Dark House Brewery, a microbrewery based in Michigan has a beer that is called “Smells Like A Safety Meeting”. You might think that this is a compliment to all the hard working men and women in the safety field; if you do you would be dead wrong. In many workplaces, sneaking off to smoke marijuana is referred to mockingly, as “going to a safety meeting.” Given that a brewery would name a beer after the practice one can logically assume that this euphemism is not uncommon.
Sadly, the fact that people mock safety people isn’t shocking. I get derisively called, “Mr. Safety” by family and friends more often than I would like, and as a good friend of mine offered during a discussion about how a group of us hate strangers talking to us on a plane, “I don’t have that problem. As soon as I sit down I tell the person next to me that I am a safety consultant and that shuts down any further conversation.” It’s good that we can laugh at ourselves, but too few of us can, and even more of us provide continually fodder for mocking, ridicule, and even out–and–out hostility toward us.
Ostensibly it doesn’t make sense. Why would people mock and ridicule a profession whose sole purpose is to reduce the risk of injuries; in effect, to ensure that whenever possible people won’t get hurt? Unfortunately, in a practical sense we make it easy to see why many people hold us up for ridicule.
“I Save Lives”
In my book, I Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business, I reprinted a post that I posted on my blog. The post was a fictional letter from all the workers who died on the job to safety professionals. I also wrote a fictional letter from the safety guy to the dead workers in response. My intention was to post the former the first week and the latter the following week. Well the uproar that ensued from the first post was truly shocking. Safety professionals told me they hated me, some threatened violence, some just lobbed insults. I was so ticked off that I toyed with the idea of not posting the response, but I hate being manipulated so I decided not to change my plans. When my publisher told me that my book was too long, I cut out the response to the letter. I am petty, and this was my pathetic revenge.
The whole intent of the exercise was to demonstrate to our shared occupation that if we say we save lives we must hold ourselves culpable for the deaths of the people on our watch. We delight in saying that we save lives but recoil at the slightest hint that we are in anyway responsible for the deaths of workers. We can’t have it both ways.
I take on some of the Myths (or lies if you prefer) that we safety folks tell ourselves and each other and the biggest one has to be that we save lives. I for my part do not save lives. I provide workers (at all levels) with the information that they need to make informed choices about the risks they take and their safety. In other words, I help people save their OWN lives. I have skills, and training, and experience on which to draw so that I can have conversations with individuals to help them make their own decisions. I hope what I have to offer, but I also LEARN from these conversations.
Everyone working in safety has their pet peeves when it comes to a hazard. As I have explained to people who ask about the origins of the title of my above mentioned book safety professionals—particularly those who learned it on the job—there are some pretty dopey things safety professions insist people do. My favorite is “use the handrail, always maintain three points of contact on a staircase.” Well….as I learned while working in healthcare, having continuous contact with the handrail spreads germs and poses a health threat. The proper way to ascend or descend a staircase is to keep the hand closest to the rail hovering above the rail so that if you trip you can quickly grab the rail and prevent yourself from failing. Anyone who has seen the (often remarkably gruesome injuries) from people cut from splintered wood or jagged metal on handrails can attest to the fact that in many cases the practice of glomming your hand onto the rail is anything but best practice. I speak from experience. I was once seriously cut on my hand from a handrail, so I’m not prepared to argue the case. There are plenty of trivial, ridiculous things that we require people to do and they KNOW that there is not a good reason for them to do them. Furthermore, there are often arbitrary requirements that we impose out of ignorance (something that LOOKS dangerous but in actuality is less dangerous than the requirement—think wearing cotton gloves around a spindle. In other cases we make a rule that is more about ease of enforcement than it is about safety. Take for example safety glasses. Too often the rule is everyone must where safety glasses when in this area, but the law doesn’t dictate that requirement, the organization decides that it is too difficult to suss out which employees are doing what activities and who are legally required to wear safety glasses and who are not. We simplify things by saying everyone must wear safety glasses. We justify it as for everyone’s safety but if we are truly being honest it is for OUR convenience. Don’t get me wrong, I support this approach, but we should at least be honest with people and tell them that it’s too tough to get people to wear safety glasses depending on each person’s individual activity situation. Instead we dig in our heels and try to defend the rule. We also don’t do a very good job of explaining why the rule exists sometimes just because we don’t think it’s important and other times because we just flat out don’t know. But a fundamental tenet of adult education is that you have to provide them the What’s In It For Me (WIIFM) or the learner will tune you out. And what we do, or should be doing, is teaching people to make informed choices about their safety. And this may startle you, but “you won’t get killed or maimed” isn’t enough of a WIIFM for most people. We should we not speed? Because it decreases our reaction time and when some idiot does something stupid you have more time to react. When I tell someone to drive safely I usually add: there are a lot of idiots out there on the road. Taking a moment to explain WHY a rule is in someone’s best interest is your best bet for getting them to comply.
Soft Headed Parenting
Years ago I was working safety on a construction site, and one guy kept announcing my arrival in a mocking tone with “OK everybody the safety guy is here. We better all follow the rules so we don’t get in trouble” or something similarly belittling. After about three times I approached him when he was alone. “Writing anybody up today?’ he asked through the kind of smug smirk that makes you want to slap him so hard that his mouth ends up so far behind his head that it requires plastic surgery to ever get it back into position. I told him, “I don’t know what your problem is and I don’t care. But you need to know, I aint your mama, I aint your daddy, I aint your boss, and I aint your friend. In fact, I don’t even like you, not even a little. If you were to die on the job today it wouldn’t affect me in the least. BUT, I won’t have you undermining the advice and notification I am giving the other people who value their lives and safety, so you can knock off your bullshit.” I walked away and, being me, realized that while the guy was a complete waste of skin who was more valuable to society in parts (a cornea transplant here, a kidney transplant there, you get the drill) he was still my customer and while the customer isn’t always right, the customer is always the customer. So when he approached me the next day and asked to talk to me privately I was more than a little filled with dread. He said, “look, I’ve never had a safety guy talk to me like that, and I want to apologize. I realize what I thought was just joking around was really hostility toward safety. You have a job to do and I think you really want to do it well so I would like to just start over.” We shook hands and from that day on he was a huge safety advocate. Too many people feed into this parent-child dynamic and it gets in the way of our jobs. We come to represent every authority person that people hate and they respond accordingly. Treat people like grown ups even when they act like children and you will soon have a more functional relationship with your contingency.
Pretending We Have Authority and Power We Don’t Have
Safety cops complain that they “catch people in the act” and nobody supports them. That’s because we don’t have the authority or power to fire anyone and we have overplayed our hand. The offending person has called our bluff and we had squat. What’s worse is many of us think that we have power and authority that we don’t have. The best we can do is be tattle-tales and run to their bosses, who like as not will only tell them not to do it again. These are grown people and they know far better than many safety professionals that there is nothing we can do to them. Remember screaming, “You’re not the boss of me as a kid?” well that’s what their thinking if not outright saying it.
We Can Do Better
I am hoping that all of you reading this and see some element of yourself in these archetypes that you will do your best to break out of that mode and become something that people won’t make fun of and mock. We need to be the resource that we always have claimed to be; we need to be coaches and mentors and evangelists for safety, not in an abstract way, but in a practical way. We need to teach people to question what they are doing and why, we need to persuade people to forget about the easiest way to do the job but the safest way to do the job. It won’t be easy, but if it was than any idiot could do it.
This morning I read an article in the Metro Times (a Detroit Weekly) about a Facebook group essentially dedicated to encouraging attacks on women, Democrats, Muslims, and LGBTQ persons. It made me sad, and then it made me angry. There were hundreds of specific threats of violence. You don’t have to buy my book, but I wish you would. But if you want to help follow this link. Search LinkedIn to find out where these people work and encourage their employers to fire them. This isn’t a political statement, I would react the same way if people were saying that White Heterosexual Christian Men were the targets. Purveyors of hate need to feel real world consequences. All it takes for evil to triumph is for good to do nothing.
Violent acts begin with violent thoughts that turn into violent posts on social media. How long are you going to continue to throw your hands up and say, “what can I do?” My second book, Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention. answers this question. This is all new material that cannot be found anywhere else. In light of all the talk and panic around gun violence, and the shamefully bad advice some “experts” are giving I hope some of you will read it and pass it along to your executives and HR leads (go ahead, expense it, they will be glad you did.)
Before you dismiss this as yet another shameless plug for my book I want you to ask yourself these questions:
- What if anything is my employer doing to reduce its risk of a workplace attack?
- Do the people who are doing the hiring at my workplace know the warning signs of a workplace attack?
- What can I do to prevent workplace violence?
I should warn you, this isn’t a book that is pro- or anti-gun ownership rights. The book has extensive sections on spotting an unstable employee (some people’s lives will take a dark and desperate turn long after you have hired them but there are always signs), the types of work environments that tend to trigger these events, and I recently returned from Dublin, Ireland where I spoke on how companies can leverage technology to protect workers from workplace violence. But all the books, and magazines, and speeches in the world won’t change a damned thing if you keep thinking that it can’t (or probably won’t) happen to you or someone you love. You can bet your life that we will see more similar shootings in the weeks or months as people who are currently at the brink of sanity see the news reports and think, “now’s the time”. WAKE UP, PEOPLE!!!! This book is peppered with the sarcasm, self-deprecating humor of the first book, but it also makes use of my extensive knowledge of violence prevention in the workforce (that I gained as head of training and OD for a global manufacturer.) You should buy it. Seriously I’m not telling you how to live your life but you should buy it. Okay, I AM telling you how to live your life, just buy the damned book.
Of course, my first book is still for sale, and is ALSO available in the eBook format you might rightly ask yourself, why on God’s green Earth would I read a book that contains previously released material? Simple, like the rain-forest and the polar bears my work is disappearing from the web very quickly. All but a handful of my works for Facility Management Magazine are gone, and you can basically only go back two years on my blog (eight year’s worth of my work that ranges in quality from magnificent to mindless dreck.) And besides, about a third of the book is newly written material that cannot be found anywhere else. So buy it. People who have read it say that it belongs in everyone who works in safety’s library. It will teach you, entertain you, and make you want to read more it can be ordered here I Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business or on Barnes & Noble.com.
As always, Read. Learn. Live. Share. Inspire