Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

Combustible Dust: How Crackpots Endanger Safety

By Phil La Duke


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

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

Doing Something Poorly For 35 Years Isn’t Valuable Experience

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

Safety Ain’t What I Used to Be

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

This Brush Doesn’t Have Tar Enough For All

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

Is This Really A Threat?

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

What About Freedom Of Speech?

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

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

Filed under: culture change, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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 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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Indicators Are Meaningless Unless They Lead to Managing Performance

broken cross

By Phil La Duke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Safety Slogans Don’t Save Lives


By Phil La Duke

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

Safety First

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

So Why Do It?

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

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

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

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

Your Only As Good—and Safe—As Your Process


by Phil La Duke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lie of Complacency

by Phil La Duke


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

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

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

 injuries pareto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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