The 14 Points of Workplace Safety

By merging the engineering discipline, process control and business acumen of W. Edwards Deming to the practical world of employee protection, Phil La Duke of Rockford Greene International introduces some profound principles of worker safety that are an absolute must for manufacturers.

These profound principles of worker safety are an absolute must for manufacturers because they merge the engineering discipline, process control and business acumen of W. Edwards Deming to the practical world of employee protection.

Long before I became a safety professional I worked as a consultant to one of the former Big Three automobile manufacturers. I was brought in as part of a State of Michigan government grant to safe a factory that auto maker had decided to decommission. The consultants were given pretty much cart blanche to try anything and everything to turn things around.

It looked pretty hopeless. The plant management and union local were at each other’s throats, quality was poor even by 1970s standards, and productivity was abysmal. The company had already identified other factories to do the work and left no doubt that it didn’t see much hope for anything changing, at least not enough to save the plant.

It was in this bleak, forth down, “Hail Mary Pass” environment that I first learned about the teachings of W. Edward Deming. I was working my way through college at the time and taking business courses at University Of Michigan at the time, so I had heard about and, indeed, studied the teachings of Deming, Drucker, and Juran, but nothing was near as instructive as what I saw on this factory floor.

Many of the workers (both management and hourly) had a strong sense of entitlement and few connected their job security with the way in which they did their jobs. Plant management (and by this I am referring to the practice not necessarily the people) was firmly entrenched in the way things had always been done. Nobody cared much about what workers (again on both sides of the bargaining table) thought as long as people maintained the status quo and did what they were told.

For four long, hard years, my colleagues and I worked with the plant leadership to relearn manufacturing, much of which was based on the teachings of that one man: W. Edward Deming. When we finished and left the plant, it had completely rebounded. Instead of being decommissioned, it was enlarged and thrived for another 25 years until the work was ultimately farmed out to overseas suppliers. But the transformation there was astonishing, and I went on to apply what I learned about World Class Manufacturing to transforming how companies manage worker safety.

I’ve tried for years to get safety professionals to embrace the teachings of Deming and to get them to apply these principles — specifically his 14 Points for Management — to worker safety. For whatever reason, my arguments have largely fallen on the deafest of ears. Many safety professionals, even at the most senior levels, don’t see any reason to change from the way things have already been done.

 

 

Then it occurred to me. Deming’s work was rooted in engineering discipline and process control, while safety grew out of the human resources function. This seemingly inconsequential difference has much to do with the state of safety in the world and why it needs to change.

There is a major disconnect between HR and engineering, a great and deep philosophical divide between the two. Engineering is, at its purest core, about change and improvement; it’s about continuous improvement. Human resources (as much as some may argue) is about keeping things the same; it’s concerned with compliance and fairness and rules and doing the same thing the same way every time. The problem is, things are broken in safety, and things had better change before we all go broke.

I get a lot of guff when I talk about safety being broken. After all, haven’t we made great strides in safety? Injuries are on the decrease, aren’t they? Well sure, we’ve made progress. And yes, injuries seem to be going down, but … so what?

Several years ago I toured a plant that manufactured fiberglass. It had invested heavily in behavior-based safety and prided itself in how terribly concerned it was with safety. This 360-employee facility had a safety committee of 16 workers who spent, by their own account, about 15–20 hours a week in safety-related activity. The plant had claimed to do over 7,000 safety observations, started every shift with a safety talk, and you literally couldn’t look in any direction without having your senses assaulted by some insipid reminder to work safe.

They even had a children’s safety poster contest where the employees’ children competed to make the best reminder for mom and dad to work more safely. (Years later I asked what kind of a sick creep introduces the possibility that mommy or daddy will be killed in an industrial accident to the mind of a 6– to 8-year-old, only to have my email in box blown up with hate mail from a bunch of out of touch safety fossils.)

Perhaps the biggest sign that the leadership of this facility had long sense left the rails was the $250 per employee bonus that was given out anytime there were no recordable injuries — every quarter. Workers were given $1000 extra a year just as long as nobody reported an injury. If your organization can afford to throw away this kind of money without showing any business results, then stop reading; nothing you will read here will help you if you honestly believe that this kind of bloated, wastrel approach to safety is smart business.

For those of you still reading, here are my 14 points for workplace safety. Some are adapted from Deming’s points and others I derived from my many years experience working in business optimization, because you can’t be successful in business if you don’t manage workplace safety:

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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.

20 Comments



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  • Mike Lawrence wrote:

    Another great article, Phil, but OMG! Why would I want to enlarge your photo?? :)

    You really hit the nail on the head that safety is not a priority and that it is a business element that needs to be carefully managed just like other elements such as quality, etc. I’ll be quoting some of this article in my Safety Metrics webinar this morning.

    • Phil La Duke wrote:

      Tell me about it. With a hat size of 7 3/4 my head is plenty big. Thanks Mike, it’s always great hearing from you.

  • Mike Gordon wrote:

    As an engineer, I really enjoyed this article. Some great points that companies really need to absorb, if they want their safety record improve. It’s about ownership.

    Thanks Phil.

    • Phil La Duke wrote:

      Thank you Mike. I think it’s sometimes easy for companies to get so wrapped up in the human side of worker safety that they lose sight of the fact that it gets easy to forget that worker injuries are caused by system failures. Yes, protecting workers is important, but the best way to do so is with a reliable and robust process.

  • David Stevenson wrote:

    Great points Phil.

    Your first point is the best. I am of the personal opinion that if a company has signs or says safety is their first priority, then they are lying to themselves. Safety is part of healthy organization, but no more important than production and quality. Truly safe companies are always asking, “How can we safely make this product more efficiently and better quality so the customer gets a better value?“
    I’m glad I found someone that shares some of my opinions.

    • Phil La Duke wrote:

      David:

      I have always said that injuries are just another inefficiency. It may sound cold, but no company exists primarily to protect its workers. We all—individuals and companies—go to work to make money so we can make a living. But we can’t be successful doing that if we spend all our money hurting workers. I’m yet to meet a CEO who told me that he would love to hurt more workers, but he just couldn’t afford it.

      Thanks to all for reading and your comments.

      Phil

  • Dave wrote:

    All good points Phil. I know when I finally succeeded in getting the safety group transferred from HR to operations our effectiveness sky-rocketed. All of a sudden we were part of a decision making processes that allowed us to make a difference rather than being on the outside complaining about being excluded and ignored.

    • Phil La Duke wrote:

      Dave:

      I understand. But let’s not be too hard on the HR function, for safety to be effective we need a strong HR department to back us up when disciplinary action is required. That having been said, the idea that safety is all about compliance, and compliance is owned by HR is an attitude that needs to change.

  • Wynand Serfontein wrote:

    Hi Phil,
    I agree with what you said. You mention “Behavioral psychology is overused and frequently misused…” I believe part of the problem is not the amount of use, but the lack of expertise. Safety professionals seem to jump on bandwagons without knowing the psychology behand it. Should we not rather get better psychologists in the safety management realm to help us?

    You also say “reduce the risk of injuries to the lowest practical level.” This level is (and should always be) a moving target as technology and knowledge develops. The human brain still needs to be part of any safety system, as fallible as it is.

    • Phil La Duke wrote:

      Wynand:

      Excellent points. I have spent the bulk of my career working in organizational change and I bristle at the fact that more and more safety vendors are billing their wares as “culture change” when they have no credentials or expertise in this area (beyond a book or two they may have read.)Culture change may be indeed the solution to lingering safety issues, but these people may not be the ones to bring that change.

      As for reducing the risk to the lowest possible level, I couldn’t agree more. If safety professionals don’t constantly seek to do things faster, cheaper, and more effectively they will likely find themselves out of a job.

  • Wade Rohloff wrote:

    This is an outstanding article. Solid truths on every point. I am constantly ripping up gimmick programs and debunking platitudes like “Be Safe” and “safety is our top priority”. I would rather “Be Rich!” If I can get there through thinking rich thoughts!?! It is like I have to get employees out of this mental “funk” that they believe is safety, bring them back to reality and then we work on the fact that safety is doing things to guard against hazards.

    Why are people so resistant to just teaching the basics? Our ADD society just seems to want to skip over hard work, discipline and sacrifice and go straight to the rewards.

    • Phil La Duke wrote:

      I think too many safety professionals shy away from training the fundamentals because it is may be outside their area of responsibility. For others they are attracted to new ideas that promise a quick fix (in this week’s blog I explore the very real need to be open to new ideas.) For the most part, these professionals don’t see what they are doing as quick fixes or gimmicks. In some cases they are just trying something new because they have exhausted all other alternatives

  • Donald Napier wrote:

    I have not read Mr Deming, but I think I am very much aligned to his Safety Philosophy. I think the 14 key points are pretty much on the mark, and there is work for me to do improve some of these elements within my organisation.

    Good article.

    • Phil La Duke wrote:

      Thanks Donald. I glad you enjoyed the article. Deming’s principles are so attractive because they are so practical. Not everyone agreed with him, but after decades nobody has ever come up with a better way that isn’t supportive of his work.

  • David J wrote:

    Well stated! I have been doing the EHS management gig for 33 years and agree totally with your observations.

    • Phil La Duke wrote:

      Thanks David. I’ve written so much on worker safety (an average of about 10,000 words a month) that I thought it was important to clearly define exactly what I believed relative to the industry. I’m pleased that this article has resonated with so many people.

      Thank to all of you for reading and taking the time to comment.

      Phil

  • Vic Kohlhof wrote:

    Your observation of safety applied under the auspices of HR was outstanding. That one thing explains so much dysfunction. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen someone write, “I’m in HR and was just given safety responsibilities–where do I start?”. Thanks for a great article.

    • Phil La Duke wrote:

      Vic:

      Thanks for your support. Good luck me finding another job after pissing off HR!

      Phil

  • Gary Armstrong wrote:

    Great one Phil. Keep them coming. Hopefully some of your thoughts will rub off on the managers that ignore the safety fundamentals for the gimmicks they so proudly sell as safety programs.

  • Alex Lowery wrote:

    I enjoyed you article. Thanks for the good work!