Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

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.

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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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Safety Never Sleeps: Creating A Culture of Vigilance


By Phil La Duke

Creating a safety culture is all the rage today, and whether you are a snake oil shyster or an organizational psychologist working in safety everyone seems to agree that we need to create cultures of safety to be successful in reducing injuries.  I don’t know about you, but I get a more than a bit nervous when everyone agrees on a single course of action.

The concept of a “safety culture” in itself is both widely known and impossibly vague.  In broad strokes a safety culture is a state where “safety” is a shared value.[1]  I put the word “safety” in quotes because it is the most basic definition of our profession and the most poorly defined.  I have had people define it as the absence of injuries, but that doesn’t necessarily make one safe.  I have been in plenty of unsafe situations where I never even came close to being injured.  Some say that safety is the absence of risk, but since such a thing can never be true defining safety as such is to admit that safety is an impossibility. There are even some that will say that safety is a state of mind, that we either feel safe or we don’t, but if that’s the case pursuit of safety is the pursuit of complacency (a feeling of quiet pleasure or security, often while unaware of some potential danger, defect, or the like; self-satisfaction or smug satisfaction with an existing situation, condition, etc.[2]) and since one of the major players in the safety community now openly claims that complacency is the cause of something like 60% of all injuries this creates a circular logic—we can only be safe if we feel safe and if we feel safe we are complacent and if we are complacent we can never be safe.

Safety is too broad a concept, too philosophical on which to build a culture.  So if not safety what then?  A couple weeks ago I began toying with the concept of a culture of vigilance.  What, I asked myself, if we decided to pursue a culture of vigilance instead of a culture of safety? Could it work? What would it look like?

I envisioned a culture where people valued the approach more than the result, where risk taking wasn’t a sign of bravery and ingenuity but of recklessness and irresponsibility, I asked myself what might that look like.  It’s tough in a world where the “cowboy culture” is no longer a uniquely American thing the world loves an action hero and the ubiquitous rogue anti-hero pervades pop culture from Australia to Greenland, from Hollywood to Bollywood, from Argentina to Japan.

Arsonist Are the Best Firefighters

There is nothing like the feeling of sweeping into a mess and saving the day.  Unfortunately, too often we idealize people  for cleaning up their own messes.  We rarely praise someone for planning and executing a task with such precision that nothing even comes close to going wrong; it’s boring, and as my daughter (and Chris Rock) are fond of saying, “you don’t get credit for doing the things you are supposed to do”.  But maybe we should give credit for the people who get it right, and that’s what I think lies at the center of a culture of vigilance.

Rewarding someone for putting out the fire he or she set is a bit like the puzzling practice of having far less harsh penalties for attempted murder than for actual murder, I mean, in so doing aren’t we just rewarding failure? Not to make light of murder, but if we adopted a culture of vigilance the penalty for TRYING to commit murder (the intent or the action) would be the same as it would be for SUCCEEDING in killing someone (the outcome).  We need to focus on what we can control and stop focusing on those things beyond our control.

The Values Of A Culture Of Vigilance

If such a thing as a Culture of Vigilance can be said to exist there must be shared values associated with it.  I would like to submit the following for your consideration:

  1. Success is borne of planning. Solid planning is required for Operations to run smoothly with minimal variation and lowest possible risk; the better we plan the safer we are.
  2. We Cannot Prevent What We Cannot Foresee.  One of the first things we should be asking ourselves when someone is injured is not “what could the injured person have done to have avoided being harmed” (not that this question isn’t worth asking, but it shouldn’t be the FIRST question), rather we should be asking “was this foreseeable?” and if so, “why did we fail to foresee this?” and then “if we did foresee this, what did we do to mitigate our risk?”
  3. An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Cure.  It is always smarter and more effective to prevent injuries than to react to them and we need to build safety systems that spend far more effort preventing injuries than in treating them and preventing recurrence.
  4. Safety Never Sleeps. A culture of vigilance means that we are relentlessly pursuing the prevention of injuries and that we can never be fooled into thinking that nothing can go wrong; we are piloting The Titanic , a ship that once regarded as the safest ocean going vessel, right up until it sank.
  5. Vigilance is Exhausting So It Takes Everyone Working Together.  Constant vigilance creates a state of chronic unease that leads to stress and injuries so we have to get as many people involved as possible; many hands make for light lifting.
  6. Knowledge is Power.  We won’t be perfect, but as long as we learn from our mistakes we can continue to improve, and continual, incremental improvement will make the workplace safer.
  7. Every Injury Is A Big Deal.  We may never achieve zero-injury, and zero-harm may remain an ever elusive goal, most certainly we can never achieve zero risk,  but its never okay to hurt workers.  People can argue whether or not the idea of zero injuries is a faerie tale or the only acceptable goal, but both sides should agree that hurting workers is never okay and that anytime  a worker is harmed we have failed at our jobs.


[1] Before anyone runs off at the mouth about how this isn’t how he or she defines safety culture please read and then kindly keep your definition to yourself; I don’t care Daniel Webster you don’t get to just make up definitions to suit your purpose although I guess that’s essentially what I’m doing, but hey, it’s my blog; such is my right


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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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What’s Wrong With Drinking The Kool-Aid

poison kool aid

By Phil La Duke

Recently ISHN published an article by me (about the uselessness of slogans) that has drawn a fair amount of both criticisms and questions. In one case, a long-time reader and friend posted something of a response, and though I am arrogant, I am not arrogant enough to believe that his LinkedIn post was completed directed at me I am arrogant enough to believe that his post was at least somewhat prompted by the article. A few days later, I received a request to join the network of someone who too read the post/article and voiced her concern on how best to address the tendency on the part of both safety “professionals” (her quotes, not mine) and corporate leaders to push, slogan-based pseudo-psychological time and money wasting activities so pervasive in the safety field.

I believe that there is a great philosophical divide in safety that one can illustrate as a four quadrant model. On one axis we have behavior (I adopt the Anglo spelling of the word because that’s the way most of the world spells it) on one end and process at the other; all safety practitioners fall somewhere along this continuum. The other axis is bordered by individual responsibility versus organizational responsibility. What this means is that everyone who derives a living from safety believes that either injuries are caused by behaviours or process flaws or either the organization or the individual bears primary responsibility for safety. For the record I am a centrist in this debate although like most I can drift to a quadrant depending on my mood or the topic.

safety quadrant

As I have said on many occasions, I ardently believe that there are tools that simply don’t belong in the safety tool box. For example, there are still people out there that believe that disciplining workers for getting injured is a useful tool. While it is certainly appropriate to discipline people for recklessness, I don’t believe that it is ever appropriate to discipline people for human error, that is, something they didn’t intend to do and yet made an honest mistake. This is just one example of a “tool” that I think most people would agree doesn’t belong in the safety toolbox. I am taking the easy way out, of course, but there are a fair many more controversial tools that I could have mentioned but that would simply raise the hackles of many safety professionals and would interfere with an unemotional debate.

I have posted that “it’s just a tool and every tool in the toolbox has a use” is a tired argument and I believe that it is; it’s what people say when they can’t construct a logical argument against a point I make that questions the value of a “safety” activity. Saying “twisting the heads of ducks is just one tool in the safety professional’s toolbox” is just a passive aggressive way of saying “well that’s YOUR opinion”. Say what you want about me, but there is nothing passive about my aggression. I make these points because I want to get to the heart of the issue, and that issue is the alarming frequency with which safety practitioners use superstition and folk wisdom instead of science. Nobody likes to be told that their cherished tools are useless gibberish but at some point we have to call the emperor naked.

Too often we in safety start with a solution and work backward to make it fit the problem; we begin using the tools and methods that we enjoy, find easy to use, or understand. It’s human nature to gravitate to the familiar and safety practitioners are no different. I’ve called techniques psychobabble and antiquated. Some of these “tools” flat-out don’t work and others may still work, but there are far better, more effective and less expensive ways of accomplishing the same thing. I include Behaviour Based Safety as one of these tools. As many of you know, I am an outspoken critic of BBS. Why? because if you ask 10 BBS proponents to define it you are likely to get 11 different responses. How can a methodology be effective when its top proponents and advocates can’t seem to agree on its very definition? I honestly believe that it does lead to a “blame-the-worker” mentality. Not in all cases of course, but the danger is real and always there. When I make these criticisms people don’t defend BBS they say I don’t understand it or that the organizations that I have seen have implemented it inappropriately. We can blame the organization as improperly applying the methods or tools, and we can blame the BBS practitioner as being misguided, or we can blame a host of other things, but the damage is still done.

For the record I don’t believe that everyone who sells or advocates BBS is selling snake oil or a knuckle dragger, but some are. Many believe that what they are doing is the best bet for improving worker safety, other have spent their career selling something that is increasingly dubious and when it comes to safety this is unconscionable. But as my LinkedIn colleague pointed out, clouding the water by filling the C+ suite’s heads with ill-defined schemes for making the workplace safer puts workers at risk.

Many BBS practitioners advocate behaviour modification as a useful tool for “changing our lives for the better” and I couldn’t agree more. But shy of a cult, behaviour modification is typically not successful in changing the behaviour of a population. The workplace is an interactive population and the sciences of sociology, anthropology and other social sciences are ignored by many BBS theorists. Frankly were it possible to use behaviour modification to change the behaviours of a population we could end war, crime and a host of societal issues by using it. We would live in a Utopian society…and yet we don’t.

When I post it is my ardent hope that safety professionals will rethink their practices and ask themselves if what they are doing is returning value that is commensurate with the cost and effort that it requires. Alas, far too many in the safety community are unwilling to even consider change and will always keep tools in their toolbox solely because they like them and are comfortable using them even if they are destructive and dangerous.

How do we make these safety practitioners that their ideas are misguided, nonscientific, and dangerous? Sadly I don’t have any answers. How do you convince Jenny McCarthy that her contention that vaccinations cause autism? People argue that her position is not supported by science but their arguments fall on deaf ears. How do you use logic to sway people from the persistent emotional belief? You don’t. Now, imagine these people who are so emotionally tied to an erroneous belief derive their incomes by getting others to invest in these emotional beliefs. You don’t have another tool in the toolbox you have another glassy-eyed convert lining up for a glass of Kool-Aid. And what’s wrong with someone “drinking the Kool-Aid”? Let us never forget that the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid” refers to the mass murder suicide of the members of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple followers. So what’s wrong with “drinking the Kool-Aid”? It’s laced with cyanide.

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

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.

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

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.

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

I Factory Rat

By Phil La Duke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Pyramid By Any Other Name

by Phil La Duke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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