Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

When is Your Safety Meeting Not A Safety Meeting?

dysfunctional meetings

By Phil La Duke

A common leading indicator for safety is involvement in safety meetings, but to risk sounding like Bill Clinton’s infamous “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” quote what constitutes “involved in safety meetings”? To answer that question we have to define “involved” “safety” and “meetings” (and hell you might as well define “in” while you’re at it.)  To be a true leading indicator, that is, a measure of something that positively correlates to future safe performance, something must directly or indirectly align with things that promote safety (in my view of the world: improved competency, better process capability, more effective management of risk and hazards, heightened accountability, or stronger engagement).

Participation in safety meetings if often used as a leading indicator, presumably of worker engagement; the assumption being that the more one is engaged the more likely one is to attend safety meetings.  There is a lot of noise in this particular indicator. Let’s face it one could attend a safety meeting because they serve croissants and one love’s croissants (“they’re like a little bite of Paris”) and one’s wife won’t let one have that at home because she’s a bossy shrew who nags one for being too fat (like she’s Christi Turlington) when she has no room (literally) to talk.  One also might go to safety meetings because it beat’s unclogging stopped up toilets because one’s coworkers desperately need more fiber in their diets.  One might even go to safety meetings because the new safety intern is really hot and who knows she might be single and might be interested in going to lunch sometime, heck she might even have daddy issues.  In short, attendance at a safety meeting can indicative of many things (I forgot that one might be clinically insane and just LOVE to go to meetings—run for city council you freak and leave me out of your twisted fantasies, but then, as I inevitably do, I digress.)

But the supposition remains that people who go to safety meetings are more engaged in safety than those who don’t “aren’t” involved in safety meetings persists and if you can forget all the statistical noise associated with this indicator, you still find yourself led back to the need to define what it means be involved with safety meetings.


Ostensibly attendance at safety meetings should be an easy variable to measure: either someone was at the meeting or they were not.  This takes us to the Slick Willie style reasoning of what exactly does “at the meeting” means.  This will surprise some, but I was a handful as a student.  I was knew the rules and followed them to the letter, the whole time circumventing the spirit of the rule.  I was, what an employer who I affectionately refer to as the Devil, called “maliciously obedient”. (The term was new to me so I asked for some clarification and he told me that “malicious obedience” is the practice of doing exactly what one is told to do while knowing the whole time that doing so would lead to disaster and ruin.)  My attendance record was actually pretty good, although I seldom went to class.  The process of taking attendance at my high school was for the teacher to take attendance (noting who was there and who was not and jotting the results down on small yellow sheet of paper and then sending to down to the office in care of a student.) In geometry class (something that no one except carpet layers will ever use) I would always volunteer to take the slip to the office after which I would stop by the cafeteria (so often that the faculty advisor thought that was my actual lunch period) and never return to geometry.  I got a C+ which is pretty amazing considering that I was only about 12% of the time. It was a win-win I got out of geometry and a highly disruptive presence was removed from the classroom. The point is I “attended” geography every day; hell I don’t make the rules, I just have to live by them. So the point being that when you are using attendance at the meeting as a criterion for engagement, you might consider counting only those who are on time and stay until the meeting is concluded.


Participation is also a tricky thing to measure. I participated in all my classes in high school except geometry (seriously, I have to prove the Pythagorean theorem? Can’t we just take Pythagoras’s word for it? And who’s to say if I can’t prove his precious theorem that HE’s not wrong? Isn’t that the point of proving something? So anyway, I participated a lot, usually in the form of non-sequiturs and wise-ass comments but by the strictest definition I was indeed participating, in fact much more so than my classmates. When it comes to participation in safety meetings any measurement is going to be subjective. If someone shows up and sits arms crossed with a furrowed brow harrumphing through the meeting I wouldn’t consider that participation. I think we need to qualify the word “participation” as “constructive participation” it may not be any less subjective but I think it paints a clearer vision of exactly what “counts” as participation.


I’ve sat through too many meetings that seemed to have the sole goal of wasting the time of everyone involved. If your safety meetings aren’t focused on a tight agenda; if for instance the meetings are little more than gripe sessions where people get together and shout about how nothing get fixed and how sick of it they all are. Having a good agenda is only half the battle; even the best agenda is worthless in the hands of a weak facilitator. The facilitator is there to keep the meeting on track. If the facilitator doesn’t keep the meeting on track it is within the right of all team members to call for a “process check” and pull the meeting back on track. Like most of the other criteria for success determining the quality of the focus of a meeting is also really subjective.

While it can be easy to question the value of subject data as terms of an indicator, but provided one uses the same subjective criteria each time, and as long as one is honest (not juking the stats) this can be valuable information. I still don’t think anyone has found a strong leading indicator around engagement (let’s face it even in 100% of the people participated in meetings, reported near misses, completed of safety surveys, or made suggestions for safety improvements it really doesn’t cleanly correlate to worker engagement) we don’t know what’s really inside people’s heads. Engagement is closely related to one’s attitude and overall morale and there are so many organizational things that have nothing to do with safety that can skew the data, and if we are looking at skewed data than we are acting on a hunch in the guise of data.


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Combustible Dust: How Crackpots Endanger Safety

By Phil La Duke


Most of us know the dangers of combustible dust, how when there is a critical mass of fine explosive material—whether it be flour or sawdust—all it takes is a spark to set of  catastrophe.  But there is an equally dangerous situation in the world of safety, the combustible dust of thought.  Combustible Dust Thought is prevalent in LinkedIn discussion groups and other safety forums. I call it combustible dust thought because it’s old and dusty defense of obsolete or just plain simple-minded thinking and practices, and combustible because the old “safety by experience” “we don’t need no education” cranks who blow up at the merest mention of a new idea that isn’t theirs. The Crank Coxes of the world belch out bile and hatred of anything new in safety in bellicose mockery of the modern safety professional.

Take for example “Crank Cox” (a pseudonym of course and an amalgamation of numerous persons I have encountered.  Let me put it this way, if you are reading this and are offended because you think I’m talking about you then I probably am.  Feel the hurt and let it go). Crank is a soft-headed blowfish of a man who trolls the discussion topics looking for things over which he can react  to in self-righteous indignation.  How dare, he asks, can anyone suggest that anything he does do might be a better way? After all, Crank has over thirty years in safety and that should qualify him in all things safety, he’s SEEN things you know? Why should he listen to anything that he doesn’t already know?  In his decades of experience he has learned all there is to learn and people with new ideas are just “college boys” who don’t really work for a living. Crank is a not so bright dinosaur, a vestigial organ from the days when industry didn’t really expect a lot from safety professionals.  A time when a degree in a safety-related discipline was neither required nor expected.  A time when safety was where you put people who couldn’t do much right but you didn’t want to fire them, “put ‘em in safety; what can it hurt?”

Doing Something Poorly For 35 Years Isn’t Valuable Experience

Whenever I take on one of these sub-simian mouth breathers invariably he puffs up his chest and through a face ravaged by too many Chesterfields and cheap malt liquor they go off on me because they have been in safety since before I was eating solid food.  They go on and on about how they have worked at such and such for 40 odd years as if that proves that they have mastery of something.  I started piano lessons at age 4 and have plunked on the ivories ever since. Despite almost 50 years experience on the piano I really and truly suck at it.  I stopped taking lessons at around 18 and much as I enjoy playing I just don’t have the discipline it takes to practice several hours a day to keep my skills sharp.  Similarly, I have been surfing since 1996 and am arguably the world’s worst surfer (it doesn’t help that I’m 1,000 miles from the nearest decent surf spot) but on paper I am an experienced surfer with almost 20 years of paddling out.  So forgive me if I am unimpressed by someone who likely spent the better part of 4 decades sitting on an ass the texture of cottage cheese being squeezed through a plastic bag in an office with “Safety” stenciled on the door like some sick inside joke.

Safety Ain’t What I Used to Be

Safety is a relatively new function and when it was created in the mid 70’s it was typically an assignment tacked on to someone’s existing job.  There were no instructions, or templates for doing a good job. Most safety people were expected to make it up as they went and predictably many were successful while many more were not.  This “do whatever you think is right” climate created a host of really creative ways of blaming injured workers  for getting hurt.  It also promulgated the idea that injuries were inevitable.  Safety was like a sick joke, “what do all injured workers have in common? They need to be more careful.”  It was also this climate where the seeds of the worker as lazy, stupid, and disobedient children were sown.  Truth be told industry didn’t expect much from the folks in safety back then, but that was then and this is now.  Now the safety function is expected to partner with operations and reduce operating risk and to devise and deploy interventions designed to directly mitigate the risks associated with doing one’s job.  In short, today’s most successful companies expect tangible results from the safety group and these safety groups deliver. The Crank Coxes of the world have been driven out of industry and have settled into half-assed consultancies where they have hung out their greasy shingles and lay in wait for customers who don’t know any better.

This Brush Doesn’t Have Tar Enough For All

I don’t want to imply that everyone who has spent decades in Safety are automatically Crank Coxes.  In fact, most of the people who have taught me the greatest lessons and provided me with the deepest insights about safety have half a century or more in the field.  While it’s true that we stand on the shoulders of giants, it’s equally true that just because you’re  tall doesn’t mean you’re a giant, you could be little more than an oversized goof-ball with hurt feelings and a big mouth. So what creates a Crank Cox? Two things: fear and stupidity (or the all too rare combination of the two).  The Crank Coxes have adopted a pattern of dysfunctional behavior that has garnered them some measure of success—think of the most dysfunctional turd of a person, a complete teardown of a person that adds nothing to the workplace but carbon dioxide and occasionally methane—and continued success is predicated on nothing changing in the workplace.  These people fear new ideas because real change will expose their inadequacies and may force them out to pasture.  If they are incapable of change then the only option left to them is to yowl and attack those advocating change.  Some of these people are simply too stupid (not ignorant which implies an honest and correctable lack of information, but true belligerence to education) to learn the emerging skills and ideas presented and rather than try to learn or admit their lack of understanding it’s easier and more comfortable to slobber and snarl in discussion groups like closed-head injured bull mastiffs than it is to admit that maybe they lack the chops to continue in this field and need to take their cantankerous asses to the local Walmart where they can greet people as they enter.

Is This Really A Threat?

I have had plenty of discussions with people who waive me off as Chicken Little.  They roll their eyes and say, “just ignore them”.  These people don’t see a problem with the Crank Coxes of the world.  They say that nobody takes them seriously.  They say that these people are just harmless blowhards who are just one cheese pizza away from ceasing to be a problem to anyone or anything.  To them (and to you who agree with them) I say, with sincerest respect, on the contrary, these people, like a rabid raccoon shot dead in the street, are as dangerous to our field now then they were just years ago.  As long as we allow these miscreants to shout down new ideas, make personal attacks in LinkedIn, and otherwise shape the debate of safety thought these people will drive the people who we most need to participate in these forums forever away.  Unless each of us confront the Crank Coxes and sweep there poisonous combustible dust out of our field they will continue to speak for us and ruin our reputation and make us irrelevant.  Do I sound like an alarmist?  Perhaps, but I know of at least 10 leaders in the field of safety (many with decades of truly useful and valuable experience) who have been forever driven from the forums by these barking rats.

What About Freedom Of Speech?

Invariably posts like this will elicit emails questioning my support of free speech.  For the record I wholeheartedly believe in the freedom of speech, but freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from the consequences of said speech.  Can we support a teacher’s freedom of speech when he or she teaches children fairy tales as history? Can we support a researcher’s right to free speech when he or she falsifies findings because he or she earnestly believes that given just a bit more time his or her conclusions would eventually be supported?  We live in a world where wikipidiots believe that all opinions (no matter how lunatic fringe) are as valid as carefully researched facts.  As in so many other areas of life, we get what we put up with, and if we put up with the Crank Coxes of the world then we can’t exactly cry foul when the world sees all safety professionals through that same lens.

Disclaimer: Crank Cox is a fictitious amalgamation of numerous piles of steamy excrement of people that I have been met.  Any resemblance to any person living or deceased is purely coincidental.  No animals were harmed in the writing of this blog, although if I catch that squirrel that has been poaching my tomatoes I will wring its little neck.

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Feeling Unappreciated? Maybe You Invite the Abuse

By Phil LaDuke

There’s no denying the job of a safety professional can be tough. Between opportunistic vendors pushing snake oil, trenchant Operations leaders willing to take unreasonable risks, and petulant workers who passively (or belligerently) resist any and all efforts to make the workplace safer it’s easy to see Safety as a thankless profession.  But I’ve it occurs to me lately that many in the safety community bring this suffering on themselves and I think we would all—those of use who work within safety and those who work on it’s periphery—be a lot better off if Safety ended the adversarial relationship.

What’s that you say? You don’t see us as having an adversarial with Operations? Congratulations; if that is the case you are in the minority, at least in my experience. While it is easy to see the safety practitioner as the put-upon, long-suffering victim in many cases we invite this abuse, how? By:

Wrapping Ourselves In the Flag. When we tell Operations that they must make the workplace safer for God and country, that we must be the protectorate of all things safe an humane, that in Safety we trust…we come off as self-righteous and delusional jerks without the business acumen of a water buffalo.  Too often safety professionals default to the “it’s the right thing to do” argument for safety.  What’s wrong with pursuing safety because it’s the right thing to do? absolutely nothing, but when we tell someone that safety is the right thing to do we are implying (or could create the impression that we are implying) the person to whom we are giving our sanctimonious sermon can’t (without our help) tell right from wrong.  As much as we all like condescending lectures it does tend to set up a dichotomy where we have a monopoly on all that is just and holy.

Answering To a Higher Calling. I have met many safety professionals who believe that their jobs are more than just an occupation it’s a sacred calling.  While one is entitled to believe what one wants, believing that one isn’t a slave to the almighty buck and whose purpose on this earth is to protect the great unwashed from unscrupulous employers who otherwise would prey upon them and break their backs against the capitalist anvil gets a bit old to those of us who work for a living.  I won’t apologize for making my living from safety, I think it’s a noble profession.  I have often said that engineers believe the whole world would be an engineer if only they were smart enough, and nurses believe that the whole world would be a nurse of only they cared enough.  If that is true then may safety practitioners believe that the whole world would work in safety if only they were both smart enough and cared enough.  I freely acknowledge that our chosen profession requires a certain skill set and a specific personality, but the whole world doesn’t want our job—or even value it.

Taking All Of the Credit And None Of the Blame. Too many people in safety play the “I save lives” card without acknowledging that if our effectiveness saves lives then our ineffectiveness gets people killed.  How can we claim success without acknowledging our role in failure? When we do this we trivialize any contribution toward success made by Operations and inflate our own role and conversely we quickly blame Operations when things turn sour.  Operations, for their part see this hypocrisy and resent it.

Pretending That Safety Is the Ultimate Goal. I know many safety practitioners who act as if they are somehow external from the money-making arm of the organization.  Imagine how irritating it is for Operations personnel to have someone act as if it makes no difference whether the company is profitable and who sees themselves as the watchdog of safety, implying that but for them you would act with wanton disregard for worker safety.  If safety were truly the organization’s ultimate goal it would close its doors and bubble wrap all the workers before laying them off.

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

Changing The Safety Culture: You Got To Want It

By Phil LaDuke


To some extent the world is driven by desire, and I have said (quoting a long-time friend) that you always have the time and money for what is truly important to you.  As I continue battling to sell safety systems to companies who truly do need to change their cultures I am continually beset by companies who are quick to say all the right things but when it comes to making a commitment they just plain lack the political will to get things done.

Of course no one will ever admit that they don’t want a safe workplace; to do so would brand them a villain worse than any war criminal.  So why is it so difficult to sell companies who employ large staffs dedicated to making the workplace safer? And why is it harder still to maintain the momentum it takes to drive lasting and sustainable change in an organization?  Will.  So many companies are so fixated on finding a magic bullet for safety that anything that is of any magnitude is quickly disregarded.  But it’s not really the difficulty in selling safety solutions that is troubling, rather, it’s the lack of commitment to sticking with change when things get tough, or scary, or chaotic.

In my many years as a corporate culture change agent I have found that the strongest driver of change is the desire for success—and that applies not just to safety, but success at everything.  I am reminded at the biblical story (and forgive me folks by I am by far no theologian or biblical scholar although I did get ordained on the internet but given that the entire ordination consisted of me filling out a form and having Reverend credentials emailed to me I don’t think it qualifies me as a religious scholar) where a man approached Jesus and asked him what he had to do to gain salvation.  Jesus told him that he must sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor and come follow him, AND THE MAN WENT AWAY SAD.  Wow.  And I thought I made poor life choices (and for the record I have) but what a whopper that guy made.  It doesn’t matter your religious persuasion (or lack thereof) what is important is that this guy believed that Jesus could deliver the goods and when he heard what it would take he decided that it was too high a price to pay for eternal life.  And he went away sad.  Was he disappointed that the solution was so life changing or was he expecting Jesus to say something like, “don’t sweat it, I can get you in, I know people.  When you get to the gates of heaven just tell them you’re with me”?

I think there are strong parallels between this biblical story and the state of safety.  People come to the providers of culture change solutions and expect the answer to “the key to culture change is taking this course, or having your employees read this book,” or “all you need to do is…”  I think when they realize that culture change is a laborious process that involves engaging outside experts and changing the way the organization operates and a foundational level they go away sad.  Or they buy snake oil and hope it will work.

Of course some try the longer term, more holistic approaches, and many of them are successful (I have a pretty good track record of helping companies be successful if I do say so myself) but so many others give up, and having given up refuse to be “fooled again”.  I am partnering with a company who is really excited about my approach to culture change, but there is one snag.  The one person within the company who has the most power and influences to get me in front of his customers doesn’t believe that sustainable culture change is possible.  I have provided him with case studies of customers I have successfully served 10 years ago who are still sustaining the gains that I helped them achieve.  I have provided references so that he could hear testimonials from the proverbial horse’s mouth all to no avail.  The lessons he learned from the snake oil salesmen will not be easily unlearned and in fairness to him, I would meet anything that promises safety salvation with a sharp dose of skepticism.

Why do so many change initiatives fail? Too often it’s because the organization wants to take components of the solution and expects that implementing a “lite” version of the solution.  In the 1980’s the Japanese Management was all the rage.  Many companies tried to emulate the results that the Japanese companies achieved, but when they looked at all the components that the Japanese style of management required they quickly started eliminating practices. The resulting watered-down solution was completely unrecognizable as an effective management system.  We see the same thing today as companies try to imitate Google or Yahoo, taking ingredients of the recipe only to be surprised that the effort completely fails.

But in the final analysis, it’s not a lack of time, money, resources, or solutions that get in the way of safety; it’s a lack of desire.  If leadership continues to value productivity over people, the bottom line over the front line worker, tactics over strategy, the immediate business needs over the long-term solid business decisions, all efforts to improve safety will be transitory at best.  You can’t change anything and expect it to remain the same.

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The Rise of the Safety Theocracy


By Phil La Duke

“You’d be surprised at how many companies don’t care about losing money”—A colleague when I showed him my presentation and case studies demonstrating my ability to lower companies’ injury costs by millions of dollars.

A few years back I figured out a way to automatically notify companies of lockout violations as they were happening; I was understandably excited…think of the implications! Think of the lives that will be saved! Think of the money I will make! I soon realized that nobody cared.  Fast forward and you find me shilling a safety solution that had a proven track record of lowering the cost of injuries by an average of $2.5 million a year only to find myself summarily dismissed because of a lack of sales—again because nobody seemed that interested in saving money by lowering the cost of injuries.

I was telling these stories to a colleague of mine who responded with the opening quote.  To some improving safety performance to save money is seen as crass, as tacky, and as well…immoral.  To be sure improving safety so that no one gets hurt and everyone gets to go home and to continue to enjoy life (well at least as much as they did before going to work.  I was married  to a nagging shrew of a woman and frankly going home after work wasn’t the height of fine living, but after 26 years of blissful post-divorce bachelorhood I can honestly say that even life with her—such as it was—was better than dying at work or living with her as a cripple (the Bette Davies/Joan Crawford classic Whatever Happened To Baby Jane immediately springs to mind, but as so often the case, I digress) is a laudable goal, but to some it runs deeper.

Some people seem to believe that equating safety with business costs somehow cheapens the goal of keeping people safe, as if saving money lessens the nobility of reducing workplace injuries.  This proselytizing of safety frankly, is getting out of hand.  Why can’t we do the right thing and also make a buck doing so? What is it about quantifying the savings associated with reduced injuries that is, in so many people’s minds, vulgar, distasteful, and wrong?

Until we manage safety like a business element it will remain a quasi-religious movement where decisions are made based on philosophical platitudes versus basic management techniques. Approaching safety on moral grounds is doomed; creating the cult of safety where we perpetuate superstition simply because we want to believe it rather than based on research and facts means we create a sort of safety theocracy where charlatans and gurus dictate how we run our businesses.

This is not to say that good business practices and an ethical and moral approach to our work need be mutually exclusive, quite the contrary. Many companies have shown that they can engage in highly ethical and moral business practices and still make considerable profits. These companies serve as role models for all of us; they represent what can be achieved and to what we should all aspire.

Tracking the cost of injuries allows us to keep score; we use it to gauge the severity of injuries and it helps us to understand the difference between safety improvements caused by picking the proverbial low hanging fruit and those caused by solving deeper systemic issues.

Opponents of tracking the costs of injuries do make some good points.  For example, some worry that if we focus too closely on the costs of injuries we run the risk of losing site of the fact that even if spending money in pursuit of a safer workplace need not return on investment to be a good business decision─since we can never really know what may have happened if we had ignored the risk.  Money spent reducing the chance that someone will be seriously injured or killed is typically money well spent.  If we quantify the cost of injuries do we risk returning to the days when financial professionals calculated the cost of worker deaths as a cost of doing business? Maybe, but I think we are looking at a continuum here.  At one end of this continuum we have businesses who are averse to calculating the cost of injuries and at the other end we have businesses who won’t spend money on safety unless a compelling business case for doing so can be made.  I believe this is a bell-shaped curve where most companies are somewhere very close to the mean and the ones at the extremes represent a very small portion of the population.

Beyond all this there are some practical and sensible reasons for tracking the cost of injuries.  Unless we track the cost of injuries─and track them completely, not with multipliers or estimates but with hard and real measurements─these cost remain an invisible onus that cling barnacle-like to Operations impeding our progress, sapping our productivity, and consuming resources that could be put to more important and valuable efforts.  In other words, our overall performance suffers and we are never truly cognizant of the reasons why.  What other business issue costs us money, and we accept the fact that we don’t know how much it costs? In what other function can we spend money without knowing or caring how much.

So should we calculate the costs or does doing so make us less committed to doing what is right just because it’s right? The essence of engagement IS doing what is right, not out of self-interest or for an external reward, but for no other reason than because it is right.  Like so many issues I have taken something simple and made it complicated.

When my colleague said to me, “you would be surprised at how many companies don’t carry about losing money” I thought, “how could these companies be so short-sighted?” But  having interacted with some companies who honestly don’t care what the cost of safety is, not because they are short sighted but so adamant about safety, I have to say that I was probably being too harsh, but the most successful companies don’t shy away from quantifying their injury costs, and proudly stand at the intersection of morality and fiscal enlightenment.

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Safety In the Age of Wikipidiots


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 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?

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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


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, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,



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