Interview With Dan Petersen

July 22, 2003
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Dear Subscriber,

INTERVIEW WITH DAN PETERSEN

In this edition of ISHN's e-newsletter, we interview the sage of safety, Dr. Dan Petersen. Dan's grasp of the history of workplace safety and the evolution of safety concepts represent a unique and irreplaceable body of knowledge.

Few people in the world of workplace safety could speak directly to the variety of questions and topics we threw Dan's way. Few could draw on the sense of context Dan possesses. And few would be as pointed in their answers

One reason for the respect Dan has earned over the years is that he doesn't pull punches. He tells you what he thinks works and doesn't work in safety, what pros are doing right and wrong, as you'll see in this Q&A. His views come from more than four decades of studying and applying human psychology, organizational structure, and business management concepts to job safety.

Old school? Not really. Dan's principles are timeless. The problems, and the answers, don't change. Dan describes both with broad, bold strokes. Read on.

We talked to Dan by phone, from his home in Arizona, on June 26, 2003.

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THE BUSINESS CASE. . .

Q) Why are we seeing the emphasis today on the business side of safety?

A) I think it probably has to do with the economy and the fear of proving we (in safety) are worth it. When the economy turns around, I don't think we'll see the emphasis on it. I don't think there is that much value to talking about safety that way. Cost-benefit is not how executives make decisions on fuzzy issues like safety.

Q) Can you truly prove the business case for safety?

A) The business case has been talked about for years. It is hard to prove. We've only seen anecdotes. I don't think we'll ever be able to prove it. 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. And the humanitarian reasons.

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.

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ABOUT OSHA. . .

Q) Are we living in the post-regulatory era of safety in the U.S.? Is there any going back to aggressive standards-setting?

A) I doubt we'll ever see the regulatory pendulum swing back to aggressive standards-setting and heavy enforcement. Certainly not in the next six years, for sure. For one thing, compliance only starts you on your way. Secondly, the regulatory approach has led to a plateau in lost workday cases. I don't think compliance will be a driving force. It was only a driving force for bad companies. Most companies were doing safety for humanitarian reasons, doing it for their culture, before OSHA. They see that safety can improve all aspects of their company.

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SAFETY INVESTMENTS. . .

Q) In this tight economy, and in the absence of public pressure, why should companies with good safety records continue to invest more resources in safety?

A) 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 not only for safety, but for quality, morale, productivity. Total Quality Management and Deming were perfect for safety without proving cost-benefit.

We missed out on TQM. Why? I think it had something to do with wanting to protect our mystique in safety. We have our own tools in safety. They should've been replaced by Statistical Process Control. That's how we could've integrated safety.

We also haven't communicated well. 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. We didn't know what to ask of the CEO.

That's changed now. Companies have chosen more competent managers for safety who communicate better.

Q) What should safety pros be asking of the CEO?

A) It's about getting safety integrated into the management process. It starts with role definition. Once defined, then it's relatively easy to work out the activities that the CEO should be doing. Whether it's getting out with focus groups, walking around the floor. It's fairly easy to define what you want the executive to do.

But first, he must perceive a role in safety for himself, like Paul O'Neill did when he was at Alcoa. A lot of executives don't perceive a role. O'Neill ensured that all his reports saw their role in safety down through the organization. This is kind of unusual. Georgia-Pacific has a system in place. Alcoa had it before O'Neill. The system defines who does what, and it flows then through the organization.

The problem we ran into was when we shifted safety down to the peer groups. It hasn't worked well. Why? With the reductions in workforce, if managers and supervisors can get rid of things on their plate like safety responsibilities, they will do it. But then managers are perceived as having abdicated their safety responsibilities. So management is perceived by workers as not caring about safety. And if they don't care, the workforce won't care.

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AFTER BEHAVIOR-BASED SAFETY. . .

Q) What comes next after behavior-based safety, in terms of a popular organizational strategy for safety?

A) I think we could be going back to the 1970s, when the concentration was on management and accountability. Also human factors concepts. We could be going down that route where we build into the organization an environment that takes into account the human factor, the human element. The idea is to not build traps into the workplace. This isn't new. We never really used the World War Two knowledge of human factors.

We know that 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 go a little more down the route of human factors. Only Kodak got into human factors, because they had a lot of people working in the dark. You want to make processes as fool-proof as possible. The ergonomic factor also comes into play. Ergonomics will be done for productivity reasons.

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WORLD CLASS SAFETY. . .

Q) Is there such a thing as world class safety? How do you define it?

A) I don't know if you can define it. We all do it differently. DuPont does it completely differently than Procter & Gamble. Theirs is somewhat fear-driven accountability. P&G concentrates on work teams and competent management. They are totally different concepts and systems.

It comes down to - what is our culture and what systems will best fit our culture? When you figure that out, there's no one right way to get to world class. This makes it confusing and government directives are worthless. You know world class when you see it.

Q) What do you think of OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program? VPP is used as a benchmark for superior safety programs.

A) VPP has some value, I suppose. You get management's attention to safety. But it's paper intensive, time-consuming. Yes, rates go down, but is it due to management giving safety attention and the audits? I'm not high on VPP. I guess it doesn't hurt anything. But interaction between managers and supervisors and employees, getting to know each other better at all levels, gets you better results than paperwork.

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FLOOD OF CONSULTANTS. . .

Q) Is the safety and health field going to be dominated by consultants, as corporations cut costs, outsource, use more contractors and temps, and focus on core business functions?

A) That's probably true. It's happening all across industry, with maintenance, human resources. It's all part of downsizing and putting work out for bids. You get the work done cheaper. The trend is partly due to the economy, partly it makes financial sense. It's all part of the direction business has gone in the last 10-15 years. It's a cost thing. I'm not sure it will get the results business wants.

Q) Dr. Scott Geller (noted safety psychologist and ISHN columnist), for one, believes it is bad for a field to be led by consultants. What do you think?

A) I agree with Scott, I think it's bad, too, if consultants dominate a field. For one thing, you do not have much of a feel for relationships in an organization without being there. Second, you don't get a feel for where people are at the bottom of the organization. Most consultants talk only to the managers at the top. And the hourly people are the only ones who know what's going on in the organization. Third, I think 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.

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STRESS, HEALTH PROMOTION & WELLNESS. . .

Q) Will industry ever take the risk factors of "organization of work" seriously? The psychological pressures of drastic and unpredictable organizational changes - downsizing, restructuring, extended work hours?

A) We don't pay anywhere near enough attention to this. Downsizing, radical changes in jobs, longer hours are tremendous factors affecting the morale of people.

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. You have skilled mechanics doing clean up work because the clean up people have been laid off. You have a whole range of management decisions affecting people.

The amount of overtime is incredible now. You have some people working 17-hour days, seven-day work weeks.

Will it ever get any attention? Well, we almost had a catastrophe in California ten years ago when ten thousand stress claims were filed. Then they changed the laws. On-the-job stress should be compensable. If it was, there would be a tremendous number of stress claims. If we continue to see a breakdown in the workers' comp shield, with more lawsuits being filed to get around workers' comp laws, we might see those decisions about how work is organized change.

I don't think organization of work is on the radar screen. I can't imagine why it isn't. We don't read about it. 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.

Q) Why is that? Why do we only do in safety what we're forced to do?

A) For 75 out of 90 years of safety history, it has been workers' compensation laws or legislative government that has had us doing things. We only do things we're told to do. With the exception of systems safety briefly, in some cases. We in safety did not use TQM or Deming. That would have integrated us years ago. Let's face it, we're not integrated to this day. We're different than quality and production. Management sees us differently.

Q) But behavior-based safety has proven very popular, and it's not mandated.

A) No, it was not mandated, but it was sold to be the magic pill. We're still looking for the next magic pill. 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.

Q) Speaking of programs not mandated, will industry ever take health promotion and wellness programs seriously?

A) I don't see industry investing more in health promotion and wellness programs. It's too costly in this era. Coors and Frito-Lay were into this, but they may have cut back. I just don't see it happening. If people perceived stress to be a problem with productivity, it would bring about wellness more. But 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.

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MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS. . .

Q) What do you make of the growing popularity of management systems, such as VPP, ANSI Z10, BSI 18000?

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

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. Pieces of paper don't save lives.

We need people, 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. Today, management systems can destroy that stuff, those relationships, those close interactions.

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PERFORMANCE MEASURES. . .

Q) Will executives ever accept performance measures for safety and health beyond injury and illness rates?

A) CEOs will accept new measures. It's starting now. Procter & Gamble has a scorecard that has injury numbers and a roll up of 11 key program elements. It is more than one measure. What we're going to have to do is a process of weaning executives away from these idiotic numbers that we've been using. You can still use these numbers, but use upstream measures for lower levels in the organization. Measures like how often did one supervisor contact his people in the last week about safety matters.

I'm writing a book for the American Society of Safety Engineers, I have to be finished in July, on the measurement of safety, the weaknesses and strengths of all the measures out there. Most organizations are managed by ignoring the end results of everything except financials. Attention goes to process improvement indicators. That's Deming. And that's what we should be doing in safety. Because 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? It'll come around, this acceptance of new measures.

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CHALLENGES. . .

Q) What are today and tomorrow's career challenges for safety and health pros?

A) The biggest challenge today is to break away from traditional safety thinking. Think about how companies can be improved through interpersonal relationships. Concentrate more on relationships than on physical conditions and standards.

The only way you can do this is to tap the intelligence of the employee. If they are not a part of what you're doing, you're missing out. Everyone must feel part of a team. They can really get turned on, and have fun, too. I'm not talking about peer observations. Safety pros can facilitate processes of safety improvement teams, process safety ad hoc teams, there are any number of ways to use people's brains to make things better.

The biggest complaint I hear from workers is that no one wants to hear what they have to say. They say, "I want to help, I want to be part of the organization. But they're not interested." 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.

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EMPLOYMENT PICTURE. . .

Q) Safety and health is a mature profession in the U.S. Injury rates are low. Dirty jobs are moving overseas. Will we see reduced demand for safety and health pros in the future?

A) It depends on the direction we go. There could be a need for far fewer safety pros - if safety is truly integrated. If we go down the road of standards and programs, you will need plenty of pros. To me, 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.

Q) If a safety pro should really be employed on some kind of temporary basis, what should they do in that short time?

A) Most important, you assess the reality of the organization. Define reality. What's going on here? First you must do this to see what needs to be fixed. What works and what doesn't work. You can do this through interviews and perception surveys. Second, then you plan what to do to integrate safety. Three, then you 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.

Q) What's your advice to young pros coming out of college?

A) Study not only safety but organizational psychology, organizational management. You need to be able to get a feel for an organization. I hope they intern with an organization. Broaden your background with industrial hygiene, safety, environmental. At least you'll be more hirable. I'm not sure that these disciplines even fit together, but that's what companies want.

Q) And what's your advice to mid-career pros for getting the most out of their jobs over the next 20 years or so?

A) I know a lot of guys downsized out of jobs, struggling to get back into the game or into consulting. I don't know what to say to them. It's a matter of finding something, it's tough, I know. One problem we have, to be a successful consultant or to get a job, you need to get your name out there. The only way to do that is publishing, and people don't like to write, or don't have the time to write.

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LAST QUESTION. . .

What's keeping you busy these days?

I'm working on articles in non-safety magazines - business journals and an industrial engineering magazine. I'm finding people outside safety are more interested in human error than people in safety. It's universal. People are always screwing up for good, logical reasons. We make environments that make it logical to screw up.

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That's Dan. Blunt. Seeing the big picture. Still fired by a passion that keeps him learning and teaching.

What's the source of Dan Petersen's broad knowledge and wide respect? Consider the reach of his experience:

  • His early years working as an executive in workers' compensation insurance and as corporate safety manager in manufacturing.

  • His time at the University of Arizona, where he created and taught the graduate program in safety management in the School of Business and Public Administration.

  • More than 30 years of consulting Fortune 2000 companies around the globe.

    Dan developed concepts in how to ensure management's leadership role in safety accountability systems in the early 1960s. Four decades later, leadership and accountability are still hot seminar topics. His first book, "Techniques of Safety Management," was published in 1971, at a time everyone else was scrambling to figure out the new OSHA rules. In 1975, he wrote the first book on behavior-based safety, two decades before the BBS field experienced its boom years.

    To date, Dan has written 18 titles and appeared in at least ten videos on safety management. Born in Omaha, Neb., in 1931, he has an undergraduate degree in industrial engineering (1952), a master's degree in industrial psychology (1972), and a doctorate in organization behavior and management (1980).

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    Dave Johnson is the ISHN E-News editor. He can be reached at djsafe@bellatlantic.net, (610) 666-0261; fax (610) 666-1906.

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    You can order these titles, and more, from the American Society of Safety Engineers Bookstore on ISHN's Web site. Visit www.ishn.com and click on "ASSE Bookstore" beneath "Services" in the left column on the home page.

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