Words have power. We confirm that every day when we examine why people do what they do. Communication is often the root cause of accidents, particularly how the receiver interprets what he or she hears. That communication is not always something said in the moments before an incident; it can occur days, weeks or months in advance. I have discussed this issue with behaviorists on a number of occasions, and I am convinced that some of the words I – and many others – have repeatedly heard over the years have served to limit our success in the quest for a strong, positive safety culture.
The real problem is that what we say to soften our approach and encourage safe work has the exact opposite effect of our intention. Many of us – and yes, I have done it, too – don't want to be criticized or worse when we ask crews to do something differently. Sometimes we think our request is going to sound accusatory or like an insult to their professional skill level. Other times we know from past experience that the issue that needs to be addressed is contentious. Maybe we worry that our message is going to be challenged, or perhaps we are not confident in our delivery. There are any number of reasons, but it boils down to this: Safety professionals are human, and humans don't want to be challenged or rejected. Therein, as they say, lies the problem.
The Safety Cop
Safety professionals don't have to and should not use an apologetic tone or approach when asking people to refrain from endangering their lives with risky behavior. For example, consider the following statement: “I am not a safety cop.” What does that mean when a crew member says it to you, and what does it mean when you tell a crew you’re not a safety cop?
Allow me to share a short story with you. In December I stopped for the night at a Best Western in Tonopah, Nev. I left the next day at 4 a.m. and pulled out of the hotel parking lot, making a left onto Erie Street. It was empty and wide with uncluttered curbs. I accelerated to about 45 mph, and nearly 30 seconds after leaving the parking lot I was pulled over by a Nye County sheriff’s deputy. The speed limit was 25 mph. Just like my crews always have an explanation for their behavior, I had an explanation for the deputy. I told him I normally abided the law, that it was early and there was no traffic, that I didn't pose a hazard to anyone, that 25 mph on such a big street was a silly rule and that 45 mph was not such a big deal. I even have a thin blue line in honor of law enforcement affixed to the tailgate of my truck. The deputy thanked me for my support of law enforcement and then held me accountable for my actions by giving me a $190 ticket. The deputy was respectful and not critical of my actions. He explained why he stopped me and asked if I had any questions. He asked where I was going that morning and what I hoped to accomplish that day. And then he said, “The laws of the state of Nevada are there to protect the public and that includes you. It's all about accountability.”
When a co-worker says to me, “I don't want you to be a safety cop,” I just look at him with my eyebrows raised. Within a couple seconds my co-worker will realize what he said and follow it up with, “Well, you know what I mean.” Yes, I do. You mean you don't want me to ask you to follow the rules. Most of my colleagues are not risk-takers or unsafe workers. Usually they are talking about what they consider nuisance rules, like fire extinguisher inspections, forklift driver licensing or using seat belts or outrigger pads. Wait, nuisance rules? Are there nuisance rules? Aren’t all rules created for a purpose, or should we only follow the rules that apply to risks that can really harm us?
There is a purpose to even the simplest rules. As to those nuisance rules, yes, those fire extinguishers sure are a nuisance. Just think about what happened with the fire extinguisher that exploded and killed an employee (see OSHA Accident 14218960). Yes, forklift operator training and licensing, what a nuisance. Guess which powered equipment is responsible for the most deaths in the workplace? That's right, powered industrial trucks, commonly known as forklifts. According to OSHA, there are 34,900 forklift accidents each year that result in serious injuries, and another 61,800 are classified as non-serious (see www.toolboxtopics.com/Gen%20Industry/Forklift%20Fatalities.htm). Does anyone recall the Ybor City (Tampa), Fla., fire that occurred in May 2000? A simple error made by an untrained forklift operator caused a fire that destroyed two city blocks, including a 454-unit apartment complex, a parking garage and a post office (see www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=NEWS_RELEASES&p_id=589).
Building Rubber Trees
You might also have heard this statement: “We don't want you to build a rubber tree.” Yes, we do, and stop saying that!
If a lineman is in the minimum approach distance on distribution, you cover up. If the phase 18 inches in front of you is uncovered because you are gloving and there are second points of contact, then you cover those second points. That means you cover arms, poles, neutrals and services. Not doing so is how lineworkers get killed. If lineworkers are moving a bucket and dragging line hose with them, there is not enough cover-up. I could go on like this all day because I have seen it all and, worse, I have heard excuses for all of it. No excuse ever protected a lineworker from a primary contact – cover-up does.
Attempting to gently coerce someone to do something by softening the verbal message effectively allows the hearer to assume there will be allowed exceptions. You are saying you want workers at risk to cover up, but at the same time (wink, wink) you are giving them a justification for not doing so effectively.
No one wants to be criticized. For instance, how often do you check your Facebook account to see if someone agreed with what you wrote, liked what you posted or unfriended you? We do that because we are human and generally want to feel good, including being liked by co-workers. But Facebook and safety in line work are two very different things. Those friends you have out there on the job site may not realize it, but they are relying on accountability to keep themselves safe.
They Just Won't Do It
How many times in conversations with colleagues have you heard, “We have a rule, but the employees won't follow it”? Or maybe it goes like this: “We have a rule, but management won’t enforce it.” In that scenario, managers could be innocently unaware of the risk being created by such a lack of focus. Perhaps it's disorganization or lack of experience. At worst it could be construed as a pretty good example of a company that lacks commitment from the top and demonstrates no accountability for employee actions. It certainly is an example of a lack of awareness of OSHA rules and the employer’s responsibilities. Every reader has likely heard and maybe even quoted Section 5(a)(1) of the 1970 OSH Act that created OSHA. It's known as the General Duty Clause, and it states that each employer “shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”
Perhaps not everyone can quote Section 5(b), which states that each employee “shall comply with occupational safety and health standards and all rules, regulations, and orders pursuant to this Act which are applicable to his own actions and conduct.” The employer’s safety programs and rules are pursuant to the OSH Act. The employee who refuses to follow the employer’s rules is violating a federal statute. OSHA does not cite employees for violations of Section 5(b), but the agency will cite employers for employees’ willful acts, especially if employers cannot demonstrate a record of holding employees accountable for noncompliance.
The Duke Law Journal summarizes historical findings at law concerning the General Duty Clause with this statement: “The basic elements of an adequate safety program are established work rules or instructions on safe procedures, diligent supervision to ensure the safety rules are complied with, and the imposition of sanctions for non-compliance. All of these elements must be present simultaneously – the absence of any one exposes the employer to liability” (see http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2626&context=dlj). The issue is more than the one rule that employees won't follow; it is human nature. If workers will compromise one rule without adverse action, they will rationalize compromising others when necessary.
The Antithesis of Safety Culture
The antithesis of a culture of safety is easily recognized. I have seen crews complain that their safety representative asked them to follow their written safety rules and put down outrigger pads. The crew of equipment operators and laborers were picking up a rack of travelers that weighed 2,000 pounds and it was right off the deck – a simple lightweight lift that only takes 10 minutes. Their foreman went to the project manager, who then forwarded the complaint to the safety representative. It's the worst thing that can happen: A project manager starts to commiserate with the offending crew and mentions it to the safety manager, so the safety manager backs off in order to save face or preserve relationships. Many of the individuals involved in this example had no ill will toward safety, but they didn't see the big picture or even recognize the long-term risk and effect they promoted with their activities.
Continuum of Safety
What is the solution? The way to get ahead of adversarial conversations and employee misconduct is to, well, get ahead of them through what I have begun to call “The Continuum of Safety.” Merriam-Webster defines “continuum” as “a coherent whole characterized as a collection, sequence, or progression of values or elements varying by minute degrees.” In the progression to the goal of zero incidents are mindsets or a culture that agrees that there are no unimportant safety rules. Where does this attitude come from? It begins the day a new employee walks into the human resources office to complete his or her new-hire paperwork.
We began this article with an examination of words and conversation. In any conversation, friendly or adversarial, the participants respond based on their accumulated knowledge and experience. In almost all cases, adversarial conversations begin with a lack of understanding. The accumulation of knowledge and experience that begins during new employee orientation continues with every conversation employees have from day one to retirement. All subsequent conversations a new employee has in the workplace should be with his or her safety-trained predecessors. With that kind of continuum, every employee will have been thoroughly trained in safe work practices, instructed as to the goals and expectations for their individual safety performance, and understand that poor performance will be appropriately sanctioned. As dangerous as the workplace can be, there is no room for willful violation of rules or safety departments that have to apologize their way toward an undefined goal.
And now, a confession: I didn't make all those excuses to the Nye County sheriff’s deputy in the earlier story. When I saw the blue lights coming, I began to navigate to the right and then I saw the speed limit sign. I knew the law, and had I been paying attention, I would have known the rules, too. I had no excuse or alternative. But my expectations were not created in a vacuum on the day my dad handed me the keys to my 1958 Ford almost 50 years ago. Instead, I’ve been subject to a continuum of experience that has included a driver’s manual, a written driver’s exam, a road test, a review of the rules and expectations, experience behind the wheel and knowledge that, should I break the rules, someone could be seriously hurt and I am going to be held accountable. It's the same with every rite of passage and no different in the workplace. If you want to change your workplace, create a continuum of safety. When you accomplish that, safety won't just be everybody's job – it will be their nature.
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