When it comes to safety, everyone on every floor of an organization can palm off an excuse when they need to. It's an innate ability. Take these comments from recent news stories:
"Any fatality is extremely sad, but they appear very random," says the company spokesman.
"This was an event that could not have been planned for or expected," says the plant manager. "We have a very excellent safety record."
"With these guys, you tell them to pay attention and they don't listen," says the shop manager. "They are told many times to be safe and they just don't get it."
Then there are the typical lines we've all heard:
"I don't have time to teach safety. I can't fire every worker who violates safety rules," says the harried supervisor.
"I didn't know," says the embarrassed employee. "It could have happened to anybody. We were just fooling around."
In 1892, the Joliet Works of Illinois Steel Company formed the first industrial safety department in the United States. Odds are the first excuse for ignoring a safety edict came hours if not minutes after the department opened its doors.
"Rules are for fools," could have been the first shot across the bow.
In this edition of ISHN's e-newsletter, we look at how you can deal with excuses for accidents, near-hits, risk-taking, and poor safety records. And what excuses just might say about you, your managing style, your employees, your work relationships, and your work environment.
Sometimes there can be more to an excuse than meets the ear.
Is there a word in the dictionary carrying more baggage than "excuse"? Excuses are typically thought laughable, absurd, pathetic. Letterman Top Ten fodder. So ridiculous they are, naturally, cataloged and immortalized on their own Web site - "The Mother of all Excuses."
No wonder we get defensive about offering up excuses. Long before we get to the workplace, in the classroom and at home, we are warned: "The time for excuses is over." "There's no excuse. . ." "No excuse will be accepted." What word implies more guilt than "excuse"? Heck, the Latin root word for excuse is "accusation."
See if you can pick up the common strain running through these pleas for understanding, taken from an article in the Toronto Sun:
"Coming home, I drove into the wrong house and collided with a tree I don't have."
"A truck backed through my windshield into my wife's face."
"An invisible car came out of nowhere, struck my vehicle, and vanished."
"The pedestrian had no idea which direction to go, so I ran over him."
"The telephone pole was fast approaching. I was attempting to swerve out of its path when it struck my front."
The fault, you see, lies not with us. Honest. It was that "tree I don't have." The "invisible car". The aimless pedestrian. That fleet telephone pole.
Go back to those earlier safety excuses from the workplace. The causes? Time, not enough time to teach. Simple bad luck. Guys who don't get it.
We all come equipped with what psychologists call "self-serving biases." It's universal. Call it blame shucking or stabs at shoring up our self-image. It's a cover-up, but maybe not just for doing something embarrassing or stupid, or to avoid punishment. Maybe it goes deeper than that.
Said Mark Twain: "No man has any considerable respect for himself."
"Most people think themselves worthless," said the psychologist Carl Rogers.
That excuse given to you for some rules infraction could be purely an insincere attempt to escape discipline or responsibility. But maybe it masks shame, low self-esteem, a lack of self-respect. Or broader problems in your workplace.
THE OLD OPERATOR ERROR
This past March, the American Society of Safety Engineers packed almost 400 safety pros for a two-day symposium on "Human Error in Occupational Safety." This isn't about behavior. Understanding human error is safety's next frontier, said Dan Petersen.
To err is human, everyone errs, error is universal and constant, say the experts and academics. Human error triggered the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Bhopal.
But whose errors are we talking about?
Do a Google search for new stories containing "operator error" and you get 172 references. References like these:
"Management concluded rather quickly operator error was to blame."
"Sixty-three percent of all information technology security breaches are due to human error," reports a survey by the Computing Technology Industry Association. "It's all about people. It's staggering," says an association official. "The need for more training and certification (which the association happens to offer) is so obvious."
"People cause accidents and people can prevent them," says a safety consultant. "Accidents often happen because someone. . . took a calculated risk."
Now search for news stories containing "management error". What turns up? A plethora of software stories like this: "Hard Disk Error Management is common. . ."
Or another non-safety story like this: "The Blue Claws were aided by an error committed by the centerfielder. The CEO guaranteed to sit in his seat until the Legends win. . ."
The lesson? When we talk about human error in safety, the human in question is almost certain to be an employee, not a supervisor or manager. Blame usually flows downhill rapidly in organizations.
No wonder we're so quick to throw up excuses.
THE REST OF THE STORY
Human error, operator error, that calculated risk - all can form the tip of an organizational "iceberg". They are final, visible consequences of a deeper, complex set of safety problems.
Tom Krause, the co-founder and CEO of Behavioral Science Technology, wrote in a January, 2001 article for Industrial Safety and Hygiene News that he and his BST colleagues "learned an important lesson" after analyzing 13,264 observed behaviors from 13 work sites.
"Many managers believe personal choice - choosing to take a chance - is the prime reason for poor safety performance, and many times they are wrong," wrote Krause. His discovery: Only 17 percent of at-risk behaviors were due to personal choice.
Instead, two-thirds of the at-risk behaviors studied by BST were due to broader organizational issues. Everything from sloppy facility housekeeping to ill-planned equipment design to poor maintenance to incentives that encourage risk-taking to cultures burned out of flavor of the month safety programs to work permit routines undermined by the chronic unavailability of the people who must approve the permits.
At ASSE's human error symposium, keynote speaker Donald Norman, an expert in the human side of technology, relayed a similar message: "It's not human error, it's system error. To reduce fatalities and injuries you need to change the conditions that surround workers."
We can use excuses to cover up the fact that we simply screwed up, made a dumb mistake. At times this is all there is to it, we did screw up. But you might want to consider if that excuse you're hearing connects an error to the bigger chain of events that Krause and Norman are describing.
At least one safety expert, the Norwegian Erik Hollnagel, argues that human error is a meaningless concept. Use the term carefully, sparingly, if at all, he writes in a paper presented at a workshop on human error in 2001.
Actions always occur within a context, Hollnagel writes. For example, firefighters race to the wrong house because they were given the wrong address by the dispatcher. Human error? Don't jump to judgment.
What about distractions in the dispatching station? Work schedules? Staffing levels? Fatigue? Stress? Had the operator complained about being overworked, about a cramped, noisy work station, and received no feedback? Were there unreasonable demands? Inadequate training? A culture of carelessness?
Replace "human error" with "human action", advises Hollnagel. Take some of the sting out of the implied accusation. You might get fewer excuses and more candor and openness that will lead to real safety improvements.
BEHIND THE FACADE
"PPE is uncomfortable, man. It's hot. Makes it impossible for me to do my job," complains the employee.
"Machine guards and safety rules slow down my production," argues the supervisor.
"Our injuries are not that serious, just lots of little things," dismisses the plant manager.
"The other car collided with mine without giving warning of its intentions," reports the sales rep.
When you get these kinds of excuses, what do you do? OK, you might have an open and shut case of egregious risk taking. But think of that bigger picture, Krause's statistics, the words of Norman and Hollnagel.
Here are five tips:
1) Defuse the typical defensiveness. Ask what happened, not why, say experts.
Ask for the facts, the events surrounding what happened, rather than opinions and speculation about the reasons why.
Ask for input. Show genuine interest in what the other person has to say. The goal is to correct the mistake, fix the flaws in the system. Reprimands may or may not be part of that effort.
2) Separate the act from the actor. Sin from the sinner. Risk from the risk taker. The psychologist Albert Ellis uses what he calls shame-attacking exercises. Excuses cover up the shame of doing something stupid. The shame of being stupid. Says Ellis: "The shaming person rates himself, and not merely his action, as shameful, and frequently feels that everyone would be unforgiving for the horrible mistake, as they rightfully should be."
To overcome the wall that goes up when an excuse is given, Ellis says: Rate and evaluate behavior, but don't give someone a global rating. Never think that the person is bad because their act may be wrong. Get the person to separate his self-esteem from his mistake, and he can be more objective, less defensive, about explaining his actions. The wall might come down.
3) What, if any, fear lies behind the excuse for taking a gamble, for showing a poor safety attitude? Excuses often mask fear. Do peer pressure or management priorities encourage the gamble? Does mistrust of superiors block an honest explanation? Is the employee over-committed, overworked, but afraid to complain? Are discipline policies perceived as unfair?
4) What, if anything, might the excuse say about you? Are you getting the run-around because you're not trusted, respected, perceived as fair, honest, credible, helpful, relevant?
Could you be part of the problem? Are you instructions clear? Are you accessible and available? Have you reviewed the assignment for mutual understanding? Asked for feedback? Set realistic objectives, plans, and timelines?
Don't be afraid to apologize when necessary, say experts. Instead of pointing fingers, perhaps a partnership is in order. Team up to figure out how to correct the mistake so you get what you want, and the employee, supervisor or manager gets what he wants.
5) What might an excuse say about your relationships? In some way, could you be isolated, tainted, mistrusted?
What does it say about the other person? Are they in the wrong position? Poorly trained? Poorly supervised?
And what might an excuse say about the work environment? Can that poor attitude or at-risk behavior be traced to a culture of risk tolerance? Inadequate communication and instruction? Scheduling or staffing or budgeting pressures? Ergonomics hazards?
Bottom line: Yes, excuses can be self-serving and indefensible. But they can be signaling bigger issues. Flaws in the system, cracks in the culture. Don't be so quick to fix blame on the person giving the excuse. You might need to fix something bigger than that.
Dave Johnson is the ISHN E-News editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (610) 666-0261; fax (610) 666-1906.
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