If the safety profession were a gym it would be Planet Fitness
That’s mean. Planet Fitness isn’t that bad…
OK, now that I’ve turned away anyone who can’t take a joke let me get to the point. But please excuse me if I lose my train of thought while I indulge in pizza and Tootsie Rolls (seriously, Planet Fitness gives those out… and bagels).
Anyway… those of you who aren’t gym rats might be curious where I’m going here. This post isn’t just a jab at planet fitness (but do Google it if you want some laughs). Believe it or not I actually have a safety point to make.
The elite focus the goal
I’ve had the privilege of training with some of the worlds best bodybuilders. I’m not even close to that league, but surprisingly, some monsters are incredibly inviting. The lessons I learned from that group could fill countless posts. Topics like mental toughness, perseverance, and drive are embodied by that type of athlete. But one thing relates more than most: unrelenting drive.
Every one of those men and women I’ve had the honor of working with has embodied the same type of laser focus. And none of them ever walked into the gym thinking about what they didn’t want. They all fixate on what they are going to achieve.
The point is simple
No successful person ever achieved their status by dwelling on the things they don’t want. For athletes, that means that the fear of being too slow, or too fat, or too weak is never the prime motivator. The end goal is. And their work is reflective of that.
Why is it then, that in the safety profession we are so stuck on what we don’t want? Injuries, “bad” rates, inattention, etc. You get my point (hopefully).
How much more successful would we be if we spent all our time on energy working to get the results we desire? I think that’s something worth considering.
My daughter is either a comic genius or an evil mastermind
“AJ, do you want the last cherry sour,” my daughter held up the small, shiny red sphere.
“That’s nice, Em,” I said. She sneered as her brother took the ball and popped it in his mouth. He bit down and surprise washed across his face. His surprise then turned to disgust as he let the “candy” fall out of his mouth.
“It’s a Babybel wrapper!” My daughter (only four at the time) laughed maniacally as my son tried to scrape the red wax off his tongue. I smiled in disbelief and more than just a little pride. I was even a little disappointed that I hadn’t thought of it an put her up to it. Thankfully my son laughed along with the joke.
Appearance Isn’t everything
This week I had the opportunity to be a part of a podcast with a couple other safety professionals (more on that soon). One part of our conversation centered on teaching leaders the value of action. The problem is that “safety” in industry is so rooted in measuring outcomes. Even organizations and safety professionals who are making serious strides in injury prevention are hindered by the age old belief that a good injury rate equals good performance. While rates and accident totals have their place, they certainly don’t mean that all is well. I’m not going to kick that dead horse too much. I’ve already written about it in several posts:
Despite the misinterpretation of a few, none of those posts are advocacy for neglect or belief that injuries are OK. The point is that stating one thing (the absence of accidents) does not necessarily mean another (good safety performance). But there’s another danger in relying on old school safety measurement.
It encourages lack of responsibility
Stick with me on this.
If an organization values low numbers over the actions required to actually get them, the role of a safety professional becomes… fuzzy. Consider how often the “safety guy” (or girl) becomes the only person who can put a Band-Aid on someone when they get a paper cut. I’m exaggerating or course (unfortunately I have to spell that out). But anyone who’s been put in that position knows the frustration.
We become number pacifiers instead of resources that help solve problems before they contribute to injury. When that happens, injured employees become a safety problem rather than a person. When safety is no longer about a person, its easy to pass the buck.
If you’re in a safety role consider that the next time a leader sends someone to your office because their back is sore without figuring out why. Give the employee the care they need by all means, but then ask that leader why he or she didn’t have the time to deal with it.
Many times something may sound like a safety problem on the surface. But remember, sometimes things that look like candy are just a ball of wax.
As always, thanks for reading. If you have a topic or idea that you would like me to discuss, send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you.
“Well, Sergeant. I don’t know what’s wrong with you. But you’re young. You’ll get better.” Those words will echo in my head for the rest of my life.
The phone call I had two years later with the same Air Force Major who said them to me was even more astounding. He was the only podiatrist on base and had been “treating” me for what he considered phantom foot pain.
“I told you, Sergeant. There’s nothing we can do. You’re still young, though. You’ll get better.”
“You’ve been saying that for two years, doc,” I replied. “You need to do better than that.”
“How dare you talk to me like that! I’ve been practicing medicine since before you were born.”
“Well, I’m not getting younger and I’m not getting better. So I don’t think your strategy is working.” With that I hung up on an officer for the first and only time in my military career.
I immediately told my boss, expecting the backlash to be enormous. It wasn’t though. My boss directed me to the patient advocate at the base hospital (affectionately know as the “medical hobby shop”). The advocate sent me to a civilian doctor who actually cared about her patients. She diagnosed me with tendonitis in my right foot. After some rehab and custom orthotics, my pain subsided and never returned.
Hope isn’t a strategy, neither is denial
Those who haven’t known me more than 15 years hardly believe that I was once an avid runner. Considering that I probably wouldn’t run now if I was literally on fire, that’s understandable. But I was. And I was fast.
Reminiscing about that time in my life now, I think it’s actually when I became a writer. My regimen consisted of 5-10 miles a day with a long run (13+ miles) every weekend. It was my time to reflect and process. It also destroyed my knees. But I digress, this story is about my foot.
In high school I stress-fractured my left leg running. That injury was compounded by a foolish altercation with a kid I thought was my friend. It was a distinct kind of pain you don’t ever forget. When I felt it again in my base dorm room at age 23 the memory flooded back. I crumbled to my knees to let the pressure off and then crawled to my phone to call my supervisor. I let him know I would be heading to sick call (you don’t get to just call in in the military).
The night before, a buddy and I had been lifting weights at a gym roughly eight miles from base. I had reluctantly ridden with him in his Mazda Miata, protesting the whole time because neither of us were having a midlife crisis. I might well be coming up on one now, but I still don’t like Miatas.
When we finished the workout I felt great and told him to head back without me. I was going to run home. He shook his head in disbelief, but got in the tiny car and drove away. Everyone knew I was serious when it came to running.
That night I made great time. I was back on base in just under an hour. I showered, ate some fried stuff with four bean salad at the chow hall, and was in bed before 8. Less than 12 hours later I found myself at sick call explaining to a med-tech that I believed I had stress fractured my foot. Her response?
“That’s not possible.” I’m guessing that since I didn’t have one, she felt validated.
Thus began the saga
Initially, my doc friend did typical thing and issued a PT waiver so I wouldn’t have to run. It killed me not to, but by the end of six weeks my foot actually felt a lot better. Then I ran for ten feet and it all came rushing back.
We played that game for a few months until I earned an MRI. The airman running the diagnostic checked me in, strapped me to the table and inserted half of my body into the magnet tube. Then over the speaker I heard a crackle and a question.
“Uh, Sergeant, could you remind me which foot hurts and where?” I imagine I made the kind of face some bosses do when they’re upset (The kind where their lips shrivel up and resemble a cat butt more than a mouth).
“It’s the right one,” I said as I rolled my eyes.
“Could you show me where it hurts?”
“No. It’s in there,” I pointed down the tube.
“Just show me on your hand.” I obliged, realizing it was futile to explain to him that hands and feet are different. And so, I was given the world’s worst MRI. Even my doctor admitted it wasn’t readable. But he couldn’t order another one, because… you guessed it… he didn’t know what was wrong with me.
I was young though…
Thanks for sticking around for the moral of the story
Although I’m sure you get it, the message here is simple. My problem didn’t go away on it’s own. Whatever you’re faced with probably won’t either. Whether at work or at home, it’s tempting to turn a blind eye and hope things will get better. But, as we all know, hope isn’t a strategy. Action is.
Whatever it is that you’re facing, look it straight in the eyes. Stare it down and take a few deep breaths if you have to. But then do something about it. If you’re afraid of making a wrong move, just remember that no one ever got anywhere by not moving.
And don’t wait for someone with more experience to tell you how. There are plenty of experts out there who don’t know the difference between hands and feet. There’s also plenty who don’t realize that problems don’t go away because they’re young.
This is a shorter post than some, but the topic is no less important.
It’s something I routinely emphasize when training a new group of employees. Especially those who don’t have a ton of experience (i.e. young people… this week was my birthday and i’m still bitter about no longer being able to claim I’m “young”). In order to set it up, let me generalize a little:
You take a job at an industrial site. When you show up on your first day, you’re handed a hard hat, safety glasses, safety-toed shoes, gloves and some hearing protection. You’re told to wear them every time you’re in the work area. It’s part of the uniform.
First off, the provision is commendable
Believe it or not, there are plenty of companies that couldn’t give two shits about the safety of their employees. Even in today’s uber-legal, risk adverse culture I’ve observed more organizations than I would have imagined could exist who require their people to fend for themselves and buy their own protective gear. That’s not the issue I’m addressing in this post.
Most companies do a fair job at providing what their employees need. The thing almost no one does is teach about limitations. PPE, as most safety professionals know, is the “last line of defense.” We know it, but sometimes we assume others do as well.
Unfortunately, inexperienced workers don’t have that prerequisite knowledge. The mere act of handing them a helmet and goggles can easily insinuate that protection is guaranteed.
Never assume the simple things are understood
I’m going to keep this simple and to the point. Teach your people that PPE has limitations. It’s not designed to keep you from getting injured. It’s designed to minimize consequences. You’ll still be burned from an arc flash if you’re wearing arc-rated PPE. You’ll still crick your neck if you jam your head into a pipe while wearing a hard hat. You might get chemicals in your eyes if you’re wearing goggles. Hopefully, the damage won’t mean losing your eyesight or your life, though. People need to understand those limitations in no uncertain terms. It will help them respect the hazards they’re interacting with.
If you don’t already, consider PPE training from this perspective: it’s required because there’s a risk that can’t be removed from the work environment. When your people know that they’re much more likely to use it correctly and consistently. They’ll also understand that the hazard is still very real and very dangerous.
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.
That title begs for context, so here it is. I don’t sleep anymore. At best I just hang upside down in my cave for a while and try not to stare at the clock. That gives me plenty of time to go looking for the end of the internet. I think I’m close.
Last night I ended up on nextdoor.com. I usually don’t stay there longer than it takes to get the local crime update or hear about some strange happening in the park. Yesterday I got caught up in a different type of thread altogether. The post read “This is a long shot, but did anyone loose a turtle near Mesa St.?”
From there I learned about box turtle conservation, turtle habitats, what stresses turtles out, and how to help a turtle cross the street. I also learned that WAY more people than you would think have lost a turtle this week (there were three). Then the best comment of all popped onto the thread: “If its a western polka-dotted samurai turtle it’s probably illegal to keep it.” I embellished that description a bit, but it was a ridiculous comment nonetheless.
It’s not illegal BTW (I Googled it)…
The rest of the thread was a debate about the lawfulness of owning wild tortoises. As entertaining as it was, it got me thinking. Believe it or not the “legal” comment reminded me of how we often approach workers.
For some reason people are conditioned to find fault in the actions of others. I’m not sure if it’s a defense mechanism, or deflection, or just negative thinking. I catch myself doing it all the time. I key in on what’s wrong rather than seeing the good in what people are doing. In the case of the turtle, some nice neighbor was trying to get a pet back to it’s loving (albeit careless) owner.
Just as I wrote in THIS POST, I think it’s critical that we get a grasp on what’s driving people to do the things they do. Accusing them of breaking the law (even if they are) is just going to put up walls and make it harder to drive your point home. Consider that the next time you are out in the field and find someone in need of a little coaching. A little grace and understanding will go a long way.
Don’t ignore what’s happening by any means. But if no one is in immediate danger, consider taking your time and establishing a connection before you call someone out for their egregious violations.
That’s all from me tonight. It’s late and I have to head back to the cave to hang upside down and pretend to sleep.
As the country began to warm up from a particularly harsh winter, my crew was assigned a special task. It was an activity that only came around once every four years or so. But the rarity of the mission wasn’t why we thought it was cool. The fact that we were given nail guns was.
Our job was to build special “blocking and bracing” in order to pack and load shipping containers full of munitions. It was a pretty mundane task, but it definitely beat spray painting tubes of concrete shaped like missiles (trainers). We probably saved a few brain cells during the painting hiatus as well.
You might actually hit it!
18-22 year olds who’s only job experience is building and maintaining high explosives tend to try to push boundaries. Our job wasn’t as high stress as many others, but it did require a bit of dark practicality. After all, we were making devices intended to transport our enemies to the deity of their choosing.
That being the case, we made something entertaining out of a task as mundane and vanilla as nailing 2x4s together. How? The same way any group of caffeine and nicotine fueled young males would: Fierce competition. We matched each other in heats and the winners had bragging rights.
The bouts were civil until someone realized that by holding down the trigger of our pneumatic nail guns you could “pop” the safety on the end of the gun and rapid-fire nails into your boards. Shortly after, one of the guys nailed his knee while it was bent at a 90 degree angle. His ambulance ride was less than comfortable.
The safety lesson is obvious
I’ll just keep that part simple. Train your people.
The less obvious aspect of this story is what it says about motivation and intention. Every one of that group of guys was driven to be the best. We weren’t messing around or playing games (even when we were competing). We were trying to accomplish our mission as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Out in the civilian world I see that mentality all the time as well. Most of the time the drive and innovation of our workers pays off and they get rewarded for their efforts. Sometimes, though, someone (metaphorically) shoots a nail into their knee. Often there’s no doubt that the action that triggered that consequence was foolish, or at the very least misguided.
But try to take a step back next time something like that does happen. Ask yourself if you would have condemned their actions had no negative consequence occurred. Better still, would you have even noticed there was something wrong?
As safety professionals we develop a heightened sense of what’s “wrong,” so I’m not going to assume there’s a bunch of idiots out there who can’t recognize when an activity is too risky. That’s not what I’m driving at. My point is that it’s easy to get wrapped up in labeling a behavior or action as unsafe once something undesired happens. It’s much harder to see through the eyes and perspective of the one who was working.
Try to dig deeper and find out why the person was motivated to work the way they did. That will require looking beyond the stupid action at the system they operated within.
“KIIIT-TEEEE!” My son froze in his tracks as he growled the word as deeply as any 18-month old can. I looked up, half expecting to see our British Shorthair (think gray Garfield) skittering across the back yard. My gaze was only met by my landlord’s giant toy-hauler RV.
“There’s nothing there, bud. Let’s keep walking”
“KIIIT-TEEEE!” He growled again, this time raising a finger to point.
“That’s Mike’s trailer,” I said. He kept his finger pointed out in front of him.
Then it clicked. I slowly bent down, got onto one knee, and looked from his level.
My line of sight changed, so did my perspective
As I aligned my eyes with my son’s fingertip and looked ahead I could see the ground on the other side of the RV. In the shadow cast by the trailer, a large jackrabbit stood on it’s two hind feet staring back at my son and I. He was on alert, fully aware of our presence. My son finally shifted his gaze and looked at me.
“Kiddy,” he said more quietly.
“That’s a rabbit,” I replied. “The kitties are inside.”
That moment had a big impression on me. It was one of those incredibly simple, yet deeply profound happenings. For me, it’s a stark reminder of the differences we all need to account for in our professional lives.
Everyone sees the world differently
Perspective is a uniquely personal thing. It can also be deceptive. What I mean by that is that is that it’s easy to believe our perspective is the right one. In my experience, though, no person’s view of the world is better than anyone else’s. They’re all just… different.
As leaders we cause unneeded difficulty for ourselves when we forget that the people we support don’t have the same perspective we do. It’s not that they’re dumb, negligent, or unmotivated. They just see the world from a different position. We can realize some huge benefits by taking a knee every now and then to try and see what they see.
Even if it doesn’t change your life, you may spot a bunny or two. There’s nothing wrong with that.