Safety professionals know better. But safety professionals seldom raise a hand to stop their managements from saying such things.
The recent spate of laboratory mistakes at the CDC is the latest example. One scientist, Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, said at his lab, “We continue to take every precaution to ensure risks are as low as possible.”
Taking “every precaution” is a fact claim, not a value judgment. It’s a false fact claim. It’s a lie.
“Ensure” is a second lie. “Ensure” means certainty, zero risk, which Dr. Kawaoka knows he has not achieved. “As low as possible” is a third lie; it is possible to reduce the risk further by implementing precautions Dr. Kawaoka has decided are not worth it.
When asked if you’re taking every possible precaution, your wish list should come to mind. When asked if your facility is “safe,” you should answer that your facility isn’t as safe as it will be when you’ve implemented your plans for next year, though it’s certainly safer than it was before you implemented your plans for this year. If your budget has been cut, you should acknowledge that you tried hard to minimize the effect of those cuts, but you realize there has been a non-zero decrement.
Push your boss to give these sorts of answers.
When organizations claim they’re “safe” (zero risk) or “doing everything possible,” people smell a rat. Even before you have an accident, they sense that you’re not leveling with them. Long-term trust in you, your organization, and your profession requires candor about what you’re doing for safety… and what you’re not doing and why.
The second reason is mutual respect. “We’re doing everything possible about safety” implies the rest of us have nothing to tell leaders about safety. So the claim isn’t just dishonest, it’s patronizing, contemptuous, even dismissive. “I’ve got it covered. ”
“How safe is safe enough?” is a values question on which everybody is qualified to have an opinion. Facilitating that debate gets short-circuited when you or your boss claims you’re doing everything possible already.