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The biggest threat to safety… might just be you and I

June 7, 2013
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For a moment consider perhaps the most serious threat to worker safety: the attitudes of the safety professionals themselves.

These attitudes range from the “defenders of the faith” to the “backslappers” and each poses a significant threat to the safety with which we work. I would like to take a brief look at these attitudes and ask you to take a hard look at yourself and your peers and ask how closely that attitude aligns with your personal beliefs. Take a look at these attitudes and ask yourself, “Am I my own worst enemy?”

Defenders of the Faith

Defenders of the Faith are safety professionals who ostensibly espouse a desire for radical change in the way we approach worker safety, but, in fact, most of these professionals don’t want change at all. The Defenders of the Faith will outwardly admit that change needs to happen, but then chip away and passively resist change. These individuals never tire of the blame game and have umpteen excuses for why they aren’t successful. Meanwhile people continue to get hurt. The primary motivation of the Defenders of the Faith is to ensure continued employment and deflect any negative attention from themselves.


Luther Heggs was the character played by Don Knotts in the film “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.” Heggs was cautious to the point of being afraid of his own shadow, and there are a lot of Luther Heggs working in safety today. I am not trying to be ironic when I say that safety professionals are a cautious lot. The profession attracts more than its fair share of individuals who enjoy regulation, rules, and formulas. As a rule, these individuals don’t like change and actively (or passively) seek to subvert it. They will make all sorts of excuses as to why these process changes are inappropriate to their situation. If you find yourself reluctant to accept a new idea until there has been years of research on its effectiveness, you might be a Hegg.

Bandwagon Jumpers

Bandwagon Jumpers have never met a dumb idea they didn’t love, especially an idea that absolves them of culpability of a failed initiative. Even when the Bandwagon Jumper happens into a good idea, he or she seldom gives the idea time to work before scurrying off to the next hair-brained scheme. Operations leadership seldom respect the Bandwagon Jumpers because leadership expects and values results, and Bandwagon Jumpers seldom get much done.

Snake-0il Salesmen

These safety professionals glommed onto a scientifically dubious safety process years ago and, like a terrier with a rat in its mouth, they just refuse to drop it. You can find the Snake-Oil Salesmen shouting down each other in LinkedIn chat rooms and on-line safety forums. They seldom support their arguments with any research done in the past 50 years; in fact, most will just keep repeating their own opinions until the opposition dismisses them as idiots and walks away.


Backslappers are content with what they’ve already done and brag about how safe their workplaces are. By using antiquated views of safety (as the absence of injury instead of the reduction of risk) Backslappers congratulate themselves for a job well done, at least until there is a serious injury or a fatality. Backslappers are the most dangerous of all the attitudes discussed here. When complacency becomes the safety strategy, the risk of serious injury grows unchallenged and unchecked until the probability of a fatality rises to virtual certainty.

So what can we do?

1. Ask operations if, in their eyes, you fit any of these attitudinal types.

2. Investigate the trends in your safety against national trends; you really need to discount improvements that are part of national or industry trends. You also don’t need to congratulate yourself too much for being “better than average.”

3. Actively seek to improve the safety of your workplace by getting engaged and partnering with Operations.

It takes a lot of courage and moral fortitude to be an effective safety professional, but then this is the career we chose. If we can’t challenge our own belief-sets, if we can’t call our own attitudes into question, how then can we affect real, lasting, sustainable change?


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