The No BS Guide to Safety
Why this pseudo-psychological reference? What does that have to do with safety? Everything!
Personally, having been in the profession of assessing risk, asserting corrective action plans and recommendations for almost 40 years, I cannot understate the opportunities gained and/or successes achieved without looking back on what was the most critical key to it all. Yes my friends, the true secret was the perfected art of BS. I learned how to spot it, use it, and milk it for every opportunity. Once mastered in this art, there is no limit to its recognition or to one’s ability to succeed.
Perhaps a part this comes from my urban NYC roots. As an urban dweller, I experienced inter-active survival skills. Getting that “brass ring” of life often meant a healthy dose of (pardon the term), finagling. Here, as anyone can tell you, is the quintessential center of the dog-eat-dog world of competition for the brass ring (which for those than do not know, was the epitome of success, even if it was only a toy to be snatched while leaning out in perilous reach, riding a moving mechanical horse on the world’s greatest merry-go-round at Brooklyn’s Coney Island amusement park)
The technological resource explosion has been nothing less than exponential. My goodness – it seems like yesterday that the dreaded card catalog system at most every library (go on…say it out loud…the Dewey Decimal System) was our window to the literature and reference we all needed to complete research assignments, reports, term papers and other such academic challenges. Encyclopedias with expensive glossy pages were also to be found in these libraries and in the homes of those who could afford to buy them for several hundreds, or thousands of dollars. In fact, despite how quickly out of date those reference books of yore (yore being the past oh, say 20-40 years) may have become, many of us still have sets in a den bookcase or tucked neatly into an attic or a closet just as we retained those fond mementos of youth that we still retain with pride.
We can now obtain exponential research material through a few keystrokes on the most basic of computers all due to the miracle of the internet and the search engines, such as Google® has helped to define, refine, and open doors to anywhere one needs to go. The ubiquitous use of this modern-day juggernaut has greatly reduced the time previously required in the academic quest for knowledge and in many cases gave equality to those with a lesser education on a topic to be just as well-versed as those whom have studied a subject for years.
We have also managed to reduce the ability of many to think and use reason by making it too easy to access information. Oh sure, they told us in school that use of a calculator rather than the mastery of arithmetic and/or high mathematics through manual means, including the slide rule, would ruin us and destroy centuries of the great teachers and achievers. Oh heck. What did they know? Plenty. Been to a fast food joint lately? See any prices on the clerk’s side of the register? No, just lots of pictures of what the food looks like for the corresponding price on my side of the register.
The global experience was also narrowed via the import and export of goods that were at one time the reason to travel and sensually enjoy by touch, sight and smell, Thank heaven the charm of a gondola ride in Venice or the lure of Rockies can still only truly be experienced first-hand. Now we can purchase almost anything in its original form and container without having top outlay vast sums of money on travel to those source destinations.
How many of us have spent extra cash on clothing or fine wines while in Europe, carefully packing, carrying-on or shipping via an air carrier only to find that the same items could have been purchased in the good old USA, and for a lot less money? Those bottles of wine from that Chilean winery that I gingerly hand carried on board the airline (when most all liquids were not dangerous) were $2 less per bottle here at the wine store. Nice lesson on global economy.
So what is the relevance on safety with a global economy?
With each country enacting – or not – safety laws of their own the common denominator that at one time seemed clear has become difficult to control sets of requirements that span international borders. U.S. companies operating plants outside the USA would procedurally follow U.S. laws regarding employee safety. This is the honorable and correct approach backed by the U.S. CFOs and Boards of Directors. It is indeed an added expense to operate with true safeguards, but somewhere in the gray reaches, the name Bhopal come to mind. The 1984 gas leak in Bhopal, India, was a terrible tragedy that understandably continues to evoke strong emotions even 24 years later. In the wake of the release, Union Carbide Corporation worked diligently to provide immediate and continuing aid to the victims and set up a process to resolve their claims. All the claims arising out of the release were settled 19 years ago at the explicit direction of and with the approval of the Supreme Court of India.
Since the time of the incident, the chemical industry has worked to voluntarily develop and implement strict safety and environmental standards to help ensure that an incident of this type never occurs again. In 1998, the Indian state government of Madhya Pradesh took full responsibility for the site.
For those who have had the opportunity to travel overseas and observe safety in action, there will be haunting visions of dire safety conditions that just will not set well. Why would there be lax safety when it is well understood what possible consequences could arise?
The Great Myth
In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Health & Safety Act, authorizing the creation of the Occupational Safety & health Administration (OSHA) and it quickly led to perhaps one of the largest cottage industries of the 20th century – OSHA Consulting. As I recall from the early days, the consultant’s mantra was that a company could spend $2,500 to find out if they were in compliance with OSHA, or pay $25,000 to learn from an OSHA inspection that they are not in compliance with OSHA.
What more did these people know that any mere mortal that could read the US Code of Federal Regulations did not know? What was their true expertise? How did they achieve this expertise and how was their experience relevant to your industry, plant or operation?
Not since the opening of the U.S. west in the 19th century had we experienced such a flow of opportunists and hucksters that could now walk into your place of business and seemingly know more about your business than you did. With the fear of astronomical OSHA fines looming to the uneducated, many businesses were in a rush to know before their fate was sealed in a court action.
Early on in the 1970s and 80s, OSHA was about mechanics and rule sets. We all recall much ado in the size and openings of toilet seats, the precise measure for the mounting height of fire extinguishers, the required location of that book of so well maintained (not!) list of material safety data sheets. In fairness, of course, I am taking a little liberty here to illustrate how the safety game was played. Certainly, vast improvements in occupational safety have evolved and through the reduction of dangerous practices, improved safety stewardship and the wide understanding that there are indeed criminal penalties for gross negligence. With the exception of specialty testing through the industrial hygiene practices, safety managers still recognize the value of safety consultants as a direct means to affirm and communicate what they already know but find difficult to sell to senior management to achieve the needed results. Somehow, there is just that much more relevance to the results when it comes from someone else for a price.
The Crowd Pleaser
This is a chapter dedicated to the training and information-gathering symposiums, trade fares, expos, conferences, seminars, etc. I think it is fair to say that we are, for the most part, birds of a feather and each profession is ripe with opportunities to self-improve through attendance at any of the above referenced forums. We like to meet, swap stories, network, and look around at who are the latest movers and shakers of “our crowd”. After all, it is indeed the sharing of knowledge that helps to shape, define and perfect our craft and allow us to better stewards. Make no mistake; however, that these venues are usually sponsored by product vendors intent on filling sales quotas and, of course, such venues being financially successful to the host. Whereas I have lost count long ago as to how many of these venues I have attended over the years, I still have a pet peeve as to the method both allowed and promoted by the host which is the sale for private gain of material presented in a public forum for which I have paid a fee to attend. Why are proceedings limited? That CD offered following the symposium often lacks presentation material from some of the speakers. Why does John Smith Jr. (a pseudo-name) discuss his theory of X (pick the topic) at scheduled conference times for the price of admission only to then make the presentation information available for an additional fee (to him)? I have wrestled this pet peeve with ASSE for years. In fact, I think I see a pattern here, and as such re-direct the reader to the prior chapter.
The Name Game
Does it really matter how we are identified in our safety role? Some will cling to the basic "Loss Control” title (which to me conjures up a burly blue-jacketed cop at Wal-Mart busting a petty thief). Others will swing between Risk Control Representative (Jr. or Sr.?); S&H Specialist (add I, II or III for effect); Manager of Safety & Heath; Regulatory Affairs Manager or just plain and simple - Representative (as opposed to owner??).
I wonder what it is about the name game. In my career, I have had just about all of them, with of course no regard to significant differences in my fundamental duties. Depending on the type of employer (Corporate vs. insurance) I would classify those duties as two-fold. If working as the safety watchdog for the Corporation, I viewed my job as the badass that was charged with keeping OSHA at bay and management out of jail. Mostly I had to be prepared to relate to management that what they wanted to do was either short- sighted in terms of safety, in violation of safety codes and or just flat-out stupid. Of course, the latter was rarely necessary, but I still have the scars from the bites out my ass after doing so. Yes - words have power, but we need to do better to 'connect' with business leaders to show that we DO belong at the 'big table'. I see all too often where we professionals at our craft by means of knowledge and experience are in the background. We are (with some exceptions) usually not brought in as a business partner for new machinery purchase, floor arrangement or building additions and we're missing the boat to show how our success impacts many levels of the business.
If working brokerage or insurance sector, the intent was to not have to pay claims and convince the clients that there is a better way of doing what they are or were doing. The euphemism known as “Hector the Inspector” is also akin to “making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”. Insurance carriers seeking a niche through utilizing loss control staff resources to add value to the underwriting potential has always reminded me of a game of smoke and mirrors. In fact, in times of a “hard market” (a phase of the insurance market cycle when coverage may be more costly, terms may be more restrictive, and policy conditions and requirements more stringent), the level of scrutiny for the client selective process is ramped-up and bang-for-the-buck loss control (pick the apt name) then helps the carrier to define its unique ability to relate with their clients. Conversely, in the “soft market” (insurance companies are eager to write new business), we see the decimation of loss control staffing, lower premiums offered to bring in otherwise undesirable business and when the inevitable losses occur, the insurance carrier then goes on a soul search for ways and means to reduce loss ratios and increase equity share. Now THAT, my friends, is a name game unto itself.
The more progressive insurance carriers recognize the value of the safety department, (pick the name/title best suited to your taste) stay the course, remain loyal to their hard-working staff of safety professionals (all disciplines), yet still seem to have to re-make their own image to the Board of Directors to demonstrate true departmental values and in this process, there appears to be so much ego and/or hormonal interjection that the safety staff begins to react to “flavor of the month” cycles. I just don’t know why this is necessary.
What mattered then, now, and will always be the case is the ability to connect on a level of understanding. This takes experience, a bit of panache, personality and yes, perseverance. Frankly, no one ever seemed to complain about a title unless it meant perks such as a better office or maybe a few extra vacation days. That's an internal game and not akin to our profession. The true perception of what we do is based on the results defined as reduced injuries, accidents, costs, regulatory citations, etc.
All the rest is window-dressing and those companies that look beyond the rhetoric and truly want to achieve the results mentioned should not give a darn what titles are used. ASSE has wrestled with this name game "tug-of-war" since the days of pocket protectors and slide rules. Now and then such discussion fills space in the Professional Safety publication but it accomplishes nothing other than to allow the chest-bumping title conscious warriors a forum for frivolity.