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A CULTURE OF MYTHS

Phil La Duke of OE Learning explains why safety is not any company’s number one priority, nor should it be.

There continues to be substantial debate on the hows and whys of establishing a safety culture. The debate is not unlike the debate about Quality that raged in the early 1980s, but unfortunately there tends to be an alarming trend away from the insights and solid management practices produced by this debate and gravitation toward safety platitudes instead. If we are going to enhance and improve our safety cultures, we must build our credibility, and to do that we have to stop perpetuating myths in the organization.

MYTH 1: SAFETY IS OUR NUMBER ONE PRIORITY

Show me a company that truly has safety as its number one priority and I will show you a company that will quickly go broke. The reality is that safety is not any company’s number one priority, nor should it be. Companies exist to make money – not to keep workers safe. Even not-for-profit organizations exist for some purpose other than simply to keep its workers safe.

The world’s safest companies recognize that maintaining an unsafe workplace is bad business, and companies that make bad business decisions cannot fulfill their primary purpose of making money (or making the world a better place, or achieve any other measure of success.) Safety professionals must stop perpetuating this myth, because the organization knows it’s a myth and if we continue to perpetuate it the organization will never find anything we say credible.

Instead of claiming that safety is our number one priority, we should instead honestly admit that our number one priority is to run an efficient and profitable business, but doing so is only possible when we have made every effort to make certain that all our business processes are safe, produce high quality goods and services, and delight our customers.

MYTH 2: ALL SAFETY RULES ARE IN PLACE FOR YOUR PROTECTION
Whenever a particularly persnickety worker complains about a safety rule, many of us shrug and respond with a “these rules are in place for your protection” and, while that is true in a lot of cases, in many other cases it’s a myth and the worker knows it.

Often, safety rules are created to address a compliance issue that has little to do with the safety of a given worker. In other cases we expand the scope of a rule to cover a much wider population than is required simply because it makes the rule easier to enforce globally.

Take PPE, for example. In many organizations there are relatively few jobs that require PPE and yet many of them require wall-to-wall compliance. I’m not saying that wall-to-wall requirements are a bad idea, or that companies are wrong for easing their abilities to enforce safety policies, but we must stop telling workers that we have these rules for their protection when the truth is we are trying to make our lives easier or trying to comply with a regulation; people know the difference.

MYTH 3: WE CAN ELIMINATE ALL INJURIES BY MISTAKE-PROOFING OUR WORKPLACE
Removing the physical hazards from our workforce should be a top priority; elimination of the hazard is at the top of the Hierarchy of Controls and is universally accepted as the most effective way to make a job safer. But the propensity for people to make errors and the variability endemic to human behavior makes it impossible to completely eliminate mistakes or, more to the point, injuries caused by these mistakes.

The term “mistake proofing” itself is something of a misnomer. Mistake proofing grew out of lean manufacturing and it refers to engineering failure mode. While this is a lovely thought, this doesn’t truly prevent mistakes, rather, it mitigates the consequences typically associated with those mistakes. Mitigating the consequences of mistakes is a key part of safety and since the tendency of people to make mistakes is well documented, we must make a much greater effort to protect people from their mistakes and the mistakes of others.

Unfortunately, we tend to punish people for making mistakes, either through disciplinary action or by characterizing those who make mistake as stupid. Mistakes are seldom indicative of the intelligence of the people who make them.

MYTH 4: ALL HAZARDS WERE CREATED EQUAL
Even though few people believe that a hazard is a hazard is a hazard, many of safety management processes treat hazards as if they all represent the same risk of injury. Furthermore, many safety software packages don’t allow the user to prioritize one safety hazard over another. If an organization is diligent in its efforts to ferret out hazards, it will quickly find hundreds or even thousands of hazards. Unless organizations learn to effectively prioritize and concentrate on the critical few hazards, the system will quickly be overwhelmed and collapse.

MYTH 5: SAFETY CAN BE ACHIEVED THROUGH A PROGRAM THAT ENCOURAGES PEOPLE TO WORK MORE SAFELY
Fortunes have been made selling organizations safety systems that reward people for working safely. While many of these systems do result in short-term reductions in injury rates, there is growing skepticism of the long-term effectiveness of these approaches, and concerns that these programs may merely reduce injury rates by encouraging under-reporting. Since nobody wants to get hurt and your systems aren’t designed to hurt people, companies need to focus on fixing the problem, not the blame.

MYTH 6: WE WILL FIRE YOU FOR ACTING UNSAFELY
Most employee handbooks talk tough when it comes to safety. Open your average policy manual and you’ll likely find an ominous stricture that you will face discipline up to and including termination (which has always sounded more like they were threatening to kill me that to fire me.) But in practical terms, people seldom get fired (or even disciplined) for acting unsafely, unless the behavior directly results in an injury. This sends a puzzling mixed message to the organization and leaves workers wondering whether the discipline is in response to a rule being broken or to a person being injured.

MYTH 7: COMPARING OURSELVES TO INDUSTRY AVERAGE IS USEFUL FOR GAUGING OUR SAFETY PERFORMANCE
When safety professionals report safety measurables to Operations leadership, the first question Operations leaders tend to ask is, “is that good or bad?” The safety professionals tend to respond by comparing these rates to an industry average. This is akin to saying we do a good job because we don’t kill anyone more than anyone else. We can’t be satisfied with our safety record as long as anyone is getting hurt.

MYTH 8: OUR GOAL IS ZERO INJURIES
I have led the argument in favor of “zero injuries” as an organizational goal, but this is a conundrum. Edward Deming denounced zero defects as detrimental to true quality. Many safety professionals will use Deming to support them as they shout down zero injury goals. While Deming believed that setting zero as a goal was destructive to the efforts, he never advocated accepting anything less than perfection as our philosophical vision. So while our vision is a zero, zero injuries are perhaps an unrealistic goal.

MYTH 9: SOME COMPANIES DON’T HAVE A SAFETY CULTURE
Perhaps the biggest misconception safety professionals perpetuate is that their organization doesn’t have, and need to foster, a safety culture. All companies have a corporate culture of which safety is an element. A corporate culture is nothing more than how the organization views various business elements, including safety. We must enhance or improve our organization’s view of safety, but claiming that we need to build a safety culture really does more harm than good.

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Phil la Duke is the director of performance improvement at OE Learning, Inc., 2125 Butterfield, Suite 300N, Troy, MI 48084, 248-816-4400, www.oe.com. For questions or comments on this column, contact Phil at 248-816-4442 or pladuke@oe.com.

Phil La Duke

Phil La Duke is a partner in the Performance Assurance Practice at ERM: Environmental Resources Management, 3352 128th Avenue, Holland, MI 49424, 313-244-2525, www.erm.com. You can also follow Phil and reach him on his blogs at www.philladuke.wordpress.com.

5 Comments



  • norman Wei wrote:

    Phil….excellent article. Thank you for exposing all these myths! Most of these myths are nothing more than corporate slogans and happy talk.

    • Phil La Duke wrote:

      Thanks Norman. If safety professionals want to be taken more seriously, they will have to stop knowingly saying things that aren’t true. Thanks for reading and thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • Anurag Tripathi wrote:

    Great article Phil. I see most of these myths in place in our Indian safety environment as well and even in MNCs that operate in India.
    The reason why such myths exist is because they make life comfortable for the management. Another reason is because removing them requires real thinking and thinking is probably the most ignored practice.
    Keep it up.

  • Phil La Duke wrote:

    Anurag:

    I think these myths are comforting for everyone, not just management, but I agree with you. As safety professionals we have to challenge not only management’s beliefs but those of our colleagues as well.

    Thanks for reading and thanks for your comments.

    Phil La Duke

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