Safety Whack-A-Mole… Blindfolded

Safety Whack-A-Mole… Blindfolded

Sorry, Jason. She’s going to need bed rest!!!!

I’d been sitting in a crowded waiting room for hours with Julie, one of the executive assistants on my project. Julie was a sweet woman with a mean streak. I learned early on that it was best to stay on her good side. And I always did… which was why I was the one sitting with her that particular day.

At the time, I was fresh out of the Air Force and still learning what safety was about in the “real world.” The company I now worked for had been serving as “agent for the client” at my location for over 27 years. The project spanned six phases of construction worth billions. Our people rarely experienced injuries on that project so when Julie strained her back picking up an ice chest full of soda everyone was very “concerned.”

I’m sure the concern had nothing to do with the fact that the project proudly boasted about no lost time accident in nearly 17 years…

So, there Julie and I waited. She was tough but I could tell she was in a lot of pain. Finally, the medical assistant called her back and I walked to the door with her. I had two reasons for doing so: First I asked if I could consult with the doctor to let him know what Julie’s role was and what kind of accommodations we could make if he determined that her duties needed restrictions, and second I really (and I mean really) needed to pee.

The MA let me into the back as she shuttled Julie into an exam room. I walked to the restroom and tried the knob but found it locked. So I waited. Standing there, I watched the doctor follow Julie and the MA into the room and close the door. So much for my consult, I thought.

But then, the doctor emerged just as quickly as he had gone in. He headed straight for me.

“I know what you’re after, Jason and I hate to give you bad news. But she’s going to need at least three days of bed rest.” His lightning fast diagnosis was perplexing to me.

“She needs bed rest for a back strain?” I asked.

“That’s what she needs. I’m afraid so,” he answered.

I’m sure I was glaring at him, but I didn’t ask any more questions. He walked away and I forgot about my urgent need. I walked back out to the waiting room to call my boss and deliver the news. Our record was about to end.

My boss handled it well. He accepted the news and told me to “just make sure she’s taken care of.” I hung up and sighed with relief as my bladder reminded me it also needed to be taken care of. So, I headed back to the restroom once again.

Great news!!!

I emerged a few minutes later to see the doctor once again leaving Julie’s room and heading toward me. He looked like he’d seen a ghost.

“Great news Jason! No restrictions or time off!?!! Julie can return to work today.” His look was shifty and nervous. Again, I agreed and let him move on.

As he walked away, Julie exited the room with a devilish smirk on her face. I can only imagine what she told him when he tried to give her time off. She told me on the ride home that she wasn’t going to be the one to break a 17 year record. At the time I considered it a victory. I didn’t know any better.

“No lives were ever saved in retrospect” – PLD

The aftermath of Julie’s incident was filled with corrective actions, new office policies, and worker training. It was as typical as any post accident ritual at any company. We spent hours determining the root cause of her injury (ahem… her back was not strong enough to perform that task in that position). We interviewed the co-worker who had been helping with the coolers. The project manager even made the decree that canned beverages were not to be carried in any greater quantity than a 12-pack (seriously).

All of it was done under the auspices of “prevention.” Which… would have been fine if it prevented anything. The problem, as with most reactionary safety, is that circumstances are rarely, if ever, duplicated. In this case, the project had similar injury when Julie’s counterpart picked up a cooler filled with ice not six months later. But, hey, she hadn’t violated the 12-pack rule.

I’m not trying to say that figuring out what can be learned from an injury is a bad thing. Those are lessons we need to learn. What I am getting at is that we spend far too much time reacting because of a consequence instead of trying to avoid that consequence in the first place. You can read between the lines of this story and get a pretty clear idea of why organizations do it, but those subjects are for another post.

The constant rear-view mentality of safety has created a mob of over-paid band-aid dispensers who no nothing more than try to prevent something that ALREADY happened. Most of them fool themselves into believing that will magically change the future. We should do better…

  • We should stop telling people that their safety is determined by a number
  • We should find ways to investigate and replicate successful work
  • We should engage with our people to find out what little things make their jobs more difficult than they need to be
  • We should look beyond yesterday and try to figure out what will kill and maim today.

Until we do, we’ll just keep playing blindfolded whack-a-mole safety.

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Welcome To 2020… Lets Talk Safety… And Prostate Exams?

Don’t get squeamish yet, I won’t start there

Monday was my first morning gym session after a couple months of sporadic workouts after work. Most of my inconsistency was due to my own lack of motivation but kicked into high gear when my workout partner, Kevin (first mentioned in THIS POST), transitioned to night shift. As a result, both of us went on a bit of a hiatus. That isn’t really that big of a deal for a couple of guys who’ve both lifted for over 20 years. But lack of discipline will catch up to anyone eventually.

Since neither of us are under the illusion that we’re still in our 20’s, we took things easy that morning. Not everyone in the gym is as wise (or old) as us, though. So, as we set up for some light squats I glanced over at the three guys in the rack next to us. They probably weighed 180 lbs combined, yet had their loaded bar with 405 lbs. I watched as the first of them got under the bar and unracked it. Then he staggered backward to a box behind him to risk his life for some box squats. I’m sure I was frowning at him the whole time (or as my wife says, using Resting A$$hole Face). My disapproval turned out to be warranted, though, because when he sat down on the box he COULD NOT stand up again. Nor could he figure out how to get his arms off the bar behind him in order to dump it without dislocating something. The trio hadn’t set their safety bars high enough either, so any attempt to fall forward or backward would have been disastrous.

For a few tense moments, he and his “bros” wrestled it back to the rack just before (I assume) his spine collapsed or he soiled himself. It was scary and cringe-worthy. But… he didn’t die.

Everyone needs an exit strategy

People in gyms are easy to pick on. I typically don’t because I realize very few aspire to be elite athletes (and I’m not a complete d!@#). Good on anyone who pursues better health and wellness. I can’t look down on that. But, I’ve observed that very few enter a gym with a for plan their exit. And, by exit, I don’t mean returning to your car after frolicking on the treadmill for 30 minutes. I mean figuring out what to do when things go wrong before they do. How will you dump that bar that outweighs you three times over? How will you drop the weights that are forcing your shoulder out of it’s socket?

Safety is uncannily similar. We’re often so focused on what has already gone wrong that we’re blinded to the failures of the future. Thus we fail to plan our exit. But that’s where the money is.

What part of your process could create real chaos?

How much of that chaos can you control before it gets out of hand?

The answer may surprise you (and no, you can’t control everything).

How misguided are you?

I’ve told the story of my ill-fated hospital visit in 2016 before (see THIS POST if you missed it), so I won’t rehash all of it now. But the most memorable point of that 36-hour ordeal was laying in the ER bed shortly after being told I would be admitted to the hospital for Atrial Fibrillation (a heart condition). While waiting for my new room, a doctor walked in and asked me if I was ready for my prostate exam. Since I consider the heart and the prostate to be two distinctly different issues, I thought he was joking.


In the years since that event I’ve reflected quite a bit. It occurred to me somewhere along the way (ahem… IMMEDIATELY) that getting a prostate exam for a heart condition was a bit… misguided. I realize I’m not a doctor, but nothing in my WebMD searches has led me to the conclusion that I needed that particular “probe” at that moment in time.

You might not be making the same connection I am, and I fully understand that. I didn’t reach this conclusion through the use of any logic. It simply occurred to me while watching the gym bros that I never want to go to the hospital again and get an unexpected cavity search. So, being twisted as I am, I related all of that back to safety. That got me thinking about all the plans we make (or don’t make).

Reactions only get you so far

In the gym I plot out my activities. There’s a plan for execution, a mental thought process before executing, and a contingency for when things go wrong. Safety should be the same, yet too often we get stuck analyzing incident rates and trying to identify root causes for sprained ankles. Those things deserve some attention, but I would submit to you that your time is better spent planning work.

If we’re good at our jobs it seems to me that good planning, and a clear exit strategy should result in less need to analyze those rates we all seem to love.


My final point is this: Don’t give your safety program a prostate exam (figuratively speaking), when it has a heart issue. Practically speaking all that really means is focus on the real issues that are causing big problems (or have the potential to). Most likely those big problems aren’t bumps and scratches. Take care of those by all means, but look deeper.

What is out on your site that could kill someone today? If you don’t know, find out. Then do something about it.

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I Broke Into My House … Safely

Sometimes it helps to be vertically challenged.

I’ll get to the B&E in a bit. This story popped into my head yesterday as I was conversing with a contact of mine in Ireland. Among other things, he and I were talking about the recent trend around mental-health first aid. I’m not going to get too deep into my thoughts about that topic. For one thing, it terrifies me to think that a safety cop barely qualified to access risk would be given licence to start poking at people’s brains. I do, however, think that mental health is a huge issue. One that should be addressed… by experts. (Safety & Health is too broad, find a specialty)

What he and I did agree on was that safety professionals take on a lot of pressure and stress. He said, and I agree, that his observation of those in our field is that we’re not nearly as guarded as we should be. We care (at least some of us), but we also set ourselves up for extreme loneliness and anxiety.

That’s what reminded me about my house

If you’ve been a reader for a while, you may recall that my wife left me to go be with her parents (on a trip… back in October, relax). For those who’ve been around even longer, you know that I don’t like clutter in my pockets. It’s for that incredibly petty reason that I don’t typically carry my wife’s car key on my key ring.

The day my wife was set to return, we came up with a brilliant plan. I was going to drive her car to work, take it to the airport, and then ask one of my friends to drive me back home at the end of the day. So, that morning, I grabbed her lone car key and rushed out with the kids in tow. We were running late, of course. All of that worked fine until I got home and realized my house keys were locked inside. My only option would be to have my friend drive me back to the airport to get my garage door opener.

I don’t like putting that much on others, so I sat and scratched my head about what to do. The crazy thing is that my friend Jake had just given me back the extra key I had loaned him when he checked up on the cat a few weekends prior. We sat there parked in my driveway for a few minutes until he asked if there were any open windows.

There were… I fixed it though so don’t get any ideas

Jake boosted me over the 6′ security fence that surrounds my back yard and then I let him in. That was the first step. Then we went to the small bathroom window that I remembered leaving open that morning after I had yelled at the dog to stop barking. Jake and I made a nice little step with some bricks the previous owner of my house had left and I stepped up onto it and peered into the bathroom. The floor on the opposite side of the window did not have a convenient brick step.

I considered my options and then squeezed into the opening. Reaching out, I braced against the pony wall that segregates the toilet from the rest of the room. Using that leverage I was able to pull one leg through the window and then sit mostly upright to pull the other through. My concern was falling onto, and breaking the toilet. That didn’t happen though. In the end I was able make it look somewhat gracefull (if I do say so myself).

So how are the two stories related?

The morning of the break in was a stressful one for me. I was going through some personal stuff, I missed my wife, my kids weren’t listening, and on top of all that I had to go to work and be a “safety guy.” If that description doesn’t resonate with you, just recall how you felt the last time your phone rang at 2:13am. Nothing good happens at 2:13am.

In spite of my detailed plans, I made a critical mistake when I grabbed the lone key instead of my ring with the house keys attached. Then I left the house via the garage and closed that same garage with an opener that I would later leave parked at the airport. None of those small details were a conscious choice. They were the result of my operating within a system I had designed without consideration for the diminished state I would be working in that morning.

We’ll all be there at some point, though. It will always serve you well to consider how you’ll act on a bad day. That’s one side of the solution for sure. The other part is guarding yourself as I mentioned at the beginning. At the risk of ruffling a few feathers I’m going to suggest a few brainshifts for you safety professionals:

  • Stop saying your job is to “save lives.” It just isn’t, none of us wear capes. Your job is to educate, learn, and provide tools and programs that will allow people to to do their jobs safely. No one needs the mental anguish that comes along with thinking their “job” is to prevent everything bad that could ever happen from actually happening.
  • Don’t take things personally. You’re going to see all kinds of crazy things if you stick around this profession long enough. Some of them are stupid, some of them are ignorant, a few are even malicious. But people aren’t doing those things to spite you. Many of us could benefit from being a little less self-important. Just spread your message. What people do with it is not your burden to bear (because you can’t control that).
  • Go do something else. Aside from the fact that your friends and family probably don’t want to hear you drone on about OSHA and reflective vests all the time, you need a break too. Being “on” 24/7 is a prescription for anxiety (trust me). Loosen up and go laugh at some irreverent humor. Or eat a whole pie. Maybe go out on a date and have more than one glass of wine while talking about your favorite Netflix show. Let yourself experience some indulgences now and then.
  • Find some friends. Real ones. There are two sides to this issue. You need “safety” friends who you can bounce ideas off of. But you also need “normal” friends who will tell you to shut up and drink a beer.

The bottom line is that you need to take care of you. Miserable safety people are just miserable people. If you have any tips or tricks for keeping yourself sane, please share them. We can all use the help now and then.

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“Safety” Doesn’t Make Sense

Don’t get angry when no one does it

Over the past few days I’ve spent a good amount of time working with employees who were preparing demonstrations for an annual safety committee exhibition. One group of maintenance technicians put together a crazy-good display that demonstrated how to properly use fall arrest systems and select adequate anchor points for tie off. In planning for it, we had some great conversations about falling. They were eye opening for everyone.

One of the newer mechanics recounted a fall he’d taken at a former employer. His story was pretty incredible considering the company didn’t provide any fall protection for him. He’d been working on a steel structure for days without any. For some reason, however, he decided to bring his own from home the morning of the fall. Before climbing onto the steel that morning he cinched down the leg straps of his harness. Then he loosened them a notch because they were uncomfortable. Minutes later he was dangling in the air realizing that he’d have died if it had happened any day prior.

Most of the guys cringed as their coworker then graphically described why he regretted loosening his leg straps. Use your imagination, but just know he had problems walking for the next few days. His story completely trumped my parasailing misadventure (let’s just say one of my “boys” got caught in the harness… it was less than majestic).

Why do we use the last defense first?

Fall protection is PPE. It should be the “last line of defense.” It’s amazing to me how many people take that for granted. Employers and employees throw harnesses on without thinking (and often without knowing how) just because. What we should be doing first is asking one all-important question: what happens when (not if) I fall?

  • Will I hit the ground and bounce because my arrest device is too long and won’t work?
  • Will I swing into a piece of equipment and knock myself out because I’m too far away from my anchorage?
  • How will I get down from mid-air before all the blood pools into my legs and becomes septic (suspension trauma), potentially killing me?
  • Should I even be wearing a harness or is there a better way to do this job?

Then they started asking really smart questions

We kept discussing the very serious implications and planning needs for fall protection as the group started recounting all of the times they had “tied off” and it really hadn’t been more than a show. One of them (wisely) asked “why do we have to tie off when we’re on ladders?”

“Do you?” I asked in response.

We had a long discussion about that issue, but the long and short of it is that they don’t under normal circumstances. I explained to them that many times additional risk is added to the task when they do. They climb up higher than needed just to attach a lanyard that not only gets in their way, but wouldn’t actually arrest their fall. Once informed of the fact that OSHA doesn’t require fall protection on work platforms (which is what portable ladders are), the group agreed that the “requirement” had never made sense to them in the first place. For my money when it comes to ladders, I’d rather trade a broken bone or two for a dead body dangling in a harness.

I’ve always had a profound respect for work at height. I’ve seen great practices that saved lives and the terrible opposite. Both happen in an instant. But that’s not the point of this post. The point is that we shouldn’t cloud something as important as falling to one’s death with trivial, arbitrary rules. Every time we do it turns something vital into a joke that our workers don’t place any real value on.

So what’s the remedy?

Pragmatic policies, training for understanding, and thoughtful planning. Does it need to be more complicated that? The alternative is just getting angry when no one wants to follow your stupid rules.

What do you think?

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You Can’t Manage Safety With Chaos

Shameless plug time: This is a topic I harped on for pages in my book. If you like these posts (or even if you don’t but you’re willing to consider a different opinion), I think you’ll enjoy it. A Practical Guide to the Safety Profession: The Relentless Pursuit is available at Amazon (affiliate link), Barnes & Noble, CRC Press, and tons of other obscure websites I’ve never heard of (don’t get a virus).

My son is a master the False Dilemma

“Dad, can I play on my tablet before dinner?”

“No, you need to finish your homework.”

“So you’re saying I can’t watch TV before bed?” He responds.

I imagine part of his questioning is a clever ploy to get me to commit to the latter activity. But on the surface, at least, those two topics have nothing do do with one another. One certainly doesn’t guarantee the other. He might also know that his homework will take much longer than he told me it would, but I digress. Here’s another good one.

“AJ, you need to clean your room before you go to your friend’s house.”

“What?” he asks somewhat hysterically. “You mean we’re not getting ice cream tonight?”

Safety arguments are often the same

The argument that I’m alluding to, of course, is that safety performance can be measured by rates. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.

As you can tell, I’ve kicked this dead horse several times, but it keeps resurrecting itself like an undead zombie pony. Ponies are evil. This one needs to be dispatched for good. Not just because it’s wrong, but because it’s harmful. Harmful you ask? Yes, for two reasons:

Pick up the pieces and move on

Too often we get caught up in creating “corrective actions” based on events in order to prevent something from ever happening again. While that is often a prudent measure, it’s easy to get over zealous in that activity. No one can guarantee that something will never happen again. There are too many variables. Going overboard can lead to sitting around waiting for the next bad thing to happen before you do something. That’s equivalent to playing whack-a-mole blindfolded.

When something happens correct what’s reasonable, but then go and seek out the things in your environment that are going to fail. Fix them before they do. In the absence of action that actively eliminates hazards before they harm, we’re just begging for chaos.

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Is Your Safety Motivation From Four-Letter Words?

More specifically, the “O” word…

Don’t be this guy’s backside.

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:

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Park Backward… Or Else: How to Incite Maliciously Compliant Safety

Read and heed if you want to avoid death threats

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. 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.

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Don’t Pass On The Right

It happens every night

On my way home from work, getting to my neighborhood requires turning left from a main highway. Every night as I signal my turn, pull to the middle of the lane, and slow down, the car behind me rushes past on the right. It’s a maneuver that saves maybe 0.02 seconds of commute time (we live in a small town, so “traffic” isn’t really a hindrance).

Every time it happens, I fight the urge to veer back into the middle of the road to thwart the impatient driver behind me. I’ve been hit from behind before, though, and I don’t want to go back to physical rehab for something stupid. So, I stay put and sigh at the ignorance.

What does safe actually mean?

I asked that question a few weeks ago and was met with the expected response: “going home the same way you came to work.” It’s the stock, standard answer I expected. My response? I Pulled out my phone.

Recently, my wife signed me up for one of those “snapshot” apps that monitors your driving to better determine what your auto insurance rate should be.

That shit is annoying by the way.

But, it served a pretty good purpose on the day of my class. In response to my student’s answer, I read him my stats.

“I looked at my phone three times, accelerated from a stop too fast twice, and braked too hard once,” I said. “But I made it to work without an accident. Was I driving safe?”

His blank stare answered my question

Obviously, I have some improvement to make as a driver. Likewise, our workers have opportunities to improve every day. It’s up to us to help them identify those issues and teach them how to get better. Outcomes don’t necessarily define our performance. That is a hard thing to come to grips with in today’s results-driven society.

But remember, just because you’re lucky today doesn’t mean you’re good for tomorrow.

So next time you consider passing on the right, imagine what would happen if the driver in front realized they had signaled the wrong turn and swerved back into the lane. Would your ability to adjust to that change indicate skill, or just dumb luck? I think that’s something worth considering.

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Sometimes It’s The Little Wins- Finding Success When Safety Sucks

I know the pic doesn’t really match the topic, but if you played baseball the way I did (terribly), making it home was a HUGE “little win.”

There are too many zealots out there

I had a great conversation about that very topic yesterday while making some exciting plans for an upcoming podcast. I’m going to keep that under wraps for now, but the conversation was refreshing.

Every so often I talk to someone of like mind and realize that I’m not the only one pushing the kind safety I advocate for in this blog. That’s actually an understatement, because I know there are a lot of people out there making an impact. Sometimes, though, our voices are drowned out by the constant barrage of old school safety cops. If I haven’t been transparent enough about my thoughts on that, here it is: Compliance based safety doesn’t work (on humans).

It’s not going away any time soon though, so my message to all of you who are trying to flip the script is to just stick with it. There are going to be a lot of terrible days and times when you feel like you’re on an island prison being hunted by cannibals where only a young Ray Liotta can save you (if anyone reading that gets that reference, you deserve praise… maybe I’ll send you an “Relentless Safety Snake Shirt”).

Don’t blame them, it’s not their fault

So many of those “safety cops” are just doing what they’re told. I get that. They’re reciting verses from the holy texts and truly believe what they’re doing is right. Their sense of self fulfillment is based on their ability to enforce and control, because that’s how industry has defined Safety. If at the end of those exercises the result is low injury rates, that person has been conditioned to believe they’ve accomplished something.

The problem with that thinking, as I’ve covered in previous posts as well as extensively in my new book, is that rates rarely correlate (regardless of weather they’re good or bad) with process. When we lack that understanding, the natrual reaction to a “bad” week, month, year, etc. is to push harder on compliance. We do the same things and expect different results. But don’t question us because it’s… “SAFETY.”

I read an exchange just yesterday on a LinkedIn post that was a perfect representation of this phenomenon. A contact of mine posted about his distaste (he called it annoying) with the scores of posts of “out of context” photos along with the challenge to “spot what’s wrong here.” Safety people eat that bait hook, line, and sinker every time. But I tend to agree with my colleague. The practice is misguided (I actually wrote an article on LI about it quite a while ago… You can read it HERE).

Que the keyboard warriors

Within minutes of that post going live, someone jumped on the thread and ranted for about three paragraphs (bulleted items included) about how he didn’t care about “annoying” anyone for the sake of safety. It amounted to saying that he would force safety as hard and long and annoyingly as he deemed necessary. OSHA would be proud.


Like I said, there are too many of them. While that sentiment may sound noble, it’s not one that resonates with people. It just perpetuates the belief that safety’s extra. The alternative is being a normal human who can look at the world pragmatically. It’s not easy, it’s not usually loud or outspoken, and it doesn’t come with a lot of praise.

There is hope, though

Two small things happened to me last week that helped reaffirm at least some of what I do and say makes an impact. There were bigger things, but those were accompanied by meetings, debates, and compromises. The little things were unexpected and unprompted (by me at least).

A worker stopped me in the hallway at my facility. It’s not an uncommon occurrence, but she surprised me. She asked for my advice on hearing protection for a new job. But before she asked about that, she said: “Jason, I really value your opinion and like the way you think about safety.” I thanked her for that, but in reality I don’t believe she’ll ever know how much I appreciated hearing it.

Look for those moments. They’ll help you keep at it even when you don’t want to

The second event was even more surprising. A new employee stopped me in the hallway and put out his hand. I’d only met him once in orientation a few weeks prior, so I shook his hand and he reintroduced himself. “I followed you on LinkedIn last night,” he said. “I really like your articles.” Again, I thanked him for his kind words.

That might not sound all that weird as you read this, but it does when you consider that I make a concerted effort to keep my writing and my day job separate. It meant that he had to find me on his own. Through our conversation I realized that he did it because he liked what I had said during his first day orientation and wanted to know more. I took it as a huge complement.

It all adds up in the end

I’ve written many times about how the safety profession can be a thankless vocation, but there are definite high notes. There are also little glimmers that can help get you through the dark days and affirm you’re there for the right reasons. If you can’t find any, maybe you’re just annoying. Either way, looking for the little wins will help.

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How Can Safety Relate to “The Guys?”

Not too long ago I was told that I tell too many stories. The comment was intended as constructive criticism. I usually try to at least consider those things with a (mostly) open mind. This time it just made me laugh. That very morning I had gotten a comment back on one of my blog posts that said:

“You’re a great storyteller. The guys relate to that.”

Those two conflicting statements got me thinking. I’ve learned through the years that not everyone wants to sit through a parable and wait for the moral of the story. There’s a time and place, so I’m not going to dismiss my “constructive criticism” outright. But I do believe we need to tell better stories if we want to be more relatable as safety professionals.

The alternative is saying things like “because OSHA says so…” Let me give you an example.

Do you see what’s wrong here?

I stood bewildered after the VP of Safety asked me that question. I honestly didn’t have a clue. He and I had been touring my facility and had just finished the basic walk around when he asked to watch a job in progress. Since it wasn’t a surprise visit, I’d already selected a good one.

The crew, was performing emergency maintenance on a food-grade charcoal filter. They were one of the best crews at our location. Their job planning sheets had been completed, their equipment was in good condition, their scaffold was erected properly and signed off. It was a well thought out operation.

Maintaining the filter was relatively straightforward. The crew lifted bags of charcoal (40lbs each) assembly-line style to the top of the scaffold where the final crew member would open the bag and empty it into a hopper. Good body mechanics were in use and they had minimized the lifts by employing twice as many people as needed. I was proud of them. Then came the question.

That Knife is a VIOLATION…

I had apparently stood looking dumbfounded long enough, so the VP let me in on his egregious discovery. The man at the top of the filter had used a small rope to attach a utility knife to the rail of the scaffold. Once the bags were hoisted up to him, he would place each on a small platform, cut the top, and then pick it back up to empty it into the hopper. I had failed to notice the knife was of the fixed-blade variety.

It was a violation of our policy, that was not up for argument. I would still argue, however, that it was the right tool for the job. The alternative being that the crew could have signed out a self-retracting blade from the parts room, or worse, used something like a screwdriver or other tool not meant for the task.

There were two disappointing things about the way that “violation” was handled. The first was that it downplayed everything those “guys” had done right. There was no mention of their exceptional pre-planning, or conscientious use of body position. Only the one “wrong” thing. I put that in quotations, because using the self retracting blade we had available was actually quite cumbersome (dare I say, more hazardous) while wearing the thick, cut resistant gloves which were in use.

The second was that the episode actually instigated a month’s long investigation into the finding “right” type of knife. I’m all for improving, but that answer may have simply been to train our people on proper knife handling. Instead it became a running joke rather than an opportunity. I mean, what would chefs do if their restaurant owner banned filet knives?

Figure Out the Reasons Before Offering Solutions

Some things are sharp and scary, I get it. I also get that some Safety Professionals feel like they’re not contributing if they don’t eliminate a new hazard every day (regardless of the actual risk it poses). That’s probably why we write such bad procedures and policies. But this episode reminds me of why it’s so important that we check our egos and get out and learn about the jobs before we write policies that hinder them.

If the knife incident had been addressed with a story, even a short one, about the reasoning behind our policy, it might not have become a joke. That story may have even opened up some good discussions and brainstorming. Maybe someone would have come up with a solution no one had ever entertained before.

You can’t just make it up

A few months later, I participated in a formal mentoring program with that same VP. He was actually a really good guy, but corporate through and through. He and I had a call scheduled on a day when I had unexpectedly stayed home to address some pluming issues at my house. My dad and I were outside repairing access to my water main when the forgotten call came.

I apologized for forgetting about the call and explained about the pluming work.

“Wow, I wouldn’t even know how to get started doing something like that,” came his response.

That was a light bulb moment for me. I realized that he had no practical experience working in the field (plumbing and other building maintenance was our team’s main role). Many safety people don’t, and that’s perfectly fine. Just don’t try to fake it. The people who do the work in your organization will see through that instantly.

Here’s a trick I use. While I know my way around tools and maintenance, I’m certainly no 20+ year craftsman (my wife reminds me often). So, I don’t try to be. I ask. In fact, my first question when I’m on a site, regardless of whether I already know the answer is “what are you working on?”

I ask that question even if I notice a “violation” (unless someone is doing something that could cause harm immediately). That usually levels the playing field and the answer gives me an opportunity to start a conversation. Usually I don’t even have to mention the thing that’s wrong because the worker ends up explaining why he or she is doing it. That’s where you make your money. Once you figure out why the violation, shortcut, unsafe behavior, etc. is happening, you have an opportunity to fix the system.

If you start with the negative, you may get compliance while you’re standing over their shoulder but you won’t get buy-in to make a lasting change. So start telling stories. Or, if you don’t have one of your own, at least listen to someone else’s. You might be surprised what you learn.

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