Life Would Suck If It Were A Safety Report

Life Would Suck If It Were A Safety Report

Seriously, we could use some positivity. Maybe safety people should meditate…

(Or read awesome books like the one I wrote: A Practical Guide to the Safety Profession: The Relentless Pursuit )

How many times throughout life are you told to “think positive” or “count your blessings?” You’d think it would stick a little better. Especially in today’s world of ultra woke philosophers and positivism gurus.

A perfect example of the overt positivity of our times came up the other night as my wife was working on her latest TV binge. She’s been watching the network show 9-1-1. Many of the more dramatic scenes start with a recorded voice over playing over a transcript. One scene actually pulled me away from my work (OK, I was watching YouTube videos). It went (loosely) like this:

Operator: 9-1-1, what’s your emergency?
Frantic woman: A man’s been attacked by a shark!
Operator: I hear you, ma’am. What beach are you on?
Frantic woman: We’re not on the beach. It’s on the 405 (freeway)!

The scene cuts to a man lying on the road with a shark attached to his mangled arm. A broken “aquarium truck” sits in the background as EMTs rush in with their tools. They are quickly and forcefully chastised by the victim.

Man: No, don’t hurt her. She has a husband and a baby! (that’s probably not what he said, but I was laughing too hard at that point).

In a final touching moment of pure positive goodness, the shark is triumphantly motorcaded down to the beach and set free to rejoin baby shark… and daddy shark… and grandma shark.

Ba-by… Shark… do do do do do do do!

In case you’re wondering, I would not have given one ounce of concern for that shark. In fact, my line would have been something closer to: “Punch it in the face with the jaws of life!”

But, whatever, that episode must have been low on the required amount of inclusivity. Only Hollywood would try to make lemonade out of a shark attack in downtown LA. In the real world we only focus on negative things.

Or so safety would have you believe…

Think about it. What was the last “safety report” you heard, gave, or read? 9 times out of 10, I’d put money on that report having at least one of these elements:

  • We’ve had a rash of injuries lately…
  • No one was injured last week…
  • There have been way too many (fill in the blank) violations lately…

All negative. All emotion based. None helpful.

Like it or not, though, statements like those are what define safety for much of the industry. The idea that “safe = accident free” has been pounded into us so relentlessly, that even those who know better still fall prey to the idea now and then. Sure it’s tempting to make the illogical leap that the absence of something (injuries) means the existence of something slightly related (safety). But believing something doesn’t make it true.

This is a theme I’ve touched on before in several posts like THIS ONE, but the problem isn’t going away any time soon. So, I figured I’d be relentless as well and drive home the counterpoint.

I was speaking to a group of interns and newly minted career professionals recently and told them what I tell all groups of new workers: Learn from every day, not just the bad ones.

But having x amount of injuries is bad

No argument there. Work related injuries are terrible, and we’re supposed to be the one’s helping prevent them before they occur. The sad reality, though, is that rarely happens when we focus on the past. In my experience, that’s because we only look back when something “bad” happens… like an injury.

Let me put it another way. If a facility (any facility) experienced 20 serious injuries in a year, that facility would likely invest some concerted amount of time and effort into figuring why and how to prevent similar events in the future. That’s a good thing. Those lessons need to be learned. But things often go off the rails from that point.

The company will likely harp on those 20 injuries, consider “safety performance” poor, and perform CYA type activities like “sign off sheets” in order to show how proactive they are. While all that may sound OK on the surface, consider what’s been thrown to the wayside.

Just to keep the math simple, we’ll say all 20 of those injuries occurred on separate days. That means that the while the facility did indeed have 20 bad days, it also had 345 injury free (“good”) days. But what happened on those good days? Were they even good at all? Or were they close? Maybe they were outright disasters. If focus was solely on the 20 “bad” days, no one will remember the other 345.

Learn, move on, find your weak spots

Getting hung up on injuries defeats our ultimate purpose. If you forgot what that is, I’ll remind you, but you should also READ THIS if you can’t remember that the goal is to keep workers from being killed. So learn the lessons that need to be learned from each injury, and then let it go and let your injured worker heal. Instead of focusing on a consequence of the past, focus on what matters and what you can do to better the future. There are a million ways to slice that pie, but none of them involve wailing and gnashing of your teeth in pious self righteousness. Or worrying about getting bit by a shark during rush hour.

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How Can Safety Relate to “The Guys?”

Not too long ago I was told that I tell too many stories. The comment was intended as constructive criticism. I usually try to at least consider those things with a (mostly) open mind. This time it just made me laugh. That very morning I had gotten a comment back on one of my blog posts that said:

“You’re a great storyteller. The guys relate to that.”

Those two conflicting statements got me thinking. I’ve learned through the years that not everyone wants to sit through a parable and wait for the moral of the story. There’s a time and place, so I’m not going to dismiss my “constructive criticism” outright. But I do believe we need to tell better stories if we want to be more relatable as safety professionals.

The alternative is saying things like “because OSHA says so…” Let me give you an example.

Do you see what’s wrong here?

I stood bewildered after the VP of Safety asked me that question. I honestly didn’t have a clue. He and I had been touring my facility and had just finished the basic walk around when he asked to watch a job in progress. Since it wasn’t a surprise visit, I’d already selected a good one.

The crew, was performing emergency maintenance on a food-grade charcoal filter. They were one of the best crews at our location. Their job planning sheets had been completed, their equipment was in good condition, their scaffold was erected properly and signed off. It was a well thought out operation.

Maintaining the filter was relatively straightforward. The crew lifted bags of charcoal (40lbs each) assembly-line style to the top of the scaffold where the final crew member would open the bag and empty it into a hopper. Good body mechanics were in use and they had minimized the lifts by employing twice as many people as needed. I was proud of them. Then came the question.

That Knife is a VIOLATION…

I had apparently stood looking dumbfounded long enough, so the VP let me in on his egregious discovery. The man at the top of the filter had used a small rope to attach a utility knife to the rail of the scaffold. Once the bags were hoisted up to him, he would place each on a small platform, cut the top, and then pick it back up to empty it into the hopper. I had failed to notice the knife was of the fixed-blade variety.

It was a violation of our policy, that was not up for argument. I would still argue, however, that it was the right tool for the job. The alternative being that the crew could have signed out a self-retracting blade from the parts room, or worse, used something like a screwdriver or other tool not meant for the task.

There were two disappointing things about the way that “violation” was handled. The first was that it downplayed everything those “guys” had done right. There was no mention of their exceptional pre-planning, or conscientious use of body position. Only the one “wrong” thing. I put that in quotations, because using the self retracting blade we had available was actually quite cumbersome (dare I say, more hazardous) while wearing the thick, cut resistant gloves which were in use.

The second was that the episode actually instigated a month’s long investigation into the finding “right” type of knife. I’m all for improving, but that answer may have simply been to train our people on proper knife handling. Instead it became a running joke rather than an opportunity. I mean, what would chefs do if their restaurant owner banned filet knives?

Figure Out the Reasons Before Offering Solutions

Some things are sharp and scary, I get it. I also get that some Safety Professionals feel like they’re not contributing if they don’t eliminate a new hazard every day (regardless of the actual risk it poses). That’s probably why we write such bad procedures and policies. But this episode reminds me of why it’s so important that we check our egos and get out and learn about the jobs before we write policies that hinder them.

If the knife incident had been addressed with a story, even a short one, about the reasoning behind our policy, it might not have become a joke. That story may have even opened up some good discussions and brainstorming. Maybe someone would have come up with a solution no one had ever entertained before.

You can’t just make it up

A few months later, I participated in a formal mentoring program with that same VP. He was actually a really good guy, but corporate through and through. He and I had a call scheduled on a day when I had unexpectedly stayed home to address some pluming issues at my house. My dad and I were outside repairing access to my water main when the forgotten call came.

I apologized for forgetting about the call and explained about the pluming work.

“Wow, I wouldn’t even know how to get started doing something like that,” came his response.

That was a light bulb moment for me. I realized that he had no practical experience working in the field (plumbing and other building maintenance was our team’s main role). Many safety people don’t, and that’s perfectly fine. Just don’t try to fake it. The people who do the work in your organization will see through that instantly.

Here’s a trick I use. While I know my way around tools and maintenance, I’m certainly no 20+ year craftsman (my wife reminds me often). So, I don’t try to be. I ask. In fact, my first question when I’m on a site, regardless of whether I already know the answer is “what are you working on?”

I ask that question even if I notice a “violation” (unless someone is doing something that could cause harm immediately). That usually levels the playing field and the answer gives me an opportunity to start a conversation. Usually I don’t even have to mention the thing that’s wrong because the worker ends up explaining why he or she is doing it. That’s where you make your money. Once you figure out why the violation, shortcut, unsafe behavior, etc. is happening, you have an opportunity to fix the system.

If you start with the negative, you may get compliance while you’re standing over their shoulder but you won’t get buy-in to make a lasting change. So start telling stories. Or, if you don’t have one of your own, at least listen to someone else’s. You might be surprised what you learn.

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Ronald McProject Manager: The Danger of Assumption

If you have trouble picturing the person I’m describing in this post, refer to this picture. It’s pretty accurate.

“Did your doctor tell you to stop being a crazy person and stop working out so much?” My curly red-haired, rosy cheeked, makeup-caked project manager sneered. It was her attempt at a joke, but it was actually a veiled insult.

“No, you nightmarish happy-meal clown,” I thought. “He told me that there’s actually one type of hemorrhoid that’s more uncomfortable than you.”

“No,” I actually responded. “He told me I’m one of his healthiest patients.” She grimaced and walked away, clearly not getting the satisfaction she’d wanted.

Let me back up and set the stage. There was so much going on at this time in my life that it probably warrants a few posts (we’ll see). The main thing was that it was a time of incredible focus and incredible uncertainty.

Days earlier, the man who had hired me as Safety Manager on a multi-site project had been walked off site. There’s still a bit of mystery in that story (he’s never told me the full version), but that’s a tale for another time. In his stead, an “expert” had been brought in to temporarily reign in his rouge staff. I was one of those unfortunate souls.

Assuming makes an… well you know

Let’s call my surrogate PM Maureen. Not (necessarily) because that name has any similarity to her real one, but because it closely relates to one of the antagonists in the sage show Rent (God knows she wore enough makeup). She was one of those managers whose only claim to fame was that she had been a “manager” for a really, really, f^#$ing really long time. Her opinions (judgments really) were a direct reflection of that.

Without knowing the state of anything, Maureen came to our site with preconceived notions about everything. It was a tense few weeks. For me that period was compounded by the fact that I was on the downward slope of more than 20 weeks of an intense training and diet regimen leading to my first (and only) bodybuilding competition.

It’s a lifestyle that I still lend a whole lot of respect toward. For me, the result was less than optimal and I learned that it wasn’t enough of a passion of mine to continue. But, nonetheless, I was in my final weeks of prep at that point and was laser-focused.

Maureen just thought I was a crazy person.

People don’t like what they can’t understand

Maureen didn’t understand me. She wasn’t willing to about hear the struggles our team had been having with the client. Her outlook was singularly focused. The report she had been given said management (at the site) was a problem, and she was there to correct it. My “obsession” with working out only reinforced her position.

Of course, all of the ancillary factors that contributed to that time and place had an affect, but it was wrong of her to judge based on the reports of a few or just a list of assumptions in her head. Sure we had problems on that site, but preconceived notions and heavy-handedness solved none of them.

I’m purposely not giving you a lot of detail about what, when, or how in this case. And I’m doing it to make a point. Shading the story with my opinion would shade your belief about what was right or wrong in that scenario. Those two choices (right and wrong) are personal, but so often we rely on others to provide our opinions for us.

Look, Listen, and Feel…

Anyone who has taken an American Heart Association First Aid course has heard those words. Those are the first steps in assessing a victim in order to determine if CPR is an appropriate course of action. So often in business we rush in (figuratively) and start providing CPR when the victim is conscious and breathing. That’s what Maureen did.

The next time you’re presented with a problem in your organization, take a beat. Look around. Listen to what everyone is saying. Feel out the culture to determine the correct course of action. Otherwise you’ll end up giving mouth-to-mouth to a very disgruntled, unwilling participant.

If you have a suggestion for a topic that you’d like me to cover, please leave it HERE.

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People Don’t Care Enough To Be Safe

Turns out when your knee bends sideways, you squeak…

At least I do.

I was standing two steps below the top of the second of two flights of stairs in the house my wife and I shared in Vegas. She was standing at the top and we were talking about something super important which I have absolutely no recollection of now. I do remember holding myself steady with my left hand placed firmly on the handrail while looking up at her. Then I pivoted to my left and shifted all of my weight to my right leg, intending to turn around and descend the stairs.

My right knee did not agree with that course of action. Instead of holding me up as I pivoted, it decided to play “I’m not a knee, today I’m a noodle.” As it did so, my lower right leg kicked itself unnaturally toward my wife (sideways) and I squeaked. The next thing I remember was waking up several steps down on the middle landing in excruciating pain.

It was much worse than the pain I’d already endured for the past six months since my noodle-knee had been operated on. The first thought in my head as I came to was regret for wearing socks on carpet stairs. Too bad I was so careless, right?

Let’s pause there for a minute and enjoy some vintage safety training:

The video clip above was posted a Human and Organizational Performance (HOP) group I’m a part of on LinkedIn. I got a few chuckles from it, but it also reminded me how stuck in the past this profession is. If you don’t think the beliefs in the video are alive and well today, you’re fooling yourself.

To be fair, not all of it is complete nonsense. If you choose to invest 8 minutes and 26 seconds to watch it, you’ll see what I mean. Near the end the video talks about things like teaching lessons, training, communicating throughout the organization, and personal responsibility. Those are all things worth investing in. The premise, however, is where it gets… sticky. To twist the words of the head honcho in the clip, if you believe the “majority” of accidents are caused by carelessness, you’re just “plain not smart.”

Here’s my beef with the whole concept of calling someones actions carelessness (sometimes labeled “choice”): it’s a cop out people use after something has occurred. The obvious reason people make the choice (see what I did there?) to do it, is because its easier than coming up with a real solution.

Sure there are outliers, and genuinely stupid people who just don’t perform safely no matter what direction they’re given, but most of our workers posses enough skill, drive, and cognitive ability to accomplish their jobs satisfactorily. People run into problems when the system fails. Come follow me down the rabbit hole:

Part of any system in which a human is working involves that human. So, when an event occurs, it’s almost irrelevant to say their behavior is what caused the event. Seriously, we wouldn’t be talking about a near miss, an injury, or a death if a human wasn’t involved. And you can’t go back in time and make someone do something different than they did in a given moment. So, wouldn’t it make more sense to try and figure out what influenced them to behave in a certain way?

Of course not, that requires taking responsibility…

I’m just going to say it. It’s plain lazy to say that a person made a choice to behave in a way that got them injured. Not only that, but its disingenuous as that statement is often coupled with the mantra: No one wants to get hurt at work. Most people just don’t think like that. We don’t manage risk in real time. We react to it based on our experience and the environment we’re in. Sometimes reactions yield positive results, sometimes they don’t.

Now let’s get back to my knee. If that scenario happened in an industrial environment, someone would inevitably call out any of the several poor choices I made. Working back through time it might go something like this:

  • The employee failed to ensure that the stairs were clean and free from debris that could contribute to a slip/trip (We hadn’t vacuumed in a while and our cats had hair… so…).
  • The employee was not standing a safe location.
  • The employee was focused above himself, not paying attention to his surroundings.
  • The employee was wearing improper PPE (no socks on the stairwell).

The problem with that line of thinking is that none of those contributing factors were conscious choices I made. There was no sign (which I ignored) at the bottom of the stairwell with an info graphic stating “SOCKS SHALL NOT BE WORN ON STAIRS.” My wife and I didn’t have a sanitation schedule we neglected that dictated how often the stairs must be vacuumed. We didn’t have an SOP that explained where it was or was not safe to converse. You get my drift.

They were interactions…

You could easily argue that I’m playing with semantics here, but that’s not my point. I’m suggesting that we get practical. People don’t “choose” most of the things they do throughout the day in the same way one chooses what to order from a menu. We interact with our environments based on the stimuli around us (and within us to some degree). Call it a choice if you want. Chances are it’s a subconscious one.

So am I suggesting like George Potter that it’s all hopeless and we should just accept that when our number is up, it’s our turn for an accident? Hardly. Let’s go back to my knee one more time.

It’s tempting to label any of my behaviors listed above as careless. But that would be pretty presumptive thing to do. In fact, knowing my weakness, I remember gripping the handrail extra tight (because, you know, handrails prevent every fall…). I even remember the seconds before noodle-knee gave out that my intention was to grab the rail just as tightly with my other hand when I turned around to descend. I had done a risk assessment, it just wasn’t adequate. Because, right or wrong, most of my actions were commonplace habits when I was at home. I also didn’t know what I didn’t know (that my knee wasn’t strong enough).

Now I know what could happen in that scenario. I’m armed with tools that can help perform the task better in the future. Again, transporting the event to an industrial environment, I consider the following:

  • Stairs should be inspected for slip hazards before using them.
  • Footwear with proper grip must be worn.
  • Conversations should take place off of the stairs.
  • Special consideration should be given to my right knee that is less strong.
    • Better yet, I could work on strengthening it (which I’ve done over the years).

Unfortunately I learned those lessons the hard way, but we can always get better at identifying similar opportunities before something happens. I cover that concept in both of these linked posts: Nuts & Bolts No One Can Find: Part 1 and Nuts and Bolts No One Can Find: Part 2.

So why don’t we choose to do safety differently…

If I had planned my stair journey better, I may have avoided an injury (maybe not though, no one will ever know). But I certainly didn’t start that day off looking risk in the face and responding: “screw it, it won’t get me this time.” This is an argument I tend to get in more than I should (mostly because its a waste of breath) with stubborn Safety Practitioners, but it’s something we need to address. I’ll say it again: telling someone they made a choice to get injured is a cop out. It’s an excuse to place blame on the injured rather than dig deeper and figure out what influenced that person’s actions/reactions. Often that will mean that part of the system we own (training, procedures, machine configuration, maintenance, etc.) was faulty. The human may well have been, too. But like I said that’s irrelevant. You can’t engineer mistakes out of people.

I’m always looking for new things to discuss as well. If you have an idea, leave it HERE and I’ll include it in an upcoming post.

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What Game of Thrones Taught Me About Safety

Hopefully my writing is better than Season 8… Jus’ sayin’

Prepare for the end!

Since I haven’t mentioned it in this blog before (or if you’re not one of my ten regular readers), I should mention that I’m a pretty huge Game of Thrones fan. I’d rate myself a 7 on a 1-10 scale of Westerosi geek. And just for honesty’s sake I’ll come clean and admit I’m not a fan of books, they gave me anxiety. So, you can take my analysis with a grain of salt if you’re a more die-hard fan than I am.

Specifically, I have been a fan of the HBO TV show for the past few years, having gone through the first seven seasons three times. For me, the allure was in the writing, cinematography, and subtle nuance the show-runners put in every episode. It was one of those shows that transported you to another place. Was being the operative word.

Don’t worry… there won’t be any spoilers in this post. I prefer to let anyone who hasn’t watched the final season imagine how bad it might be for themselves. Doing that will provide you with more entertainment than any of this season’s episodes that have aired thus far. Anyway, it all ends tonight (thank God).

But I just want to keep going…

Yesterday I was clicking through recent videos on my YouTube subscription list and happened upon one of many GoT finale prediction videos. The creator mentioned with some sadness that he hoped to continue making videos after the show ended but didn’t know what that looked like. Since his channel is entirely devoted to the show, it seemed like a hopeless proposition. Believe it or not, though, I can relate to the feeling. Perhaps you can too.

What I’m getting at is the idea of keeping safety “fresh.” I mean, there’s not all that much new material out there in this field. Sure, OSHA updates a regulation on crystalline silica once every 30 years or so, but that’s not really something that excites the average Joe.

The YouTuber who’s struggling with trying to come up with new material is only just now experiencing what every safety professional has been plagued with for years. The only difference is that “safety” doesn’t have a finite, predetermined ending (that’s a good thing by the way).

I’m talking, no one’s listening

One of my earliest experiences in this field was on a construction “mega project.” I was young, ambitious, and inexperienced. In spite of that fact, I was told to go out on site and lead a weekly safety walk. The process dictated that I was to kick off the walk each week with a focus topic.

Within two weeks of the assignment, I came to loathe the task. The first problem was solely a personal one, given that I didn’t believe I had a worthwhile message to share with people who had far more experience than me. That insecurity was impossible to mask. It was also a chip on my shoulder that I needed to get over before I could realize my real potential (maybe you’re in the same boat).

The second problem was the task itself: talking about something new every week. I didn’t realize until years later that very few others gave nearly as much consideration to the topics as I did. Had I known that, I may have mustered more confidence. But, I digress. I put a great amount of emphasis on making an impact. Identifying topics that supported that endeavor was a huge challenge (and still is).

So here’s what I’ve learned

Since I started this post about Game of Thrones, I’d be remiss if I didn’t connect the dots. Here’s what the show taught me about safety:

  • Be consistent:
    • Like it or not, people crave stability. The truth is you don’t have to make safety new or fresh. It just has to be impactful. GoT had impact until it’s final season. People are giving up because (my opinion) the writers got lazy with the end. The same thing will happen if we get lazy with our safety programs.
  • People who aren’t invested don’t care:
    • THIS ARTICLE is an example of just how much people don’t care. If you don’t get personal investment in safety, the result will be similar. How many outspoken “crusty old guys” have you met in your career who want to argue non-stop about how pointless safety is and try to prove their case by stating they’ve never gotten hurt before?
  • People want to feel connected:
  • No one lives up to the hype
  • Execute those who betray you: No, sorry. That’s for a different blog.

So that’s it for now. If the episode lets you down tonight, at least you’ll have something else to talk about with your viewing party guests. Who doesn’t enjoy a nice intellectual conversation about safety on a Sunday evening, right? In any case, have a great week.

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Are You Going To Salute Me, Son?

man-151816_640There’s a cat and mouse game every new military member struggles to learn. It’s one of those things that probably doesn’t matter all that much, but after hundreds of hours of customs and courtesies are drilled into your head, you tend to sweat the small stuff. Sometimes that’s the difference between life and death, so the game certainly has it’s place.

My wife (an Army vet) often reminds me that the other branches had bigger things to worry about (like not getting shot), but I still think the game is universal to some degree. I won’t keep you in the dark. The “game” I’m referring to is the mental chess match an officer and and an enlisted member play with one another as they cross paths out doors. For those who may not be aware, the enlisted party must initiate a salute whenever they meet a recognized commissioned officer. The game was played by determining just how close you could get before doing it (there is a specific instruction for distance, but to be honest I don’t remember and just don’t care enough to research it).

I only lost the game once…

I have many fond memories of salutes gone awry. Some were done so awkwardly that it was near impossible to maintain bearing, but those aren’t the subject of this post. They wouldn’t be all that entertaining to anyone who didn’t serve anyway.

The episode in question happened within the first few days of my assignment in South Korea. I had just finished work and was hastily making my way to the base post office to pick up a package from my parents. In those days work ended at 1630 (4:30 pm). That meant I had exactly thirty minutes before Retreat signaled and the National Anthem played. Retreat isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean that you must stand at attention saluting the flag throughout the entirety of Star Spangled Banner. So you try not to be outside when it happens.

In my rush, I approached the final street before the small sloped driveway to the post office. I looked up and instantly felt a flutter of nervousness when I noticed the full-bird Colonel (one rank below Brigadier General) approaching me from the other side. Mentally I began preparing my salute.

In perfect unison we both stepped off opposite curbs and began the final paces toward our inevitable meeting. Then without warning he drew a deep breath and nearly screamed,

“Are you going to salute me, son?”

How’s this for a salute?

Instinctively I lifted my right hand and offered the most limp, confused salute of my career.

“Yes, sir.” I held my hand against the brim of my cover (hat) as we awkwardly gazed at each other and crossed the street together. “Good, how? Good evening sir?” I didn’t know what to say. He didn’t even return the salute.

To add in insult to injury, the encounter slowed me down so much that I only made it to the driveway of the post office before retreat crackled over the base loudspeakers. The Colonel probably would have laughed at me if he hadn’t also been caught.

Contrasting leadership styles

I’ll come back to the over zealous full-bird Colonel in a bit, but first I want to flip to a different side of the same coin.

Months later I was assigned to a pack and ship detail. It is an exercise only done every few years. My job was “spotter” on a two man crew. Our task was to take loaded semi-trailers to a staging area. From there they would then be inspected and taken to port. It wasn’t complicated, but it required a bit of coordination to ensure the right material was shipped on the right boat. That equated to a whole lot of good ‘ol “hurry up and wait.”

The roads leading to the staging area were narrow and parking was at a premium. So, we learned quickly that we didn’t even want to depart the base until there was room for us at the stage. That meant finding a hiding spot for our forty-footer fully loaded down with munitions. My driver was excellent. He located a dead end alley/road in an obscure corner of the base and skillfully backed us in. My job was to signal him from outside the truck so he didn’t hit anything.

I did my job dutifully for the first week or so (the assignment lasted upward of three) until both the driver and I agreed getting out every time was just a waste of time. There were no hazards in the alley, and almost no chance of causing a scene. As a fail safe, I used the mirror on my side to alert him to any changing conditions.

Objects are closer than… well shit!

One afternoon we were nestling our transport back into its hiding place. It was just after lunch so there were a few more people meandering around behind us than usual. None seemed close enough to pose a risk as I peered through my mirror. I had twisted myself against my door as I did so in order to give myself maximal field of vision.

Then, violently, and without warning my door swung open. I grabbed my (buckled) seat belt as I started to spill out of the truck. At least I was doing one thing right.

“Why. The. FUCK are you not out spotting your driver?” The Silver Oak Leaf of the Lieutenant Colonel’s insignia glinted in the sun. Instinctively I tried to pop up a salute while steadying myself at the same time. “Don’t salute me! Get the hell out of this truck and do your job!”

“Yes, Sir,” I replied. As I exited he gave one last tidbit of knowledge.

“I better never see you warming a passenger seat again, Airman.” he looked up at my driver. “That goes for both of you!” With that he turned and walked away.

When we returned to our shop, we were both expecting hell to be unleashed. Nothing ever came of it though. The Lt. Col. hadn’t said a word to anyone but us. Over the remainder of the year we both saw him periodically in places like the chow hall or out on the street and always gave him his due respect. Not because he’d yelled at us, but because he had earned it. The orders he’d given us were based on doing the right thing, not obligation. The fact that he hadn’t told on us meant he trusted us to follow through. That was a trust neither of us was willing to break.

In contrast, I wouldn’t have even been able to pick the full-bird out of a lineup even two minutes after he’d yelled at me to salute him.

The safety “choice”

There’s a lot of pseudoscience going around these days about the “choice” a worker makes to be safe. This post is already far too long to broach that subject so I’ll get into that later. There is, however, a real safety choice that hardly anyone acknowledges. It’s the choice the safety professional has to act in a way that supports employees vs ordering them to do safety’s bidding.

Think of it this way: You can be like the full-bird and yell and scream for people to do things “because I (or God-forbid…OSHA) say so.” Or you can be like the Lt. Col. who coached us to do the right thing because it was the right thing to do… and then trusted us to do it! The latter is how you get an empowered workforce that wants to work safely.

Either way, it’s your choice.

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How to Stop Writing Sucky Safety Procedures: Understanding Edition

This post is the second in my series on writing better procedures

Bill still wants us to do better. How can you argue with the bard?

I miss the ridiculously simple instructions we had in the military. This weekend, amidst construction of the IKEA loft bed from hell, I longed for the days of reading “turn the screw on the left one-quarter turn.”

The bed wasn’t actually from IKEA, but it had enough parts to qualify. The “instructions” were pictures with basic directions such as “connect M (there were 79 of those BTW) to x using bolt #4 (105 of those).” It only took me four hours to get it together. Then a bonus trip to Home Depot to pick up some bolts to secure it to the wall (I am still a safety guy after all).

The agony was worth it though because my son is exceedingly proud of his new furniture. I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank my parents for getting it for him, too.

But back to my point about instructions. In the Air Force, we had Technical Orders (TOs for short since everything in the military is an acronym). If memory serves, they were all written at an eighth grade reading level. Not as an insult to service members, but as insurance that no one misinterpreted them. The IKEA bed reminded me of the one time we didn’t have those instructions available. Let’s just say a bit of good-spirited rebellion ensued.

If you’ve been reading along, you may recall from reading THIS EARLIER POST that I was a munitions maintenance technician. Near the end of my first duty assignment (a one year tour in South Korea), I was leading a crew of three other Airmen whose primary job was to maintain air-to-ground tankbuster missiles. One morning a beat up, corroded metal box containing a special missile showed up with an accompanying work order for a complete refurb. The missile was special because it was the last one of it’s kind.

The USAF had plenty of newer models…

The missile was manufactured in 1960. Someone had found it one squirreled away in a warehouse and decided to send it off in style. I don’t remember the exact occasion, but some high-ranking pilot was going to fire the relic. In order for it to be fit for that type of fanfare, it needed a fresh coat of paint (and a full function check, but why sweat that detail if it wasn’t shiny…).

When my crew and I removed it from the ancient casket we saw something extraordinary. It had the same shape as the newer models, but it was… ugly. Ugly to a scary degree since explosives aren’t typically something you typically want to see rusted and broken down. Then we received another surprise.

There were no instructions.

We thumbed through the hundreds of pages of that missile’s TO and came up blank. The missile, as it turns out, was so old that it’s work instructions were retired. All we could find was a tattered picture in one of the appendices.

The four of us stood around it scratching our heads trying to interpret the faded drawing. If you’re not familiar, marking requirements on military equipment (munitions included) are extremely prescriptive. We had to measure out exactly the right width for the color band (an indicator of what type of explosive), place labels and letters meticulously, and ensure that the exact mil-spec colors were used. I’m oversimplifying the process to boot.

“Should we paint it OD (olive drab) like the others,” one of the guys asked. I looked up at him and then back at the black and white sketch.

“No,” I said. “I’m pretty sure this one’s pink.” Another of the guys looked up at me and grinned. He paused for a beat before chiming in.

“It does look pink,” he agreed. “And I think it has purple tiger stripes on the tail” The other two were fully now fully aware of the plot that was forming.

“I think it has one of those shark faces at the front, too. What do you guys think?” I asked.

With that we were off and running. We started with the function check, then checked all the torques on the bolts. But then… the real work began. When we were finished, the Air Force was the proud owner of a pink polka-dotted, purple tiger-striped, shark face missile. It was the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a real unicorn.

I know it’s not a missile. But… Shark Face! You get the picture.

The boss was not impressed…

Thankfully his boss was. In the end, the unicorn was shipped to the flight-line and fired with much more fanfare than the pilot was likely expecting. My only regret was that I didn’t get to see it.

At this point I hope you’ve figured out how the story relates to safety procedures. If not let me give you my takeaways.

The first is that people need meaningful instructions. I know that should go without saying, but it never ceases to amaze me how often leaders (safety or otherwise) assume that people know what’s expected. They might have a basic idea, but assuming they understand how to get the job done is a dangerous proposition. Plain and simple, if you want someone to do something tell them, then explain how to do it.

The second takeaway is that those instructions should be clear and concise. I’ll cover this in greater detail in the next post in this series. Until then, let’s just suffice it to say that copying an OSHA reg and calling it a procedure doesn’t fit the bill. If you want people to do something, tell them exactly what you want (turn the screw one-quarter turn…). No fancy words required.

There’s so much more to be said about this topic. It’s one that I believe is highly underrated. In the coming months, I’ll be developing a “Procedure Mastery Course” which will be available here at Relentless Safety. If that would be of interest to you, send me a note at jason@relentlesssafety and let me know what you’d like to see in a course like that.

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Ridiculous Claims of Safety

It’s time to let the cat out of the bag…

I’m the greatest boxer of all time! Some of you are reeling from that revelation, I know. It’s true! I’ve never fought, but I’m sure I’m the best. I mean, I can bench 295 (315 next month baby) pounds, so it stands to reason I can hit really hard too.

Maybe you don’t buy it, but I am the safest boxer of all time, though. Who else can claim that they’ve avoided getting punched in the face for their entire career? (although according to my wife, that streak won’t continue if I keep up with this blog)

Since I’m in the mood to talk about ridiculous claims, let’s kick around one of the most frequently made in the name of safety. Say, for instance, the idea that a low injury rate somehow equates to high performance in safety.

But you have to have a low rate to get a VPP Star!

You also have to eat in order to get food poisoning, what’s your point? Of course OSHA would require a low rate in order for entry into their program. There’s no other regulatory “measure” for safety. As with all things OSHA, rates have their place, but they’re hardly a measure of performance. I’ll put it this way; if you need the government to give you a gold star in life, you’re missing the whole point of living. Safety should just be part of who each one of us is. Simple (but not easy).

Instead, we’ve let it become a task we have to check off a list. This is where safety pros and average Joes both get it wrong. Safety tells people to do it because OSHA said, which means nothing. Many of those people, in turn, just check it off to make Safety go away. Then we all hope for the best and pray no injuries occur. Because if nothing happens, we’re good at safety, right?

That makes about as much sense as saying that KFC tastes good because it’s not made with grapefruit. Or that people from the south sound funny because they’re not from California.

But doing something is hard…

There are far too many who would debate, argue, and cry for days about how incident rates are the best benchmark we’ve got. That’s because measuring nothing is easy. People who would argue just want to cash paychecks. It’s much harder to measure action and see meaningful results. But that’s what moves the barometer. Not inaction and hope.

The good news is that there are visionaries out there who are making impacts. They’re building safety into their processes. In order for real change to take place, though, we have to start educating our leadership about what real progress in safety means. It’s not removing all the bumps and scrapes that lead to OSHA recordables. It’s sending our people home every night to the lives they work so hard to support.

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It’s Pronounced “Workers”

As in worker’s compensation…

I stared blankly at Dr. Dickhead (honestly I can’t remember his name and he was one, so…). The site I worked on at the time employed a full-time medical provider and I had just pitched an idea to him. Rather than respond to my pitch, he keyed in on that particular word.
“That’s what I said, doc.”

“No, you said ‘workman’s.’ It’s pronounced ‘workers.'” This was going nowhere.

“Ok,” I said slowly enough for him to understand. “I think this could really help reduce our WORK-ER’s compensation cost. It helped me get off all of the pain treatments I’d been on for years.”

“Well, you’re just a case study of one. That’s no reason to believe something like that could work.” With that the doc turned and walked out of my office. Apparently our conversation had ended.

The idea I had pitched to him was something that I later found huge success in implementing at two different locations. It was an early intervention program for soft tissue injuries called Active Release Techniques. If you’ve never heard of it, do yourself a favor and click that link. For me and countless others, the method has been a life changer. But that’s not the point of this post.

Why wouldn’t we do what works?

My conversation with Dr. D has been seared into my memory for years because it is one of the best examples I’ve ever experienced of people resisting change. In my experience, even people who say otherwise don’t want to venture outside of their comfort zones. But that’s what it takes to change. And change is something this industry desperately needs.

I read an inspiring article about that earlier today and it got me thinking about the goals I’ve given myself. This came after having to chew on my tongue for the last several days rather than spend them in constant debate with someone who wouldn’t have played fairly anyway. As I said, there’s real resistance to change in the field of safety that defies basic logic. It will take more than a few courageous people to change it.

This brings me to another story: one of my first experiences hearing about the term Human Performance Improvement (some now label it HOP among other things). The concept is simple though, fix the system, not the human. Humans are fallible. We will make mistakes, errors, missteps, and incorrect decisions. The presenter was none other than Dr. Todd Conklin.

His presentation was centered on the human performance version of accident reconstruction (as opposed to typical root cause analysis). A coworker and I sat through the workshop and became energized by the ideas presented. It was a whole new way of looking at the world and it just made sense to me. There are zealots out there who still dismiss the ideas outright just because it isn’t what we’ve always done. Or worse, because it isn’t BBS (don’t get me started).

Let’s double down instead, that will work…

Our excitement spilled over and my co-worker and I went to our manager. We explained how simple, yet effective the process was and advocated for trying it out. His response?

“We’re not even good at the process we have now. We can’t start something new.” There was no budging him from that opinion.

And it wasn’t just him. The safety profession is plagued by insane re-branding and reissuing of the same ineffective initiatives that have never worked. In the hope that maybe, just maybe this time will be different. It’s mind-boggling.

  • Not driving compliance for a PPE policy?
  • Having issues with soft tissue injuries?
  • Still experiencing a rash of soft tissue injuries?
    • Limit the amount your employees can lift to less than 10 lbs and buy them all back braces (don’t you dare think about teaching them how to get stronger)!
  • Having problems with high injury rates in general?
    • Make more rules, and chastise the employee’s poor behavior when they get hurt to discourage others from doing the same.

If you aren’t picking up my sarcasm, well, just go ahead and do everything I just listed. There’s no hope for you.

I’ve said it before, do what matters!

If you’re a sensible person, let’s agree to do better. For me, that means I’m going to quit asking for permission so much (thanks Kevin). There are enough of us out there to make some real impacts in this field, but we have to get the idiots out of the way first. Let’s to that by outplaying them at their own game.

If someone thinks that write ups for violations is the way to go, prove them wrong by coaching and then figuring out how the system failed (then fixing it). Maybe you’ll have the opportunity like I did to implement something incredible like ART. Whatever you do, promote it in spite of the naysayers. In the end, they’re only screaming because they know your efforts will prove theirs were ineffective.

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The Dark Place

I shouldn’t be alive

This is a story I’ve tried to write for years. It’s cloudy, hurtful, and dark. And though it’s a slight departure from my usual posts it’s something that needs to be read. If even by one person. Please share this one if you share any.

The safety part of this story is something that affects someone you know. You may not know who or how badly, but he or she is out there. I know because I was one of them. Until I found myself outside of my body with my four month old son screaming in his baby rocker beside me. I couldn’t hear him, but I knew he was there. In my chair, I was awake but asleep… and looking at myself from above.

All of that sounds mystical and surreal, but I warned you this story was cloudy. The truth is I don’t remember what was going on. I just remember feelings. And I know my son was screaming. I had overdosed on completely legal, prescription medication. Medication which was designed to be taken for two weeks. I’d been given them daily for nearly four years.

I’ll tell the story of my injuries in a future post, but the long and short of it was that I messed up my foot, knee, and right side of my rib cage while serving in the USAF. It actually ended my career. But that’s not what’s important in this story.

To keep anyone from getting any ideas, I’m not going to tell you what I had taken or how, but suffice it to say that 16 is too many of anything. Then it was dark.

At some point, hours… minutes… seconds later my wife shook some life back into me and pulled me out of the chair. I mumbled something and stumbled to bed, but I should have died. No one, not even she, knew how dark my life was at that moment.

They own you…

I hadn’t been me for years. Because the pills own you. They change you. And unless you’ve been there, you don’t know how powerless you can be. Judge if you want, but you don’t know.

My pills taught me to play games. I wasn’t ballsy enough to find the dark corners of the internet and get more or stronger stuff, so I “strategized.” In those days my wife left for work before I did so I would play possum until she was gone. Then I’d take the sheets off of our bed and divvy up my stockpile. I would put the combinations together based on what I had to do from one day to the next. My rationale was that some days would suck (I would abstain for days at a time), just so I could have one really good day.

On those days I would carry my little pill pouch in the coin pocket of my jeans until just the right moment, then take them all at once. My strategy never worked, and inevitably I would run out before my next appointment with my dealer (doctor).

All of the games were because nothing worked. The pills didn’t work, the games didn’t work, the pain “procedures” didn’t work. Nothing. Until that day outside of my body. That day I made a choice to live, if for nothing else than to see my son grow up.

Don’t follow my example…

I woke up the next morning from my coma and flushed everything I had (yes I know you’re not supposed to do that, save your piety) and quit cold turkey (I also know you’re not supposed to do that). That didn’t end my pain, though.

Truth be told, I still have pain. I still have nerve damage in my rib cage. I still have garbage knees. What I don’t have is tolerance for letting those things rule my life. That’s the only choice any of us have when dealing with pain. You rule it, or you let it rule you.

I made it to the other side

I don’t tell this story to glorify myself. The only reason I made it out was because I was lucky. Stupid and lucky. I quit wrong. I didn’t have a plan. Odds were not in my favor (over 130 people in the US die every day from opioids). And guess what? Almost no one cares.

But some of you reading do. You wouldn’t be reading a safety blog if you didn’t. Know that there is probably someone in your life who is struggling with the same things I was. I hid it well, they likely do too. But there are always signs. If you see them, don’t turn a blind eye. Engage.

You may not get them to stop. The truth is you don’t have that kind of power. But you may help them find their reason. For their sake, I hope you do.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, contact the National Drug Helpline for more information. If you wait for someone else to do it, it may be too late.

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