hardware installer which meant that I would attach seat locks (a 15 lb piece of rough metal that I would use an air wrench to drive two or three fasteners) to the base of a seat so that the seat back could be slid over the peace and secured to the seat back; I screwed for a living and I came home sore. I would attach 1,600 seat locks on an ordinary shift and 1,800 on an overtime shift. The work was dirty, back breaking, and had numerous hazards associated with it (the company at the time did not require steel toed boots, cut resistant gloves, or safety glasses at the time). In short it wasn’t work that everyone could do, so much so that of the oddly 188 people hired the same day that I was less than 90 made it through the first 90 days. But both inside and outside the plant we were seen as second-class citizens, factory rats. A man who worked the line next to me had earned three masters degrees and when I asked him why he didn’t go to work in one of his fields of study he laughed and said he wasn’t going to take a pay cut.

A lot has changed in the 30 years since I worked that line. Automation has replaced some of the most dangerous jobs. Machine controls and processes have become so much more sophisticated that many shop floor employees are almost skilled trades. But one thing that hasn’t changed that much is the attitude by many salaried employees that the people working the front-line are somehow beneath them, that the lack of a college degree is automatically equivalent to a lack of brains.   The attitude is often subtle but it’s still there, and it is far more prevalent among safety professionals than it should be.

I have heard safety professionals openly malign the front-line workers by questioning their intellectual abilities, and describe them as lazy, stupid, or working in their current roles because they don’t have any other choice. In other cases it is more institutional and insidious. I have been asked to dumb down speeches and even training programs because the average Joe on the shop floor won’t get it. And I’ve been told that unless I compared it to NASCAR most of the people will ignore it. Still other safety professionals think so little of the front-line workers that they have appointed themselves surrogate parents. Its in this climate of condescension that we are expecting workers to rise to the occasion and engage as equal partners in making the workplace safer.

Worker engagement begins with respect and respect begins with confronting our own biases and bigotries. And this is an “us” problem not a “them” problem. Too often in the safety community we blame all our ills on others; the execs don’t do this, production won’t do that. But this is an “us” problem, the only way we can get everyone truly engaged we have to stop acting as if we are the only people who care about safety and the only ones capable of making a difference in safety. We have to stop moaning about how no one will own safety but us and invite others into our world.

It’s impossible to fake respect and until we truly learn to respect all levels of the organization engagement is impossible. So how do we break this cycle? We can begin by expecting more from the shop floor, and warehouses, and shipyards, and steel mills. We can stop acting so surprised when the front-line workers make good suggestions. We can end schmaltzy child safety poster contests and overly parental awareness campaigns. Treat the workers like equals. Ultimately demand great things from workers and engaged workers will deliver.

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

A Pyramid By Any Other Name


by Phil La Duke

Tip of the Iceberg --- Image by © Ralph A. Clevenger/CORBIS

In the past weeks I have challenged safety practitioners to view safety differently, to see beyond the fads, the snake oil, and to see safety for what it is, the product of well-managed business practices in the areas of competency, process capability, hazard and risk management, accountability systems, and engagement. I have explored competency and process capability and this week I will take a close look at hazard and risk management.

This topic is by far the most difficult to explore, not because its not well understood, but be cause it is so frequently misunderstood. So many of the basic tenants of safety—when done correctly—support this business element. Unfortunately, so few of these things are done correctly.

Take for example Heinrich’s insufferable pyramid. Safety practitioners all over the world still trot out Heinrich’s Pyramid as proof positive that if you have x number of near misses you will have y number of serious injuries and z number of fatalities. Safety practitioners cling to this concept like a tick on the soft white underbelly of business. But Heinrich’s Pyramid is a steaming pile of crap. Forget that evidence suggest that he may have made his evidence up, forget that no serious researchers (those who don’t collect checks for perpetuating this garbage) believe there is any statistical validity to the pyramid, and forget that Heinrich himself admitted that his research itself consisted of asking 1920’s front-line supervisors how injuries happened ten years or so after they actually happened. Forget all that. The greatest flaw in Heinrich’s Pyramid is that we never really know how many near misses, minor injuries, or unsafe acts there are so effectively we are missing half the information we need to make any meaningful inferences. But there I go again spoiling things for the safety professionals who: a) don’t give a rat’s testicle whether or not the pyramid is valid and b) are too lazy to replace it with something more meaningful.

Of course on the other side of the spectrum we have those who hate Heinrich with the venom and vitriol of the people who hate Heinrich Himmler. This school of thought holds that everything that Heinrich believed is wrong and damaging to the safety organization. These people, I believe, are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. While there is no value in trying to predict the expected number of injuries using Heinrich’s Pyramid, there is value to using the pyramid as an analogy to better help Operations value the benefit of correcting hazards. When forced (which is too often) to incorporate insipid pyramid into a training I am developing or presenting I explain it by saying that we know that for every injury there are numerous hazards that could have harmed us but didn’t, close calls, or minor injuries. We may not be able to use that to predict the number of future injuries but a heck of a lot of hazards represent a heck of a lot of potential for harm. That’s it, no hackneyed lectures about behavior.

Maybe the better analogy would be an iceberg. The above the waterline would be the reported injuries, recordables, DART Injuries, and fatalities and below the waterline would be the hazards, unreported minor injuries, and risk conditions. The point being that if we focus on the hazards before people get hurt we end up reducing the iceberg both above and below the waterline.

Managing hazards is pretty simple (which I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts is the reason so many safety practitioners hate it): find the hazards, contain the hazards, and track the hazard to its permanent correction. Of course implementing this simple process isn’t easy but making it more complex doesn’t make it any easier.

Managing hazards begins with identifying hazards and the best way to do that is to walk the work area and look for things that can hurt people. We don’t need to worry about whether or not the hazard is a physical condition or the result of an ancient curse, or the act of an avenging pagan god. This is not to say that we shouldn’t investigate the causes, but we need to stop obsessing and finding profundity in the ordinary.

Once we have found a hazard we must be sure that we don’t walk away from it without containing it. There is more than just the obvious reason (because someone could get hurt before we get around to it) there is legal liability issues to consider if you find and document a hazard but fail to contain (and record the containment) a hazard.

Tracking the hazard to completion adds another layer to the hazard management process and it provides real value. Meeting weekly to discuss the progress toward correcting hazards helps to build ownership among Operations, it makes the previously invisible visible and applies coercive force on the people responsible for getting things fixed (who often sweep fixing hazards aside for sexier work).

Keeping it simple is an easier sell to the organization than some complex mumbo-jumbo.

Correcting hazards tends to return more on the effort than just reducing injuries. Because we eliminate the root causes of system failures, we likely will eliminate other process bottlenecks that effect cost, quality, delivery, and morale.

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

Your Only As Good—and Safe—As Your Process


SONY DSC

by Phil La Duke

Several weeks ago I posted an article that asked you to take a new look at safety. I asked you to consider that safety isn’t something that happens to workers or that doesn’t happen to workers, rather it is an indicator of the efficiency and effectiveness of one of five basic business elements: competency, process capability, management of hazards and risk, accountability, and engagement. In that post I explored the relationship between competency and safe outcomes, and in this week’s post I would like to continue to explore safe outcomes as they pertain to process capability.

I should begin by precisely defining exactly what I mean by process capability. Process capability is the extent to which a process (i.e. an activity designed to produce a predictable desired outcome) as practiced varies from the specification. Your process is not deliberately designed to harm workers so by definition something has gone wrong when someone is injured. Process variability is seen as the principle enemy to efficiency by most process improvement; variability is deviation from the standard and this deviation means that the process is less predictable; the greater the variability the more unpredictable the results and the more hazardous the process.

There is variability in every process; even robots and the best automated equipment are incapable of returning the exact same result in every instance. Typically machine and equipment performance measured in its ability to meet specific limits. Statistical Process Control (SPC) is a discipline developed to improve process reliability (how consistently it performs within control limits) these and other tools can improve process capability and create safe outcomes.

There are obvious things that we can do to improve process capability. For starters, we can develop Standard Work Instructions (SWI). According to the Lean Institute, “Standardized work is one of the most powerful but least used lean tools.” Standard Work involves identifying and documenting the current best practice. In so doing, the organization can identify a) differences between how the work is actually performed and how it was designed, b) the safest way to do the job, and c) identify and document continuous improvements.

Once you have created SWIs you have the means to properly train new employees, evaluate the performance and skill level of existing employees and as I mentioned in the first in this series people who have the skills to do the job are better able to do it safely and correctly. What’s more SWIs allow worker input into workplace improvements. So many organizations have invested in half-baked safety systems that pay workers to watch other people work and provide feedback, why not have them do something productive instead, like…I don’t know…develop Safe Work Instructions?

Standard Work Instructions are more than merely operating instructions, but my intent here is not to give free consulting in Lean Principles. Sufficed to say that investing in standard work improves not only your process but produces safer outcomes. Standardized work isn’t just for manufacturing—it can be applied to everything from driving to dry cleaning—but it is seldom used for non-manufacturing processes even in manufacturing, which is disappointing. Too often organizations resist standardizing non-production work by claiming that it is too difficult. If that were truly the case than how do we ever train anyone to do it?

In my experience a fair amount of workers will resist the very concept of Standardized Work, once when I was teaching a workshop in standardized work one worker indignantly told me that nobody was gonna tell him where he was going to put his (expletive) toolbox. So it’s not that easy to implement standards, of course, I was able to turn it around and win him over by telling him that he was going to tell US where his toolbox should go.

Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) is another great tool for influencing safe outcomes, while the snake oil salesmen will tell you that you don’t need to invest in capital, machines wear out, technology advances, and the design, care, and appropriate maintenance of your equipment is essential. It is outright stupid to believe that you can keep workers safe using outdated, poorly functioning, and wildly unpredictable equipment and, for that matter, battered and crumbling facilities.

Another Lean tool that has a direct influence on safer outputs is 5S, but then I’ve already written ad nauseum on the relationship between workplace organization/housekeeping and its relationship to workplace safety, and given the criticisms of late that I tend to repeat myself, I won’t go into here.

All the best tools and robust processes are of little value, however, if no one follows them. The second element that you have to consider in how process capability influences safer outcomes is “process discipline”, that is, the extent to which people work within the process. We tend to construct safety controls based on what people are supposed to do, and often forget that what happens on paper isn’t necessarily what happens in the workplace. As variable as equipment can be, this variation pales in comparison to the variability of human behavior. No amount of training, hackneyed theories, or the dubious claims from soft-headed safety gurus will change the fact that human behavior is incredibly complex, unpredictable, and rife with variability. This having been said, we need to stop trying to reengineer the human brain and start building engineering controls that protect workers when they make mistakes or even deliberately take unnecessary risks or behave recklessly. We need to recognize that everyone makes mistakes, whether it be human error or poor choices, nobody should have to die because they chose poorly. I know there are people out there who feel differently (shamefully even some people within the safety practice), people who believe that some people, because of their poor decisions deserve to be injured or killed, but for me, killing workers is still bad business.

Filed under: Behavior Based Safety, Worker Safety, process improvement, Hazard Management, Mistake proofing, culture change, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Lie of Complacency


by Phil La Duke

complacency

In this week’s post, I was going to continue exploring the antecedent processes that organizations must manage if they hope to ensure safe outcomes, but I got distracted by a recent contention by a leading vendor of safety training that 80% of all injuries are caused by complacency. I have been hearing this more and more lately and it is driving me nuts. First of all, I question the basis for that contention. Several sources claim to have reached this conclusion based on research, but I suspect that they know about the scientific method as I do about piloting a zeppelin, which is to say zilch.

What is the Ahabesque obsession that safety people have with finding the single cause (or the most common cause) of injuries? The cynic in me wants to point out that companies whose business model depends on the perpetuation of a given hypothesis are likely to preserve it at all costs, but I think it goes deeper than that.

To begin with there is the real problem that most of these people have differentiating between qualitative and quantitative data; it’s a problem that used to be common in the quality function. Qualitative data is measured while quantitative data is counted. When we talk about the cause of injuries we need to consider qualitative data not quantitative data, in other words, it doesn’t matter what the most common cause of injuries are, what matters is what is the most serious threat to workers. Let me give you an example, the following chart represents the locations on the site that have the most injuries:

 injuries pareto

If you look at this chart it is easy to assume that your efforts should be spent at the Memphis facility, but because this is quantitative (counted) data and not qualitative (measured) data we aren’t making informed decisions. What if , for example, the injuries at the Memphis facility are predominately first aid cases, but the Charlotte facility are predominately fatalities? Does it still make sense to attack first aid cases or is it smarter to address the problems at the Charlotte facility?

So even if complacency is the cause of 80% of worker injuries (and PLEASE share with us the industry, country, time period, research methods, population, culture, etc. that these studies on which this conclusion was made), it doesn’t mean that attacking complacency alone will solve the problem, because what percent of our injuries are relatively minor and what percentage are killing people?

But specifically the idea that complacency is the primary cause of injuries is problematic. This company and those like them, would you have believe that there is one overwhelmingly widespread cause that transcends all industries, worksites, and environments is ludicrous to the extreme, and convenient if you are selling a methodology that is based on this specious argument.

Why am I so suspicious? Well let’s start with the definition of “complacency”. According to dictionary.com “complacency” is 1. a feeling of quiet pleasure or security, often while unaware of some potential danger, defect, or the like; self-satisfaction or smug satisfaction with an existing situation, condition, etc. Is this really 80% of the causes of injuries? Are people dying from exposure to poison gases because they are smugly satisfied? Are workers being maimed because they feel comfortable doing their jobs? Who thinks up this softheaded rhetoric and successfully builds a billion dollar industry around it? And what is wrong with us that we so blithely buy this snake oil? To quote Kermit the Frog, “Somebody thought of that and someone believed it and look what we’ve done so far” of course Kermit was talking about wishing on stars, but he might as well have been talking about the latest safety methodology.

Another element that works against this thinking is the assumption that our anecdotal experiences and observations are universal. Once again, this is great for companies who sell a single tool solution (or single premise) but for those of us who are on the receiving end it can be lethal or even fatal. As I pointed out in my post about Lone Gunman safety, we have to as a profession accept that there are multiple causes for injuries and the more we look for that single cause the more we delude ourselves into thinking that there is some kind of magic bullet solution.

Injuring workers is a complex problem and we have to resist the temptation to get sucked into some con game where a slick-talking salesman convinces us that we only have to…and all our problems will be solved.

Beyond all that let us suppose that complacency really is this hidden killer, what are we to do about it? Awareness campaigns? I used to work in the nuclear industry and knew plenty of people who grew complacent with the dangers of exposure to radioactivity, but they still didn’t take chances or short cuts. An awareness campaign or retraining them would have made no difference—the opposite of complacency isn’t awareness it’s anxiety. So would the people preaching that the greatest threat to worker safety is complacency really suggest that we increase the anxiety of the worker? Would they have us believe that a stressed and worried worker is safer than one who is relatively relaxed? Keep in mind that a stressed out worker is far more likely to commit errors and take unnecessary risks than the worker who is not stressed out. Add to that the stress produced by constantly reminding people to pay attention or to stay focused and you have people adding risk to the process in the name of safety.

Complacency is a danger on one way—complacent safety professionals who think they are doing a better job than they are. If complacency is responsible for 80% of injuries, maybe it’s the complacency of the safety practitioner.

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

Taking a New Look At Safety


fresh look

By Phil La Duke

 Let me begin by thanking all of you who voiced your support for me over the past week. As you may have surmised I get frustrated from time to time, mostly because so many safety practitioners still don’t get it—despite cognizant arguments (I’m not talking about what I have been saying, I’m arrogant but I’m not THAT arrogant) made by really smart people so many in the field of safety cling to shear stupidity. Arguing a point that should have been conceded long ago gets exhausting and it got to me. Add to that a moderate case of writer’s block and it’s been a rough couple of weeks.

But enough about that, some time ago I posted an article that postulated that safety in itself wasn’t something we should be managing, that safety is an outcome not a priority or a factor or…fill in the blank. Safety isn’t what happens to or doesn’t happen to workers it’s an indicator of business efficiency. We have to view safety in a radically different way and I realize going into this upset some of the delicate sensibilities of some in the safety community, but safety cannot be effective on a functional level, it needs to be managed by operations. Operations ownership of safety isn’t a new idea, and certainly not a radical change, but what I am suggesting is more than simply moving a corporate function out of administration or compliance to under Operations leadership. What I am suggesting is that Operations needs to view safety as an indicator of the health of the organization, as a criterion for judging the effectiveness of Operations management.

If safety is truly a value (and it really should be) than what is it that we are valuing? A lack of injuries? Can we really say that is a value? But let’s back up. “Value” is one of those words that simpletons bandy about without really having a clear understanding of the definition of the word. I realize that in the age of Wikipedia people feel that it is an inalienable right to assign whatever definition they want to a word; sorry imbeciles it doesn’t work that way. “Values” are your personal code of beliefs, and one of the elements of a culture is “shared values”, that is, the most deeply held belief set that guides our decisions. So if “safety” is a core value it should guide our decisions as we manage our operations in five[1] key areas: Competency, process capability, hazard management, accountability, and engagement. This week I would like to tackle competency.

I tend to boil this down to a single statement: “if people don’t have the skills to do their jobs they can’t do them safely.” I stand by this, and it makes for a great “elevator speech”[2] but there is so much more to this. Recruiters have to find the right people to do the job, people capable—physically, mentally, and emotionally—of doing the job as designed. There is a lot of cowardice in recruiting and many in Human Resources will hide behind antidiscrimination laws for not doing a thorough job of screening people for their ability of inability to do the job without hurting themselves or others. The difficulty in hiring the right people isn’t completely the fault of recruiters. In many organizations the jobs are so poorly defined that it is for all intents and purposes impossible to identify which skills and abilities are bona fide job requirements. Companies, often abetted by misguided hackneyed legal advice deliberately add competency-risk to their organization because they are afraid someone will use his or her job description as a shield. In a well-managed organization competencies are mapped so specifically that an intern can see the skills and experiences that he or she would need to master/acquire to become CEO. Before you scoff and pooh-pooh the idea as nonsense, I developed such a system for a large, tier-one Automotive supplier, not only did it help in succession planning, but it helped individuals to own their own careers, and yes, an output of a good competency management system is a safer operating environment. Competency cannot stop at the date of hire.

There is seldom, if ever, a perfect hire. Even in the best case there is at least some gap between a new-hire’s skill set and the requirements to expertly do the job. Unfortunately, in most companies the training department doesn’t do individual placement testing to ascertain a new-hire’s true competency level and tends to train to the lowest common denominator (which here again they really can’t know without testing) and over train, often with a schlocky eLearning module that is about much like actual skill building as I am like a flamenco dancer. So there is much work to be done to increase true competency in our hiring and training process.

And it doesn’t end there, once someone has been hired and appropriately trained, there is still a large degradation of skills and behavioral drift where people move away from the established process, so the organization has to have a strong performance evaluation process that focuses on performance improvement and not on pay increases or cover your assets thinking that pervades so many performance evaluation processes. At this point you’re probably seeing where there begins to be overlap between the five antecedent processes. You can probably also connect the dots between getting these basic management practices right. Not only will the organization see it’s safety increase, but in all the other business elements as well.

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[1] I used to have seven, I have colleagues who have identified ten, others who have as many as 35, but I’ve found that much more than five of anything confounds the organization so I simplified mine to five

[2] If someone ever gave me a little speech about what they do while I was riding in an elevator I would be tempted to smack them, but I digress.

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

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