Face It, Your Safety Powers Are Limited

Face It, Your Safety Powers Are Limited

Wrap yourself up in bubble wrap and never leave home if you want to avoid all risk!

I had a supervisor once who would respond to absurd safety “prevention” methods with a similar statement. Sometimes I want to tell people the same thing. Then again… the bubble wrap would probably cause heat stress and skin irritation. But hey, Gatorade and Hydrocortisone cream aren’t Recordable, so bring on the bubbles!!!

One frustrating aspect of the safety profession is the constant second guessing and armchair quarterbacking that follows an injury. Or even a picture of a hazard. Just log on to any online safety forum and you’ll find a dozen or more “experts” who could have prevented any catastrophe or would never allow this or that behavior on their sites. Hang around this field long enough and you’ll meet them in real life, too (they’re super fun people).

My favorite is this line of questioning: “How will you guarantee this preventable injury never occurs again?” It’s even better when someone in safety asks it. Mainly because others try to answer that irrational question rationally.

The answer is YOU CAN’T! I can’t. We can’t. Humans are not that powerful. As long as we interact with risk we will be subject to our own fallibility and frailty. So why don’t we just give up?

“Stand for something, or die for nothing” -Rambo

I often hear the argument made that if you have a goal for anything less than zero accidents, you are condoning accidents. That type of non-sequitur logic has been used in safety for eons. It sounds righteous, so it must be right. Right?

Wrong. The answer is that you shouldn’t have goals based around accidents. Accident’s (and managing them) is not what what makes and breaks a safety program. I would even go as far as to say that those who only focus on what ALREADY happened are destined to fail. Band-aids and ice packs don’t make your people safer!

We have to dig ourselves out of the vicious cycle we’re in if we want to make things better for our workers.

The change we need

Safety Professionals have to quit living in the past. Our focus is far too limited to past actions and what we should have done to prevent something happened. “Shoulda” is a really weak business strategy, though. So here’s what I’m getting at: Realize that your powers are limited.

You can’t prevent accidents once they happen.

You can’t see the future.

You can’t change people’s behavior by telling them it’s unsafe!

So focus on what you CAN do!

You can help people work through their job plans.

You can help people learn effectively.

You can make sure that conditions will help guide desired behaviors.


Remember this. Focusing on what matters doesn’t mean that you are automatically evil (unless you’re already evil) and will overlook the lessons and learning that comes from incidents. Quite the contrary.

Being proactive, directing energy toward what you can control, and helping people learn will ultimately bring results that no injury “goal” could ever achieve.

What will you tackle first?

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How To Write Better Safety Messages: Condescension Edition

Bill still disprove of the way safety people write. Let’s fix it.

Emails don’t have tone, right?

Sure. Ice cream doesn’t have any carbs either.

I read an email recently that had been sent to an entire company. It was written by some corporate guy with some letters behind his name and a fancy safety title. That part wasn’t too offensive (I have some fancy letters too). I might have even been able to overlook the scores of grammatical errors. But I couldn’t get past the way it sounded as I read the words.

The email was supposed to be a safety lesson that crews could discuss and learn from. But it was so belittling and condescending, that I doubt many got to the point.

Don’t be as stupid as THAT guy…

The message was about as simple and straightforward as you can get. It’s author was encouraging everyone to think about their PPE selection when dealing with sharp objects, gloves in particular. To illustrate the point, the author retold a story about a worker who had cut himself while wearing Kevlar gloves. The worker had been shocked that he had still been cut even though he had been wearing “cut proof gloves” (his words). The rest of the email essentially made fun of the injured man for being so ignorant as to believe there actually was such a thing.

After reading the email I wouldn’t be surprised if the the author had responded to the injured worker, “They’re cut resistant, you idiot.”

Not everyone knows what you know

The whole point, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, is that our people deserve better than being talked down to. Safety messages need to draw people in, teach them something valuable, and inspire them to act. They’re not a medium we should use to boast our superiority.

Think about that next time you send an email, write a safety message, or just talk to someone face to face. I’m pretty sure there was a time when each of us knew nothing about safety gloves and their limitations. Maybe we should realize that about other people too.

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Breakfast With The Terminator

Let’s talk about DISCIPLINE

Admit it. That word just made you feel something. Some of you cringed. Others felt tingles in their happy place (don’t make it dirty, you know I meant inside your head).

I had a discussion this past week with a “leader” who was curious about some happenings on a project site. A serious near miss had occurred when an employee defeated a safety device. The “leader” (known by many as the Terminator) asked me first what had been done to discipline the employee. I honestly had no clue. I’m not in that business. No safety professional should be.

Next he asked me how I felt about the situation in general. My answer wasn’t what he wanted, so the conversation ended shortly after. I simply told him that there was more to it than the employee’s violation.

What made him think it was a reasonable risk?

How many times had he done it before without incident?

What expectations had he been given by his supervisor?

Why was the system designed in such a way that it could be easily defeated?

Those questions are all exponentially harder to answer (honestly) than simply identifying what the employee did wrong and punishing him for it. Sadly, in this case, discipline meant paperwork in the employee’s file. I doubt any of my questions will be answered.

What if it meant something different?

It’s easy to beat people with a safety stick. I’d wager that’s why so many organizations still do it. All that does, however, is create a culture of fear.

“But if people can’t follow the rules they need to be held ACCOUNTABLE!”

Sure. Maybe. Or maybe your organization needs new rules. Ever wonder why people continue to violate them even when they know better? You probably should.

Here’s a stark reality. It takes a lot more “discipline” for leaders to look in the mirror when things go wrong than it does to terminate an employee. That’s the kind of discipline organizations need. There’s ALWAYS more to the story than the stupid thing a person did. Unfortunately that information often walks out the door with the offender.

Let’s start learning

In my estimation, the discipline debate is one that will go on forever. That just means we have to prove there are better ways to “safety” than punishment. I’m up for the challenge.

If you’re one of the ones who felt the tingles at the beginning of this post, consider at least giving the alternative a try. Next time someone “violates” one of your rules, try to figure out why before you pull out your ticket book.

If it doesn’t work you can always go back to being a cop. I doubt you’ll need to though.

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Welcome To 2020… Lets Talk Safety… And Prostate Exams?

Don’t get squeamish yet, I won’t start there

Monday was my first morning gym session after a couple months of sporadic workouts after work. Most of my inconsistency was due to my own lack of motivation but kicked into high gear when my workout partner, Kevin (first mentioned in THIS POST), transitioned to night shift. As a result, both of us went on a bit of a hiatus. That isn’t really that big of a deal for a couple of guys who’ve both lifted for over 20 years. But lack of discipline will catch up to anyone eventually.

Since neither of us are under the illusion that we’re still in our 20’s, we took things easy that morning. Not everyone in the gym is as wise (or old) as us, though. So, as we set up for some light squats I glanced over at the three guys in the rack next to us. They probably weighed 180 lbs combined, yet had their loaded bar with 405 lbs. I watched as the first of them got under the bar and unracked it. Then he staggered backward to a box behind him to risk his life for some box squats. I’m sure I was frowning at him the whole time (or as my wife says, using Resting A$$hole Face). My disapproval turned out to be warranted, though, because when he sat down on the box he COULD NOT stand up again. Nor could he figure out how to get his arms off the bar behind him in order to dump it without dislocating something. The trio hadn’t set their safety bars high enough either, so any attempt to fall forward or backward would have been disastrous.

For a few tense moments, he and his “bros” wrestled it back to the rack just before (I assume) his spine collapsed or he soiled himself. It was scary and cringe-worthy. But… he didn’t die.

Everyone needs an exit strategy

People in gyms are easy to pick on. I typically don’t because I realize very few aspire to be elite athletes (and I’m not a complete d!@#). Good on anyone who pursues better health and wellness. I can’t look down on that. But, I’ve observed that very few enter a gym with a for plan their exit. And, by exit, I don’t mean returning to your car after frolicking on the treadmill for 30 minutes. I mean figuring out what to do when things go wrong before they do. How will you dump that bar that outweighs you three times over? How will you drop the weights that are forcing your shoulder out of it’s socket?

Safety is uncannily similar. We’re often so focused on what has already gone wrong that we’re blinded to the failures of the future. Thus we fail to plan our exit. But that’s where the money is.

What part of your process could create real chaos?

How much of that chaos can you control before it gets out of hand?

The answer may surprise you (and no, you can’t control everything).

How misguided are you?

I’ve told the story of my ill-fated hospital visit in 2016 before (see THIS POST if you missed it), so I won’t rehash all of it now. But the most memorable point of that 36-hour ordeal was laying in the ER bed shortly after being told I would be admitted to the hospital for Atrial Fibrillation (a heart condition). While waiting for my new room, a doctor walked in and asked me if I was ready for my prostate exam. Since I consider the heart and the prostate to be two distinctly different issues, I thought he was joking.


In the years since that event I’ve reflected quite a bit. It occurred to me somewhere along the way (ahem… IMMEDIATELY) that getting a prostate exam for a heart condition was a bit… misguided. I realize I’m not a doctor, but nothing in my WebMD searches has led me to the conclusion that I needed that particular “probe” at that moment in time.

You might not be making the same connection I am, and I fully understand that. I didn’t reach this conclusion through the use of any logic. It simply occurred to me while watching the gym bros that I never want to go to the hospital again and get an unexpected cavity search. So, being twisted as I am, I related all of that back to safety. That got me thinking about all the plans we make (or don’t make).

Reactions only get you so far

In the gym I plot out my activities. There’s a plan for execution, a mental thought process before executing, and a contingency for when things go wrong. Safety should be the same, yet too often we get stuck analyzing incident rates and trying to identify root causes for sprained ankles. Those things deserve some attention, but I would submit to you that your time is better spent planning work.

If we’re good at our jobs it seems to me that good planning, and a clear exit strategy should result in less need to analyze those rates we all seem to love.


My final point is this: Don’t give your safety program a prostate exam (figuratively speaking), when it has a heart issue. Practically speaking all that really means is focus on the real issues that are causing big problems (or have the potential to). Most likely those big problems aren’t bumps and scratches. Take care of those by all means, but look deeper.

What is out on your site that could kill someone today? If you don’t know, find out. Then do something about it.

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

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