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.
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.