For some, this might seem like preaching to the choir. Others have made a safety career out of fear mongering through the threat of legal action from OSHA. Since that statement alone is likely to garner some hate, let me just say this: If someone’s best argument for why safety should be done is because “OSHA says so,” they probably don’t have a very good grasp on what makes people tick.
It shouldn’t even need to be said, but unfortunately the zealots are still out there in droves. Every day I here something along the lines of this or that “is required by law.” That statement is about as obvious and unnecessary as me stating that I would be taller if my legs were longer.
Of course we have to comply with the law. No one is arguing that. What I’m driving at, however, is that using that reasoning to influence people is just plain ineffective. People need to know why beyond compliance. As in, how will this keep me alive and out of the hospital?
I get it. It’s easy to forget our own humanity and get wrapped up in rules and regulations. Just make sure you bring yourself back to reality once and a while and remind yourself that there is really only one four-letter-word that should matter when talking safety: LIFE.
Believe it or not, safety existed before OSHA
If you’ve never read up on the construction of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and it’s lead engineer Joseph Strauss, it’s worth the time. The project had some low points for sure (11 fatalities), but it was also revolutionary in many ways. The point is that they did safety because it was the right thing to do, not because the government told them to. Check out the clip below to see what I mean:
Everyone who’s worked on a construction site has met the iron-fisted superintendent in this story (figuratively at least, I’m sorry if you’ve ever met the real guy). We’ll call him… Craig. Just like the villain in some of my previous posts. My apologies to any nice guys named Craig.
Anyhoo Craig, as you can imagine, was a special kind of awful. He was tall, massively built, and intimidating. But only in a physical sense. Intellectually he was a rather small man. His authority was borne only from the fear of being walked out the gate should you test him.
He and I didn’t cross paths much because I worked on the operational part of that particular plant. His crew was in the commissioning phase of the project and due to mobilize out within a year or so. I mostly just rolled my eyes whenever I happened upon him belittling someone or making some stupid, arbitrarily rule. Seldom did his reign of terror affect my team.
Until one day…
Craig’s administrative assistant was walking in the parking lot (looking at her phone), when a car reversed out of it’s spot. You guys, she totally, almost, DIED! According to her. To be fair, I didn’t see it happen, but I imagine it was not the near death experience it was made out to be.
Over the next several weeks parking lot safety was the thing. There were reports of similar occurrences and a band of do-gooders rallied for change before someone was killt (not the garment). Then came the all too familiar “solution” when one of Craig’s henchmen suggested that “people always back into parking spots” where he came from (which may as well have been Narnia as far as I’m concerned).
So parking backward (backing in) became policy… lest ye be written up. It was one of those perfect examples of trying to eliminate a hazard by creating more. Because, to put it lightly, we SUCKED at parking backward. What had been a relatively calm patch of dirt with rows marked by railroad ties became a thunder-dome of horns, thirty-point turns, and screeching brakes.
So Craig did exactly what you’d expect he’d do
He doubled down. And I don’t mean just a little. The backward parking remained and a new requirement was added. Beginning one Monday at 5 PM, only one row of cars was released at a time. It started the at the front of the lot (at least that part was fair considering they got there first) and went row by row. After one day of it union grievances began flooding in for all of the unpaid time people sat parked in their cars after they had clocked out.
That’s where I got tied up in the mess. And I don’t regret it one bit… because it was hilarious. At the time, I was making a series of safety videos for the operations team. With my manager’s permission, Craig sequestered my services to film the exodus. His intent was to dismiss the grievances, but it had exactly the opposite affect.
I perched myself on top of a tower overlooking the parking lot with enough time to capture the guards take their places. At quitting time, the herd rushed out in a flurry of middle fingers and foul language as Craig stood on a balcony just below me. I was too far up to be noticed, but even if anyone saw me I don’t think they cared. They all wanted to murder Craig. No one was shy about voicing that desire either.
In the end money won
Craig lost his grievances with the union. Apparently my two-hour video of cars waiting to leave a parking lot was not proof of fair treatment (go figure!?!?). The backing rule was never “officially” reversed, but it was never enforced again. Soon no one remembered. But safety took a huge nosedive in those final months of the construction phase. It was something the workforce had to do, not something they wanted to.
I’ve stated many times before that legal compliance and people safety are two distinctly different objectives. Craig was a perfect case study for that. Compliance is required… no one’s arguing that. But OSHA isn’t what keeps the average worker awake at night. Having a life is. Figure out what that life is about, invest some time in teaching them why safety will make it possible, and help them understand when risk is unacceptable. That’s how real safety works.
As an added bonus, far fewer people will want to punch you in the throat.
If you’re new to this blog, let me introduce myself. My name is Jason. I’m a safety professional, podcast host, author, and world-renowned origami artist (that’s a lie). If you’re NOT new to this blog, go buy my book… it’s like this but multiplied by the power of unicorn tears. In any case, I hope you enjoy the content here. Please like, share, and join in the discussion as we all pursue Relentless Safety.
I thought about calling this one “proudity edition,” but I doubt many would appreciate the irony…
A thought occurred to me the other day whilst (I’m using that word for my UK Friends, and also for the fact that I’ve been using a pic of Shakespeare in this series) I was pondering our state of being in the safety world. When you think about it, ours is really a weird profession. Seriously… it’s not hard to imagine why some people think hiring a safety professional is the corporate equivalent of a stupid warning on a hair drier. Especially if you think safety is just “common sense.” It’s no wonder those people hate the “safety guy.”
Safety doesn’t have a defined purpose in most organizations. In fact, as The Safety Minimalist Dennis Baker wrote this week, most of us “safety professionals” don’t even know how to define what we do. I believe that identity crisis stems from the fact that most companies only employ safety professionals because they have to. In those cases, the purpose of those safety professionals is solely OSHA compliance, regardless of what the corporate drones might say.
In that context, it makes sense that our policies and procedures follow that mold.
Like I said, ours is a weird profession. On one hand we’re expected to act in the company’s interest to avoid costly legal compliance-related expenses. On the other, we’re expected to influence and persuade people to work safely in their own interest. It’s a constant state of conflict.
People aren’t all that great at conflict, though. So, easy usually wins over great. Because great is hard. OSHA is easy. Hence the volumes upon volumes of policies and procedures telling employees what they “shall” do. It’s easier to write that than actually provide them meaningful instructions.
That idiot must not care enough
Those have been reading since I started this thing may remember my old boss The Tongue. If you haven’t read that story, it’s a fun one (give it a click, you won’t regret it). He was a jackass for sure, but I’m not above giving credit where it is due. The Tongue was a notably intelligent man. He never missed an opportunity to tell you that either. Usually by using his knowledge of big words to belittle those who weren’t on his level.
His writing was no different. It was filled with long, scientific descriptions and complicated equations. The directions were perfectly suited for industrial hygiene graduate students, but missed our target audience entirely. Most of his contributions to the site safety program took me two or three readings. Our carpenters and general laborers had neither the time nor patience for it. He was the boss though. So we printed them, put them in binders, and watched them collect dust.
All we had to do after that was wait. It never took long though. The Tongue had a keen eye for spotting violations. When he did, the poor soul in the wake of his wrath would quickly learn how stupid he or she was and informed of their general lack of care for safety. It was a sad, vicious cycle. The Tongue would write a procedure, the staff would not read it, The Tongue would get angry, and repeat.
He never got out of his own way
Just as I mentioned in my first edition about writing better safety procedures, success means first understanding that you’re not writing for yourself. You could write the most eloquent, academic, compliant, innovative masterpiece. But if no one reads it, you might as well never even try. Give your people instructions, simple instructions, they can and will use. All the big words you wanted to use instead can wait for your doctoral thesis or your blog on proudity.
I’m the greatest boxer of all time! Some of you are reeling from that revelation, I know. It’s true! I’ve never fought, but I’m sure I’m the best. I mean, I can bench 295 (315 next month baby) pounds, so it stands to reason I can hit really hard too.
Maybe you don’t buy it, but I am the safest boxer of all time, though. Who else can claim that they’ve avoided getting punched in the face for their entire career? (although according to my wife, that streak won’t continue if I keep up with this blog)
Since I’m in the mood to talk about ridiculous claims, let’s kick around one of the most frequently made in the name of safety. Say, for instance, the idea that a low injury rate somehow equates to high performance in safety.
But you have to have a low rate to get a VPP Star!
You also have to eat in order to get food poisoning, what’s your point? Of course OSHA would require a low rate in order for entry into their program. There’s no other regulatory “measure” for safety. As with all things OSHA, rates have their place, but they’re hardly a measure of performance. I’ll put it this way; if you need the government to give you a gold star in life, you’re missing the whole point of living. Safety should just be part of who each one of us is. Simple (but not easy).
Instead, we’ve let it become a task we have to check off a list. This is where safety pros and average Joes both get it wrong. Safety tells people to do it because OSHA said, which means nothing. Many of those people, in turn, just check it off to make Safety go away. Then we all hope for the best and pray no injuries occur. Because if nothing happens, we’re good at safety, right?
That makes about as much sense as saying that KFC tastes good because it’s not made with grapefruit. Or that people from the south sound funny because they’re not from California.
But doing something is hard…
There are far too many who would debate, argue, and cry for days about how incident rates are the best benchmark we’ve got. That’s because measuring nothing is easy. People who would argue just want to cash paychecks. It’s much harder to measure action and see meaningful results. But that’s what moves the barometer. Not inaction and hope.
The good news is that there are visionaries out there who are making impacts. They’re building safety into their processes. In order for real change to take place, though, we have to start educating our leadership about what real progress in safety means. It’s not removing all the bumps and scrapes that lead to OSHA recordables. It’s sending our people home every night to the lives they work so hard to support.
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.
The data used in this post was taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) news release dated December 18, 2018. The numbers are staggering, but so is Industry’s response. And not in a good way. We can do better.
In December 2018 the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that from 2016 to 2017 worker fatalities were “down slightly” from 5,190 to 5,147. They went on to describe that only 3.5 workers per 100,000 died at work in 2017 as opposed to 3.6 in 2016. I’m not going to beat around the bush on this, those numbers are appalling. The fact that anyone saw fit to even try to cast a positive light on 5,147 human beings being killed while they try to provide for themselves and their families is downright disgusting. And all of it is our fault.
Let me explain what I mean by that. I’ve spent my career working in Industrial Safety & Health. We call ourselves Safety Professionals, but we are known by many different titles: Safety Officer, Safety Manager, Health & Safety Coordinator, Safety guy/girl, you name it. Most everyone who has held a job in this country has at least had a loose connection to someone in my field. We’re the ones who write all the safety rules, tell people they’re not wearing their safety glasses, fire people for violating OSHA requirements, and on and on. But we should be the ones protecting people.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many who strive day in and day out who do just that. But even the best among us have fallen into what I call the “compliance trap.” We get so wrapped up in the rules we make (or the ones our companies are required by law to abide by), that we forget about the people those rules are designed to safeguard. Not too long ago, I was told that a company can’t even begin to get “good” at safety until it is great at (OSHA) compliance. I find that fundamentally backward and potentially life-threateningly harmful to employees.
There are two distinct issues at play here. The first is legal compliance. The second is actual worker safety. Let’s start with compliance.
While I would never argue against being OSHA (or any other governing agency) compliant, I will argue until I turn blue that complying with their laws does not directly correlate with worker safety. Compliance is required, that’s without question. But compliance needs to rest on the shoulders of organizations, not individual workers. There are three things people miss when trying to sell compliance as a fatality prevention measure:
OSHA enforcement is directed toward companies, not workers. An employee rarely has any personal motivation to comply.
OSHA regulations are laws and written as such. Even if a worker was motivated enough to read them, there is nothing within them to envoke an emotional response powerful enough to make someone want to buy in. The rules may tell someone what they can or cannot do, but they don’t explain why (or how).
Compliance “feels” oppressive. No one wants to be told what to do. Workers need a reason to invest their energy and will likely resist if they feel forced.
Now let’s look at what real worker safety means. I mentioned already that compliance is the organization’s responsibility. It would be easy to read into that statement and assume that I mean to say the worker is absolved of responsibility, but that is entirely false. Workers have the personal responsibility to perform to their safest ability while working within the compliant environment their organization owes them. The trick is getting them to buy in. Someone like me can yell OSHA at a worker all day long like its some four-letter curse, but the truth is OSHA just doesn’t mean anything to most people. Most people only care about what matters to them. For some it’s family, for some it’s fishing, but everyone has a vested interest in not dying. Meaning most of us enjoy living.
If companies would invest more time in figuring out what it is that people live for, appeal to those things, and then show them why working safely will allow them to continue those activities, we might actually see worker deaths decrease. My point is simple: compliance is required and safety is required but they’re distinctly separate things. Help me spread that message and actually make a difference in the lives of American workers. It’s far past time we do.
If you’re looking for a practical way to help jumpstart the process, check out THIS POST.
The best leader I’ve ever worked for broke the first promise he ever made to me. The story took quite a while to play out, so I’ll be posting this one in two parts. If you get nothing else out of these next two posts, they should at least remind you that even great leaders make mistakes. I’m sure that shocks no one.
But why is it, then, that those of us who have chosen the path of leadership want to seem infallible?
One of the most important things I’ve learned throughout my career is that even the most brilliant, eloquent, and headstrong leaders are hopelessly lost more often than they like to admit. That’s what makes it hard to live up to the standards we set for ourselves. Taking the path of less resistance and sticking with the status quo is a tempting option when faced with making a tough choice and standing against all odds just to maintain your integrity. Especially when there’s no guarantee you’ll make the right choice. Even more so when there’s not really any danger of your decision being second-guessed… because you’re doing what anyone else would do, right?
Back to the story…
Nick, our new manager, showed up and gave us a quick and dirty rundown. His philosophy was simple: we were one team; his team. Any decision we made out on site whether right or wrong was a decision he would support. He made it clear, however, that if we were wrong we would go into an isolated office somewhere and have “words.” But he would always have our backs. That meant we would not be questioned in front of the client or even any of our other coworkers. It was a promise we all believed. It was what every choice we executed was based upon. It was our source of strength and unwavering confidence, but it was never tested.
Truth be told, that promise was more than just a source of strength, it was a silent partnership and a huge responsibility. We knew instinctively that our choices out on site were a direct reflection of our leader, and no one (not even the consummate people-pleaser of the group, “Mr. K”) took that responsibility lightly. So most of our choices were good ones. Or at the very least, very well researched, exhaustively educated guesses.
All went swimmingly for a time until one day when we noticed a disturbing trend on our site. We were acting as “Agent for the Owner” on a multi-billion dollar construction super-project. It was highly political, highly contentious, and always high stakes. One of our General Contractors (GC) had a reputation for killing people who were working at height. It hadn’t happened at our location, but we were always on the lookout for trends that had caused deaths on other sites.
One trend that came up alarmingly fast were the miles of scaffold that seemed to show up overnight. They filled every hallway, climbed to every ceiling, and cantilevered over every balcony.
When they appeared, we were already battle worn and weary from having spent nearly 18 months battling the GC about their less than compliant methods for using scissor lifts. Problem numero uno being that they had fabricated steps that were fastened to the rails of every lift to allow workers to climb to greater heights. When added to their policy that did not require those workers to wear fall protection while working in those lifts, we spent more time than should have been warranted trying to reign them in. They knew the practice was wrong, but time was money, and workers with steps on their rails got more work done.
That continued until one man fell out onto his head at a height of 22 ft. He lived (thankfully) and we were finally given the ok by the owner to crack down. The GC’s answer? Scaffold. Everywhere.
Click HERE for the conclusion to this story. I can guarantee this much: it’s not at all what you’re going to expect. Also feel free to check out some of my most recent posts. If you like what you read, please subscribe. And by all means, please share…
Ok. I’m not going where you think I’m going with this. But nor am I above shameless click-bait. So, let’s talk about probes!
Of course, I’m talking about Ph probes used for recording scientific data. Are there even any other kinds of probes?
To be clear, we’re discussing one of the probes pictured on the right. Get your mind out of the gutter.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s set the stage. You work at a manufacturing facility. For years, technicians have been using probes to test Ph. Recently there was a change to the process. A simple change, mind you, but one with big implications.
Since Monday (hypothetically speaking of course), technicians have been required to attach the Ph probes and their leads to a probe stand like the one in the picture above. The change is being made to prevent contamination and/or potential breakage of the probe. In the past, the probes were not captive and had frequently broken. In support of this initiative, each sample station is being given a sanitary container in which the buffer liquid cup can be stored without spilling.
Today, you have the task of auditing this new practice for compliance. You go to the first station and it’s perfect. Second, perfect. Then you come upon the third station. The technician there is hurriedly scurrying about and doesn’t have time for your intrusion. You start to walk by and then notice that his probe is not attached to the stand. In fact, he has reverted to the old practice of placing the buffer cup and probe in the permanent holder at the top of the station. You cite the violation, inform him, and leave.
I’m well aware that nothing like that ever occurs in a work environment but just go with me on this journey for a moment. If something like that had occurred at your facility, wouldn’t you want to know why? Many of you reading this “get it” on a fundamental level so I won’t insult you. But if even one person out there is content to just cite without understanding, then this needs to be said.
I mentioned the technician being in a hurry for a reason. If this example were real (totally fabricated, trust me), one might have noticed that he had placed the cup and probe in the old location because his new holder was gone. An inquisitive observer might then have asked him why he wasn’t using the new stand. Although that is an inherently dumb question (yes, they exist), it would prompt the technician to explain that he didn’t want the buffer cup to spill and the stand would not reach to the old holder. He would also explain that his new holder had been taken before his shift. Easy.
So now let’s draw that comparison. If all of this had been some sort of safety issue, how many Safety “Professionals” would have probed (see what I did there…) deeper and figured out why the violation had occurred? What if the buffer was a highly volatile acid that had a flash-point of -2 and could melt through your hand while at the same time spontaneously combusting it? Would the conversation have been civil, or emotion-driven due to the extreme risk that technician had placed everyone in?
Here’s a simple truth: People are task-based. We’re driven to complete tasks, not assess the risks associated with them. I would even argue that we don’t consciously assess risks as we encounter them. We either plan for them up front (build risk mitigation into the task) or react to them as they happen.
When the operator “violated” the new policy, he did it in the interest of completing the task. To some degree, he even did it to mitigate risk (the buffer cup spilling). In his case, however, the system failed him and he was faced with a choice: a) do it “correctly” and risk spilling his cup or b) do it the old way and finish the task.
How much better could we be at accounting for error and avoiding problems if we looked at the world through the lens of the worker rather than trying to spot what they are doing wrong? If you don’t practice this already, give it a shot. It may surprise you. In the meantime, if you haven’t already, check out SAFETY IS TIRED, LET’S MAKE IT RELENTLESS.