Just finished reading a fascinating book, “The Men Who Lost America” (Yale University Press, 2013), by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, a history professor at the University of Virginia. He deftly explains how the greatest military juggernaut of the age lost the American War for independence to a neophyte Continental Army and bands of rag-tag citizen militia rebels, while the colonies
at one point teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and despair.

 I want to rework the book as, “The Men Who Lost the Contest for Safety,” using themes from O’Shaughnessy’s 466 pages to underscore the human foibles that history proves to be rather difficult to alter or eliminate. Let’s see how many foibles you can relate to. (By the way, it’s hard not to read this book and think of how the U.S. “lost” Vietnam despite military superiority and found it hard to hold on to its gains in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

In the imaginary book, “The Men Who Lost the Contest for Safety,” we have a very rich, very powerful corporation with holdings in many countries around the world (similar to the British Empire in the 1700s). This corporation has a sterling reputation, the envy of many, except for longstanding competitive rivals (as did Britain, with its rivals France and Spain in the 1770s and 1780s).

Vexed by SIFs

The “Home Government” of this multinational empire – the board chairman, the board of directors, the CEO, president, COO, CFO and about a dozen senior executive VPs – confront constant challenges around the world. In the past five to seven years reports from the field have trickled in describing troubling accounts of workplace accidents of the worst kind – serious life-altering injuries and fatalities, and in one instance a catastrophic explosion and fire caused by dust accumulations that left a facility in ruins and damaged community property.

To the “Home Government,” this was unacceptable. It was also hard to fathom. These highly-accomplished corporate aristocrats were unschooled in the ways of workplace safety and health. In the realm of this business empire, worker safety and health occupied little in the way of turf, possessed scant clout, contributed little in the way of tangible value or profits to the business, and thus was seldom discussed among the elites.

But now something had to be done. The business would lose face if these serious incidents were allowed to continue, and generations had worked hard to establish and maintain that sterling reputation. If action wasn’t taken now, incidents could escalate and threaten greater losses and relations with friendly countries that hosted the empire’s factories, laboratories, mines and forests.

A short campaign will do

The “Home Government” believed a short, intense safety and health campaign would turn things around in their favor. They believed, without actually interviewing any employees or conducting any types of perception survey, that certainly the majority of their employees were “safety loyalists” – compliant with the rules and regulations of safety because, after all, no one wants to get hurt on the job. Or so the “Home Government” thought.

But they overestimated the number of safety loyalists (just as the Brits overestimated the number of Americans loyal to the crown). In fact, when new safety emissaries went into the field, they found many workers neutral or skeptical about safety, based on past promises to fix hazards and recognize good safety performance that were never fulfilled by the “Home Government.” Safety loyalists also feared being attacked and ridiculed by safety rebels as apple polishers trying to get promotions, or get rebels in hot water, and so many loyalists kept quiet, refusing to speak up for safety. The new safety officers in the field also learned safety loyalties were fluid and subject to change, depending on if employees generally liked the current leadership regime, if leaders and supervisors modeled safe attitudes and behaviors, and if bonuses and cash incentives were part of the safety program.

One miscalculation led to another. The leadership’s mistaken belief in a large number of employees naturally loyal to safety led to fewer resources going to safety efforts. Fewer resources were also allocated because leaders believed a short, intense safety campaign would suffice. Safety training efforts were kept to a minimum – compliance with standards only. Funds were inadequate for safety and health staffing, performance data analytics, a near-miss reporting system, and development of a certified safety and health management system.

Tough resource decisions

To be sure, the “Home Government” was constantly forced to make hard decisions on resource allocations to a number of competing interests. It soon became distracted by rumors that a major competitor had patented a revolutionary advancement in a main product line. Serious injuries and fatalities seemed to come from a remote corner of the empire compared to this threat from a formidable rival. As a result, senior leaders were never “all in” for safety. (The Brits were distracted from the revolution by problems in Ireland, India and the Caribbean, and declarations of war by France and Spain, resulting in reduced manpower and resources going to America.)

Soon safety officers in the field began pushing back. They did not believe safety was something that could be “conquered” in a single, swift campaign. Beating employees over the head with safety rules and regulations and threats of discipline only turned off loyalists and hardened rebels. Inexpensive quick fixes and gimmicks were counter-productive. This was not a matter of conquest, but of occupation. Safety had to enter and occupy the hearts and minds of employees in order to turn them into loyalists. Waging a campaign for hearts and minds would require time, patience, trust, listening, relationship building, and a steady flow of resources. Plus leaders would have to model safety behaviors and attitudes, and take part in safety exercises such as inspections and root cause analyses.

“Root cause what?” This was all more than the “Home Government” had bargained for. (Just as the revolution proved much more than the Brits had bargained for.) Safety officers were told in no uncertain terms where safety fit into the larger picture of priorities and vital interests, and why the resources and backing they demanded would not be forthcoming. The “Home Government” soon received letters of resignation from several safety officers. (At one time during the revolution, the British Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for America, and the senior commanding general of British forces in America all tendered their resignations, believing the war a lost cause. All resignations were rejected.)

The fall-out

Some safety and health officers did leave their posts in the empire, took what they had learned, and became consultants. Others went on to fight other battles at other businesses. And some dug in where they were and committed to fight a kind of corporate guerilla war. They would build trust with the rank and file, pull together ad hoc “militias” of pro-safety employees for brainstorming and small wins. They would not waste time on the hard core anti-safety rebels. Like General Washington, they would bide their time, wait for their opening (a leadership change, an unfortunate disaster) and evade wrong-headed thinking about safety and bureaucratic in-fighting and inertia. Like many of Washington’s troops, they were buoyed by ideals and the possibility of better days coming.