Columns / Editorial Comments

Prime Minister tees off on safety

Sometimes it’s better to not say anything

You might have missed this bizarre bit of news at the beginning of the year because it came from across the “pond,” in the United Kingdom. Prime Minister David Cameron issued a New Year’s resolution pledging, among other promises, to “kill off the health and safety culture for good.”


What’s that you say, Mr. Prime Minister? How exactly does a government “kill” a health and safety culture in one fell swoop? And why on earth do you want to try?

The prime minister elaborated: “Safety cultures are a too often farcical, marginal monster that must be crushed and killed.”

Safety cultures a farce? I’ve seen safety contests that are a farce, but a whole culture? Unless you’re talking about the circus… Monstrous? The Third Reich was a monstrous culture, that’s as far as I’ll go.


That sound you hear is Dr. Dan Petersen grinding his teeth in his grave. The good doctor spent more than 50 years studying how to achieve safety culture excellence. He was not alone in believing the best companies sought  a tight relationship between safety and culture. Ask former Aloca CEO Paul O’Neill.

In 50+ years of assessing safety and health cultures, researching and dissecting them, the very last thing that would have come to Dr. Dan’s enlightened mind is an urgent need to crush and kill cultures. Stomp ’em like cockroaches. Boot ’em out the door. Good riddance.

Not doing the homework

There is, I think, an explanation for David Cameron’s New Year’s rant on the health and safety culture. The PM is just the latest in the long, long line of leaders, mostly in business, ill-equipped to talk on the subject of safety. For instance, he talks of “the” health and safety culture” as if it’s some monolith. Mr. Cameron, every organization has its own culture.

Perhaps we hear political leaders speak so infrequently about worker safety and health because they know what they don’t know. I give the Prime Minister points for spending more time talking about workplace health and safety than any American president I have followed save for that natural gabber, Bill Clinton.

I’d rather have our U.S. President stay mum on worker safety than go ballistic like David Cameron did: a 100 percent “attack ad” on all things worker health and safety — “the albatross” of regulations that strangle business; “the excessive culture of safety and health that is dragging down business like a heavy wooden yoke.” Safety culture is “nothing more than a straitjacket on personal initiative and responsibility. We must crush these cultures before any more damage is done,” said the PM.

Where’s the yoke?

He’s got it exactly wrong. Much of the developed world, and the developing world, is spending time and in some cases loads of money attempting to build safety and health cultures, that, among other things, promote personal responsibility and initiative. Multinationals and smaller businesses boast about their safety and health cultures of caring and sharing in annual reports. In the U.S. in 2012 concern has been expressed that too many businesses have retrenched into a culture of acceptance of “good enough” or “stalled” safety and health performance.

It would frankly be shocking to hear President Obama kick off the year challenging businesses to reject a culture of stalled safety and health efforts. Dream on. For POTUS to rebuke businesses for stalling around with safety is tantamount to saying spend more time and money on safety and health, and good Lord, we might even need a couple more regulations.

No. No. No. In this economy? The only thing you’re going hear from POTUS is the need to create jobs and ease up on regs.

Transatlantic translation

The PM erred by using the term “the health and safety culture.” What he probably meant was Britain’s culture of socialized compensation, of entitlement for injury payments, which he plans to cap. Some claims might be farcical; collectively they might pose monstrous burdens on business. And the albatross of health and safety regulation, which he wants cut in half by year’s end, may be an overreaching bureaucracy, but it is not an American health and safety culture.

The PM broke the rules of what great safety leaders do. His vision is damning, not motivating. I’d be insulted if I were a British safety and health practitioner. What about all the good work done? Lives saved? The only safety outcomes he speaks of are less regulation.

He’s not much on feedback and recognition, either, recognizing only a monstrous situation that needs to be crushed and killed.

What an unsurprising disappointment. A head of state, the head of one of the world’s oldest and most sophisticated “cultures,” gives a rare public speech, a New Year’s proclamation no less, on worker health and safety. It is 100 percent political pandering. Damning. Negative. Misinformed.

No one comes off well. The spoiled injured? The albatross-slinging bureaucrats? Health and safety professionals take a hit by the implication they are part of the farcical and monstrous culture thing.

Whenever very senior leaders, like heads of state, give a rare few moments to talk about workplace safety, I feel like I’m watching a high-wire act. Can the man in the suit get across without tripping over his own words? It’s a long way down to where the safety net is held by the spin-meisters.

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