You Call That Safety Training?

You Call That Safety Training?

My good friend Rich and I sat in the back of a crowded community college classroom on a sunny day in December. We were there to complete what someone had inaccurately advertised as safety training. It was actually an OSHA 511 outreach course. Neither of us wanted to be there. I’ll admit we both had a bit of a chip on our shoulders since we’d both been CSPs for years at that point, but the main reason we didn’t want to be there? The instructor. She was about two happy meals sort of half a happy meal.

This topic was suggested by a reader named Max. A few weeks ago he wrote in and asked if I would address the idea that “management doesn’t make time for their people to attend safety training.” It’s a common problem for safety practitioners, no doubt. So I got to thinking. Why is it such a problem? Then I remembered that day and something occurred to me. It’s our fault.

Training is always a mixed bag. Sometimes you get someone who’s fun and engaging and really understands how to impart knowledge. Other times you get the instructor who reads every word on a PowerPoint slide filled with 8 point comic sans font. Instructors often faced with one common problem, though: no one wants to be there.

Sometimes I should just keep my mouth shut…

Such was the case with Hamburglar the OSHA 511 Instructor. I recall Rich had “excused” himself from one of the modules and was no doubt enjoying a nice, relaxing extended lunch while he left me to suffer. The instructor clicked forward on her laser pointer and the title “Introduction to Confined Space Entry” popped onto the screen.

“Can anyone tell me if that trash can in the corner is a confined space?” she asked her victims students. I voraciously shook my head no and then looked around the room to notice that everyone else was doing the opposite.

“That’s right,” she affirmed. “It is a confined space.”

My subconscious overpowered my ability to keep quiet. “How is that a confined space?” I blurted out.

“It’s a confined space because you could put your head in it.” It was a 13-gallon trash can, mind you.

“You can stick your head in a toilet, too. That doesn’t make it a confined space. It makes you an idiot with wet hair.”

We went back and forth for quite a while about it until she’d had enough and played the “we’ll just have to agree to disagree” card. I’m sure I sounded like a pompous know-it-all throughout the episode, but I have a huge problem with safety “professionals” spouting nonsense and then standing behind their imaginary moral high ground when corrected. It’s not that the act of being wrong is a problem, it only becomes one when we believe our words are absolute truth.

Teach what you know, or learn until you do…

Everyone gets it wrong, especially those who train. I’ve been called on my mistakes and lack of knowledge many times. There’s nothing wrong with that. The key is accepting your mistakes and shortcomings and using them to make you better.

So here’s what it boiled down to in my 511 class. I was combative and defensive because most of the other students (except my friend Rich) were not like me. They were actually there to learn the basics of OSHA. Some of them were hoping to use the course as a springboard to break into the profession. Many had even paid their own way to be there only to be taught by someone who didn’t know the difference between a confined space and the empty chasm between her ears.

That takes me back to Max’s topic suggestion. Perhaps the reason managers won’t make time to send their people to training is because they find no value in what we have to say. If you find yourself dealing with that predicament, do some serious self-assessment. No one expects you to know everything, but you should at least know what you’re talking about. Think about it this way, would you pay to hear you give a safety presentation?

It’s OK if you can’t answer that affirmatively, but you need to accept that and work on it. Once what your words are worth it, people will come.

If you’re new to this blog, let me introduce myself. My name is Jason. I’m a safety professional, podcast host, author, and world-renowned origami artist (that’s a lie). If you’re NOT new to this blog, go buy my book… it’s like this but multiplied by the power of unicorn tears. In any case, I hope you enjoy the content here. Please like, share, and join in the discussion as we all pursue Relentless Safety.

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You Didn’t Sign Up To Die For Your Company!

Throughout my career, I’ve met some truly extraordinary people and exceptionally hard workers. As you might imagine, however, I’m not going to talk about them in this post. This one goes out to all the jackwagons who think they’re hot shit for getting the job done at all costs.

At one point in my career, I had safety oversight for 20 or so facilities scattered throughout a roughly 45 square mile mountain region. One of those facilities was a motor repair shop. They were extremely good at their work, most of the employees there having spent at least 25 years in their trade. The shop had every machining instrument you can imagine and could rebuild everything from a small electric motor to a giant gas turbine.

One Friday afternoon I received a call from one of the machinists. He was gravely concerned that he had been poisoned on the previous Friday. Alarm bells went off in my head as I probed deeper. This was the first I’d heard of any such incident. I got the 30,000 ft. rundown from him and let him know I’d be at their shop as soon as I could. He and his foreman arranged for a meeting in their break room… without their supervisor. We’ll call the supervisor Craig.

When I arrived, I was met by the entire crew, sans Craig. And they were PISSED. As it turned out, the previous Friday had been quite eventful.

Never A Dull Moment

One of the more common activities in the shop was the repair of motor stators. Once they were wound, they were dipped in a vat of epoxy and then baked in a large kiln overnight to cure. Typically only a half dozen or so were baked at a time. Since the operation was done overnight, no workers were exposed to the potential hazard of the epoxy off-gassing during the curing process.

There was a particularly nagging issue posed by this epoxy process. The epoxy was stored in a giant vat in the center of the shop. As the level in the vat dipped, employees would add drums of the epoxy into the already used material in the vat. Over time, this practice caused the epoxy to become unstable and no longer suitable for use. As a result, the vat was emptied about every six months and filled with new product. By regulation, the old material had to be disposed of by an abatement company at extreme cost to the company.

Craig, being the industrious supervisor he was, voraciously looked for ways to cut cost in his organization. The epoxy disposal was always a glaring line item on his books until one day when he had a stroke of genius (it may have just been an actual stroke, wait till you hear this stupidity).

You Can’t Make This S#!$ Up!

Using his infallible logic, Craig surmised that he could eliminate the entire cost of disposal. He had been trained over the years (mostly correctly) that chemicals such as paints or adhesives could be legally disposed of in the trash as long as they were consumed or completely cured and dry. In his mind, it made sense that his epoxy material could be treated the same way. The problem was that he had 100 gallons of it.

So he bought 100 empty one-gallon paint cans, filled them with the chemical, and proceeded to bake them. During normal operations, the maximum amount of material that would be cured would never exceed a gallon. Knowing this, Craig decided to take extra precautions and bake his 100 gallons during the day shift. “Just in case something went wrong.”

That statement was obviously meant for the protection of equipment, because something was certainly wrong with the whole scenario. As soon as heat touched the epoxy, thick noxious vapor began seeping from the kiln. The technician operating the kiln was the first to experience a headache, but the rest of the crew soon followed. Then came the nausea. None of them vomited (at least as far as I was told), but everyone wanted to… FOR THE NEXT EIGHT HOURS!

At one point, the kiln operator became worried that something was indeed “wrong” and cracked the doors open. Plumes of black chemical smoke rolled out and just about knocked him on his butt. He quickly shut it and then told another employee to open all the doors. But still they stayed. Diligently working on their assigned machines until their shift was up. Craig never admitted it, but I’ve always suspected he had threatened their jobs if they left that day (or reported anything fishy).

They Wouldn’t Take A Bullet For You, So…

During our investigation we never got a good, logical answer from any of the crew as to why they had stayed. They never even completely explained why it had taken a week to tell anyone. Except for the fact that one or two had become fearful of long-term health impacts related to the event, we may never have known. At one point, in my frustration I scolded the entire crew.

“Why the hell did you stay? You didn’t enlist in the army of (company x). Why would you be willing to die for them? If Craig had done that to me I would have waived at him with two middle fingers and walked straight to HR to report his ass.”

My questions were met with blank stares.

It never ceases to amaze me how many craptastic “leaders” there are out there. That almost goes without saying. I think what amazes me most, though, is that there are so many people who are willing to follow them off the cliff. In my mind, no job is worth keeping if someone is going to require me to risk my life for it. Being exposed to an unknown, or underestimated risk is one thing. Being asked to die for my company is an entirely different animal.

The Only Thing I know Is I Know Nothing

I understand that there are all kinds of external and internal factors influencing workers to keep their mouths shut and soldier on. Everyone has bills to pay, families to feed, and roofs to keep above their head. There are all kinds of heavy burdens which are exploited by unscrupulous supervisors and managers who want to maximize profits and keep production moving. It’s the ultimate fear tactic, and it’s pervasive. These cretins know that most people won’t stand up and say no and they get away with it time and again. So it continues.

We have to get better at weeding out bad actors and empowering people to speak up. In just the last few days that theme has been present in more than a few of my conversations with workers. One place to start is how we communicate. No matter your industry, pace often dictates that people are ill-informed of their rights, and their responsibilities. When you’re out and about at your place of business in the coming days, take things back to the basics. Too often we assume people know what we know without asking to verify.

So do just that. Ask them if they know what to do when a hazard crosses their path. Ask them if they’re comfortable talking to their supervisor about those things. You may learn that everything’s fine. But you’re more likely to find at least one thing worth fixing.

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How I Found My Voice (and why I don’t care if you disagree)

First off, if you’re reading this, Thank You. Sincerely.

I spent years in fear of what others thought of me. Sometimes I sought my parents’ approval. Sometimes I wanted to be one of the cool kids. Sometimes I just felt ashamed for being me. Because “me” is different. I wasn’t OK with that until I was well into my thirties.

I don’t see the world the same way you do, and that terrified me for far longer than it should have. Anyone want to guess why?

BECAUSE NO ONE SEES THINGS THE SAME F^@#ING WAY!

As I began my safety “professional” career those thoughts of doubt shackled me. I didn’t believe all accidents were preventable. I didn’t subscribe to the theory that low accident rates = world-class safety performance. I was a black sheep. The problem was that I thought I was alone. I could not have been more wrong.

Relentless Safety was born of frustration. There’s no reason to deny that. I began writing posts on this site because I am tired of the status quo. I even wrote a book in the hope that I could help the next generation actually make a difference. While those things have been cathartic to be sure, I didn’t realize the gravity of what I have gotten into until today.

As I was reading responses to my Easter Sunday Post I was caught off guard by one comment in particular. The reader simply said, “I wish I could share this.” I probed to see if he would explain, but as you can imagine all I got in return was silence. That sent me into imagination spiral land.

If My Words Are Dangerous, Your Work Is Ineffective…

I can only imagine the reader who made that comment is somewhere in the throes of self-doubt that I was. It’s a heavy burden, so I’m not going to minimize it. Maybe sharing my post would put his job in jeopardy. Not many people are in a position to risk their employment for what they believe. Maybe he doesn’t want to be a black sheep. I don’t know but whatever the case it’s a sad statement about the way our society operates.

At the risk of bringing politics into this discussion, I’ll just say simply that people should be free to have open and honest discourse. Safety Professionals should talk and debate and challenge each other even if we never agree. But, I’m not naive enough to believe we all share that idea. Sadly, the fact that we don’t is a stark indication of why the profession of safety is stagnant.

The cold hard truth is this: people don’t want to improve because the status quo is pretty damn profitable. There are thousands of false safety prophets who would much rather cash their (hefty) paychecks than do something radical to prevent tragedy. That’s the state of industry today, like it or not.

It’s Time To Flip The Script

If this blog has taught me anything its that there are more out there who share my passion, drive, and ambition to make things better. We just need to speak up. It’s time to stop worrying about what people think of us and do what matters to protect the lives of the workers who break their backs to earn a living every day. One voice can be squashed, but many can rise up and make a change we are proud of.

Are you ready to pursue Relentless Safety?

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Safety Doesn’t Require Piety, It Demands Action

Hark! Dost thou heareth the bullshit?

Since it’s Easter Sunday, I thought I’d spend some time quoting from the good book of safety. Please stand and join me as we turn to page 1904.4 in our hymnals and lift our voices in praise to OSHA our protector. It’s OK if you laughed at that. I’m still here typing, so that’s at least some proof the real God won’t strike you down for your blasphemous sense of humor.

Actually, there’s nothing I would rather do less than quote OSHA on this Sunday or any other. But, I was reading another great article by Dr. Rob Long and it reminded me of a story I’ve been wanting to post here for quite some time. Today seemed appropriate.

Unlike my usual twist ending, I’m going to give away the punchline at the start. I’ve stolen some of my kids’ Easter egg loot and I’m feeling generous. You’ll have to read on for the story this time, though. I haven’t eaten that much candy. This tale has a lesson for two people: The Leader & The Advisor.

Let’s Break it Down

First off, leaders. You’re expected to guide your people toward safe, quality production. Sounds noble. It even is sometimes. But let’s not mince words, your true purpose is to deliver profit. People seem to think that’s a dirty thing to say, but it is what it is. If businesses weren’t in business to make money, there would be no workers for whom your advisors need to uphold safety and quality standards. If that’s a shock, life must truly be hard for you.

Secondly, advisors. I avoided pigeonholing this category because I believe this concept transcends the safety profession. Your role is to provide good counsel to the leaders of your organization and facilitate that “safe, quality production.” It’s not to throw up roadblocks every time someone decides to violate your rules.

Now for the story:

I’m not sure but I think the guy’s name was Steve…

It was the second day of a riveting three-day safety summit. My company had shipped a few dozen safety professionals to corporate and corraled us into a conference room suited for four. We’d then spent hours drinking burnt (seriously, why do people like Starbucks?) coffee listening to each manager tell their safety story. I recall one of the guys had a really nice boat (substance was not a prerequisite for presenting).

Finally, we had reached the pinnacle of the day. Our VP was going to present to us about the value of safety. I could not wait (for it to be over). I’ve honestly blocked most of that boondoggle out of my memory banks, but this “keynote” has etched itself into my mind for eternity.

Without much fanfare, our “leader” cleared his throat and boldly asked a room comprised of hundreds of years of collective SAFETY PROFESSIONAL experience the following question:

How many of you BELIEVE you can go the rest of your life without an OSHA Recordable injury?

He raised his hand in proud declaration. I looked around the room as all but two others raised theirs as well. He must have counted my jaw hitting the floor as a raised hand because he didn’t notice mine were in my pockets. I looked to my left and raised an eyebrow in disbelief. The VP of Safety and Health who sat next to me shrugged, but kept his hands down as well. The rest of the crowd lowered theirs as he began a 45-minute sermon about he would never again need a prescription medication because of how safe he was going to be (or a splint, or use tweezers to excise something from his eye, or any of the other dumb things that constitutes a recordable).

The sheeple nodded along in blind obedience as this buffoon pontificated to us about how every accident was preventable. I couldn’t believe the arrogance. His speech essentially amounted to the statement that every part of life was controllable and only people who didn’t care enough could be injured.

But his words weren’t the worst part…

The worst part was the Safety Director who stood next to him nodding, affirming, and placating his ridiculous claims. For the sake of making this case, I’m willing to set aside the ridiculousness that makes an injury an “OSHA Recordable” for a moment. Let’s just say he meant a bad injury in general.

What kind of leader thinks it’s OK to stand up in front of a bunch of people (safety pros or not) and predict the future? And what kind of advisor stands by and lets him do it? Both of those men proved that day that they were detached from reality. Not only that, but there was a strong case to be made that they believed themselves superior to those beneath them.

How much more impact could “Steve” have had if he had stood in front of that crowd and admitted his humanity? Then he could have rallied the troops to fight for his dream of no injuries. He could have offered his support and resources to make our work environments safer. Instead, he yammered on and said a bunch of words that had no impact on one, single worker’s life. All while his “advisor” nodded in approval…

I can only hope we would all do better!

If you’re new to this blog, let me introduce myself. My name is Jason. I’m a safety professional, podcast host, author, and world-renowned origami artist (that’s a lie). If you’re NOT new to this blog, go buy my book… it’s like this but multiplied by the power of unicorn tears. In any case, I hope you enjoy the content here. Please like, share, and join in the discussion as we all pursue Relentless Safety.

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Safety Is Plagued By Perception

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

If there’s one universal obstacle every safety professional will certainly have to deal with it’s perception. To be clear, I’m not stating in the least that the obstacle is the same for everyone. But it’s always there.

Sometimes perception tells workers we (safety) don’t care about anything except the numbers. Sometimes it tells leadership we’re unnecessary overhead. sometimes it declares great achievement when we’re really just lucky (to be fair, sometimes perception says the opposite as well). The list could continue forever.

My point is that, like it or not, perception is the barometer of our success. I believe that to be true regardless of how accurate that perception may be. And in my experience, it often isn’t accurate at all.

Unless…

I hope you didn’t think I was about to rant about how unfair our work is. Granted, it’s easy to feel that way in such a misunderstood profession. What I want to drive toward in this post is something a bit more abstract: Culture.

An old friend and colleague (forever named Gunny for his USMC service), sent me a topic request and asked me to cover that very subject. For the sake of keeping our Air Force/Marine rivalry alive and well, I’ll take the obligatory jab and state for the record that he should have known better than to give me such a blank canvas. Maybe not though, he might have just gotten a new box of crayons… (Just FYI for those who didn’t serve, I would suggest against making that joke unless you know the person and you also served).

Back to the point. Since Gunny asked me to write something about culture, I’ve been dutifully pondering just what makes a good one. I came to the conclusion that I didn’t really have an answer to that question. That frustrated me, because I don’t like feeling dumb. So I pondered some more. The first thing I had to do was figure out what culture even means.

It’s The Way We Do Things Around Here…

That’s not my definition. I read it somewhere along the way (If anyone reading this knows who said it, please let me know so I can give them their due). I think it’s an appropriate definition though. So let’s theorize a little with it.

Let’s say you take a Safety Professional role at a facility where the way they do things just sucks. I’m sure that’s familiar territory for many of us. If your job was to make a positive change how would you accomplish that?

In case you’re not interested in clicking the links, I’m not (nor would I ever) advocate any of that. Criticize if you will, but give me a concrete example of those types of things working (and don’t bother if you want to talk about incident rates). I’ll wait…

So What Works?

Simplicity. If you want to change the way people do things, they have to be willing to talk about why the current way sucks. Then you have to figure out how to get them to fix it. None of us is the safety savior come again to rescue all the lost souls. I don’t claim to be either, so I can’t say I have the perfect answer to accomplishing that simplistic goal. Here’s where I would start:

Let’s Circle Back

I started this post talking about perception for good reason. It’s something I struggle with a lot. I started there because I know that when I’m feeling useless or undervalued as the safety leader in my organization, I often get bitter. For that reason, this post is as much for me as it is for anyone. Being bitter doesn’t help my organization (or me for that matter). So, I remind myself: work on the culture, perception will take care of itself.

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The Ladder Conundrum

At least he tied himself to the ladder, right?

A few days ago a reader named Dillon asked my thoughts about ladders. It was a pretty open-ended question, but I had a spare minute or two so I typed up a response:

Off the top of my head? I think they’re taken for granted. People use them without looking them over (fixed and portable). Employees are not trained (or very minimally trained) on their use. No one audits the safety of their use. Another glaring issue is that employers are quick to add hazards rather than ensure that they are used appropriately. For example, wearing fall protection while using ladders is often stated as an OSHA “rule” when that is certainly not true.  I think employers could utilize them better or even eliminate their need if they planned better.

Come to find out, his company sells equipment designed to eliminate the problem of falls from ladders. That’s something I can definitely get on board with, so I took a look. You’re probably very familiar with them: JLG LiftPod (Note: I didn’t receive any compensation for linking that, I just think it’s a great tool). Dillon’s response to my comments was pretty appropriate:

Time has proven nothing is working to solve the ladder injury problem, the only thing left to do is create equipment that removes the leading causes of falls.

That’s a great mentality to have about all aspects of safety management. It got me thinking about some of the ladder discussions I’ve had over the years. One, in particular, stands out because of how backward it was.

How Can We Be So Misguided?

I worked for a construction and engineering firm which had established some long term contracts performing maintenance at various plants. As such, they had created a division to manage those projects but had struggled to nail down the organization structure. This resulted in periodic personnel shuffles and management shakeups. Just before I moved on from that role, another of the shakeups occurred.

I found myself sitting on one of those conference calls we all dread. My new boss was an ex-accountant (I think) who had somehow become a division safety manager. He opened the call by recounting a terrifying (to him) experience he had just had on one of our sites. He had watched a technician climb a fixed ladder that lead to a roof hatch. The technician had struggled with the heavy hatch and the sight sent icy chills down our new leader’s spine. I know you’re assuming he thought “that man could have fallen!” If you did, you’d be dead wrong.

As he concluded his tale, he cleared his throat surveyed the group. “What can we do to make sure we don’t get fined by OSHA if someone falls off a ladder?” he asked.

My jaw dropped, but only long enough for a reflex response to blurt from my mouth. “Why wouldn’t we do everything in our power to make sure no one falls from a damn ladder in the first place?” I didn’t hide any of my disgust.

It really is a shame that we jump to legal ramifications before we even try to make plans to keep people safe. Simply put, if you have a known hazard that poses a risk to your employees, f^@%ing get rid of it! instead of wasting time trying to figure out how to talk yourself out of a fine.

Thanks to Dillon for his input on this post. I think it’s a subject worth talking about. One that goes much deeper than ladders, I might add. UPDATE: Check out the video reinactment of the story in this post. Hopefully you’ll laugh at it as much as I cringe when I see myself on camera.

NOT A SNAKE SAFETY VIDEO!

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People Aren’t Airplanes

Checklists don’t work!

I could almost hear the eyeballs rolling as I typed that. Hang with me for a second though. I wouldn’t want the devil to get lost in the details.

Checklists can and have been applied to processes with great success. The obvious example of that is the aviation industry. Strict adherence to the pre-flight checklist is a great practice that has helped mold culture and instill the value (and priority) of safety. Everyone knows that an aircraft will not be operated if it is not in an acceptable condition. The practice identifies deficiencies and requires that the are remedied for the sake of personal and equipment safety.

It’s because of this fact that people often believe the practice can be translated seamlessly from process to people. I learned early in my career that this is not a universal truth.

One of my first civilian safety positions was largely centered on data entry. Technically, I administered a behavior observation program, but what it boiled down to was hours upon hours typing numbers. None of the “observations” reflected actual conditions on that site.

As our inspectors turned in stacks of multi-colored cards daily, I began to notice some trends. I would later study the trends in detail using six sigma, but that’s a story for another day. Anecdotally, however, my analysis helped me form two important hypotheses.

First, the “behavior” observation checklists didn’t seem to fit the activities being performed. Our people were mandated to complete the sheets even when a specific activity (excavation, for example) was not being done on our site, often resulting in a solid line being drawn down the “N/A” column. That problem was easily attributed to poor implementation and bad rules, but even checklists designed for common tasks showed this problem. Housekeeping, for instance, is something that was expected every day throughout the site. But the checklist designed to observe it didn’t fit every activity.

Second, I began to notice that the numbers were falsely skewed positive. The observers were incentivized to achieve scores representing high percentages of safe behavior. In order to achieve that, the inspectors would avoid observations that would hurt their numbers. It was so bad that during a site tour, the Project Manager asked me how it was possible that our (housekeeping) scores were so high while the site was in such disarray. My answer was simply to remind him that he was getting what he’d asked for.

My example in this post is obviously a case study of one. I know that checklists can be useful tools. But they can also breed complacency. If you’re going to use them as a mechanism to promote safety, do so wisely. Consider the following points as “requirements” for building a useful checklist:

  1. Make certain the list fits the activity: checklists are valuable when observing static processes, not variable tasks.
  2. Don’t create parameters that skew your results: If you tell your end user that they must get a score of 95% or better on their checklist, they will most likely find a way to make that happen. Sometimes sweeping things under the rug is the most sensible method.
  3. Accept the answers for what they are: If your people observe something that doesn’t meet your standards, consider it a snapshot of where your organization is today and figure out how to improve.
  4. Do something with the data: If people see you take action, they are much more likely to rally around the cause. No one wants anything to do with a program when their hard work just piles up on someone’s desk.

This discussion could very easily open a couple huge cans of worms, so I’m going to same some for later. This week I’ve gotten some great post requests from readers, so be looking for those. If you want to join in on the discussion please let me know.

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People Who Fall & Get Back Up are Idiots: A Different Safety Perspective

A Fat Kid Kicked My Leg In Half…

I got in a fight over $0.50 during my freshman year in High School. Were it to happen today it would certainly make it to Instagram. Maybe it would even go viral. Not because it was an epic fight, but because of how utterly stupid it was.

I had borrowed 50 cents from a classmate so I could buy a soda during lunch. After purchasing the drink, that classmate approached me and the group of kids I was standing with demanding I return his money. Obviously, I had no way to do that since I was drinking it. He wasn’t satisfied by that answer, however, and after a few escalating verbal exchanges things became physical. He grabbed the coke and pushed it into my face.

I should stop here and note that this kid was extremely large for his age. He weighed in at near 350 pounds compared to my tiny 120-pound frame. Aside from sheer size he had another extreme advantage over me. I had a broken leg. Stress fractured actually, but a crack is a crack.

In the preceding two or three weeks, I had actually been on crutches to support my wounded leg. It had come about due to excessive use during the cross country season, initially being diagnosed as shin splints. I had been running around on it for months until it finally decided to say no. That day just happened to be the regional finals race which we lost (I still beat three other runners as I limped to the finish line, please hold your applause).

Anyhoo… everyone at school knew about my leg. The giant who wanted his coke money back was no exception. After he doused me, I pushed him back. Then the “fight” broke out. He grabbed my right shoulder and swept my cracked left leg just below the fracture. Instinctively I dropped to the ground in an act of self-preservation.

It took a moment, but once I realized nothing bad had happened to my bum leg, my anger surged and drove me back to my feet. I tried to throw a punch but my foe’s baseball mitt of a hand clamped my shoulder again as his right leg swept my left. Harder this time. I dropped again. Still, nothing had happened.

The crowd was growing as I readied myself for a third attempt. I stood once more only to be met with the same offensive move. This time his tree trunk of a leg made contact with the crack in mine. Everyone heard the crunch as I crumbled to the ground with an extra joint in left my leg (not really, he only broke the larger tibia bone). It was a sickening sound that was only drowned out by the flood of searing pain that followed.

How Could Someone Be So Stupid?

I’ll come back to my broken leg in a bit, but let’s shift the conversation for a moment. Consider any industrial environment. Maybe even yours. Let’s say, for the sake of this conversation, that this site hires new employees regularly. Some are skilled and experienced tradespeople, others are right out of High School starting their first job. This site, just as all the others like it has hazards unique unto itself. As a matter of due diligence, you conduct orientation training with each of these new employees about those hazards.

One of those hazards presents itself in a task these new workers will have to do daily. They will have to connect piping and tubing which will carry highly caustic chemicals through a system and clean it. In orientation, you explained in detail that the chemicals inside are extremely dangerous. You explained that they need to wear chemical resistant PPE from head to toe. You even explained that tearing these systems apart requires detailed Lockout/Tagout procedures. All of your new employees nod along in agreement and graduate your training with honors.

A few days later one of those new employees is working on the production floor and has been given a bit of freedom. He hooks up the supply lines just as he was instructed and then initiates the process, filling the piping with a mixture of chemical and water. As the lines pressurize he notices a couple leaks and immediately turns off the pumps. He goes to the leaks and loosens a clamp or two so he can replace them and get a proper seal. In doing so the residual pressure in the system sprays him with the diluted solution. Thankfully he’s got on his protective bib overalls, so nothing a actually gets on his clothes. He then restarts the pumps.

Once again the leaks spring up. There are fewer this time, but he repeats the process. Again he’s sprayed, but nothing contacts his skin. Upon starting the pumps the third time, he notices there is only one remaining leak. Feeling as if he’s made great progress and is proving himself as a hard worker, he turns off the pumps, loosens the clamp and is DOUSED from head to toe due to the pressure. Caustic covers his face and gets into his eyes, immediately beginning to burn and threatening his future vision unless he’s provided with prompt medical care.

Perspective Isn’t Universal

Both of the stories I’ve told here are examples of people taking unnecessary risks. Some might consider them examples of unsafe, perhaps even stupid behavior. There’s really no point in arguing that. But we would be remiss if we ended the discussion there. Let’s take them one by one.

In my case, there was an adrenaline-filled fifteen-year-old who had run hundreds of miles on a broken leg and survived. Sure I had a hairline crack in my leg, but I could walk without pain and felt invincible. When I entered the fight my resolve was strengthened by the fact that my broken leg had been kicked not once, but twice by a human fence post. It hadn’t broken either time. Not only that, but I could see the other guy getting more and more nervous each time I stood up. I was fine… until I wasn’t.

In the case of our new worker, I have to imagine he had very similar feelings. The inherent dangers of the chemical may have crossed his mind (you told him after all). But with no practical experience dealing with the gravity of that hazard, he had no reason to believe he was in harm’s way. Then he “proved” to himself that nothing bad was going to happen. Twice.

Experience is a powerful teacher. But it can also be a catalyst for complacency for those using it to teach. Next time you’re in a position to convey your experience to someone else, be sure you don’t fall into the trap of believing that person will understand what you’re teaching in the same way you do. That person doesn’t have the same perspective as you. Keep that thought in the back of your mind. Then show them how to do the task, make them repeat it, and check their performance often.

My leg healed completely from my stupid incident, but there was no guarantee of that at the time. If you had the opportunity to keep someone from that type of ordeal, how successful do you think you’d be?

As always, thanks for reading. Please like, subscribe, and share with all your friends. Together we can reach thousands hundreds tens of people with a new way to think safety.

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DAD! For SAFETY!

I created a monster!

Around my son’s fifth birthday, he decided he wanted to be a handyman when he grows up. That’s changed a few several dozen times since, but it was the flavor of the month at the time. Being encouraging parents, my wife and I decided we would let him pick out a toolbox and several tools at our local Harbor Freight. It was a pretty good present by his standards.

We spent what felt like hours roaming around looking at wrenches, hammers, and screwdrivers. He picked out a set of each along with a small toolbox. I even let him (much to wife’s disapproval) get a small Swiss-Army style pocket knife. On the way out he made a point to grab a pair of safety glasses and put them in his cart. He knows what I do for a living and I’ve done my best to instill a good safety mindset in both of my kids. It’s been a rewarding thing to watch them approach their activities that way.

By the time a few weeks passed my son had been given a few opportunities to test out his new handyman kit. I’d shown him how to pick the right screwdriver, how to use his hammer, things like that. But we always started with the glasses. He’s the kind of deadly serious kid that will tell on himself for “accidentally” saying hell at school, so when I say he took the directive to protect his eyes seriously I’m severely understating.

We were sitting on the couch one Saturday when my wife asked me to hang a few pictures. It was one of those urgent requests that have serious repercussions if not attended to promptly. Since I was already appropriately outfitted in my Ninja Turtle work pajamas, I borrowed my son’s hammer (his toolbox was always at the ready) and dug a couple of screws from the kitchen junk drawer.

I quickly eagle eye measured and placed a nail up against the wall. As I drew back the hammer, my son lept from the couch, swooped down, grabbed his glasses and held them up like a mini superhero.

“Dad,” he protested as he held the glasses up to my chest. “For SAFETY!” I fought back my gut reaction to call him a NARC and then took the glasses from him and put them on. He was right and I thanked him for correcting me.

No more rules without understanding, OK?

It’s no secret that I’m pretty critical of those who want to blame the worker when a rule is violated or someone is injured. That comes from years of observing and studying the glaring gaps in the systems companies design to “protect.” A side effect of that criticality is that I’m often mistaken for one who would remove all responsibility from the worker. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Personal responsibility is always key.

I’ve always known that nothing I do will make someone else behave safely or follow any given rule. But I’ve also known that my responsibility is to instill the importance and reasoning (the “why”) behind those directives. A common pitfall in this line of work is assuming that people instinctively know the difference between what is safe and what is unnecessarily risky. If that were true, we could rely on common sense. Anyone with half a brain knows that’s not a strategy for success, though.

I was accountable for my lack of eye protection that day because I knew the risk and chose to do it unsafe anyway. That’s not always the case when our workers take risks on our sites. The trick is being able to figure out when the system failed the worker or the worker failed (knowingly) to work within the system. If the latter is the case, the person needs to be held accountable. Otherwise, we owe it to our people to fix our process because it’s quite likely there are more out there who don’t know what’s expected of them.

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Accept the Safety Gospel or be Damned!

Some Thoughts About “Absolutes”

At one time or another every professional, regardless of their vocation, has sat through that one conference call. You know the one. It’s the hour-long, self-righteous diatribe hosted by some under-qualified boob sitting in a cubicle who’s trying not to talk too loud and disturb those around him. That courtesy is not extended to his victims on the phone, however. Those unfortunate souls have to listen to his bullshit.

I’ve taken many an eyes-open nap during such “collaboration” sessions. Were it not for the ability to snidely text my fellow victims with strings of inappropriate emoji combinations, those meetings would be unbearable.

Before I get too far off track, let me give you a better smell of what I’m about to step into. This isn’t a rant about the ineffectiveness of conference calls (or meetings in general for that matter). That is a debate upon which someone else can take up the mantle. I don’t have the patience or attention span for it. Though I prefaced this post with a specific example, I’m more interested in talking about the content of “that one meeting.” For the sake of my argument, such content could come from any discussion where someone is granted a captive audience and uses that time to grandstand.

How many safety consultants do you know that shouldn’t even be allowed to charge $0.05?

I’ll cut to the chase: Any time someone stands up on their soapbox and says you can only do something one way or you’re wrong, they lose all credibility. That might sound like a hypocritical statement coming from a blog that’s intended to put a spotlight on incorrect thinking but consider the objective. My goal in posting these articles is to call out the ineffective and downright stupid practices that are perpetuated within the safety profession. I do my best to offer solutions or alternative methods, but by no means am I so arrogant as to believe my way is the ONLY way. I want to start conversations that very few seem to be willing to have. Many of the topics I have covered (and plan to cover in the future) barely garner a mention in the “safety pro” circles. When they do, the usual result is one side getting pissy and then taking their ball and going home.

You’re Not A Robot, Quit Nodding

Let me give you a nice, shiny example of what I’m describing. I recently sat through one of “those calls” during which I wanted to dig my eyes out with a spoon and stuff them into my ear holes so that I could no longer hear, nor see what was happening (it was a webinar). Toward the end, the great philosophizer in charge made the very pointed assertion that you could not be a good safety professional unless you truly believed ALL ACCIDENTS ARE PREVENTABLE!

You can believe that if you want. There are many who do. Some even have good arguments for their case. But to assert that belief in something is
the one benchmark to success in this field is downright ludicrous. Especially something that is near impossible/difficult at best to prove . I won’t veer too far off the path, but it’s important enough to pause here for a moment. Accident’s don’t just happen because someone was too ignorant to believe their eradication was possible. Many times they happen because workers are imperfect beings who are required to process imperfect information, which in turn leads them to make imperfect decisions. No amount of faith will change that.

If you aim to make a difference in this field, your best bet is to ditch the preaching and figure out where those accidents are likely to occur. If you do that, you at least have a fighting chance to minimize their consequences.

Until we can get off the phone, out of our offices, and out to the places where real life is happening we will continue to fall short. How long are we going to sit back and stroke our Safety Professional egos with slogans and talking points that don’t make any difference to the people doing the real work on our job sites? You can sit back and proclaim the gospel of Safety Jesus for as long as you like, but until we do something that matters (collectively, as a profession), that worker whose paycheck is based on tools and back-breaking labor won’t give two shits about anything we have to say.

If you like the content in these posts, please let me know. Let’s start a conversation and change this profession for the better.

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