Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

Effective Hazard Management: The First Step To A Safer Work Place

By Phil La Duke



Those of you who’ve just discovered my blog might be under the impression that the only things I post are things meant to provoke cranks from the lunatic fringe into a digital tête-à-têtes Some of you might be surprised that I am capable of posting without having some over-caffeinated brute send me semi-coherent hate mail. And while I do so love to rattle the proverbial cages, I thought for my own sanity I would stay away from any sort of controversy this week and address a topic that is especially near and dear to me: hazard management.

Don’t worry all you folks who read my stuff just to get offended worked up in a froth of self-righteous indignation, if you’re looking to take offense, I’m sure you will find something to rail against. Hazard management is one of four pillars of a universally sound safety management system (the others being: Incident response, risk management, and safety strategy—there are other elements that shape the efficacy of an individual safety system, but these tend to differ from industry to industry and government to governement.

To accept hazard management as a cornerstone of safety you have to accept that without hazards there can be no injuries, so effective hazard management, that is, containing and/or correcting the hazard before someone is injured, is the first step to a safer workplace.

Anatomy of an Injury

For a worker to get injured three things must be present a:

  1. Hazard
  2. Interaction
  3. Catalyst


Before we continue, I should define what I mean by a hazard. A hazard is any condition that may cause an injury. Hazards, therefore, can be procedural, mechanical, environmental, and yes behavioural. Effectively a hazard is anything that can cause an injury—accidental or deliberate. Since safety is an expression of probability (We describe something as safe as if the condition of safety is an absolute, but most of us (didn’t’ say ALL for all of those looking to take a slight on behalf of a bunch of people you will never meet) understand that no environment is absolutely free of risk and therefore cannot be described as completely “safe”.) Hazards are the things that increase the risk of injuries. What About Behaviour? Before we continue, I should define what I mean by a hazard. A hazard is any condition that may cause an injury. Hazards, therefore, can be procedural, mechanical, environmental, and yes behavioural. Effectively a hazard is anything that can cause an injury—accidental or deliberate.


Whenever I meet a new client, I invariably get a worried Operations leader who worries that I am going to “safety them out of business.” I like to tell them that the safest organizations are those who went broke and closed their doors. Nobody is getting hurt in mothballed factories or abandoned mines. Being a good safety professional means recognizing that we can make a process so “safe” that it effectively makes it too inefficient to run. In those cases we protect the workers from injuries, but we also “protect” them from paychecks. A hazard in and of itself doesn’t injure someone unless the person interacts with it. This statement may seem so basic that some of you are thinking, “no kidding genius” but this understanding is key to how we approach containment and correction of injuries.


A catalyst is a factor that sets things into motion, call it the straw that breaks the camels back. Without the catalyst a person can interact with a hazard and escape unharmed. The lack of a catalyst allows workers to engage in at-risk behaviour without getting hurt, which teaches the worker that an unsafe act is benign. We walk by hazards every day, we see them in our homes, and encounter them every day on our morning commute. Think of the catalyst as that little extra element that either sets the injury in motion, makes an injury worse, or makes the interaction far more likely. For example, standing in a puddle of water is not in itself likely to injure someone, but standing in water while making repairs on an energized piece of equipment makes an injury far more likely. (In this case the hazard is the water on the floor, the interaction is standing in it, and the catalyst is working on energized equipment. You could also describe the energized equipment as the hazard and the water as the catalyst and be correct but now were talking semantics.)

Managing Hazards

Hazard management consists of eight steps:

  1. Identification. The heart of hazard management is finding the hazards and containing them before anyone gets hurt. Unfortunately, we often learn of the existence of a hazard because someone has been injured. What’s more, hazards can be tricky: they come in all shapes and sizes; can grow and shrink with alarming speed; and can move throughout your facility or your process. They can crop up in different places, different times of day, and move across shifts.The best hazard identification process involves front-line supervision walking the work area and asking simple questions about where the process could fail. This is more than just observing workers’ behaviors, and involves taking a holistic look at the process and applying the 5 Ms of production (Manpower, machines, materials, methods, and environment—I never said the M was at the beginning of the word). Basically the front-line supervisor is conducting a process audit and gathering information on where the operation could fail.
  2. Containment. Once a hazard has been found the person who discovers it should not leave the area until the hazard is contained. Documenting hazards without indicating how you contained them is a good way to get sued, but that notwithstanding how would you feel if someone was seriously injured because they interacted with a hazard that you knew about but did nothing? Containment actions are quick fixes designed to last only long enough for an unsafe condition to be fixed, so in many cases restricting access, warning employees or other similar low-level controls may be appropriate.
  3. Root Cause Analysis. Before you can appropriately address a hazard you must know it’s primary root cause. I’ve noticed some confusion around Root Cause Analysis. Many people believe it is appropriate to look for a single cause of a hazard. This approach only makes sense if you have a specific problem structure with a sudden occurrence (things are going along just fine until a catalyst creates a problem). Unfortunately, the vast majority of hazards result from a broad problem structure with a gradual occurrence (the straw that breaks the camel’s back) where many interrelated causes and effects are at play. To make a long story well…less long, you usually have to look for multiple, interrelated causes of an injury.
  4. Correction. Containment will only take you so far, and the ultimate goal of hazard management is to permanently correct hazards and keep them from coming back. Correction usually involves maintenance and all hazards are not created equally. The safety committee can work with maintenance to correctly prioritize hazard correction. For more on the safety meetings check out this weeks post on
  5. Read-Across. Often a hazard that is present in one area of the organization is present in other departments as well, a solid process for read-across (checking to see where else the hazard might manifest) is a key step that many organizations miss. Read-across allows many areas to benefit from the discoveries of a single walk-thru.
  6. Hazard Trend Analysis. Finding a single hazard is valuable, finding a trend that tells you where you are most at risk is invaluable. Hazard Trend Analysis should be the primary activity of the safety committee meeting, because it can help make the entire operation far more efficient.
  7. Process Improvement. In world-class problem solving methodologies, they talk about the importance of fixing the system flaw that allowed the problem to manifest (for instance the recruiting and hiring policies that hire people who are physically unable to do the job.) This is step key in hazard management because fixing the system likely will prevent numerous problems down stream.

Remember as you implement a hazard management process to keep things simple. You will likely face considerable resistance as first line supervisors insist that they don’t have time to walk their areas and identify hazards. But if they don’t have time to do it right when will they find time to do it over, and ultimately when will they have time to stop work because of a worker injury?

Filed under: Loss Prevention, Phil La Duke, Safety, Worker Safety, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Mind Your Own Business: The Far From the Last Word On Building A “Safety Culture”

photo of the Diego Rivera Mall at the Detroit Institute of Arts taken by Phil La Duke

There is a nearly ubiquitous conversation ragging in the safety forums: how can one create a “safety culture” within my organization. This debate is troubling from a couple of perspectives.  First, there really isn’t any such thing as a “safety culture” the fact that people blather on about this topic shows a very deep ignorance of organizational culture.  Every organization of more than five people has a culture. In simplest terms, a culture is the codified collection of the norms, shared values, and rules of an organization. Cultures evolve to protect the organization’s interests and to determine what is acceptable behavior. In so doing, corporate culture makes it possible to govern the organization.

In some organization’s the corporate culture is so strong that changing from within is almost impossible, in fact, it is far more likely that a new hire will adopt the corporate culture rather than change it, no matter how strong the desire or ardently the new employee works for change.

I’ve studied corporate cultures and worked in OD for years.  I won’t bore you with a lot of pedantic excrement filled with a lot of jargon and theory, but if you want that, believe me there are plenty of people out there to fill your head with it.

Cultures are made up of shared values—kind of shared opinions of how important something is relative to the other elements of an organization.  Organizations tend to have a value of safety, that is, the organization places some value on safety relative to the other activities on which it can expend its resources.  Some cultures view safety as unimportant while others view it as of paramount importance, but all cultures place some priority on worker safety, and therefore, all organizations have a “safety culture” albeit some have a strong safety culture while others have a weak safety culture.

Even if a safety culture could be achieved (at some point it becomes a purely semantic argument) such a culture would neither be advisable or desirable.  A safety culture would mean that safety would be prioritized above all other business elements. Customer satisfaction, productivity, profitability, quality, and profitability all would take a secondary role over worker safety.  It sounds great, but in practical terms,  it doesn’t exist, nor should it.  No company exists primarily to ensure the safety of its workers.  In fact, most companies exist to make money.  This isn’t a bad thing; the safest companies in the world are the ones who went out of business because they didn’t make any money. Pursuit of a safety culture is a mish mash of Polly Anna idealism, cheap sales talk, and excuse making. (“I’ve done all I can; the culture is broken”).

As for the larger issue of a culture change, that may be necessary but that isn’t the job of the safety professional.  There are people with degrees in Organizational Behavior, Industrial Psychology, Organizational Development (OD), or other advanced degrees that qualify them to create culture change interventions. These people have years of Organizational Development experience before they are able to lead such a change; they aren’t safety professionals who have read a couple of books or attended a couple of speeches at a safety conference.   It’s been suggested that the skills of the safety professional and the organizational psychology field aren’t mutually exclusive; perhaps not. But just because someone read a couple of books about airplanes and has a flight simulator on his PC doesn’t make him a pilot. And frankly I would prefer a cardiac surgeon perform my coronary by-pass surgeon to a butcher, but effectively they share as many skills as a self-important puffed up safety huckster who believes—however earnestly—that he has the same skills as a professional skilled and experienced in OD.

So let’s shut up about creating a safety culture; it makes us seem even more out of touch than we already do.  We should however, foster an environment where safety is valued, but that isn’t a culture change, it’s a change in values.

Changing the values of an organization doesn’t take a whole lot of special skills.  A tenacious and conscientious safety professional can immediately start creating a heightened sense of value for safety within his or her organization.

Engage Leadership

I have written and spoken extensively on ways to engage leadership so I will just quickly summarize the key points here. In organizations that place a low value on safety professionals tend to have little or know credibility with the senior leadership in an organization.  Building credibility begins by speaking the same language and relating safety to the things that senior leadership find most compelling.  If the organization values sales above everything else, the safety professional should express the cost of injuries in terms of the amount of additional revenue it will take to replace the money spent on worker injuries.

Run the Safety Function Like a Business

Every safety function that is run like a business (i.e. the primary purpose of the function is to provide some service that is of quantifiable value) is much more likely to survive and thrive than those that are manage like overhead.  When the safety function sees itself as a for hire service provider it is far more likely to instill the kind of confidence required to build demand for safety.

Position Safety As a Partner In Improvements

For far too long, the safety profession has seen itself as serving a greater good that the rest of the organization, while the other departments busied themselves making money or improving quality, or making materials flow more efficiently, Safety saved lives. And while that is beyond important, it positioned safety as a parent and a policeman, but never a partner.  Safety became the smug outsider in the organization and then wondered why nobody trusted it.

But it doesn’t have to be like that, the Safety function plays an important role in bolstering operating efficiency (worker injuries interrupt production and make the operation less efficient), increasing profitability (worker injuries cost money), and creating a lean workplace (injuries are  waste).


Day after day I interact with safety professionals who deride leadership of their organization as indifferent or even hostile to safety.  These sad sacks talk in “us versus them” distinctions that make me wonder why they have jobs at all.  If safety professionals want to effect real change in how much value and priorities they have to be credible leaders not whiny crybabies who feel powerless to effect change.

People listen to those who have something to say, they learn from those who have something to teach them, and they follow people who are going to take them someplace better.  If you can’t these things for others there’s probably still important role you can play in worker safety, but shut up about culture; you don’t know what you are talking about.

Filed under: Behavior Based Safety, Performance Improvement, Phil La Duke, Safety, Safety Culture, Worker Safety, , , , , , , , , , ,

In Harm’s Way: How Safety Professionals Brought Down the Safety Profession

Image courtesy of

“My pledge to you this year is to kill off for good the excessive culture of safety and health that is dragging down business like a heavy wooden yoke.”— David Cameron, United Kingdom Prime Minister.

In a recent article in ISHN magazine editor, Dave Johnson does an excellent job of covering comments that David Cameron, UK Prime Minister recently made about the onus that safety puts on businesses and of his party’s intention to “crush” the culture of safety. At this point most of you are expecting me to launch into another one of my pithy rants about how safety is being attached on all fronts and people of good faith should rise up in righteous indignation. You will be disappointed. I have been writing and blogging about safety for over 5 years, speaking on the subject for close to ten, and working in the field consulting and providing safety training for nearly thirty years. I have plenty to say on this subject and most of you aren’t going to like it.

Most recently I have pumped out some pretty aggressive messages that puts the blame for the decline in respect for the safety profession squarely on the shoulders of the safety professionals. I have been fairly clear in my message: Safety professionals have to reposition themselves as key resources for making the workplace more efficient, more cost effective, and more productive. Instead we continue to propagate the image of the safety professional as a bleeding heart social worker that wants to coddle workers and impeded progress. I have said, in no uncertain terms, that if Safety is going to regain a position of respect it will have to stop doing such stupid things.

“safety cultures (are) a too often farcical, marginal monster that must be crushed and killed.”— David Cameron, United Kingdom Prime Minister

When “Protect Your Dignity” was published in ISHN a couple of months back, I got a visceral response from a bunch of old-school safety half-wits who squawked and bawled because I asked what kind of sociopath introduces the possibility of a parent dying at work to eight-year olds in the guise of a children’s safety poster contest.

When I wrote an article that criticized the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) for sponsoring an expensive boondoggle to Brazil in the worst economy in a lifetime, no fewer than three safety publications refused to run it. And when I publicly criticized the organization for their actions—well…let’s just say if you are wondering why I am no longer speaking at their conference you have your answer.

When I made blog posts decrying Behaviour Based Safety as amateurishly shilled snake oil, one greasy, bloated, pig-eyed brute rallied the fanatics and the zealots who sent me a steady stream of venom, and made clear their intention to protect and preserve the Behavior Based Safety Bureaucracies at all costs. I’ve been called every thing but a child of God, simply for calling into question the status quo.

Well guess what? It turns out WE ARE under attack, and not by some third world despot or human trafficker but by the leaders of the free world.

‘Cameron, meanwhile, says, “I am hereby declaring war… on the safety and health monster.’ .”— David Cameron, United Kingdom Prime Minister. ”(ISHN)

As Dave Johnson points out, politicians don’t get safety, but politicians do “get” what messages people want to hear, as people the average politician is a thick-witted brute without basic skills to pour piss out of a boot when the instructions are written on the bottom. Except on extremely rarified occasions, politicians aren’t all that extraordinary, there are no heroes here and few villains either. The politicos are, like every other organism designed to survive and politicians can only do this by sensing public sentiment and regurgitating it back to voters.

The story here isn’t that David Cameron, the leader of one of the most industrialized and powerful countries in the world thinks its okay to kill workers, rather the story is that David Cameron thinks that voters will be sympathetic to those sentiments. What matters here is not that a single politician believes workers should be seen as expendables, and chattel to be used up and thrown away.

“Safety culture is nothing more than a straitjacket on personal initiative and responsibility. We must crush these cultures before any more damage is done.”— David Cameron, United Kingdom Prime Minister.

This Is a War That We Are Losing.

Public sentiment is turning against worker safety. Politicians equate safe workplaces with job loss and hyper-sensitivity for paper cuts and bruises. Less and less people are taking us seriously and human life hangs in the balance. “safety cultures (are) a too often farcical, marginal monster that must be crushed and killed.”— David Cameron, United Kingdom Prime Minister Is safety farcical, marginal monster (“farcical” means “absurd” or “ridiculous” for those of you who have been directed to this page by one of my many detractors who are reading this for the sole purpose of getting pissed off)? Well when you hear things like the case a friend of mine shared with me it makes it pretty tough to see safety as anything but the rightful object of ridicule. In this case, my friend’s safety manager slipped and fell but did not report the incident and instead sought treatment from her personal doctor so that she would not “ruin” the safety BINGO. When the writers of The Simpsons wanted give the hapless, drunken, and perpetual screw up main character Homer a job, they ultimately chose head of safety as the most ludicrous job (Homer has had jobs ranging from body guard to astronaut, but he always comes back to safety). And when you see some of the safety bureaucracies that try to manipulate people’s behaviours like so many lab rats the “monster” appellation seems pretty spot-on.

Where is This Coming From?

Lord knows I’m full of answers, but this one has got me stumped. Where is the big, unifying event that convinced the public that we have taken worker safety too far? As far as I can recall there has been no major fines lobbed at corporations for infractions that a reasonable person would see as frivolous. There have been no high profile cases of companies forced out of business because protecting the workers became to onerous. Why then, has the public turned on us? Fighting Back What can we do to turn this around? Because let’s face it, we have got to stop fiddling as Rome burns, and we aren’t going to win this fight without first winning the hearts and minds of greater society. • Advertise the cost of Injuries. In the world of corporate Learning we like to say, that “if you think Learning is expensive, try stupidity”. We have to make the average person understand how much productivity and efficiency is lost when a worker is injured, even when that injury was minor. And when we talk to people about worker safety we have got to stop filling the air with jargon that we think makes us sound smarter but in actuality makes us sound like pretentious dung heaps. • Seek Out and Eliminate Safety Gimmicks. End safety BINGO, scrap the gift card programs for doing something a reasonable person would do without being asked. If it’s cute give it the boot. Incentive programs MUST return a quantifiable return on investment and must DIRECTLY link to safety improvements. • Proactively Seek Out Ways to Lower Costs. Find ways to lower the operating cost of the safety function BEFORE Operations suggests it. If you are able to demonstrate a willingness to share in the responsibility for process improvement and waste reductions Operations leadership will begin to see you as a partner instead of a policeman. • Talk Dollars, Make Sense. Express the costs and savings in ways that make sense to Operations; if products sold is a hot button talk about the increase in sales that the company will have to make to pay for the injuries incurred. Or better yet, talk about how much more efficient the Operation is because of a decrease in injuries. We have to run the safety function like a business and we have to speak the same business language as Operations. • Lay Off the Platitudes. “Safety is everyone’s job” —oh yeah? Then why do we need you? “Safety is our number one priority”—no, making money and staying in business is our number one priority, and if you don’t believe that go somewhere else to work, safety supports this, but let’s not be stupid. “Safety Is the Right Thing To Do”—So is making money, so is being globally competitive, so is producing high quality, so is…there are a lot of “right things to do”. • Vote. Get out and make your voice known. Talk to your neighbors about this dangerous trend and how it should affect the way they vote. Refute the misconceptions about worker safety. Tell war stories, but most of all vote and make sure the candidates know that their positions on worker safety matter to you. A Parting Shot I have worked with companies that spend more money keeping worker’s safe from cuts and bruises than they will ever recoup in savings and I am often asked when I consult with new clients if I am going to turn their company into one of those paranoid companies that have 7 safety people watching a guy loading a truck. I always respond to those concerns the same way. The safest companies on Earth are those whose doors are shuddered because they went out of business. The job of safety is to keep companies in business by eliminating waste and boosting productivity.

Filed under: Behavior Based Safety, Loss Prevention, Phil La Duke, Regulations, Safety, Safety Culture, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Dying To Make a Living


Sarah Burke (Riccardo S Savi/Getty Images)

The sports world is reeling from the news of the death of Canadian skier Sarah Burke who died nine days after crashing during training t the bottom of the superpipe at the Park City Mountain resort in Utah. In this case, like so many others, many of on some level don’t see this as a workplace safety issue, and while acknowledging the tragedy openly question if the assumption of risk somehow eases the loss somehow. It’s odd how we can compartmentalize our thinking on worker safety. Sarah Burke died at work, just as surely as the tradesman who didn’t lock out, the construction worker who fell to his death, or the warehouse worker who is killed by falling stock. That Sarah Burke was working when she died is of little doubt, but should we have a different standard for professional athletes, and if we do, where is the line between workers who have a reasonable expectation to come home safe and those that we as a society decide have an assumption of risk to the degree that their deaths should not come as any big shock.

Certainly we expect football (both U.S. and the rest of the world) rugby, and hockey players to get injured. We deride some as “injury-prone” and others as wimps despite the shear physical nature of having 250 pounds of muscle blindsiding an unsuspecting player as it slams into him from behind. We expect and plan for injuries and meet career ending injuries with a sort of distracted indifference.

Fatalities are different. Sports fatalities stop and make us think. Not enough to do anything about it though. When Dale Earnhardt died at Daytona few, if any called for an end to the sport, and sport fans often complain when safety measures aimed at reducing fatalities are implemented. Fans love the fact that sports figures risk death every day; they celebrate sports figures as heroes. There is a certain absurdity in calling for safety measures for people, by nature of their chosen profession, risk death every day.

People may be outraged at the cruelty of bullfighting, but I’ve never heard of anyone demanding better protective equipment for matadors (toreadors either for that matter). Somewhere deep in the human psyche there is a bloodthirstiness that makes us believe that some people deserve to get hurt because they choose a high risk career. They deserve to die because they were stupid enough to take the job. There is a prurient fascination with deadly jobs and the people who willingly do them.

A quick scan of the cable television listings reveals a cottage industry of shows that celebrate jobs so dangerous that only the foolhardy and the brave would ever do them. Dirtiest Jobs, Ice Road Truckers, Deadliest Catch and scores more are testament to our fascination with jobs that are more likely to get you killed than pay a pension. Even if we don’t actively root for these people to die we are titillated and absorbed by the possibility that the workers will be injured or even die. Is our fascination with, and acceptance of, intrinsically dangerous jobs so wrong? What of the idiom, “it’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it?” It’s not like we watching gladiators hack each other to pieces in an arena after all.

But there is something wrong here. Why are we so disconnected with the misery of the people who risk death for our entertainment? Few of the people we watch on these programs were born with a silver spoon in their mouths and were it not for the artificially high paychecks (in some cases) few would take the risk associated with the jobs they do. And, and apart from a handful of athletes, few of these people retire in what most would describe as luxury, despite the higher wages.

The most deadly jobs still go uncelebrated. The profession with the most fatalities doesn’t have its own cheaply produced reality television show. Sales people routinely die on the job at a disproportionate rate, and most years the profession produces more fatalities than the second place contenders. Most of these deaths are in auto accidents, and as much as safety professionals have tried to reduce traffic fatalities of their workers none has figured out a good way to protect sales professionals from a sea of other drivers who are texting, programming GPS systems, reading and sending emails, and talking on the phone.

Employers ask too much of today’s sales professional and it is literally killing them. The ubiquitous nature of smart devices have created a sense of universal contact and the expectation that even the most banal email will elicit an immediate response. We can’t even allow a salesperson time to think in the car; we are paying them and expect them to earn their keep, even while driving.

Here is all that remains of the three vehicles involved in an accident on that fateful road.

Several years ago I was hired to implement a worker safety process for a manufacturer in a fairly remote part of Mexico. I traveled to this area 15 times in just over a year. I flew into Monterey, and traversed the most dangerous road in the world as I made my way up the mountain to Saltillo. (The road was rife with banditos, guerillas, treacherous curves and turns through rockslide areas, and hazards upon hazards). Once in town I still had plenty of treacherous travel to reach my workplace. Traffic in town was madness and the plant where I was employed was about 45 minutes out of town in a high mountain dessert. The last 30 minutes or so I was completely of the grid and any breakdown or accident would likely be fatal. Avoiding death was a full time job. When, at the end of my workday, I would reenter the grid, my phone would convulse in a flurry of buzzes, bells and alarms. I would have scores of emails, voicemails and text messages a 30-minute drive through murderous traffic and bosses and customers who wanted immediate responses. Stopping along side of the road was potentially fatal so I worked from the car. Was doing so stupid? (reading and answering a text in that environment goes beyond stupid or reckless) you bet and I did my best to resist the temptation. I usually spent a good hour at the hotel responding to trivial crap that never would have entered my life before a person was required to type up a memo and circulate it via inter company mail. So why did I risk my life for one week a month for 15 months? It was my job, and somebody had to do it. I just found out that the plant at which I worked just put on a third shift and is continuing the work in safety that I helped them build. Was it worth risking my life? Given that I was summarily dismissed by the greedy, pig-eyed jackals that made the real money of the sweat of my back, probably not. But considering the great work I was able to do there and the many injuries I prevented and lives I perhaps saved, it just might have been. So before you send out that email demanding someone’s immediate attention, think. Maybe what your asking can wait a day or so, and just maybe it’s not a life and death matter after all.

Filed under: Phil La Duke, Safety, Worker Safety, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Standing Up for Safety

Four Burros in the Back of a Pick Up Truck

According to researcher, Benjamin Skinner in an interview with, Terrence McNally host of Free Forum on KPFK 90.7FM, Los Angeles and WBA I99.5FM, New York there are more slaves today then every before in human history.  Skinner spent four years undercover in the world of illegal slavery researching his book: A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face with Modern-Day Slavery.

Modern day slavery is more than a social ill, it’s an epidemic that should scare safety professionals. Experts estimate that before the global recession that there were 27 million people. Author, Kevin Bales’s, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy defines slaves as “those forced to work, held through fraud, under threat of violence, for no pay beyond subsistence.”

It may seem like a leap to equate issues in safety with human trafficking, but I am not being melodramatic.  Workers in highly industrialized countries have long felt the pressure from employers who threaten to move jobs overseas if the workers do not comply with demands for cheaper labor.  Little by little corporations have chipped away at worker safety by creating a climate of fear.

In some cases companies are more overt, they shut down operations in the U.S., Europe, or Australia and move production to countries that either turn a blind eye toward safety and environmental violations or lack even the most basic worker and environmental protections.  In other cases, companies move jobs to overseas suppliers who have criminal safety records.

The post recession world is even uglier.  Politicians increasingly describe safety regulations as “job killing” or some other euphemism for a threat to job security.  Workers are increasingly told that they can either have a job or they can work safely, but they can’t have both. How different is that from slavery? Quite a bit, actually,  I won’t cheapen the atrocity that is slavery by equating it to corporate bullies who continue to chip away at worker and environmental protection by telling us to toughen up. But I will say that it is on the same continuum and part of the overall trend toward diminishing the importance of workplace safety.

Even in the most mature industrial countries the law encourages us to shift blame to the workers or other companies. Government regulations encourage us I have worked with several companies who have had worker fatalities that “didn’t count” because the workers were contractors and therefore, “not our recordable”.  When did human life get so cheap that we as safety professionals started to see the loss of life as somehow less horrific because the worker—a person who we saw day in and day out, swapped stories over coffee, and save for some legal designation, was our coworker in all the ways that count—wasn’t on our payroll?

It’s easy to blame governments, after all they are the ones who made the laws and fail to enforce them, but realistically, how can governments regulate a moving target?  Furthermore governments lack the resources to be fully effective; they simply can’t be everywhere so they tend to respond only complaints and complaints aren’t coming from the worst offenders. Off course, governments have allowed assaults on worker safety to effectively go unanswered. In the rush to compete one municipality sells out the community and workers just to lure business in only to have it leave for a better deal.

It’s even easier to blame corporations; the nameless, faceless evil empires that we all love to hate.  Mitt Romney drew criticisms for his political faux pas of saying that corporations are people too.  A dumb thing to say, granted, but was he that far off? I own shares of a mutual fund that own stock in corporations. I don’t even no what stocks I indirectly own let alone their safety or human rights records, and forget the supply chain they could be butchering people and I would never know. I’m not proud of it, but for all I know I could own stock in a company that uses slave labor. Corporations will argue, rightfully, that they have a responsibility to there shareholders to make as much money as they are able.  Many will argue that they don’t or can’t know the particulars of each of their suppliers in a multi-tiered supply chain.

Safety professionals bear no small amount of accountability for the problem.  The “my hands are tied because…” spiel is getting old. We prorogate ineffectual, complex, and cutesy safety fads, and whine when we aren’t taken seriously.

If you think this is a third world problem, think again. Witness the North Carolina pork processing plant that preyed on immigrants (complaints about working conditions were met with threats of visits from the department of Immigration Naturalization Services (INS).  The plant didn’t get more than regional attention even after it illegally confined a worker in an in-plant jail cell (the company alleged that the woman was suspected of stealing pork). The company was fined. An attempt to organize the plant failed, and things presumably went back to the way they had been.  Slavery? no, but how far from it? And this is not happening in some third-world back alley it’s happening here; we own this.

As long as we continue to allow companies to shop for areas of the world that will allow them to use up workers and throw them away afterwards this issue will not go away; in fact it will grow and eventually it will grow so big that companies won’t need safety professionals. I’ve sounded the alarm before.  Safety professionals need to be on the forefront of this issue—slaves or human chattel—do we really need another Triangle Shirtwaist Fire to pull us back into the game?

Filed under: Behavior Based Safety, Phil La Duke, Regulations, Safety, , , , , , , , ,

Stop Me Before I Blog Again (2011 in review)

WordPress provides a pretty slick report that summarizes a blogger’s activity for the year, and I just figured out how to publish it.  I found it pretty interesting and thought I would share it.  But I also wanted to take a moment and acknowledge each of you and your role in my success (I won’t mention those of you who impede my success and are generally an anchor around the neck of my career; you know who you are.  All I will say is keep it up and see what that buys you.

Beyond the Blog

2011 began with me starting a major, long-term engagement with one of the world’s largest healthcare systems AND  kicking off  a project where, through Rockford Greene International, I ran the safety department for a small and struggling Tier-One automobile parts supplier. While I mentioned neither in my blogs (Rockford Greene International closely guards its client list to abet the guilty) both greatly shaped the content of my blogs, articles, and deranged emails to sundry politicos.  I also was engaged by a European luxury automobile manufacturing to do some executive coaching and process redesign, also through a Rockford Greene customer.

The bulk of my time,  however, was spent writing.  I had around 15 or 16 peer-reviewed articles published, wrote weekly (and sometimes weakly) posts to both and all and all I produced somewhere in the neighborhood of 125,000 words in print last year; much of it right here.

This blog (and the Rockford Greene blog) continues to be shared by the ESHQ Elite managers once a quarter which drew many of you to the site.  For those of you who aren’t members of the LinkedIn group I would recommend you consider joining it; it is a terrific community. By mid summer, the blog had really taken off and now draws a steady audience (so much so that I sweat the Sunday deadline).

I spoke at the Michigan Safety Conference in Lansing, MI, in April and at the National Safety Council in October.  I submitted 2 abstracts for the ASSE show in June (which I covered as a reporter for Facility Safety Management magazine) but had both turned down.  That really irritated me, because two members of the selection committee specifically asked me to submit those.  After that experience and getting both abstracts rejected for this year, I have decided that ASSE doesn’t deserve me as a speaker, and I will not be speaking there again anytime in the foreseeable future. Unless they pay.  Most of other speeches I made to private companies who pay me to address their national or international safety meetings.  I am in the process of filling out speaking abstracts for conferences in Europe and at the National Safety Council, so if you are interested in hearing me speak, watch these pages.

I completed my certification in Just Culture, which amuses me since I have 5 works on the subject already published, but it was something a client required and what am I if not a sport.

In October, ISHN leaked a list of the Power 101, its list of the most powerful and influential people working in Safety today.  They quickly realized their error and pulled the list.  (It has since been republished and yes I am still on it.) I was interviewed by S+H Magazine, but that didn’t see print until 2012 so I don’t know if it is worth mentioning.

This year I am hoping to publish my first book, Selling Safety In Tough Times.  I have a proposal, but haven’t started looking for a publisher.  If anyone out there knows of a good literary agent, send them my way. I also have a submission (a late one—didn’t see the call for papers until the day it was due) for an OSHA journal.

I am hoping to get more speaking engagements and, of course, consulting gigs.  Will work for money.

But anyway, again thank you for your readership, your rancor, your interest and your community.




The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,200 times in 2011. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.


Filed under: Behavior Based Safety, Loss Prevention, Loss Prevention, Phil La Duke, Safety, Uncategorized, Worker Safety, , , , , , , ,

What Can Traffic Fatalities Teach Us About Worker Safety?

Last week in metropolitan Detroit two stranded drivers were killed in two separate and unrelated incidents. Both cases can teach us much about worker safety, and indeed the nature of safety in general. In the first incident, an experienced fire-fighter was struck and killed as he changed a tire on a busy interstate highway during rush hour in the pre-dawn hours of a bleak Michigan winter day. A day later, another man was killed after he was stranded because his automobile was disabled. The two stories are important illustrations that some of our most cherished truisms in safety are bunk.

Let’s take a look at the facts of the first incident. A man decides to change a tire in the dark. As he gets out of the car to assess the situation maybe he notices that he is closer to traffic than he would like, maybe he doesn’t. In either case, he decides against repositioning the care. Not far away, another driver heads to work, she left a bit early and isn’t in a particular hurry so she decides to stay in the right hand lane. While the day is dark, unseasonably warm weather has made driving conditions unusually good—no ice, good visibility, she is paying attention, well as much as one can when one makes the routine daily commute. She’s careful by nature, she makes it a point not to text or talk on the phone while driving. She isn’t going particularly fast, but she is keeping up with traffic, like most drivers she drifts a bit in the lane, but she’s not swerving. Back at our first driver, he’s ticked off, this isn’t the way he wanted to start his day, and the tire isn’t just flat, it’s ruined. He hadn’t planned on the $150 or so expense of replacing a tire, especially with the holiday bills coming in. He didn’t need this and he’s getting more and more ticked off. A car whizzes by and his heart quickens, “that was close” he thinks, and he realizes that he’s in trouble, but the car is up on the jack and there is scarce little time to move the car, besides that would take more time. As the second driver negotiates the heavy traffic she notices too late the man crouched in her lane. A moment later the man lay dead run over by three motorists.

Less than 24 hours later, on a different patch of the same freeway, a small business owner’s car gives out and strands him, he struggles to get it off the road, he puts on the flashers, and mindful of yesterday’s tragedy makes sure the car is well out of traffic and completely on the shoulder. It’s 4:00 a.m.; he picks up his cell phone; “damn, it’s dead”. “Looks like there’s no choice but to walk to the nearest gas station and get help” he thinks. Reluctantly he gets out and starts walking to the closest exit. Meanwhile a postal truck swerves to miss one of Michigan’s ubiquitous potholes and strikes the pedestrian, killing him instantly. Are these so different from workplace fatalities? I don’t think so. In fact, I think there are some important lessons that challenge conventional thinking regarding workplace injuries.

Lesson 1: Many injuries, if not most, are a collection of hazards that only cause injuries when there is a catalyst. I call it Hazard Stack, and explore this idea a bit more in this week’s post.

Think of all the elements, that had to be present for the firefighter to be killed. He had to be too close to the road, traffic had to be heavy, a driver had to fail to notice that he was in harms way, and more. None of these elements alone caused his death, and the elements collectively did not cause his death, until there was some catalyst. Sadly we will likely never know what the catalyst was that caused this accident.

Lesson 2: Reminding People to Act More Safely is Ineffective in Keeping People Safe. The first case shut down traffic for 3 hours or more, in fact, all of northwest metro Detroit was disrupted. This was big news and was at the forefront of drivers’ minds for weeks. Despite this chilling reminder, an almost identical incident happened in less than 24 hours. I would be stunned to learn that either driver in the second incident hadn’t heard about the first incident, and yet this heightened awareness failed to prevent the second incident. Similarly, it is unlikely that warning signs or some sort of reward for not walking on the shoulder of a busy interstate highway would be effective.

Lesson 3: The Human Drive Toward Expediency Trumps The Need to Act Safely. Too often we see workplace fatalities that would have been prevented had the individual spent a little more time or suffered a small bit of inconvenience. But we need to understand that humans are hardwired to take risks—hell, getting out of bed in the morning carries with it at least some risk. But the need for expediency, to accomplish a task as simply, quickly, and easily is far stronger than our drive for self-preservation, at least to a point that is. Too often workplaces are configured so workers are forced to choose between expediency and safety. While employers generally want people to work safely, many times the message—produce efficiently and quickly—over shadows the message to work safe. Sometimes it may seem that employers encourage at risk behavior, but in general, employers do not want employees taking reckless chances. But we do take chances nonetheless. It real terms we don’t care what our employers are telling us to do, we want to get the job done as efficiently and expeditiously as possible.

Lesson 4: It’s Easy to Get So Absorbed In The Moment That We Lose Sight of the Big Picture. Consider our cast of characters, the Fireman, the Driver who struck him, the Postal Worker, and the Business Owner. All components of a large and complex system we call traffic. Each one is fairly absorbed in situation at hand, and the specific tasks associated with their activities (changing a tire, walking for help, driving to work, and driving as part of the normal workday.) Because each was so absorbed in each one’s individual task each has lost sight of the global process. Here again, this illustrates the lack of effectiveness of reminding people to work safely. It’s fair to say that none our cast believed that they were acting in a way that would result in a fatality, because if they had such awareness, one would expect them to have taken measures to change the environment. Walk on the grass along side the shoulder, reposition the car before attempting to change a tire, or move from the right lane to the center. We can’t be sure that all four didn’t see the situation as life threatening and decided to recklessly endanger themselves or others, but we can’t default to that thinking either. Safety is about managing both the big picture and the details.

Lesson 5: Accidents Happen More Frequently As The Risk Threshold Is Approached. Safety isn’t about not getting injured. Many people behave unsafely every day and aren’t injured, nor do they cause others to be injured; they’re lucky. Safety is about the probability that someone will be injured. As hazards become more numerous the risk rises until the probability that someone will be injured is all but certain, Because this is probability and not cause and effect, no work environment can ever be pronounced completely and irrefutably safe.

Lesson 6: While Training Is Important, Merely Knowing the Risk is Insufficient For Keeping People Safe. I have a lot of respect for firefighters and I use them as examples of how more people should work safely. For examples I have trained nurses who will complain that they often have to engage in high-risk activities because a patient’s life is at stake. I tell them how glad I am that firefighters don’t act that way. I point out that firefighters don’t rush into burning buildings to safe a person without first donning their protective equipment. It’s not because firefighters care less about saving people than nurses do, it’s because firefighters understand that dead firefighters can’t safe people. I am sure that the unfortunate firefighter who died that fateful day had far more safety training and awareness than the average motorist. This training and awareness did not save his life, however. I’m not arguing against training and awareness, but let’s not bank on these things alone saving lives in the workplace. Accidental fatalities are tragic whether they happen on the highway or in the workplace.

As I think about these most recent tragedies I am reminded of how similar they probably are to the kinds of injuries that happen in the workplace. Let’s learn from these cases and try to ensure that we apply these lessons in the workplace.

Filed under: Behavior Based Safety, Loss Prevention, Loss Prevention, Phil La Duke, Safety, Worker Safety, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Constructive Criticism is Neither

Recently I adopted a personal philosophy that I am calling “Fierce Vision”.  I am developing it, as I so often do, on the fly. The philosophy is personal; it’s not for sale per se, but I suppose if you buy me—listen to a speech, attend a lecture, read my work, or hire me as a consultant—in a way, fierce vision is what you get.  When I get of my lazy ass, having walked the dogs, find the two Christmas presents that I bought and lost, and get down to writing today’s Rockford Greene International post ( I expect I will outline some of the broad concepts of what is slowly taking shape in my head (a scary place in the best times).

But somewhere in that nebulous stew that is Fierce Vision. Is the idea that we don’t have to listen to the excrement that  people pass as “constructive criticism”.  Last week I posted an article about suffering through criticism, and it may have sounded a bit like self pity. But I have come to realize that a fair amount of people feel entitled to  provide us with unwanted feedback when they really should just shut their gaping maws.  This is important in safety, not because we don’t have important things to say, but because often we provide feedback, less to warn others and more to make ourselves feel better. When we are criticizing—not offering advice, or training, or sharing our insights, but carping on about the stuff that bugs us.  You will know criticism when you see it; it is the piddly crap that drives us crazy about other people’s behavior.  Before we speak to another about his or her behavior, we need to ask our self why we are making the comment. If it is to make ourselves feel better, to unburden our souls as it were, we had ought to shut our pie holes.  Whether it be asking for forgiveness or setting people to right, if it’s about us, we need to remain silent.

Sometimes the criticism is subtle,  we’re not really directly telling someone that they’re broken, instead we  insinuate that you’re broken:  “You should buy a house; renting is for suckers.”  “You should sell real estate: there’s good money in it.”  Did you ever notice how some people can make you feel like crap while sounding so very helpful?  It is irritating and yet we feel guilty for being irritated since they were “only trying to help.”

Offering To Help When It Isn’t Welcome Is Butting In

The instances where people offer us help when we’ve never as much as hinted that we needed assistance is maddening.  Why does it irritate us?  They’re just trying to help out, right?  When someone tells us that “we should…”it is an act of aggression.  Once again or flight and fight goes on alert, our brains flood our bodies with chemicals, and our bodies brace themselves for a fight.  Sometimes we respond with, “you should shut the hell up and mind your own business (fight) or “yeah, you’re right” (flight.)

However well intentioned, the people who provide us with unsolicited criticism cause us stress.  The unspoken message in the “you should…” is that if you continuing doing what you are doing you are broken in some way.  The more passive their aggression the more alert our bodies become and the more stress-related problems we suffer as a result.

Some of you are thinking, “It’s my job to criticize” or “If I see some behavior that is unsafe I am morally obligated to intervene”.  That’s just you granting yourself license to butt in; it’s you giving yourself permission to “should all over” the people you are supposed to be helping.

Criticism tends to eliminate related behaviors that we value.  For example, let’s say you are the first to arrive at the office every day and the task of making the coffee falls to you.  You don’t mind, you do it because you like drinking coffee, it’s not hard to do, and you like helping out the group.  Now, one day, I come up to you and say, “you know, I’m getting sick of having to put away the coffee filters, mopping up the little puddles you leave behind, and sweeping up coffee grounds.  You’d think at your age you’d have learned to clean up after yourself.”  After my reproach of your coffee making, what are the chances that you will be making any coffee (safe for me to drink) anytime soon?  Chances are great that you will either stop making coffee (flight), tell me that I can make the coffee from now on (fight), or continue making coffee but now deliberately leaving a bigger mess (passive aggressive).  In all these cases, our goal to get me to pick up after myself are left un-achieved, and in two thirds of the cases a highly desirable behavior falls along the wayside.  Clearly, a feedback tool that does not trigger the fight/flight response is necessary.

Not all feedback is dysfunctional, in fact, good, advisory feedback is essential for lowering our stress. Instead of getting all self-righteous and criticizing workers you will likely find that advice is a far more effective feedback mechanism.  Where criticism is destructive and focuses on negative aspects, advice is the practice of providing a more balanced description of the behavior.  When providing advice, we begin by discussing positive behaviors before discussing behaviors we would like to see changed.  Our example of the coffee-making mess could have been handled using advice instead of criticism and would likely have a much more positive result.

Instead of complaining about the negative aspects of the coffee I should have started by commenting on the things in your behavior that I valued before moving on to the behaviors I would like to see changed.   “I want you to know that I love it that you make coffee everyday; I am NOT a morning person and I rely on that first cup of coffee.  I also need you’re help.  Often, the kitchen area is a mess, in a large part because of the coffee that you make.  How can I help you to clean up after yourself?”

I can already hear some of you laughing, “yeah right…they’ll just say ‘you clean it if it bothers you’”…maybe; if you lack that person’s trust probably; if you have an ulterior motive; definitely.  If you are insincere in your praise, you create, what a friend of mine indelicately dubbed, the shit-filled twinkie.  The shit-filled twinkie is a comment that at first appears to be a compliment (a delicious-looking snack cake), but inside the compliment is an insult (need I further explain the analogy?)  In the interest of decorum, let’s refer to my friend’s analogy as the SFT.  SFTs are created because the speaker is just going through the motions of commenting on positive elements of the behavior.  SFTs do more harm than good.

Far from being a SFT, this approach mends troubled relationships and helps to build trust.  As you build trust, your stress level, and the stress level of the other person diminishes.  Remember, though building trust takes time.  Initially, the person receiving the feedback is likely to resist this change in you and only through patient, consistent advice will the relationship ultimately be mended.

Another outstanding way to provide feedback is through reinforcement.  Reinforcement is used to increase desired behaviors.  Basically, reinforcement is a sincere, meaningful compliment.  It is a way of thanking people for doing things right, and letting them know they appreciate what they’ve done for us.

Irrespective of the kind of feedback we provide, we need to be specific.  It is unfair to expect people to respond favorably to vague feedback.  “You know that thing that you’re always doing, I hate that.”  What are we expected to do with this kind of feedback?  Unless I know exactly what elements of my behavior you don’t like, there is little I can do to change my behavior.  Instead, we would be better served by saying, “I dislike it when you put your feet on the dinner table and I would like you to please stop that.”

Providing specific feedback means that you must speak from your knowledge-base about things that you have experienced and seen with your own eyes.  How do you respond to a policeman at the door who tells you that some of the neighbors have complained about the stench coming from your garage? (Clearly this is an attack and you are likely to respond either by fighting or fleeing.)  Many of us would ask, “which neighbors?” or “who’s complaining?”  It is difficult for us to assess the value and seriousness of the complaint unless we can “consider the course” or at very least put the complaint into some sort of context.  If we don’t know who the feedback is coming from it’s virtually the same as getting no feedback at all.  We really should restrict our feedback to things we’ve observed, noticed, or experienced and leave hearsay out of our remarks.

So before you charge out to the workplace snooping around for unsafe behaviors, ask yourself “do I have the interpersonal skills to provide solid information? Or will my comments do more harm than good?” Ultimately, you may have to muster the courage to shut the fuck up.


Filed under: Phil La Duke, Safety, Worker Safety, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Feedback, Stress, and Safety

Some of the most successful people working in safety advocate feedback as a way of making the workplace safe.  While I think a good share of these people are simple minded and mentally enfeebled, I think most, if not all are good intentioned and a handful, really know what they are talking about.  But how important is feedback really? And when “experts use that term, what exactly are they talking about?  Since so many people prattle on about feedback, let’s start at the very beginning. Whether it’s the obnoxious driver waving a middle finger or the smiles of flirty waitstaff, people are forever providing us with information about our behavior and this practice is called feedback.  Ideally, feedback is given to us to help us to improve our relationships, but as often as not, feedback is provided to make the speaker feel better without regard to whether or not the feedback is accurate, welcome, or in anyway useful.

Intentional Feedback

 Most of us would like to think that our feedback is well thought out and intentional—that is, provided deliberately with a clear and distinct message.  Intentional feedback is often used to boost worker performance, encourage workers to work more safely, or generally follow the rules and avoid stirring the pot.  Recognition programs are a simple form of feedback; the program is a way for employers to tell the recognized employees to keep up the good work.  Even though we strive to only provide intentional feedback, and may even believe that we are being successful, too often we also provide unintentional feedback.

Unintentional Feedback

We communicate with more than just our mouths; in fact most of the messages we send out are non-verbal.  Some nonverbals are conscious decisions—the style in which we dress and the way we wear our hair, for example.  We send far more nonverbal messages unconsciously and sometimes these messages get us into trouble.  Take for example the employee of the month who is perceived as a lying, backstabbing little toady but the rest of the worker population.  In selecting this employee to be recognized you are sending the message that you want all employees to be lying, back stabbing little toadies.  But it doesn’t have to be that extreme.  Suppose you over do it and praise all the time.  To  the high performers you come off as condescending and patronizing and to the mediocre performer you have just endorsed all his or her behavior desirable and undesirable alike.

But unintentional feedback goes far deeper than over praising, and can be dangerous in any situation, and deadly in safety. Sending a clear message (and not sending mixed signals) on a safety issue is essential, but it is something that many safety professionals just plain screw up.

Providing Feedback

Before providing feedback we need to recognize that there are right ways and wrong ways of giving this information to someone else.  The first rule of providing feedback is to focus on behaviors, not attitudes. Unfortunately, many people are seemingly unable to make the distinction between who we are as people and how we behave. We feel what we feel because of chemical electric signals that run through our brain.  If the stimuli that our nervous system picks up are such that the brain tells us to be angry, we will be angry.  If it says we should be happy, we are happy.  Barring chemical imbalances, psychological illness, or a malfunction of the brain, this is how life works. Contrary to what many believe, we cannot control our emotions (we can control how we behave in response to our emotions, but there is scarce little we can do about our brains being awash in chemicals).

That is not to say that we are hapless victims of our internal chemical plant.  While we may not be able to control our emotions—how we feel—we can certainly control our behaviors—how we act on what we feel.  Oft-times people provide us feedback on our emotions instead of on our behavior.  The result of this muddied feedback is that oft-times people say things like “you have a shit attitude” rather than “I find it upsetting when you use that tone of voice when speaking to me.” The first statement is unproductive and stress producing for a variety of reasons.

First, the first statement attacks the essence of whom we are as human beings.  After all, where doe attitudes come from?  What people frequently describe as an attitude is the physical manifestation of our emotions.  And where do our emotions come from?  Emotions—though many are loath to admit it—are created by chemicals in our brain.  Where do the chemical in our brain come from?  Our brains produce these chemicals—completely involuntarily—in response to external stimuli.  So when someone tells you that you have a shit attitude, they are essentially saying that your emotions are shit, and (continuing the logic stream) that you have shit in your brain.  This feedback isn’t exactly the kind of “up with people” sentiment that is likely to put one at ease, rather it elicits a “circle the wagons” response that churns out more chemicals and heightens our stress level.

Perhaps the most common form of feedback is silence.  Silence could also be described as the absence of feedback when feedback is expected.  Silence is appropriate for the times in life where we want everything to stay the same.  “If you weren’t happy, why didn’t you say something?”  Silence is often an excellent tool for remaining cool when your emotions are raging, but silence is a short-term fix.

Often we use silence as a flight mechanism, we don’t want to fight, so we mentally extricate ourselves from the situation by remaining silent, rather than providing more direct feedback and potentially provoking further attack, we remain silent and let things simmer.  Silence should be used sparingly; it hurts relationships as we ascribe sinister motives to the person from whom we receive no information.  As our brains have only partial information with which to determine whether or not we are in danger we react as if the silent ones are hostile to us.  Many an employee inaccurately assumes that his or her boss doesn’t like him or her simply because the employer has not provided enough reassurance to the contrary.

Years ago, I had a job that required a heavy travel schedule, which in turn meant that I had very little contact with my boss.  Soon I became convinced that my boss was out to get me, and that—despite constant praise from my customers, and positive performance reviews—I was in imminent danger of being fired.  It is interesting to note, that even though I was fully aware that my paranoia was a direct result of a lack of feedback from my boss, I was unable to shake my raging paranoia; my subconscious was far stronger than my intellect. (Not something of which I am especially proud; let’s just say I don’t have it on my resume.)

We also may become paranoid if the majority of the feedback is silence.  If we feel out of the information loop, our brains, craving information with which to protect us, manufacture threats and plots against us.  Again the brain’s “better safe than sorry” response prepares us for greater and greater threats that may not exist.

Another form of feedback is criticism.  Criticism is the practice of sharing negative information about us without any other information.  Criticism is essentially an attack—someone tells us that what we are doing is bad, wrong, or otherwise undesirable.

Repeated criticism hurts relationship; a big surprise—we tend to dislike people who continually remind us of how stupid we are, how much we need to improve, or how foolish we’ve acted.  As we are in close proximity with people who criticize us, we are increasingly likely to employ a fight/flight response.  If we spend enough time with the person and our fight response is engaged it is highly likely that we will lash out at that person either overtly or covertly.

An overt aggressive response can take the form of a verbal blow up or in extreme cases physical violence.  Take for example the case of the worker who is continually criticized by his boss.  Day after day the boss knit picks about the quality of the work.  One day the criticism becomes too much and the employee explodes in a flurry of obscenity, he tells the boss in dubious anatomical accuracy into specifically which orifices the boss can stick this month’s status reports.

The aggression is far more likely to be covert.  In the previous example the employee became overtly hostile as his fight/flight lever got switched to fight.  In a far more likely scenario, the employee becomes passive aggressive.  Instead of obscenity and creative anatomical body packing the injured employee takes the fight underground.  Graffiti gets sprawled on bathroom walls; deadlines get “innocently” missed; key information is not conveyed and the employee engages in malicious obedience.  Passive aggression, doesn’t relieve stress, however, and in many cases leads to guilt as our stress level subsides.

Sometimes criticism triggers the flight response; instead of fighting we flee.  The flight response manifests itself in a phenomenon called escape and avoidance.  In other words, we—often without realizing it—will quickly excuse ourselves from the company of the person who over criticizes us (escape) or, when we are able, avoid contact with the criticizer altogether.   My ex-wife and I like to play a little game we call “what’s wrong with Phil”.  The game begins with her saying, “you know what’s wrong with you?”  As much as I love this game (I actually lettered in it in high school.) I find myself saying, “You know how I love this game, and how I thirst for information to help me on my road to development, however, I have pressing business elsewhere.”  It comes as no surprise that I don’t want to listen to an attack on who I am as a person, but any response short of fleeing the scene is likely to provoke more, and escalated criticism.

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

Why Worry? Stress that We Deliberately Create


Another common source of stress is what I call “predictive stress”.  Predictive stress arises from the common practice of trying to relieve pressures of worrying by asking, “what’s the worst thing that could happen?”  Asking this question is incredibly stress producing as we now add a whole list of calamities to our worries.  It’s not bad enough that we worried that our boss didn’t like us, now well meaning but dim-witted friends introduce the worst case scenario and we add being fired, loosing our homes and become destitute and diseased homeless nomads driven mad by life’s luxuries lost.   Gee that’s a cheery thought, thank you for adding to my gloom.   It makes sense that if we don’t have a complete picture of a situation that we would have to prepare for the worse case scenario.  The problem with this practice is that the worst-case scenario is  not  the mostly likely scenario.  Instead of picturing the worst-case scenario, we should picture and plan for, the most likely scenario.  When we plan for the most likely scenario, it’s prudent to prepare some contingency plans (saving money for a rainy day, for example) but we need to stop our Armageddon thinking and concentrate on real issues and things we can do to minimize our risks.

Take for instance, the prospect of loosing your job.  Economic conditions, management decisions and a host of other factors that could contribute to loosing our jobs are completely beyond our control, so worrying about these and obsessing about them is a complete waste of time: the stress consumes our energy and provides us with nothing of value in return.   Instead of worrying about the prospect of loosing a job, we need to make contingency plans.   Some people will never be happy with our lack of worry and will actively seek to agitate us.  I remember when I was in high school; I was talking during one of our many fire drills.   The teacher launched into a surly admonishment of my behavior and finished her self-righteous monologue with, “what are you going to do if there is a REAL fire?!?!?!  I calmly responded by walking her through the complete evacuation procedure.   This didn’t satisfy her, in fact, it made only made her more angry, “okay, smart guy, what are you gonna do if the wall is blocked by fire?”  Again, I calmly told her that I would break a window, hang from the window ledge, and drop to the ground below, doing my best to stay upright and flex my legs, reasoning, that all though I would likely break a leg, I would prefer my odds with gravity rather than against the fire.  At this point, nearly enraged she spat, “and what if the window is blocked, then what?” she asked almost screaming.  Again, calmly, I told her that since the room had a drop ceiling and retractable wall, I would crawl to through the ceiling, drop into the room next door,  and leave by one of my aforementioned methods.  This time truly screaming, she asked what I would do if that was not an option. Now, frustrated by the situation having been extended to the most extreme, ludicrous worst-case scenario, I looked at her and said, “then I guess I’ll die, will that make you happy?”  and then I added, “although in this extreme scenario you’ve cooked up, I doubt my talking during a fire drill would kill or save anyone.”  What does this story prove (beyond that my high school teachers earned every cent they were paid)?  I think the story is a nice illustration of people’s love of worry, and the impatience of people who love to worry with those of us who don’t.

Adaptive Dysfunction

Our personalities are in part, ways to protect our bodies.  (This is not to imply that this alone is the purpose of or origin of our personality—I’ll leave that for the philosopher’s to ponder).  Our personalities are shaped as we mature and create our danger database.  We retain behaviors that protect us (or bring us joy, or reward us in some way, etc.) and we reject and avoid the things that have harmed us.  This process is not limited to our physical body, but our personalities as well.  The process of gathering sensory input, categorizing it, and storing it in our subconscious for further use is a relatively simple phenomenon compared to the complex development of our personalities.  Because everyone’s life experiences are unique the world is full of personalities, no two exactly alike. No personality is better or worse than the other although the interaction of personality styles can be a significant source of stress.

There are many different ways to categorize personality styles, and many good tools for identifying and describing a person’s personality style, but that is for another author to explore. Personality types are like horoscopes, we can see something of ourselves in any of the Zodiac signs, because they describe universal reactions to life. For our purposes there are four major types of personality Compelling, Persuasive, Social, and Orderly.  All these personalities styles grew from some very primal reactions to the dangers in the world, and therefore, most people have elements of all four, and any well adjusted person will exhibit characteristics of all of these personality traits depending on the situation. We learn to see these very complex personality styles as archetypes—the executive, the salesman, the social worker and the accountant.

The compelling personality believes in a hierarchy based on dominance.  The compelling personality will force his or her desires on the group.  The compelling personality learned at an early age that action and dominance will help force others to behave in ways that are easy to predict.  The compelling person will tell you what to do, and expect you to do it.  The compelling personality shoots first and asks questions, makes decisions quickly and expects quick results.  Don’t waste the compelling person’s time with idle chitchat, he wants you to say what you need to quickly and efficiently.  If you ask the compelling personality for advice and you will get quick direction.  “Here’s what you do…”

The persuasives learned early that if people like them they will get desired results so they spend their days cultivating relationships.  They like people and people like them.  They are direct, albeit meandering communicators, who get to the point only after telling a story, a joke, or asking about you.  Persuasives survive through innovation and creativity and social skills.  A persuasive won’t tell you what to do, rather they will freely tell you what they would don in the same situation. The persuasive personality is driven to talk, in fact, they process information by talking to others about it.  They need to talk in order to think. This non-stop jabbering may cause others to misread the persuasive personality as incapable of gravity but such is not the case.

Social personalities are shy people who form deep friendships with a relatively few number of people.  They have a deep affinity for fairness and are profoundly upset by what they perceive as injustice.  Caring and concerned friends social personalities prefer to console rather than to give advice. Social harmony is a primary motivator for the social personalities and these people abhor conflict and resent those who bring it.

The orderly personality lives for rules and perfection.  Introverted and exacting the orderly personality fears being wrong above all things. Orderly personalities make decisions carefully and deliberately and may be accused of analysis paralysis.  Orderly personalities intensely dislike having decisions rushed.

Far smarter people have spent far more time studying the development of the human psyche than I can or will ever do, so I won’t bore you with my take on that.  Sufficed to say, that while most of us develop personalities that help us to function in society, others among us develop in dysfunctional ways.  Dysfunction is one of those words that has become widely used in psychological circles, but I use it in a slightly different way.  Behaviors, beliefs, and inhibitions that help us to better relate to others in society protect us and reduce our stress.  Behaviors that put us at odds with society are dysfunctional, because they make it more difficult to “function” as a member of society.

People who have adapted to life in a way that puts them at odds with others suffer from (or more accurately the rest of us suffer from) “adaptive dysfunction”.  Before you rush out to use this as an excuse for being a jerk, this is not a mental illness, rather it is learned behavior that can be unlearned.  The adaptive dysfunctional person has found a way to survive without following society’s rules.  I once played softball with a man named “Kirk the Jerk”; this was obviously not his given name, but one that suited him and suited him well.  He wasn’t a big man, or a particularly tough one, but Kirk was rude, nasty and thoroughly unlikeable. He wasn’t even that good a softball player, but people welcomed him on the team mainly because people had known him for years and accepted his behavior as normal and acceptable.

We see these people every day and most of us except the dysfunction as  “oh that’s just Kirk the Jerk’s personality”. These people bully there way through life seemingly unconcerned by other people’s opinion of them. They have survived using behaviors outside the social norms.

Filed under: Phil La Duke, Safety Culture, , , , , , , ,



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