Goodbye to the sage of safety

May 26, 2009
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Dan Petersen passed on last week at the age of 75, after an unparalleled 53-year career as a safety professional.

Author of a score of books and many, many more magazine articles, perhaps the field's more sought-after speaker, Dan's knowledge of organizational safety was profound. It was based on experience — his early years working for a workers' comp insurer and as a corporate safety manager; and later more than 30 years of consulting Fortune 2000 companies.

Then there's Dan's academic education — an undergraduate degree in industrial engineering (1952), a master's degree in industrial psychology (1972), a doctorate in organization behavior and management (1980). And his teaching at the University of Arizona, where he created and taught the graduate program in safety management. He was a registered Professional Engineer and a Certified Safety Professional.

In ISHN's upcoming March print issue, we'll have Dan's peers, friends and students describe his impact on the safety profession. You'll hear him described as "our safety-leader exemplar" and "a true giant."

Dan was also blunt-spoken and a kind of principled agent provocateur. In this issue of ISHN's ezine, we quote Dan from interviews and profiles we published over the years, and you can see for yourself.

FROM "TURNING SAFETY ON ITS HEAD," OCTOBER, 1994

1 — "After 20 years I saw that safety was a people business, and went to school to study industrial psychology. After another ten years, I saw the need for systems and went back to study organizational behavior and management."

2 — "What works in safety depends on an organization's culture."

3 — "Maybe managers are beginning to perceive safety as part of their job. There's a lot of fear of bad public relations, but most of the motivation is companies saying, 'We want to be the best.' They've got to be the best to survive. It's all part of global competition."

FROM "OSHA AGNOSTICS IN THE HALLS OF REGULATION," MAY 1997

4 — "Regulatory compliance has very little impact on safety effectiveness."

5 — "The problem is, so many managers are tied to accident numbers because OSHA requires them to be. It’s a lousy measure. You’re measuring stuff over which you have damn little control. Many of the things OSHA requires flies in the face of what really improves a safety system."

6 — "If OSHA continues to measure itself with junk stuff like inspections and fines — anyone can get those numbers — the agency will accomplish as little in the next 25 years as it has in the last 25 years."

7 — "With inspections several times a year, regulatory people do the safety work in mining. Is that what you want in general industry? Let’s be practical."

8 — "If OSHA can just get management to listen to its employees, you’ll solve most of the safety problems."

FROM "A COMING OUT PARTY FOR BEHAVIORAL SAFETY," APRIL 1998

9 — "Safety and health practitioners are gold medal winners when it comes to chasing silver bullets and magic pills to solve problems."

FROM "BUILDING THE SAFETY PROGRAM YOU'VE ALWAYS WANTED," OCTOBER 1999

10 — "Safety is a matter of accountability. Clarify what's expected of people in terms of safety, measure how well they achieve what's expected of them, and then reward their achievements. Define. Measure. Reward. It's not rocket science."

11 — "For years we've said you need a safety program. But management hasn't had to do anything. So safety programs get built outside of the organization."

12 — "Most organizations have a lot of safety programs. Programs for ergonomics, process safety and lockout-tagout. You have a bunch of islands mandated by law. But there's no system of accountability to ensure management and supervisory performance. Nothing to ensure active involvement at all levels of the organization."

FROM AN ISHN EZINE INTERVIEW, JUNE 26, 2003

On the business case for safety:

13 — "I don't think there is that much value to talking about (the business case for) safety. Cost-benefit is not how executives make decisions on fuzzy issues like safety."

14 — "No company has ever brought me in, in 30 years of consulting, to improve their bottom line through safety. Probably the main reason I'm brought in is competition. That turns executives on."

15 — "It is a very bad message to say safety is about dollars. The real message is: We are doing these things because we care about you, the company cares about you. Don't even talk to me about doing safety for money."

16 — "In the best companies, they believe, but they can't prove, that there is a tight relationship between safety and culture. Safety improves management-labor relations. You also use it to push employee involvement. It's super for quality, morale, productivity."

On safety jobs:

17 — "We've kept a low profile with management. All through our history we've had people thrown into safety jobs; they haven't had confidence. So we started with a low base. There was no comfort in going to the CEO's office. That's changed now. Companies have chosen more competent managers for safety who communicate better."

18 — "The best safety person should be there on a temporary basis. If I'm with a company for more than a couple of years, I'm a failure."

19 — "First you must see what needs to be fixed. Assess the reality of the organization. Define reality. What works and what doesn't work. You can do this through interviews and perception surveys. Then plan what to do to integrate safety. Then get involvement, get employees on their own doing things the way they think it should be done. You do work yourself out of a job."

On human factors engineering:

20 — "Most serious catastrophes are connected to human factors. We didn't realize the importance of design. We have had many more serious catastrophes in the last ten years, due to cuts in maintenance and downsizing. We have less maintenance now. So we might (need to) go a little more down the route of human factors."

21 — "People are always screwing up for good, logical reasons. We make environments that make it logical to screw up."

On safety skills:

22 — "Interaction between managers and supervisors and employees, getting to know each other better at all levels, gets you better results than paperwork."

23 — "Get a feel for where people are at the bottom of the organization. Hourly people are the only ones who know what's going on in the organization. You need to learn the frustrations of working inside an organization. I learned more lessons working my way up from the inside than anything else."

24 — "We need safety people spending less time on the computer and more time on the floor. I don't know how you can manage people without knowing what turns them on and pisses them off."

25 — "Tap the intelligence of the employee. The biggest complaint I hear from workers is that no one wants to hear what they have to say. So you have people putting in time; they're not thinking about what they're doing, maybe they're irritated that they've been robbed of their security. Sure, all that hurts safety."

26 — "Study not only safety but organizational psychology, organizational management. You need to be able to get a feel for an organization."

On job stress:

27 — "In the last 10-15 years, I've never seen the number of pissed off and angry people working in companies. It's a no-brainer. You pay less attention to their work, their schedules, people are cross-trained to do stuff they don't want to do. Downsizing, radical changes in jobs, longer hours are tremendous factors affecting the morale of people."

28 — "I did a book on job stress and nobody bought it. Our history in safety is we only do what we are forced to do, not what's right."

29 — "I don't see industry investing more in health promotion and wellness programs. It's too costly in this era. Today, the way it works is this: you identify people with stress problems and send them out to Employee Assistance Programs so you don't have to mess with them."

On behavior-based safety:

30 — "Behavior-based safety was popular because, one, it was advertised like nothing else has ever been advertised in safety. Pure advertising made it fly. It also cost more, so the thinking was, it must be good."

31 — "Top managers must demonstrate that they hold safety as a core value, so that no matter what happens safety is not forgotten. They also must hold supervisors accountable for what they are expected to do in the area of safety. Supervisors must be expected to engage in proactive safety actions — regular inspections, observations, coaching, and building an environment that motivates safe behavior and attitudes."

32 — "There's got to be a reward structure at each level of the organization. Wherever an organization puts meaningful consequences for action is where it puts its values."

On management systems:

33 — "With most management systems you spend a lot of time pulling together documentation and procedures that then sit on a shelf."

34 — "Pieces of paper don't save lives. Safety is about one-to-one interactions, supervisors to managers, supervisors to workers, managers to workers. Safety is about these interactions happening every day. It's people every day looking out for each other. That's how safety is achieved. Not by writing down audit protocol."

On performance measures:

35 — "Attention goes to process improvement indicators. That's what we should be doing in safety. We use these utterly ridiculous measures in safety that lack validity. A plant with five accidents in a year, what do the rates mean? Nothing. A supervisor with no accidents, what do you want him to do next year? Be lucky?"

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