Safety Culture / Psychology

Protect your dignity

Cease and desist these four misplaced efforts

October 1, 2011
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I had hoped that in the worst economic climate that most of us have ever seen we might see meaningful change in the safety profession. But in this malaise, too many professionals continue to work in a pathetic pantomime of professionalism. Stay the course good safety fellows, they seem to say, oblivious to the mounting pressures from operations for safety to do more than simply protect the company from the threat of imaginary boogiemen and contribute to the bottom line.

Reams have been written on how safety professionals can do a better job in reducing injuries and save the organization money. But while economic uncertainty has caused most professions to reevaluate what they do and how they do it, safety, as a function seems blithely unconcerned about what effect this historic event will have on its role in the future of business world-wide.

After all, they need us, right? Never mind politicians in the U.S. accuse safety of stealing jobs and in the U.K. of going too far; that’s just politicking. And forget that tort reform and the cry to end frivolous lawsuits have chipped away at the rights of injured parties to seek justice; what has that to do with us? 

These are big problems that none of us individually can do much about.  So let’s focus on simple things we can do something about in our own small sphere of influence. Here are four things that we need to cease and desist doing: 

1. Ban the children’s safety poster contests. 

What kind of sick brute decided it would be cool to introduce the idea that a parent could die at work to an eight-year-old?

What’s next, showing up at the funerals of workers killed on the job to tell children that daddy died because they couldn’t draw well enough?

The depravity of these contests are staggering. A child should not have to choose between watching a little television and drawing a poster so mommy doesn’t have to die at work. Those of you who advocate for this practice answer me: are you sadists or simpletons? Do you enjoy torturing children or are you just so stupid that it never occurred to you that practice might have unintended consequences?

2. Stop celebrating good case management. 

First, to all you hard-working case management workers who slave tirelessly to ensure your company is not the victim of fraud, I value case management.

Now, to the rest of you who slap each others’ backs and hail each other fellows well met because your workers’ compensation costs went down, shut up and sit down. Your costs didn’t go down because you reduced injuries or risk. Your costs went down because incidence of fraud went down. 

Statistically speaking, a morally suspect (assuming the case truly was fraudulent) worker got caught unsuccessfully trying to steal from the company. Nothing you did is worth congratulating here. You didn’t save a life or prevent a hard-working employee from a lifetime of loss caused by a debilitating injury. Safety professionals who celebrate good case management are the drunken frat boys of safety; bragging about the conquests of others, looking to bask in the glory of another man’s righteous accomplishments.

3. Stop comparing your rates to industry average. 

I’ve never understood how safety pros could look an operations leader in the eye and — with not only a straight face, but one beaming with simple pride — brag about the organization’s safety record by comparing it to industry average. This glosses over the fact that they are comparing themselves to an average. It ignores human suffering.

Several years ago I worked with a firm whose CEO was the son of the founder of a company. He told me that he was sick to death of hearing about how great it was to be average when it came to worker safety. I remember him telling me in visible disgust how his leadership team, including the safety manager, bragged loudly about their marginally better than average safety record. “When we talk about our products, we proudly say that our quality is without peer, our service is world-class, our reliability is the best worldwide, and then we say our safety is better than industry average and we nearly wet ourselves in imbecilic glee.”

Organizations with truly noteworthy safety records don’t brag that they don’t kill any more workers than the competition, and those that do should be ashamed of themselves.

4. Abandon “blame-the-worker” mind control.

I can’t believe so many companies continue to give people a pizza party for not killing anyone and then brag about the great job they’re doing. Ninety percent of injuries are caused by unsafe behaviors? So what? Are you so arrogant you believe you can really modify not just individuals but entire populations’ behavior with a couple of ham-fisted attempts at behavior modification?

It doesn’t work. But just because you know this, it doesn’t mean you won’t keep buying and selling it. Long before Harold Hill came around warning of trouble in River City, people understood that to err was human, and that in many unfortunate cases those errors resulted in worker injuries or worse. But along came slick talkers with dubious research and a magic bullet — all we need do is to reward safe behavior and punish unsafe behavior and the world will turn. Twenty years later we have a shelf full of books, an unwieldy, costly, and ultimately unsustainable infrastructure. Oh and perhaps a bunch of unreported injuries and a false sense of security.

Healthy anger

I suspect that this has made some of you angry. Good. I’m angry. We all should be angry. As hard as we all work to be credible contributors to the company’s bottom line, as hard as we struggle to be respected, as hard as we fight to keep worker injury costs from driving our jobs overseas, and as virulently as we struggle to keep the worker protections and rights that our fathers and grandfathers fought to secure for us, all it takes are the above-mentioned credibility killers to sweep it all away from us. If we can’t save the lives of the workers, can we not at least save our dignity?

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"Protect yoru dignity' article

Gerald Edgar
October 20, 2011
Talk about killing a fly with a stick of dynamite accompanied by a plethora of verbiage right out of a Victorian novel. Should Safety pro's or ANY worker be complacent about safety; no! But should we deny recognition of progress? As far as comparing to industry averages; is a better measuring stick offered? Again, we do not want to be complacent but until we reach zero injuries, knowing we are trending below our NAICS average tells us our methods are working, at least to this point. As to children's posters; apparently I have not seen the kind alluded too. What I use, while trying to create a holistic, long-term safety culture, are appropriate materials. This would mean bicycle safety, seasonal efforts such as Halloween, not playing with matches, etc. Good case management means returning an Emp to work reasonably quickly while also identifying fraud - when word gets around that Joe Dokes was caught faking a W/C claim, it serves as a deterrent. So no, I am not angey with my peers who often work with tighter budgets during this economy AND with a stressed workforce that is more susceptible to injury. The tougher times get, the more valuable a good EH&S Mgr is assuming he/she is being creative & goal driven.

A Brief Response

Phil La Duke
November 4, 2011
I received a lot of visceral responses privately to this article. Let me begin by thanking those who took time to contact me with both criticisms and support. (One email I received called me irresponsible and unethical for writing the article—so I obviously struck a nerve.) I’d like to express my particular gratitude to Gerald Edgar who raised some points that I would like to address here. First, Gerald’s point about the extreme response to what he seems to view as fairly innocuous practices in worker safety. I would agree that there are certainly bigger issues facing safety than whether or not a safety professional claims credit he or she doesn’t deserve. But I do believe that these four practices represent “Safety” as a profession completely out of touch with reality. Now I’d like to directly answer the questions posed and address the specific points made. “Should Safety pro's or ANY worker be complacent about safety; no! But should we deny recognition of progress?” Well that depends. If we are celebrating a lack of injuries yes, we should stop doing so immediately. Safety is not the lack of injuries it’s the reduction of risk to the lowest possible levels, celebrating the fact that we didn’t maim as many people this year as we did last year is macabre and frankly stupid. Celebrating contributions to the overall safety effort makes more sense. “As far as comparing to industry averages; is a better measuring stick offered?” Not in this article, but there are wide range of better methods. I’ve written reams and presented hours of information on better ways to measure the effectiveness of safety. Most (if not all) benchmark companies have abandoned industry averages in favor of a mix of leading and lagging indicators that provide real information about their specific performances. Others use a Quality Operating System (QOS) or Lean Six Sigma program to identify areas of greatest risk and predict the most likely failure modes which they then contain until a permanent correction can be implemented. Industry averages tend allow people to excuse their poor performance in worker safety in by wrapping themselves in the excuse that their particular industry is intrinsically dangerous and the only fair way to assess their performance; it’s a sloppy, simple-minded approach. “As to children's posters; apparently I have not seen the kind alluded too. What I use, while trying to create a holistic, long-term safety culture, are appropriate materials. This would mean bicycle safety, seasonal efforts such as Halloween, not playing with matches, etc” Great. What would you have been doing instead of this program had you NOT done this? Should this really have been your priority given the current economic climate? “Good case management means returning…” you miss my point completely here. I am not anti case management, in fact, fraud protection and avoidance is more critical in tough times than ever before. The point I was making, is that eliminating fraud and lowering the risk of injury are two very different activities, and for safety professionals to take credit for the work of another department is inexcusable. To those few organizations where case management is the responsibility of the safety engineer or safety supervisor, I am obviously not talking about you. For those where these two activities are done by different departments, well…I stand by what I have written. As to, “Talk about killing a fly with a stick of dynamite accompanied by a plethora of verbiage right out of a Victorian novel.” Maybe you’d prefer Shakespeare, “me thinks the lady doth protest too much.”

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