Safety Isn’t Good (at) Business

Thanks to Dave Collins for this pic

But we’re really good at pointing at things…

You haven’t lived until you have a conversation like they one I’m about to share with you. To set the mood, let me take you back to 2008…

The Black Eyed Peas just told you that tonight’s gonna be a good night. You just texted your girlfriend from your Motorola Razr about the Spaghetti Cat bit you watched on The Soup last night. Then, as you set aside thoughts of redesigning your MySpace page, your boss walks over and gives you the news. Today is going to suck regardless of how tonight turns out.

The boss just informed you that your assignment for the day is to walk the contractor safety reps around a 2-million square foot construction site to show them safety hazards. More specifically, electrical ones.

This particular site had been deluged by unexpected monsoon weather and more than a few things were under water. As it happened, one of those “few” things just so happened to be… the entire bottom floor and basement of the facility. The GC on that job had bet on their expectations of good weather and begun finishing interiors before the building had a roof. They had lost in a MAJOR way. To say there was tension in the air would be… accurate.

And THEN… Safety arrived to save the day… point at extension cords

Some very concerned administrative folks who’d been riding along that morning on the Project Manager’s windshield tour of the damage had informed us that there were… wait for it… Extension cords sitting in water.

Now, I’m going to make light of this hazard for the rest of this post. I’m not going to say it wasn’t a real hazard, but seriously… bigger fish. If you’re not comfortable with that, I suggest you go listen to Episode 100 of the Drinkin’ Bros Podcast to find out what uncomfortable really feels like.

In general, the idea of extension cords being immersed in water, though not something I would advise, does not rank incredibly high on my pucker meter. I’m sure there will be more than a few who disagree with that, and that’s fine. You being wrong doesn’t change the message of this little story.

The issue in this story doesn’t have as much to do with the magnitude of the hazard as it does the reasoning for which the hazard needed to be removed. That reason, as you might guess, was “because OSHA said.” To the contractors who were already dealing with the water crisis in other ways that only meant diverting time and resources to something that just wasn’t the issue of the day. Safety hadn’t changed that opinion based on the four letter “O” word.

So, I spent the rest of that day (minus the 25 minute lunch break I took to run home and get dry pants), trudging through nearly foot-high water pointing at every extension cord covered by H2O. Oh, and don’t think I forgot about that little “conversation” I mentioned at the beginning. It went like this (hundreds of times that day):

Me (pointing at a submerged extension cord): That one.

Contractor: Why?

Me: Seriously?

Contractor: Yeah.


Business… we’re seriously not good at it

Ok, that’s a broad generalization, but I’m standing by it. Because even the best among us… the Safety Pro who can sell safety based on an iron-clad ROI. That guy. Even he has missed one key ingredient at least once. We all have.

We’re all guilty of pulling safety out of the work process at least once. How many administrative processes have we thrown in people’s faces “just to ensure” they do the “safety” step? How many unnecessary forms have we created and required without knowing how the work works? Which revision of the site safety manual are you currently updating to distribute to the workforce along with a sign-off sheet they have to sign for acknowledgement?

Now ask yourself two questions: How many of those things made someone safer? & How much more effective might those endeavors have been if you could show your organization how to accomplish safety without impeding their work? Think about what that ROI would look like with that little detail included.

In the case of the watery extension cord saga, the contractor was pretty well justified in considering the wet cords a risk worth taking. According to Safety the only thing at stake was the remote possibility someone would get shocked and the even remoter possibility that OSHA would magically appear and unleash the fury at that very moment.

But what if we had helped them with their problem in exchange for some help with ours? Better still, what if we had shown them that their work could be done more safely and efficiently if they corrected the hazard?

How do we get better?

Think about it like this. Have you ever seen an extension cord explode, electrocute a puppy, burn down a building, or turn an average Joe into a super villain because it got wet? I haven’t. And I’ve seen a shit-ton of them (see above). Does that mean they’re not hazardous? Of course not. But it’s not one of the risks that makes me loose sleep. I doubt someone who’s job isn’t SAFETY even thinks about it. If they do, it’s highly likely they consider it a costly nuisance.

So here’s the challenge: If your job requires you to convince someone to do something they think will cost them [anything], you need to find a better way to persuade than telling them they might (in some non-quantified way) experience some level of undesired consequences up to and including death or termination (whichever comes first). Rather than adding roadblocks to the work, find a way to add value. That’s what I think every time I see an extension cord.

One Reply to “Safety Isn’t Good (at) Business”

Comments are closed.