I created a monster!

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

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

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

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

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

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

No more rules without understanding, OK?

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

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

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

Hi. I’m Jason. I’m the author of the book A Practical Guide to the Safety Profession: The Relentless Pursuit from CRC Press. I’m excited to get to share it with you all and hope it will be as valuable a tool to you as it has been to me. There is no other safety book out there like it. That’s not me being arrogant and assuming you’ll love it. You might not. But at least we’ll be able to have a needed conversation about the change needed in the safety profession. It is available now! Email me at Jason@relentlesssafey.com

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4 Comments

  1. Been loving the blog! Your last paragraph hit the nail on the head! So many time in root cause analysis it ends up being finger pointing. A school of thought that has come to my attention lately is latent cause analysis where the question we should be asking is what I could have done to prevent an employee’s injury/incident, i.e. system failures, lack of training etc. However, what is becoming more evident is at some point the employee made a conscious decision to perform an unsafe act for the sake of “getting the job done!” The challenge is how do we create a cultural change to get away from that mentality?

    1. Thanks, Guy. I really appreciate the support. I agree with you. I believe the pressure one places on him/herself to “get the job done” is one of the biggest latent causes. Even if a person is not told to “get it done or else,” that feeling is driven by something within the culture. Sometimes it’s the things the managers don’t say that speak the loudest. If they see rushing or shortcuts and don’t correct them with the entire crew, it is often assumed that behavior is expected. Thanks again for reading.

  2. Jason, I’m enjoying this newly-found blog.

    I actually think that the problem is slightly more wicked than that. When I think of my role in Safety-land, I describe it as “getting people to do the right thing”. Obviously there are two components to that: 1) identifying what the “right thing” is and then 2) finding a way to get people to do it.

    It’s the second part that’s the hardest. In my experience, there is normally an element of the injured person making a decision to take a short cut. The problem is that the decision is not always a conscious one. Our brains trick us into thinking that things are safe when they’re not, and vice-versa. Habituation is one example … the first time we undertake a dangerous task we’re hyper-vigilant and we perceive everything as a potential hazard (and therefore super-safe). If you do that task day-after-day, month-after-month, year-after-year, all of those perceptions of risk have long since disappeared, effectively blinding us to the real risks. There are a bunch of other unconscious biases that affect our judgement too, just to make life interesting.

    I look forwarding to reading your back-catalog and I’ll be keeping an eye out for new posts.

    1. Thanks, Neil. Glad you enjoyed it. I like looking at things from the systems perspective (some call it HOP or just Human Performance). The person, as you point out, is bound to make mistakes. That’s part of what makes us human. I believe the big improvements come when we can account for those mistakes within a process and thereby minimize the consequence. That makes a whole lot more sense than trying to engineer fallibility out of people.

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