Safety Doesn’t Require Piety, It Demands Action

Hark! Dost thou heareth the bullshit?

Since it’s Easter Sunday, I thought I’d spend some time quoting from the good book of safety. Please stand and join me as we turn to page 1904.4 in our hymnals and lift our voices in praise to OSHA our protector. It’s OK if you laughed at that. I’m still here typing, so that’s at least some proof the real God won’t strike you down for your blasphemous sense of humor.

Actually, there’s nothing I would rather do less than quote OSHA on this Sunday or any other. But, I was reading another great article by Dr. Rob Long and it reminded me of a story I’ve been wanting to post here for quite some time. Today seemed appropriate.

Unlike my usual twist ending, I’m going to give away the punchline at the start. I’ve stolen some of my kids’ Easter egg loot and I’m feeling generous. You’ll have to read on for the story this time, though. I haven’t eaten that much candy. This tale has a lesson for two people: The Leader & The Advisor.

Let’s Break it Down

First off, leaders. You’re expected to guide your people toward safe, quality production. Sounds noble. It even is sometimes. But let’s not mince words, your true purpose is to deliver profit. People seem to think that’s a dirty thing to say, but it is what it is. If businesses weren’t in business to make money, there would be no workers for whom your advisors need to uphold safety and quality standards. If that’s a shock, life must truly be hard for you.

Secondly, advisors. I avoided pigeonholing this category because I believe this concept transcends the safety profession. Your role is to provide good counsel to the leaders of your organization and facilitate that “safe, quality production.” It’s not to throw up roadblocks every time someone decides to violate your rules.

Now for the story:

I’m not sure but I think the guy’s name was Steve…

It was the second day of a riveting three-day safety summit. My company had shipped a few dozen safety professionals to corporate and corraled us into a conference room suited for four. We’d then spent hours drinking burnt (seriously, why do people like Starbucks?) coffee listening to each manager tell their safety story. I recall one of the guys had a really nice boat (substance was not a prerequisite for presenting).

Finally, we had reached the pinnacle of the day. Our VP was going to present to us about the value of safety. I could not wait (for it to be over). I’ve honestly blocked most of that boondoggle out of my memory banks, but this “keynote” has etched itself into my mind for eternity.

Without much fanfare, our “leader” cleared his throat and boldly asked a room comprised of hundreds of years of collective SAFETY PROFESSIONAL experience the following question:

How many of you BELIEVE you can go the rest of your life without an OSHA Recordable injury?

He raised his hand in proud declaration. I looked around the room as all but two others raised theirs as well. He must have counted my jaw hitting the floor as a raised hand because he didn’t notice mine were in my pockets. I looked to my left and raised an eyebrow in disbelief. The VP of Safety and Health who sat next to me shrugged, but kept his hands down as well. The rest of the crowd lowered theirs as he began a 45-minute sermon about he would never again need a prescription medication because of how safe he was going to be (or a splint, or use tweezers to excise something from his eye, or any of the other dumb things that constitutes a recordable).

The sheeple nodded along in blind obedience as this buffoon pontificated to us about how every accident was preventable. I couldn’t believe the arrogance. His speech essentially amounted to the statement that every part of life was controllable and only people who didn’t care enough could be injured.

But his words weren’t the worst part…

The worst part was the Safety Director who stood next to him nodding, affirming, and placating his ridiculous claims. For the sake of making this case, I’m willing to set aside the ridiculousness that makes an injury an “OSHA Recordable” for a moment. Let’s just say he meant a bad injury in general.

What kind of leader thinks it’s OK to stand up in front of a bunch of people (safety pros or not) and predict the future? And what kind of advisor stands by and lets him do it? Both of those men proved that day that they were detached from reality. Not only that, but there was a strong case to be made that they believed themselves superior to those beneath them.

How much more impact could “Steve” have had if he had stood in front of that crowd and admitted his humanity? Then he could have rallied the troops to fight for his dream of no injuries. He could have offered his support and resources to make our work environments safer. Instead, he yammered on and said a bunch of words that had no impact on one, single worker’s life. All while his “advisor” nodded in approval…

I can only hope we would all do better!

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