ISHN Guest BlogRecently I was talking to colleagues on the subject of talking to strangers on airplanes. Like many safety professionals I spend a fair amount of time crammed into an uncomfortable seat, breathing stale air, and having my space invaded by a mouth-breather whose idea of a good trip is chatting up the stranger beside him. 

One colleague joked, that all he has to do to cut off any conversation was to introduce himself and say, “I work in worker safety,” after which he can slip into the oblivion of a good read while listening to his favorite music. That conversation planted a germ of an idea that I have been kicking around ever since: “Why are there so many self-loathing safety professionals?”

First off I should probably clear up the commonly held misconception that “self-loathing” means that one hates oneself; yes, that’s one definition, but the second (and more widely used) definition is one who hates a group to which he or she is a member. 

As Groucho Marx once said, “I would never belong to a group that would have me as a member” and this sentiment aptly describes many of today’s safety professionals. The self-loathing safety professional isn’t hard to spot; they tend to fall into one of three categories: the Long-Suffering Martyrs, the Defenders of the Faith, and the Irascible Curmudgeons.

The Long-Suffering Martyrs

Perhaps the most common self-loathing safety professional is the Long-Suffering Martyr. This safety professional sees him or herself as working tirelessly for people who neither value nor respect him or her.

These individuals will whine incessantly that “leadership doesn’t support them” or “nobody cares about safety but me”. In reality, these people have typically brought the contempt of the organization (if it truly even exists) squarely on themselves. The organization has seen these people embrace every simple-minded safety fad and try hackneyed, ham-fisted melodrama in the attempt to manipulate behavior and tug on the heart strings of the workers.

The Long-Suffering Martyrs miss the simple fact that workers have known their entire careers: nobody wants to get hurt and the job isn’t designed to hurt workers. No amount of children’s poster contests or safety slogans ? irrespective of how clever or cute ? will ever change that fact.

If the workers don’t respect these safety professionals it’s because they don’t feel the safety professionals respect them. Years of patronizing and out-and-out insulting programs that treat workers like misbehaving children has fostered a true “us-versus-them” conflict.  More than a few workers flatly reject the idea that the safety guy is looking out for their safety and believe it more likely that the safety guy is looking out for him or herself.

Defenders of the Faith

Check out a LinkedIn group devoted to some aspect of safety and you will run across the defender of the faith. Defenders of the Faith comb through every word written to find fault, shout down any opposition, and decry any new idea as heresy. These people see insults everywhere and are quick to take offense; anyone who dare offer criticism of a long-cherished safety practice (irrespective of how simple-minded, anachronistic, or clearly proven as complete snake oil) is tantamount to high-treason. Defenders of the faith see any criticism of anything they believe as a personal attack and tend to respond either like rabid rats or felt-up prom dates.

Take the case of Heinrich’s Pyramid. In a recent poll by Health + Safety magazine found that 88% of safety professionals polled believed that Heinrich’s Pyramid had at least some validity.

Independent researcher Fred Manuele has written a blistering expos? of Heinrich’s work that calls into question Heinrich’s research methods, data, and conclusions. Manuele, as far as anyone can tell, has no vendetta against Heinrich and it is clear, at least to many (if not most) that Manuele does not have a financial ulterior motive (that is to say, unlike many “researchers” out there today that do little but conduct dubious research that always manages to support what they are selling to industry). Manuele seems genuinely interested in duplicating research that was held as gospel by many in the safety profession.) 

The outpouring of bile and bitterness directed at Manuele was astonishing, even though no one had really questioned Heinrich’s findings for more than 70 years. In fact, a recent LinkedIn discussion on the topic generated more than 100 impassioned and emotional posts. 

For his part, Manuele has had defenders of the faith question his credentials and even made personal attacks on Manuele himself. 

The reaction is typical among Defenders of the Faith; these are the Orwellian safety cops who would rather burn books than admit for a second that there might be cracks in their professional foundations.

Defenders of the Faith can’t risk entertaining new ideas or interventions because they secretly fear that their deepest secret ? that they really don’t have the appropriate depth of understanding in safety that they need to be credible professionals. They do things because other people do them and they are “time tested”. These people are terrified that a new idea will shatter their world view and leave them naked to criticism that they don’t have all the answers.  

For Defenders of the Faith, righteous indignation is as essential to their existence as food or water; if you’re reading this and thinking, “how dare this guy write this?!?!? Who does he think he is?” then you are probably a Defender of the Faith, but don’t let that stop you from firing off angry missives to the editor calling for my head.

Irascible Curmudgeons

The Irascible Curmudgeons have seen it all and done it all. They happen to know a little something about safety because they’ve been doing it for 40 years. 

The Irascible Curmudgeon resents anyone who has the arrogance to suggest that there might be a better way of approaching safety. What’s more, these individuals resent anyone claiming to know anything, (how could they when the Irascible Curmudgeon knows everything in so much more detail then they do?)

Irascible Curmudgeons hate new ideas, because what they have done for the past couple of decades was good enough then and is good enough now; they don’t need some new-fangled practice upsetting the apple cart.

These people hate the safety profession because it demands change, new skills, and an ability to adapt.  In many cases, the Irascible Curmudgeons will openly attack safety as “too protective” or “gone overboard”; they send out wistful emails about how when they were kids they ran with scissors, didn’t need bike helmets, played with blasting caps, and ate raw chicken right out of the package and they turned out just fine.

There’s a bizarre nostalgia common in Irascible Curmudgeons that blinds them to things like polio, crippling injuries, and a host of childhood tragedies that 60 years of safety awareness has helped to alleviate.

Irascible Curmudgeons worship experience but are seemingly unable to distinguish competency from years on the job.  The Irascible Curmudgeon will defend his or her opinion (however neanderthal or dim-witted) by reminding anyone who dare question him or her of the wealth of experience he or she has amassed. 

To the Irascible Curmudgeon, doing something poorly for a protracted amount of time is always more valuable than doing something well for only a short time.

Irascible Curmudgeons need not have many years on the job, however, in fact, many of them will dismiss someone’s credibility by pointing out that he or she lacks “real world” experience.

Is there no hope?

If you see yourself in one of these groups, take heart. 

Most of us fall into one or the other of these groups at some point in our career (heck, our work day). The secret is to not let the self-loathing take root. There’s a saying, “If you keep meeting jerks all day long, then you’re the jerk” (I cleaned that up for publication, but I think you can take my point).

If we truly hate good portions of our fellow professionals (and let’s face it, we don’t hate the people, we hate the behavior of the people) we have the power to change things; after all, if we change ourselves we change the entire universe.