Safety Is ABYSMAL (sometimes…)

Participants were asked to rate their organization’s safety culture with choices ranging from “Excellent” to “Abysmal.” As you might expect, most of the answers rated in the middle. But on both sides of the spectrum, at least a few were willing to put step up and claim they worked for an outlier. 

The sceptic in me was tempted to automatically dismiss the “Excellent” votes, but instead of questioning them I spoke to the people working for the “Abysmal” organizations. And by saying that I’m intentionally not separating abysmal safety from abysmal company. I’ve never seen or been a part of an organization with abysmal problems in one area that didn’t also have widespread systemic problems elsewhere.

So, I offered some hope

I can empathize with anyone working in the trenches of safety whose daily existence consists of battling to just get leaders to do the basics (forget going above and beyond). I recently left one of those abysmal organizations myself, so I know the struggle. My problem, one I would bet many other Safety Professionals share, is I consider leaving a defeat. I’ve seen great success in doing what matters and getting safety right within an organization and I desperately want that for everyone I work with. But I learned the hard way (at the expense of my health and wellbeing) that even if leaving is defeat it’s better than death (mine or anyone else’s).

With that in mind I offered this to the people who are working in “Abysmal” places: Do what you can, but leave if you can’t make a difference.

Here are some of the red flags I’ve learned to look for:

Leaders who are more worried about legal repercussions than doing right by their people

                My ABYSMAL organization had a policy for attendance for hourly workers. Show up 1 minute late and you get a point. Get 10 points and you get canned. It was a supposed “no fault policy.” Meaning you didn’t have to have an excuse to miss work. It was done in the vein of avoiding lawsuits for unfair administration of attendance requirements. Seems prudent on the surface (although I couldn’t understand for the life of me why people would be penalized for taking sick days they had earned, but what do I know?). The result of the policy was that workers would come in sick, stay when they had family emergencies, and hurt themselves so they didn’t have to take a point to go to the doctor. And even if you could get past that, I doubt many would be able to reconcile giving points to two employees who lost their homes in tornados and couldn’t come in on time… but they did that too.

Safety departments more worried about OSHA fines than actually making workers safe

This is an easy one to spot. My ABYSMAL organization spent more time and money on signs and placards that I identified rule violations than it did on training people about how to complete their work safely. Break the rule and you get canned… because we don’t want people who don’t care about safety working in our facilities, right? Besides, they all know better, we put up a sign.

Organizations that punish BEFORE they learn

This one may spark some disagreement but hear me out. My ABYSMAL organization drug tested anyone who damaged anything, for any reason. I know there are scores of safety professionals who don’t disagree with that idea. But think about it a little deeper. One instance involved a forklift operator who was operating in an active construction project zone. Because the facility didn’t want to impede production, they built a funnel (more or less) where operators had to drive into a gauntlet of metal bumpers directly adjacent to the new construction and then back out the same way. There was less than two inches clearance on either side of the funnel. One unfortunate operator caught a support beam being installed on the new project’s staircase and broke a couple of the anchor bolts holding it in place. It was repaired within 20 minutes but the operator was written up and drug tested for his negligence. The sad part is that WE (and I pointed this out to my boss) put him in a crappy situation and expected perfection. There were hundreds of examples like that one.

Organizations that refuse to accept responsibility

The most despicable thing my ABYSMAL organization did was wash their hands of the blood of two dead workers. One of the facilities commissioned some contract work involving high pressure testing of pipes. The contractor, in turn, hired a second-tier outfit to do some of the work. I won’t get into all the specifics, but two of the second-tier employees were killed when an incorrect valve had been opened. The line had been pressurized (for some ungodly reason) for seven days yet it had a tag on it stating everything it was safe. In the aftermath, left the dead bodies on the roof (in June) for 16 hours while they waited for OSHA to show up, shared pictures of the dead with all of the company leaders fired the contractor(s), put a gag order on anyone who had been involved, and then wrote a policy to cover their assess.

Leaders who care more about money and production than they do about their people

Organizations that retaliate against workers for reporting safety issues

                This should go with out saying, but it’s astounding how often it happens. My ABYSMAL organization not only did it, but they doubled down and fabricated lies about the people who reported. Listen to a “similar” story here:

It’s not always like that

If you’ve stuck around with me thus far, I hope you don’t take my descriptions above as complaints. They’re reality, not only in my ABYSMAL experience, but in many organizations. My message is simple. Your profession is bigger than some of the crap places you may end up. It’s a hard thing to come to grips with when your living is on the line, but never sacrifice your soul for a paycheck.   

What’s been your experience?