This topic has been stirring in the back of my head for weeks now. It came about when I was asked if a given organization spends enough on safety. I gave the question some serious thought before answering even though the answer immediately popped into my head.
My answer was that, in general, we spend too much on safety.
Oh, the heresy. Don’t try to stop me though…
Some of what I said was just me being provocative. But the core of the message is true, safety is too expensive. More specifically, organizations waste money on things that don’t really protect anyone and stand behind the moral high ground of safety when they do. Anything done in the name of safety is beyond questioning…
That might sound OK, especially if you’re big into OSHA compliance, but think of it this way: some of the worst things you can say are the things you don’t say.
For discussion sake, let’s pretend your company spends twenty thousand dollars to construct a giant cage around a piece of machinery.
Installed under the auspices of worker protection. The machine does have quite a few moving parts and rotating hazards, but all of them have guards. Some are more effective than others.
Everyone in the facility knows there has never been so much as a paper cut associated with the machine. Now, I realize stating that just because something has never happened means it won’t ever is just as ridiculous as the government building a turtle fence. That’s not what I’m driving at. There’s certainly a chance the machine could cause an injury, it’s just not very likely. What is much more likely is that an overzealous OSHA inspector would pick that machine as an easy target for a violation and associated fine. Your workers hear that loud and clear even though you never even mentioned it.
While you were busy spending that $20k, they were busy whispering to themselves about all the unprotected fall hazards, poor housekeeping, and ergonomic hazards no one seems interested in fixing.
You Are Not On Fire Ricky Bobby!
I’ve talked about arbitrary rules before. There are no two ways about it, rules enacted without justification are harmful. They foster complacency and trivialize the importance of things that are actually important. Also, they often translate into an added cost that makes safety into a joke. I like to think that every time a high ‘n mighty safety guy makes a stupid rule, a unicorn loses its horn. The truth is that those rules cause more than just mythical damage, though.
In 2013, when the combustible dust brouhaha was just picking up steam and kicking up… well… dust, my company (rather my director) took the bait hook, line, and sinker. She enacted one of those magical safety rules and required all employees to wear Fire Retardant (FR) clothing. ALL EMPLOYEES. That included administrative personnel, managers, groundskeepers, you get the point. The rationale was that any employee could encounter a dust hazard and spontaneously combust in a flash fire.
Anyone with half a brain knew that our risk of flash fire was not commensurate with the huge financial burden that came with outfitting an entire company in FR clothing. The decision discredited every safety professional in the company. We had to echo a nonsensical directive that had no basis for its being.
The Safety Joke
You can argue that my assessment of the risk was grossly underestimated. You might even be right but think about it another way. Even if the risk was much higher, the fix should not have been PPE. Essentially we stated that our problems with combustible dust and associated flash fire were so extremely high and uncontrolled, that our only resort was to outfit people in protective clothing. Clothing that would not prevent injury, only (hopefully) prevent death.
It’s decisions like these that make a mockery of our profession. We make them to justify our jobs, or avoid fines, and then try to fool ourselves into thinking it’s for the people. That’s part of the reason people only want to participate when there’s something in it for them.
We’ve got to get better at “racking and stacking” our risks. I’ve put together a stupid simple method for doing this in my book, but you’ll have to wait until later in the year for that. Until then, let’s all try to be honest about what we do and why. If you make a decision that’s geared toward avoiding a fine, own it. If you tell people you’re doing something for their protection, make damn sure that’s the truth.