The Safety Paradox: My Day at the Safety Conference

Here’s a hypothetical and exaggerated scenario about a day I spent attending a safety conference (the iP Utility Safety Conference & Expo, of course!). It begins with me watching a safety glove demonstration. I watch a person put on a glove, crush a wine glass, stab themselves in the hand with a needle and run a sharp knife across their fingers, all without getting hurt. Their hands are invincible, and once I get my hands in those gloves, mine will be, too! Skinning wire with my knife just got a lot safer.

Then my phone rings. It’s my wife. There is a slight chance of snow tonight at home, and she and I need a plan to get our son to school if there is a delay. The expected low temperature is 34 degrees Fahrenheit, so that shouldn’t be an issue. But wait! My phone rings again; this time it’s the school. They have already made the decision to make tomorrow a remote learning day. Isn’t it great that teenagers won’t have to drive in the winter weather? They can just stay home.

After I get off the phone, I make my way to some outdoor demonstrations. I watch a manufacturer demonstrate their newest fall protection device that won’t let me fall more than 2 feet. Fantastic! I don’t need to worry about proper climbing techniques, and I can cut out and still be safe. All that time I spent teaching apprentices to climb is gone. They’ll figure it out and they won’t get hurt.

Holy cow, have you seen the latest flame-resistant clothing and chaps? I can hit my leg with a rotating chainsaw in the middle of an arc flash and just walk away. I won’t stop using proper work methods because I don’t want to damage the electrical system, but it’s good to know I won’t get hurt no matter what I do.

Oh, no. Now I’m a little sad because I have to leave for the airport without seeing the rest of the cool new toys at the conference. I head to my rental car and get in. Can you believe it has a collision avoidance system? This is good because I need to return some emails. When I was learning about human performance, we used to talk about how being on autopilot in skill-based mode is a bad thing. Now I have literal autopilot and it is awesome! Cruise control is set, and the car is keeping me in my lane and braking when it should while I’m able to return emails earlier than I thought.

At the airport, I board the plane home. I notice that the person sitting next to me isn’t wearing a mask. I’m not concerned, though. They told me they’d gotten their COVID-19 vaccine, so I don’t need to worry about social distancing and PPE.

Finally, the plane lands and I make my way to my personal vehicle to drive home. Unfortunately, however, I formed some bad habits in the rental car – and I don’t have collision avoidance in my vehicle.

“You” Keep Me Safe
Let me be crystal clear about something. You – by which I mean employers, organizations, leadership, safety and health management systems, co-workers and manufacturers – are critical to my safety, health and well-being. I need an employer that holds safety as a core value and company management that is committed to worker-driven safety. That employer must have an effective safety and health management system that meets and exceeds ANSI Z10 requirements and OSHA recommendations. My co-workers and I must plan and execute safe work and communicate effectively. And I need the best tools, technology, equipment, safety devices and protection manufacturers have to offer. I cannot stay safe and be well without you.

With that said, there comes a point where I rely so much on you that I become a danger to myself and others. During an investigation of an incident in which a worker had cut himself with a knife while attempting to skin wire, he said, “Someone should make sure we have the rights tools for the job.” That someone is you, and equally, that someone is me.

“I” Keep Me Safe
I – referring to the person performing a task – should work in such a way that you are never needed. Let’s go back to skinning wire. If I use the proper stripping tool, safety gloves won’t be needed. The same is true if I use a properly sharpened knife and proper work methods. When it comes to PPE, I should always use it but never need it, and I should always take care of it so it can take care of me.

The Safety Paradox
This brings us to the safety paradox. But before we discuss it, let’s briefly talk about paradoxes in general. A paradox is a self-contradicting statement. Let me provide an example. Compliance is good. To be safe, we need to be compliant with applicable rules and regulations. On the other hand, compliance provides a minimum level of protection, so it can’t be the goal. I can, for instance, have my seat belt on and be stopped at a red light (compliant) and get rear-ended and hurt. Compliance, therefore, can be both good and bad in terms of safety. It’s good if it’s the starting point and bad if it’s the ending point. That makes it a paradox.

Now, let’s examine two statements. I am my brother’s and sister’s keeper, and I am responsible for my own safety. I think we can make the case that each of these statements on their own can be a paradox and, to a certain extent, they are conflicting statements. The point I want to stress is this: They are not mutually exclusive.

Conclusion and Takeaway
You have a dual role in safety. You are a leader and part of an organization and a team that create culture that drives behavior and provides resources and support. You are also an individual who performs hazardous work. I once heard it said that an organization can only be as good as the individuals in it, and that individuals can only be as good as the organization supporting them. That’s a great way to think about safety.

Ultimately, you have control over yourself and influence over others. I like the way Volume 2 of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Human Performance Improvement Handbook breaks down human performance tools into three categories: individual tools, team tools and organizational tools. Each team and each organization must do their part to make safety possible. But you should also take and maintain control of your health, safety and well-being.

About the Author: David McPeak, CUSP, CIT, CHST, CSP, CSSM, is the director of professional development for Utility Business Media’s Incident Prevention Institute (https://ip-institute.com). He has extensive experience and expertise in leadership, human performance, safety and operations. McPeak is passionate about personal and professional development and believes that intrapersonal and interpersonal skills are key to success. He also is an advanced certified practitioner in DISC, emotional intelligence, the Hartman Value Profile, learning styles and motivators.

About Frontline Fundamentals: Frontline Fundamentals topics are derived from the Incident Prevention Institute’s popular Frontline training program (https://frontlineutilityleader.com). Frontline covers critical knowledge, skills and abilities for utility leaders and aligns with the Certified Utility Safety Professional exam blueprint.

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Webinar: The Safety Paradox
July 14, 2021, at 1 p.m. Eastern
Visit https://frontlineutilityleader.com for more information.

Frontline Fundamentals


David McPeak, CUSP, CIT, CHST, CSP, CSSM

David McPeak, CET, CHST, CSP, CSSM, CUSP, is the director of professional development for Utility Business Media’s Incident Prevention Institute (www.ip-institute.com). His experience includes operations management, safety and training roles. McPeak holds multiple safety and training certifications and has received numerous awards. He also has served as chairman of Task Team One of the OSHA ET&D Partnership, as a member of Incident Prevention’s editorial advisory board and as a member of the North Carolina Apprenticeship Council. Reach him at [email protected].

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