One key to an ideal safety culture that drastically reduces injuries is for everyone to take responsibility for safety.” All the southern ladies in the room nodded vigorously to my statement. They were taking time off their shift at a feminine hygiene products plant to discuss safety with me.

I had ‘em right where I wanted them.

“What was the last injury you had here at the plant?” 

I found out that a high school intern was carrying a stack of papers down some stairs in the front office area. She slipped, fell and broke her ankle. After this accounting, all the ladies were in a stir. “Bless her heart — that young lady played volleyball and she missed her season.” They even began planning a bake sale for her, as southern women tend to do.


Now I drop the other shoe, pointing at the Heart Blesser. “Why did you let that happen?” One could hear the collective breath intake as the indignation grew. 

“She was an intern…didn’t even work for us.”

“She was probably carrying too much and didn’t hold the hand rail.”

“Not in my department.”

 “We work out in the plant where there are real dangers, she was up in the front office.”



“Now hold on ladies… I just said that everyone has to take responsibility for safety…you all nodded!” I said, mocking confusion, “so your responsible for her fall and injury.” 

Just imagine the scuttle as they continued to justify how this was different or somehow separate from them. Then something culturally significant happened, a couple of them started asking the right questions:

“Where did this happen?”

“What else was going on?”

“Had she been given training?"

Finally, it was the Bake Sale Planner who asked, “Was that those stairs by the door out front? You know, the ones near the outside courtyard where some of us go on smoke breaks? Yeah, yeah… those get kind of wet when we all walk back in after a dewy morning.” 

I was expecting yet another round of blessings and bake sales but then…

Heart Blesser, quietly yet clearly said. “Know what? I’ve slipped on those stairs when they’ve been wet.” 

Many nods accompanied this statement. “When I slipped and caught myself I thought, ‘I wish someone would take care of this’.” More nods and some predictable statements like “They should do something.”


Owning up

But then the statement worth a thousand bake sales: “I guess I was embarrassed so I never told anyone.” Heart Blesser said this sternly over the clamber, effectively quieting the group. Then quieter herself, Heart Blesser said, “And if I would have said something and done something about it… that poor young girl would have played volleyball last season.”

Lesson delivered: By not taking personal responsibility to report the near miss, the stair hazard was not fixed and this led to an injury. Everyone who noticed those wet stairs is responsible.


A tale too often told

This is an unfortunate story that can be played out almost anywhere — with sobering lessons. My friends Scott Geller and Steve Roberts from Safety Performance Solutions tell the story of when they were called to a cement manufacturing plant down in Texas where there was a fatality. They were, among other things, helping with the investigation.  A man was carrying about 40 pounds of compound over his shoulder on a walkway positioned above the huge vats of mixing product. There were grates in the walkway so different compounds could be poured directly in the vat. He stepped on a grate, which then gave way and he fell into the machinery. 

Scott and Steve say that a supervisor, at one point said, “We all walked over that grate…it would clatter around because it had warped its shape over time.  I guess we all just started walking around it instead of over…I know I did.” Ultimately “I, heck, any of us, should have reported that and got it fixed.  And poor Joe would still…”


Had it with Heinrich

I’m frankly tired of hearing the old Heinrich data from the 1930s that asserts, “88 percent of worker injuries are due to the worker’s unsafe act”. 

First, it sends the “blame the worker” message that kills cultures. 

Second, somehow this stat has been attributed to behavioral safety programs which, if you know behavioral science you’d know that we always look at environmental influences of behavior (incidentally, Heinrich was an insurance investigator). 

But my biggest problem with this assertion is that it has allowed incident investigation to list “Human Factor” or “Worker Error” to be the “root cause” of an incident.

Certainly, it would be simple to arrive at the conclusions that “the young girl did not use the handrail” therefore it was a human error.  But what is the solution to human errors? Typically it is more exhortations for everyone to “Use Hand Rails” which may change behavior for a week before drifting away. Or we can erroneously hope that we can discipline the errors out of people. And the incidents reoccur.


Finger-pointing melodrama

The next best conclusion, also very easy to arrive at, is “They (I think they are talking about management) did not maintain the equipment and facilities adequately to reduce the hazard of the stairs.” The typical Us vs. Them melodrama then ensues with workers pointing at management as the source of the problem and management pointing at workers as the source of the problem. 

I hope the irony of this situation is not lost on anyone when you think back to your first grade teacher saying, “When you point at someone else (with your index finger)…you have three fingers pointing back at yourself!”


Where’s the caring culture?

Indeed, the very first domino to fall in all of these scenarios is the lack of a safety culture where everyone takes responsibility for the safety of others.

You take responsibility for the safety of others through reporting near misses and minor injuries, identifying hazards formally, and coaching peers when anyone sees behaviors that put workers at risk.

You take responsibility for the safety of others when you give safety talks at tailgate meetings, join safety committees, and praise each other for safe practices. 

You take responsibility for the safety of others when you actively participate in the safety culture.


Do your part

You see, it is quite probable that I, personally, never slipped on those stairs or stepped around that grate. But it is quite probable that I, personally, have had an incident that happened in my area that I was too embarrassed, scared, or thought too little of to report.  And, because I didn’t report it or just told a friend about it when we were complaining about management… 

I did not do my part to build our safety culture into one where reporting is what we do, what we value, and what we expect.

Do your part. Take responsibility for your safety culture. Bake sales are not enough.