How To Stop Writing Sucky Safety Procedures: Brevity Edition

How To Stop Writing Sucky Safety Procedures: Brevity Edition

If you’ve ever used words like minutia or circumspect in a document, this one’s for you (but congrats on your big vocabulary).

Bill is back. We’re still not good at this.

If you’re new to this series, you can read the first three parts HERE (Execution Edition), HERE (Understanding Edition), and HERE (Ego Edition)

One of my favorite books is On Writing, by Stephen King. I’ve actually read it more than once, which for me is a rarity. In it he discusses his distaste for adverbs and the need to “kill your darlings.” I think that’s just as important for stories and characters as it is for the words we use in procedures.

“Omit needles words.”

-The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

You may not think there is a lot of similarity between writing a horror novel and writing a safety document, but I’d be willing to have that debate. Writing is writing. It’s just that some of it is boring as hell to read. If you accept that going in, your chances of getting someone to read your magnificent safety epic are that much greater.

For the love of all that is good, don’t make it an epic, though…

Be direct, be concise, and say what you mean. Here are a few common problems I see with the volumes of safety programs I have seen over the years:

  • Pages of exposition and explanation about who, why, what, when, where, and how
    • Safety Professionals are desperate to explain the justification behind what we write. I think maybe it’s a bit of overcompensation designed to prove to our people that we really care and we’re not just asking because OSHA said so. Those explanations are great, but here’s a newsflash. NO ONE reads them. Save the all important WHYs for training and face to face interactions. It will stick better that way anyway. No one wants to read BLS statistics (admit it, you don’t either) before they head to the job.
  • Confusing decision trees, charts, and pages upon pages of appendices
    • If your document reads like a choose your own adventure novel, your reader will most likely get eaten in the jungle by a rabid species of crocodile long thought to be extinct. Keep it simple.
  • Assuming “they get it”
    • The average worker does not think like a Safety Professional. That’s not a knock, it’s a fact based on roles. We are charged with identifying hazards, analyzing risk, and working to help provide solutions. Most positions in an organization are not that abstract. They’re task based. Align your writing style to that of the worker and you’ll get a lot more millage out of it.

There’s a lot more to talk about

But in the interest of keeping this post brief, I’m going to leave it to you for now. Look through your guidance documents and ask the questions yourself. Are they too long? Are the directions understandable?

Just remember, there’s always something to take out. If your safety manual is 150 pages or more, consider how many people actually know what’s in it. How much more effective would it be if it were 30? That may sound like a pipe dream, but it’s entirely possible.

If you struggle getting safety documents and guidance to stick, I’d be happy to help. Email me at if you’re interested in a consultation. As always I’ll continue this topic in the weeks to come. There’s a lot to unpack.

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Six Keys To Safety (It’s Not What You Think)

I hardly ever know what’s in my pocket

My wife and I live about three hours from my parents. Once a month or so, we pack up the kids and the dog (the evil cat stays home so she can only pee on our stuff) and spend the weekend there. In the year or so we’ve been doing that we’ve never had a key to their house. Usually that isn’t a problem, but once or twice we’ve been stuck with no way to get in until they get home.

So, this weekend, my Dad found a spare key and handed it to me as I was packing up to head home. I took it and then retrieved my bundle of keys from the dresser in the spare room. For years I’ve prided myself on not carrying needless keys around, but as I was looking for the most appropriate place to put my keys (in order by size and type… I’m a little OCD), it occurred to me that I had more keys than I thought i did. There were more than a few that may never again open their intended door because I have NO IDEA what they’re for.

To be exact, there were six…

Big surprise, right? I’m sure many of you have just as many orphans in your pocket even as you read this. This “problem” got me thinking. I’m sure that at one point I was shown where and how to use each of the keys. I wouldn’t have put them in my pocket otherwise. It made me think about how we do the same thing with safety protocols.

Following conventional “safety guy” wisdom, I must be an idiot for not remembering. Some might even classify my lack of key usage a violation. If I pontificate long enough I can almost get there myself. One of those keys must go to my front door, I’m nearly positive of it. But I don’t ever use it. I open the garage door and enter my house through the laundry room. That is a textbook shortcut. It’s universally known that people who take shortcuts are conniving, decietful, liars who take safety for granted and just want the world to burn. They’re never honest, hard workers who are just trying to complete a task…

I don’t want to get too far off on a tangent. My point is that everyone forgets the reason and method from time to time. Sometimes we even make up a new way in the interest of getting the job done. Being shown the “right way” once will hardly make an impact. Even on smart people who are really good at working keys (or tools, equipment, or machinery for that matter).

So why, then, do we chastise and blame?

Last week, a reader sent me a description of an injury that occurred at a high voltage substation they were working on. I’m going to share it here (edited with their permission for anonymity reasons) and then circle back to the keys:

My crew was working at a main substation that was feeding another sub. I was in the main sub with a partner, and everyone else went to the other sub.  We had de-energized the main station, done a LOTO, and opened all breakers feeding the other sub. The second sub is about 3 miles away and fed with 12KV underground cable. Joe (my apprentice) and the others had opened all the breakers and Fuses at that sub and were preparing to clean and perform routine maintenance on the entire switchgear. 

Their process included touching off each phase of the 12KV feeder cable with a ground and then proceeding to wipe down, vacuum, and route the switches. Unfortunately no-one thought about the capacitive effect of high voltage cable and believed that momentarily “touching” them off would make it safe. After being given the ok to proceed, Joe entered the cubicle with a wiping rag in each hand. As he stepped in he grabbed A phase with his left hand to balance and simultaneously touched his right elbow to C phase. He received a severe phase to phase cable discharge across his body resulting in a burn to his left hand and right elbow. The right elbow was close to, if not, a 3rd degree burn.

The discharge came from the stored energy in approximately 5 to 6 miles of 12KV cable. My estimate is that the voltage was at least 4KV, possibly up to 10KV.

The lead engineer on the job immediately berated Joe for his “stupid” behavior, telling him stuff like “now you’re going to lose your job and get me fired too.  You broke protocol …..”  At that time another employee told the lead to shut up and helped tend to Joe and his burns. The lead asked Joe “if” he wanted to go to the hospital. By now he was intimidated and scared s*&$less. So he just sat down and said “I’ll be ok in a few minutes.” AND everyone there went along with it. 

I was at the primary sub and not aware of any of this. About 10 minutes later the lead came by our location and said that Joe had gotten “bit” and asked if we were working on the feeder cable.  We were not.  We never touched the feeder cables. 

I didn’t see the burns until about 30 hours later at dinner.  When I did I was incensed and told Joe “you need to go to the hospital.”  To my shame I did not drag him there and he didn’t go. Five days later I convinced him to go to the emergency room and get checked. His fiance took him to the ER and while in the waiting room he called our manager and safety person. Both of them made light of his concerns and told him “well do what you gotta do.” “It’s just going to be a lot of drama and paper work for you and us.”

These comments enraged Joe and he left the ER without seeing a Doctor. 

11 days later I was finally able to convince Joe to go the ER and get checked, telling him that the incident was reported and the investigation, consequences, and paper work were going to happen whether he was seen by a doctor or not.  So he went to the ER and got an MRI and CT scan with a clean bill of health.  However, the doctor told him it could still cause him health problems in the future and that it was good to have it documented and on file.

-Anonymous Relentless Safety subscriber

Do you get mad when they do it wrong?

Obviously I can’t share where or who the reader who submitted this story is, but I did have the good fortune to speak to him about this on the phone. I’m knowledgeable when it comes to electrical safety, but I’m not sure I wouldn’t have made the same mistakes as Joe. And from what I’m told, Joe is a very smart guy. He’s been told about the dangers of capacitance, and likely even studied the formulas for calculating how long a high voltage cable needs to be grounded before it’s safe.

But that’s not likely why the engineer (we’ll call him Craig just like the bad guys in this other story) yelled and screamed expletives at him for “Effing up.” My guess is that the anger was an attempt at misdirection. It’s something we’ve all done when we find ourselves lacking or inadequate (especially in a leadership capacity). Craig yelled, screamed, cussed at Joe because he wanted the spotlight taken off of his inability to lead his team. I’ll never understand why people think getting loud would make people look in any other direction except theirs.

The story above is a common one. Though circumstances might change slightly, there’s an abundance of examples of outrage directed at a worker when they do something wrong. Unless that person is being willfully negligent or destructive, that outrage is almost always misplaced and unnecessary. Left unchecked, it will perpetuate problems in your organization.

So what do the keys have to do with it?

They’re reminders of our fallibility.

The next time you question why someone “would be so stupid” or “behave so unsafe,” reach down into your pocket, pull out your keys and see if you remember what they all do. If you do, great, you’re a better person than most. If not, look at the “idiot” in front of you and give them some grace (especially if they’re burnt or bleeding). You might get fired. The injured person might too. Emotion won’t change that.

A better response to any upset is to try and figure out how you got there. That doesn’t require getting angry at the people who are sitting next to you on the bus. Those people are not your problem, but they will likely help you find a solution.

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Listen, Young Grasshopper

You have much to learn…

This post was a suggestion from my colleague Michael King in response to my last post. There I discussed being a better mentor. The thought never occurred that there are some great lessons to be shared about being a better mentee as well. So, I got to thinking.

My first thought was that I’m usually a terrible one. Through the years I’ve been cocky, overly talky (still am), and stubborn (my wife insists that I am still that as well). In spite of those things, I’ve had the honor of learning from some I consider greats. A few even had the patience to put up with me.

This is what I’ve learned

  • Understand your mentor is human
    • I considered putting this lower on the list, but I think it deserves top spot. It may be because I’m still a bit cocky, but hey, it’s my list. Every so often I catch a glimpse of doubt on the face of someone I respect and look up to for guidance. It’s a sobering thing to realize, but even the wisest among us is still just one of us. The best leaders are those who realize that and accept they don’t have all the answers. So trust but, never idolize. That leads to disappointment.
  • Shut up and learn how to listen (even when your mentor isn’t right)
    • Hear, process, then respond.
  • Know what you’re worth (and what you’re not)
    • I remember sitting in a McDonald’s on Broadway in Nashville back in 2002 when a girl came in sobbing about some terrible, mean man named Simon. She buried her head in a friend’s shoulder and inconsolably drooled. Mascara ran onto her friend as the girl explained that Simon had no idea what he was talking about. She was amazing. He didn’t understand what he was passing up. Months later I saw the girl again on a new show called American Idol. Let’s just suffice it to say that Simon was not wrong. Just as that girl needed a dose of reality, often the mentee does as well. Learn to be honest with yourself, about yourself.
  • Ask questions
    • Even the best mentor doesn’t have the omniscience to understand all of your needs. Give them a hint once in a while.
  • Be self-sufficient
    • A good mentor will empower as much as they enlighten. One of my proudest achievements was doing just that. During my stint in facility management, I was given responsibility over parts and supplies. To that end I hired a young technician who had little experience. I sent him to training, bought him an expensive inventory management program, and then showed him a picture of what I wanted his parts room to look like. For days he would call (from upstairs) and ask me things like where I wanted him to put the crescent wrenches. At first I would talk him through it and give advice. Then one day I realized what he really needed. The next time he called to ask I responded with: “I don’t care, Joe. Make it look like the picture.” He did, well. Shortly thereafter he was hired as an assistant manager at the corporate warehouse.
  • Have the hard conversations
    • Admit when you’re wrong, argue (respectfully) when you’re right, and say the things most people aren’t willing to say. Your mentor will respect you for it, and you’ll grow as a result.

Now go forth and do great things

I’m not really that zen, but the six things above have helped me. Some of them are deceptively hard. You won’t always get it right, but that’s why you need a mentor in the first place. Keep working on it.

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What Are You Going To Tell Them About Safety?

That question has haunted me since before I called myself a Safety Professional

How about I tell you without words?

I was about a month away from becoming a civilian after nearly six years in the Air Force. My uncle and I were sitting in his kitchen where I had just excitedly told him my good news. I was going to work for a huge, multinational construction firm as a safety technician. It was life changing, completely unfamiliar territory.

The only thing I knew about construction was that most people wear hard hats while doing it. My uncle knew it, though. So he asked me the obvious question.

“What could you possibly tell a 30 year iron worker about safety?” I didn’t have an answer (to be honest, I’m not sure I do now).

As I began trying to wrap my head around my new position, I was assigned to a senior safety specialist with decades of experience. I began shadowing him on a massive new construction project and he began telling me about all of the complex issues that I may have to interpret and decipher at a site on any given day.

He was a special kind of nut job

We’ve all met that “safety guy.” He’s the one that’s so hard he doesn’t need to spit when he dips (yet secretly carries a water bottle in the pocket of his safety vest for just that purpose). One of my first memories of him was seeing him finish a drag on his cigarette and then raise his eyebrow at something he noticed out of the corner of his eye. In the next moment he was running across a congested heavy equipment lane chasing a forklift operator who was transporting a trash skid by dangling it off one of the tines of the lift.

“NO FREE-RIGGING YOU MOTHE…” his voice trailed off in the chaos of backup alarms and job site hustle, but you get my drift. I just watched and wondered what my uncle would think about what my new “mentor” had to say to that worker.

About two weeks into the job, he imparted what I imagine is the only the only profound lesson he ever taught. His message was that I would eventually be out there on my own and I’d have to make some difficult judgment calls. In between breaths that expelled the previous night’s Canadian Mist he told me to weigh the options, determine the risk, and “make the call because you’re usually right” (his exact words). It struck me as incredibly odd that he would phrase it like that since he knew little about me or my ability. He had no basis for saying I was ever right (my wife has strong opinions about that). I’ve had years to ponder his comment, and looking back on it I think he was actually talking about himself. He had quite the high opinion… but I digress.

I am usually right though…

So are most people. Even when we’re lucky, we’re right enough to survive. We survive because we’ve either learned a lesson from the past or learn one in the present from our mistakes. I think that fact is overlooked in the highly critical judgement zone that is industrial safety.

We assume that only that “safety guy” knows how to navigate the work site. It’s a belief that perpetuates the need for 5 years experience in one specific industry or another. But it’s also a stigma for someone new who has something incredible to offer but no credentials to back it up.

I had this conversation more than once this past week while talking to some newer safety professionals. A few were as new as I was when I jumped into the construction world. The doubt on their faces was the same I had felt all those years ago.

You’ve got something to say

That was my message to each of those new professionals. They may not have the level of experience as someone who’s dip bottle is slowly leaking in their pocket, but each brings something to the table. We’d be better as a profession if we figured out what that was and nurtured it. Maybe that way people wouldn’t feel the need to question their contribution.

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The (Mostly) Silent World

On second thought, it’s a musical…

I just have no idea what everyone else’s music sounds like. The thought occurred to me as I sit here waiting for a delayed flight to New Orleans to attend the annual ASSP National conference. My Safety Technician and I have been sitting around for the past few hours. She’s watching Netflix, and I tried napping but I woke myself up snoring because I got startled (I don’t snore, my wife lies).

So now I’m here with earbuds stuffed into my ears. They still don’t drown out the woman across from me who is expelling her lungs and various bits of bodily fluid from her mouth and nostrils. There’s a louder woman behind me cackling, but potentially contagious bodily fluids heighten my awareness. Also, someone near me is eating A LOT of garlic. But thanks to the musical stylings of Taylor Swift (don’t judge, everyone likes her) those sounds are tolerable.

No one looks up

I know what you’re thinking. I’m going to write some predictable safety diatribe about how technology is ruining our culture and making us unsafe. Wrong. It’s a huge part of our world that’s only going to get more invasive. We need to learn to use it.

I’m just talking about what I see in places like airports. Anywhere crowded really. Everyone is stuck in their three-foot world. We don’t look around and actually see what’s going on. And most people don’t hear it either. There are a million ways to take this conversation, but I’m just going to suggest you think about it for yourself.

The next time you’re out and about, pause, take a beat, raise your eyes above the level of your next two steps and take in the panoramic view. Then pull one earbud out (baby steps, right?) Not only will you see interesting stuff, you’ll have an awareness most don’t. Plus people say some incredibly funny stuff.

But the awareness is key. We could all stand to get better at it. That’s all for me for now. See you in New Orleans.

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How Are You Going To Make Me Safer?

Spoiler Alert: You can’t.

Hey look. We’re made out of the same stuff.

I’ve heard that question repeatedly over the years, delivered with varied levels of hostility. The one that’s stuck in my head was a quick conversation with an employee who was new to her position. At the time, I was new in my role as well. And working in an unfamiliar industry. When she asked, I had my pre-programmed response locked and loaded.

Looking back I probably came off as a pompous safety ass just like the very examples I write so frequently about. It wasn’t that my answer was wrong, it was simply that it was empty. I told her what I tell everyone who asks.

My job isn’t to make you safer.

It’s to provide the tools and training needed to facilitate safe work. But I could tell the answer didn’t resonate with her (mostly based on the eye roll). So I made it a point to go back. Not once, but often.

Each visit began with a question for her.

Do you have everything you need?

Usually the answer was “yeah.” She would smile and let me know that everything was good. I’m not sure that was always true, but one thing I do know is that she appreciated my asking. It built trust between us.

Eventually her answers became more descriptive. Sometimes she would tell me it was all good. Other times she would ask me for suggestions about how to do something safer. There were even days when we just shared a few moments of small talk.

Then one day I didn’t have to ask

When I would walk in and she would talk to me first. We talked about safety every once in a while, but most of the time we just talked. But she knew I would find her an answer if she had a problem. We had built a relationship.

I don’t tell that story to brag about how great I am at interacting with people. If I’m being perfectly honest, it’s something that I have to work extremely hard on. Social interaction has always been difficult for me. But it’s necessary in leadership, and just life in general. Especially in the safety field.

We sell a product that workers have been conditioned to resit. So often we try to sell it “because OSHA says so.” Instead, we should sell it based on the fact that we care. That only happens if you engage… from one human to another.

I don’t have any quips or funny anecdotes to go with this story, just a bit of reflection. Like I said, I genuinely struggle in this department. If you do too, that’s OK. Keep practicing. Give people what they need. Then empower them to use it. Personal responsibility is a huge part of the relationship.

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How To Stop Writing Sucky Safety Procedures: Ego Edition

I thought about calling this one “proudity edition,” but I doubt many would appreciate the irony…

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is shakespeare-67698_640.jpg
Keep writing bad stuff, keep getting this look

A thought occurred to me the other day whilst (I’m using that word for my UK Friends, and also for the fact that I’ve been using a pic of Shakespeare in this series) I was pondering our state of being in the safety world. When you think about it, ours is really a weird profession. Seriously… it’s not hard to imagine why some people think hiring a safety professional is the corporate equivalent of a stupid warning on a hair drier. Especially if you think safety is just “common sense.” It’s no wonder those people hate the “safety guy.”

Awww. But that’s what I bought it for…

Safety doesn’t have a defined purpose in most organizations. In fact, as The Safety Minimalist Dennis Baker wrote this week, most of us “safety professionals” don’t even know how to define what we do. I believe that identity crisis stems from the fact that most companies only employ safety professionals because they have to. In those cases, the purpose of those safety professionals is solely OSHA compliance, regardless of what the corporate drones might say.

In that context, it makes sense that our policies and procedures follow that mold.

And so… employees shall…

How many of you are guilty of writing a line like that? I have been. I’m not too proud to admit it. I’ve also sat at my desk and foolishly scribed shit I just knew would make mine the safest site on earth… We need to quit it.

Like I said, ours is a weird profession. On one hand we’re expected to act in the company’s interest to avoid costly legal compliance-related expenses. On the other, we’re expected to influence and persuade people to work safely in their own interest. It’s a constant state of conflict.

People aren’t all that great at conflict, though. So, easy usually wins over great. Because great is hard. OSHA is easy. Hence the volumes upon volumes of policies and procedures telling employees what they “shall” do. It’s easier to write that than actually provide them meaningful instructions.

That idiot must not care enough

Those have been reading since I started this thing may remember my old boss The Tongue. If you haven’t read that story, it’s a fun one (give it a click, you won’t regret it). He was a jackass for sure, but I’m not above giving credit where it is due. The Tongue was a notably intelligent man. He never missed an opportunity to tell you that either. Usually by using his knowledge of big words to belittle those who weren’t on his level.

His writing was no different. It was filled with long, scientific descriptions and complicated equations. The directions were perfectly suited for industrial hygiene graduate students, but missed our target audience entirely. Most of his contributions to the site safety program took me two or three readings. Our carpenters and general laborers had neither the time nor patience for it. He was the boss though. So we printed them, put them in binders, and watched them collect dust.

All we had to do after that was wait. It never took long though. The Tongue had a keen eye for spotting violations. When he did, the poor soul in the wake of his wrath would quickly learn how stupid he or she was and informed of their general lack of care for safety. It was a sad, vicious cycle. The Tongue would write a procedure, the staff would not read it, The Tongue would get angry, and repeat.

He never got out of his own way

Just as I mentioned in my first edition about writing better safety procedures, success means first understanding that you’re not writing for yourself. You could write the most eloquent, academic, compliant, innovative masterpiece. But if no one reads it, you might as well never even try. Give your people instructions, simple instructions, they can and will use. All the big words you wanted to use instead can wait for your doctoral thesis or your blog on proudity.

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