PETERSEN'S PAGE: Led down the garden path

February 8, 2006
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It’s easy to be “led down the garden path” as a safety practitioner. Let me explain. Or rather, I’ll let Thomas Sowell do the explaining. In 1995, Sowell wrote the best-seller, Vision of the Anointed (published by BasicBooks, a member of the Perseus Books Group). The “anointed” are crusaders — advocates in positions of authority or influence, champions of causes — who believe they know what to do and the populace does not. How many crusades have we seen in safety, how many trips down the garden path? Think of the asbestos crisis, the ergonomics epidemic, the fallout after Bhopal. In retrospect, such crises are rarely as bad as depicted. But don’t tell that to the anointed. Sowell details their four-step plan:

Stage 1: The “Crisis”

Some situation exists, and the anointed propose to eliminate its negative aspects. The situation is characterized as a crisis, even though all human situations have negative aspects and despite the fact that no evidence shows this situation to be either uniquely grave or about to intensify. Sometimes, the situation has, in fact, been improving. For example: Despite Ralph Nader’s argument that automakers paid little attention to safety, motor vehicle death rates per million passenger miles fell over the years, from 17.9 in 1925 to 5.5 in 1965, the year Nader’s Unsafe At Any Speed was published. This trend continued as the rate dropped to 4.9 five years later, after federal automobile safety legislation inspired by Nader was enacted.

“Naderites” and the regulations they inspired have been widely credited with subsequent reductions in auto fatality rates, usually by those who are either unaware of, or choose to ignore, the (already existing) downward trend. In short, the era of so-called corporate greed and the presumably ignorant and helpless consumer saw dramatic improvements in safety before the anointed came to the rescue.

Stage 2: The “Solution”

The anointed advocate policies to end the “crisis,” saying their implementation will produce positive results “A.” Critics argue that such policies will lead to detrimental result “Z.” The anointed dismiss these claims as absurd and simplistic. Remember, the anointed believe they know more than the general public, and tend toward categorical decisions (one answer fits every situation), prescribing solutions without considering trade-offs or costs.

Stage 3: The “Results”

Policies are instituted, producing detrimental result “Z.” Consider, for example, the result of the war on poverty. In 1960, the number of people living below the poverty level was one-half of that in 1950. Since the “war” began, however, the number is eight times higher. Consider also current trends in violence, drugs, etc. Some would place OSHA, EPA and similar groups in this category.

Stage 4: The “Response”

Those who attribute detrimental result “Z” to the policies instituted are dismissed as simplistic. The anointed argue that people are ignoring the complexities involved. Critics are forced to prove — with certainty — that these policies alone caused the negative outcome. No burden of proof rests on those who so confidently predicted improvement. In fact, they often assert that the situation would be more grave were it not for their policies.

The safety professional’s role

Is it not the safety professional’s role to sort through media hype and political “crises” for executives, managers, team leaders and employees so their organization is not led down the garden path, or off on another crusade? The opportunity is there. Safety professionals have greater access to top executives and should be able to accomplish more than ever. This is due to a variety of factors: management’s fear of liabilities and risk, social responsibility in the age of globalization, the need to protect brand image, growing executive interest in going from “good to great.” Just look at the explosive growth of OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program.

But in many organizations safety programs have missed these opportunities, which renders them (and often practitioners) more irrelevant to upper management. That’s primarily due to a decades-long preoccupation on regulatory compliance, instead of effecting change in management systems and the behavioral environment.

Upper management has not resisted this “preoccupation.” It never truly grasped its role in safety (nor that of safety personnel) and prefers to avoid fines and bad publicity.

Since a philosophy that stresses regulatory compliance is diametrically opposed to one that focuses on culture building, employee empowerment and team building, companies face major decisions: which way should they go? Should they build a culture where decisions are shared with the workforce, or simply acquiesce with decisions made by the anointed?

This is the second in Dr. Petersen’s series applying lessons from best-selling books to safety. Last month Built to Last by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras was studied. Next month: The Death of Common Sense, by Philip K. Howard.

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