Zero Tolerance: Like Drinking Bleach to Cure a Cold

Any time I teach an orientation or introduction course (in any subject) I tell my airplane story. To be fair, that’s actually inaccurate. Because it’s not my story. It’s my mentor Nick’s story (you can get the full, unedited version in my book).

He died in 2016 and I think of it as a way to keep his memory alive. The long and short of it is that we have to focus on things within our direct control. In my experience, both personally and observationally, though, people are terrible at that. It is far easier to get wrapped up in what everyone else is doing. The preverbal “THEY.”

“THEY” are a part of every organization I’ve ever been a part of. 

“They” don’t ever fix anything.

“They” don’t listen.

“They” know better. 

Funny thing is, “THEY” don’t exist… At least not that I’ve ever seen. 

When I’m teaching those classes, my message is a personal one. It’s about finding fulfillment and satisfaction through doing what you can do rather than concentrating on what someone else should, shouldn’t, isn’t, or won’t do for you.

But there’s another side of the “THEY” coin I rarely talk about. I don’t because it’s uglier and less motivational. It’s the idea that “THEY” (in this case workers) should inherently know what is expected and what isn’t. And it’s one of the most arrogant, misguided, and condescending beliefs in business. Especially the safety business.

Follow me down this rabbit hole for a minute...

I spend a fair amount of time perusing online safety forums. From society pages/communities to social media and everything in between. There are distinct differences between each platform and those who frequent them. For the most part, they all offer something unique, if at the very least entertaining. Some are more formal, some are more discussion based, some are about finding employment. They all showcase one common theme though: Safety Professionals all seek answers (and some are clearly better than others at finding them).

One resounding topic, broken into a million subsets, is the proverbial “what if?”

So, without identifying a single one of those subsets, nod along with me if the following is something you would consider a logical, maybe even expected answer to any of those questions:

“You need a policy…”      

We’ve become a profession of policy above people. A dictatorship of legal words instead of life advice. But the truth is much more sinister than that. Only the naive and inexperienced think those legal words do anything to serve people. THE REALITY IS, policies serve companies.

They have their place to be sure. But no policy ever resuscitated a dead body.

It’s not all grim, but there’s more dark before the light.

Those who know me well, know I spent the worst two years of my career working for a manufacturing company whose polices were as draconian as a medieval Dungeon Master’s torture tome. I don’t consider myself a complete innocent when I talk about my time there, because I buried my desire to speak up about injustice and mistreatment out of fear of losing an income and having to pay back a ridiculous amount of relocation money. Some things (even really expensive ones) aren’t worth the toll they take on your soul, though. I learned that the hard way.

The company’s safety program was, as the corporate safety director put it, based on OSHA law and company legal risk. To that end, any time someone stepped out of bounds a new rule was enacted. Chief among them was the company’s “Zero Tolerance” policy on Lock Out/Tag Out. It wasn’t all that dissimilar to any program you might find in other industries. Where it differed, however, was in its lack of foundation.

At one point, the company had paid some graphics company to create a bunch fancy placards that identified shut off points on equipment. They were hung at or near each piece of equipment and deemed the LOTO “procedures” for the various facilities. They were certainly informational, but they lacked (and still do) any actual procedure. Say, for instance, what sequence a given machine needed to be shut down by. Worse still was the fact that an operator or mechanic may not have to use all of the shut off points for any given system, thus leaving an extreme amount of choice (and with it opportunity for error) to the operator.

People failed… ALL. THE. TIME.

Anyone who knows the gravity a hazardous energy control program (LOTO) carries with it, can assume (and rightly so) that those failures usually weren’t trivial. But… ZERO TOLLERANCE! Any time someone was found in violation, it meant their actions were judged by a group of executives from across the company.  

The “Death Squad” as they referred to themselves (and I seriously wish I was making that up or even exaggerating a little bit) would read a description of the infraction and then make their ruling based on a tool they deemed “the thermometer.” This arbitrary scale of badness dictated the level of punishment that was to be doled out in the name of safety. Nine times out of ten that meant that the employee nursing their bloody stump of a hand was sent down the road packing or at least put on suspension without pay.  

One of the most disgusting examples of this was an instance when a bagging operator was caught between the pneumatic controls of her machine and its frame. The equipment was an old design which had never had a guard installed and had been overlooked during the development of the Fancy-Dancy placards. The operator spent nearly 20 minutes pinned to the machine with her arm flattened like a pancake until she finally wrestled the air line loose and released the pressure. But not before sustaining an incredible amount of nerve damage.

Her sentence: five days without pay

Because “THEY” all knew better.

Retelling that still makes me angry.

It’s a retelling that needs to be told, though. Because safety needs to do better. Write any policy you want to write. Make any rule you want to make. But quit fooling yourself into believing that’s what motivates people to do a good job. Here’s a little secret: most people already want to do just that…

It’s time for us to get out to our project sites, our manufacturing floors, our field locations, or even our offices and find out why people do what they do. Then help them build a program that makes the right course of action, the easy course of action. No threats required.  

Until we that figure out, ZERO TOLLERANCE makes about as much sense as a doctor prescribing a glass of bleach to cure the common cold. 

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