Don’t Hurt Yourself

Phil La Duke of ERM explains why this nice sentiment to express concern doesn’t work as the flawed philosophy behind Behavior Based Safety, a wrong-headed and ironically dangerous safety system.

This nice sentiment to express concern doesn’t work as the flawed philosophy behind Behavior Based Safety, a wrong-headed and ironically dangerous safety system.

Perhaps the dumbest advice I’ve ever received was “don’t hurt yourself,” something we’ve all heard at least a hundred times throughout our lives and probably said ourselves almost as often. This phrase continues to be used in one form or another, though it’s a rare case where someone was actually saved from a horrible injury because someone told them, in the vaguest possible terms, to watch out.

“Don’t hurt yourself” is not in itself dangerous, but some safety professionals have institutionalized it into the flawed philosophy behind Behavior Based Safety (BBS), an equally wrong-headed and exponentially more dangerous safety system. Think this through with me.

“Don’t hurt yourself” directs the about-to-be-injured party to stop whatever they are doing in order to avoid injuring themselves. In other words, if left to their own designs, an accident is about to occur. The injury is clearly assumed to be within the control of the injured party, otherwise no cautionary warning would be exercised. The unspoken implication is that the speaker is smarter than the person being warned and most likely believes they are immune to getting hurt.

All of this sounds innocuous enough, but (while harmless) it’s seldom accurate. Injuries can come from a multitude of complex and interrelated causes, many of which originate far upstream from the injury itself: equipment wears out, structures collapse, strangers act in careless or negligent ways. Though few of these factors can actually be controlled, an innate belief still persists that somehow, at some basic level, the person injured is also responsible for getting themselves hurt.

“Don’t hurt yourself” also assumes that injuries result from cognitive behaviors and conscious decisions. This is seldom the case. Think about the times you were personally injured; how many of those accidents happened because you simply weren’t thinking or, more accurately, were thinking about something else?

A growing body of BBS research holds that mistakes are a basic function of the brain that our subconscious minds use to test the environment and the safety of adapting to that new environment. Testing enables us to both resist and invite change simultaneously.

As backward and contradictory as this concept might sound, some believe it triggers our innovation, our discovery of how to do a task better, our exposure to the wonderful serendipity life has to offer. Unfortunately, these mistakes sometimes lead to lethal or even deadly consequences.

But if mistakes are in fact an inevitable function of our brains, then merely telling people not to err is pointless and, in my opinion, fairly irritating, like telling someone to be taller. Assuming an individual is not mentally ill, injuries that happen as a result of a cognitive decision are not deliberate attempts to hurt oneself.

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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.

8 Comments



  • Donald Warfield wrote:

    Whether intentional or not, the phrase “don’t hurt yourself” implies that the individual lacks common sense and would hurt themselves except for being told not to – a saying rooted in arrogance and ignorance. I believe this is incorrect.

    Your paragraph, “Reminding me of risk conditions (“It snowed last night so watch for water on the floor”)” is helpful because instead of merely telling me to be careful you are also warning me of nonstandard conditions that are more inclined to hurt me. That is almost on target, resulting “in proactive thinking that is the foundation of a good safety system.” One can be warned on standard conditions.

    We then have to determine what is “telling” versus what is “reminding” . . . by the way, the next time you get up to get a drink of water while in your hotel room, don’t get hurt. This is a nice article, but I do not agree with all of your premises.

    • Phil La Duke wrote:

      “the phrase “don’t hurt yourself” implies that the individual lacks common sense and would hurt themselves except for being told not to – a saying rooted in arrogance and ignorance. I believe this is incorrect.” Is every time someone telling another “to be careful or “don’t hurt yourself” an expression of arrogance and ignorance? Certainly not, I say it to my daughter every time she leaves the house; it is me saying “I love you and I care about you so come home safe.” But when an organization says it —through posters, or slogans, or platitudes—I doubt its sincerity and frankly its sense. In fact, in some cases, awareness efforts can desensitize workers to dangers: when you tell me to be careful of everything I effectively treat all hazards as equally probable and severe, so telling me to be mindful of some vague threat of shadowy harm does me no good whatsoever.

      A specific warning about a threat that is not obvious is more likely to protect me than some vagary that makes the organization seem like it is taking action when it is not.

      “This is a nice article, but I do not agree with all of your premises.” Thank you, and that’s good. My intent in writing about safety issues isn’t to sway people to my point of view as much as it is to get people thinking and talking about these points. I don’t have a monopoly on the truth, and believe it or not, people who disagree with me sometimes get me to rethink my position. In a world where more and more safety fanaticism is taking hold, a little dissension is a good thing. Thanks for reading, commenting, and disagreeing.

  • Brian wrote:

    Recognizing consequences of behavior is thought to develop as people grow older and can envision or be reminded of what might happen, “Do not hurt yourself” and avoid behavior that would cause it.

    Phil, I disagree with this,”The unspoken implication is that the speaker is smarter than the person being warned and most likely believes they are immune to getting hurt.” No not nearly or at all.

    When I say Drive carefully\Do not hurt yourself to my son every time he leaves the house or when he is going out on the road, work in the garage on his car or to participate in some extreme sport; it is me saying “I love you and I care about you so come home safe.”

    (Because I endear myself to him or you to her) that is what it is! But do you really mean it?)

    If so WHAT do you really mean?

    If so. How and why?

    I believe (or well at least hope) that when we say that to our sons and daughters it makes Him\Her think? Also we do not tell people the same thing every time we see them DO WE ? Normally only when the task or activity is unusual or may appear to be something different or being done in an awkward, difficult or different way

    My Dad loves me, and wants me back in one piece. So when I am doing what I am doing, going to do or about to do, (He wants me to be extra cautious and extra vigilant and aware)

    So I must be extra cautious, vigilant and EXTRA aware. (Or WE HOPE that this is at least how they will or would interpret it) Because Injuries can come from a multitude of complex and interrelated causes, many of which originate far upstream from the injury itself: equipment wears out, structures collapse, strangers act in careless or negligent ways. Though few of these factors can actually be controlled, an innate belief still persists that somehow, at some basic level, the person injured is also responsible for getting themselves hurt. Or may having been warned or reminded to act with a ‘Heads Up Approach” may avoid or escape accident or injury.

    Having said this to my son or perhaps you to your daughter you or we are hoping that (that This is how they WILL interpret it) they will be on the alert apply added caution or awareness of the surroundings their circumstances and or conditions and think things through no matter where they may come from or how they may develop.

    I always also tell my son to plan things or say have you thought this through or planned it.(Think this through my son) (Have you planned this) what I am actually saying is “Do not hurt yourself” I also often tell him “Watch out for oncoming traffic.” “Observe other road users” what I am saying is “Do not hurt yourself” or do not allow yourself to get hurt or be hurt in any thinkable or unthinkable way.(Try to foresee what your actions may result in or what the result of your actions or those of other may be and do not let them or it hurt you) “Do not hurt yourself” my son,
    my daughter.

    I could not really agree more.

    But when an organization says it.”Do they really mean it” Is this not what they are saying in short.

    “Remember we are running 35 non-standard units today and anytime we introduce this sort of variation into our system we increase our risk of failure modes, so double-check your work and the work of others.”

    Reminding me of risk conditions (“It snowed last night so watch for water on the floor”) is helpful because instead of merely telling me to be careful you are also warning of nonstandard conditions that are more inclined to hurt me. This proactive thinking is the foundation of a good safety system.

    Really good, important warnings to workers remind them to double-check their own work and the work of others because they are running non-standard units that introduce variation into their production system and increase their risk of failure modes.

    Do you have safety posters and slogans plastered all around that preach safety in vague, esoteric terms? Do you tug on the heart strings by using posters made by the employees’ children?

    Yes WE Do and yes I do, but can you blame me or the company if people are seeing these posters and slogans and not thinking or registering what it is, or what it is about, and the purpose is that “I must remember or think about this or that warning as on the poster or in the slogan.

    Understand what the person or company is trying to do or get you to achieve no matter how they say it.

    No. You cannot blame me; it would be like me being blamed when you drive through a STOP street without stopping. You having seen the sign and or “heard the warning” but ignored it by not thinking of its meaning and or purpose. When I say “Do not hurt yourself” I mean Stop at the Stop street sign, and look observe learn consider and take appropriate action. Be extra cautious and extra vigilant and aware.

    ”Oh and that had better be behind the line too” Now look observe learn consider and take appropriate action

    All of these things are just different ways of telling people not to hurt themselves.”
    Best of all should I or the company be blamed for TRYING. But I do agree A specific warning about a threat that is not obvious is more likely to protect me than some vagary that makes the organization seem like it is taking action when it is not.

    PS Phil. Thank you for all your informative,educational,interesting and thought provoking articles posts and blogs.I learn so much.

    Thank You.

  • Michael Menarry wrote:

    Good article Phil.
    BBS is better applied to the last 5% of accidents, not the first 96%.
    Basic safety management is what reduces the majority of accidents.

    Michael

    • Phil La Duke wrote:

      Michael:

      Thanks for reading and thanks for your comments. I agree that BBS is better applied after an organization has picked the low hanging fruit of safety. But beyond that, BBS has become such a generic term that it is really meaningless. So much of the original concept has been cannibalized and bastardized and adulterated that every so-called BBS system is effectively unique. Some are very effective, most are not. But as long as this is a billion dollar business their will be snake oil salesmen pitching it to unsuspecting companies.

  • arnoud herremans wrote:

    What about the perspective that the phrase ‘don’t hurt yourself’ is in fact a reflection of the observation that the person warned is starting a potentially unsafe process. One could turn the warning around and start a conversation about the safety hazards the warner is referring to. The next step is to apply Lean tools (RCA, Poka Yoke’s etc) to reduce the safety threats. The solution of giving someone a warning to be carefull is a typical fire-fighting response (corrective action) but leave the situation as is it. So, my advice would be to take the warning serious and you it as an opportunity to turn a warning into a real process improvement.

    Good luck !!!! (is that a warning too???)

    • Phil La Duke wrote:

      Arnold:

      There is a big difference between a waiter saying to you, “be careful, the plate is very hot” and simply saying ‘be careful” the former is a specific warning that the diner can use to infer a different course of action while the later is much like saying, “good luck” which doesn’t give me any specifics.

      But even here, the argument is specious. Instead of warning me of hot plates and wet floors how about you stop brining me food on hot plants and dry the damned floor?

  • Eric Glass wrote:

    Another great article, Phil. Always enjoy reading your stuff! It to causes me my thinking sometimes. Would love a breakout article on the downfalls of BBS and your take on its effectiveness.