80% of Safety Practitioners Are Idiots

80% of Safety Practitioners Are Idiots

by Phil La Duke. First published here: https://philladuke.wordpress.com/2018/12/02/80-of-safety-practitioners-are-idiots/ 

safety practitionerStartling title; nasty, mean, condescending and just plain unfair.  It’s not right, it’s not fair,  it’s not just.  So how does it feel? Because as long as we perpetuate the 80% of all injuries are caused by employee behaviors we say that every day to hard-working men and women who want nothing more than do their jobs each day and escape unscathed. But then we would have to do real work, real thinking using real science to solve our problems and for too many of us, it just isn’t worth it.

In an interview with The Art of the CEO, that will be broadcast on December 4th, 2018 at 2:00 p.m. (tune in on any broadcast station that carries the show, or at http://theartoftheceo.com. One of the questions asked was “…tell us how to get these guys to tie off—clip on—and save their own darn lives.”  Then I read a post by Carsten Busch, safety thinker extraordinaire, that quoted an early dissident to the “80% of injuries are caused by recklessness or carelessness,” and it pissed me off.

I realize some of the more delicate among you will use this colloquialism to tune out. Good. I learned a long time ago that someone stupid enough to believe this would use any excuse to mentally discredit me and return to their lucrative business built on lies.  If not my use of course language, it’s my typos, or because I called someone a name—it amounts to nothing more than having a closed mind, a lucrative income based on the junk science, and unwillingness to so much as even consider a more viable approach.

By a more viable approach, I am not speaking of my approach (although it is) rather ANY of the umpteen methods that are based on scientific research that was conducted on human error, flawed decision making, or the latest in brain research.

But I am beginning to realize that I may have been wrong all along, maybe the stupidity created by the vivid imagination of Henry Heimlich, and perpetuated by the National Safety Council for 100 years, is right, after all, maybe 80% of all incidents are caused by the behavior of safety practitioners and CEOs.  The behaviors of stubbornness, resistance to change, willingness to take shortcuts, out-and-out laziness, and the eagerness to accept the dumbest dreck ever uttered or written WERE INDEED causing most injuries.

What if the actions and inaction of senior leaders in Operations in unknowing cahoots with safety simpletons were causing 80% of the incidents.  What if companies did little more than pencil whip training, do no evaluation as to the effectiveness of the training, did no reinforcement of the training on the job, and didn’t even CONSIDER evaluating worker competency as part of the performance evaluation process, might that cause injuries? Or what if the companies evaluated the training based on how many people were injured after taking the training, might THAT causes injuries?

Or how about Operations that refuse to free up machinery for preventive maintenance, might THAT cause injuries? What about Operations managers who work outside of the process; providing workers with inadequate tools, or running production despite not having enough parts? Do you think that THAT might cause injuries?

Consider the companies that work their employees to the point where they can barely stand upright because they are so fatigued, might that not be a cause of injuries?

How about organizations that see hazards but do nothing to fix them or slap a containment Band-aid on it that fails to adequately protect workers, might this not be the kind of behavior that gets workers hurt and even killed?

What about the front-line leader who (with the full complicity of his or her leadership) decides to risk it and continue production when a sane person would freak out at the recklessness of the decision? Might that be a behavior that causes injuries? And let’s not forget about the safety practitioner who looks the other way or even cooks the books through Case Management?

Of course, we can’t forget the safety practitioners who aren’t qualified to do their jobs and yet gleefully continue to cash paychecks; might that not cause injuries? Why aren’t we blaming engineers, safety practitioners and Operations leaders who work at the lowest tier of the Hierarchy of Controls and slap a “Warning: Do Not Die” on a hazard instead of eliminating it?

How does it feel to get blamed for something you didn’t do or can’t control? Not great, right? So when for the love of all that’s holy are we going to stop smugly blaming workers for their injuries and start digging beyond, the careless, reckless idiot worker screwed up and got hurt or killed someone. We should be in the business of correcting system errors that cause injuries, improving worker competency, and yes, accountability, but for that to happen we first need to get out of the shame and blame business.

Not only do we have to stop buying into the Behavior-Based Swindle, but we have to stop promulgating it by insisting that our vendors have a BBS system in place.  We have to rely on science and sweat, not Bigotry-Based Safety (let’s not forget that the nationality and ethnicity of the worker were seen as potential root causes of Heinrich’s theory, and eugenics was a science embraced by the Nazis).

Why is it so difficult to believe that machines break down and hurt people, that people make flawed decisions—not because they are careless or reckless but—because they have imperfect information? Why do we struggle at the idea that doing a repetitive job over and over again can lead to human error which, in turn, can hurt us? What makes us react incredulously at the idea that human beings are innately imperfect and that human error is not something we can ever eliminate (even robots make mistakes).

Maybe things are like so many people persist in believing: stupid, careless, lazy people are the cause of most injuries. Maybe the National Safety Council is right in perpetuating the belief that 80% of injuries are caused by carelessness and recklessness. Maybe all those who cling to this belief like a mother lemur clutching its offspring. Maybe these things are all true, but if they are, maybe we are blaming the wrong people.

Did you like this post? Do you disagree but it made you think? If so you will probably like my book which can be ordered here from Amazon  I Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business or on Barnes & Nobel.com. Did you hate this post? Did it offend you deeply? Maybe you should organize a book burning (minimum of 150 books) but be sure you are only burning my book, I don’t want you to go to a used book store and buy a bunch of cheap books and stack mine on top.
The book is a compilation of blog posts, guest blogs, magazine article (from around the world) and new material. Much of it is hard to find unless you know where to look. A second and third book has already been green-lighted by the publisher (expect fewer reprints and more new material).
Remember the holidays are coming up and this book makes the perfect gift for the person for which you feel obligated to get something for but don’t really like.
In all seriousness, I have been blogging for free for over 11 years and I think I have earned a bit of revenue so buy the damned book.

Phil LaDuke

Phil LaDuke

Principle and Partner at ERM
Phil LaDuke
Phil La Duke is a principle and partner in Environmental Resources Management (ERM) a leading global provider of environmental, health, safety, risk, and social consulting services. With over 140 offices in 40 countries and nearly 6,000 top professionals, ERM can help you wherever you find yourself doing business. At ERM we are committed to providing a service that is consistent, professional, and of the highest quality to create value for our clients. Over the past five years we have worked for more than 50% of the Global Fortune 500 delivering innovative solutions for business and selected government clients helping them understand and manage the sustainability challenges that the world is increasingly facing. Phil works primarily in the Performance and Assurance practice at ERM; a speaker, author, consultant, trainer, provocateur…Phil La Duke wears many hats. As an expert in safety, training, organizational development, and culture change, Phil and ERM can help you motivate your workforce, conduct safety performance assessments, help you to build robust training infrastructures, craft interventions to improve how your work place values safety, provide insights to your executive staff, and craft and execute business solutions. If you’re interested in what Phil La Duke and ERM can do for you, or if you would like to inquire about employment opportunites at ERM, contact Phil at phil.laduke@erm.com

30 Replies to “80% of Safety Practitioners Are Idiots”

  1. An excellent article. I have seen stupid on both sides, but less on the workers. Most of the professional workers just want to do their job safely with proper equipment and tools, and have no problem to adhere to the safety. They want to do job safely and go home in one piece. Bigger banners “Road to Zero” you have on the site, less safety you have.

  2. Phil, you really should come our of your shell and speak your mind. Awesome twist on the “80% rule”. And there is no question those with so much sunk cost in Behavior Based Swindle (I am going to leverage that. Topped only by “Bigotry Based Safety” a few lines later. Is that in Heinrich’s book? I must confess, I have never had a desire to read it). are complicit in the environment that plays a huge role in the attitudes and decision making of employees in the field. Ruling with fear is the preferred choice in the work sites I have been on. Of course, the do so with words that come off as “caring” (Nobody goes home hurt, Zero harm, All injuries are preventable) but the discourse created is one of blame and punishment. The trajectory of that language is one in which people are objectified and everyone celebrates identifying “Near misses” or “Discretionary behaviors” as a proactive measure to prevent more serious injury.

  3. Bigotry Based Safety, love it Phil. Just get in a group of safety people and suggest that safety is not a profession and see the reaction. Happened last week, people got outraged. So I asked them if they had studied the professions? No. Asked if they had studied what defines a profession? No. Asked if they could define what a profession was. No. Asked if they had compared long-standing professions to safety? No. Then I asked them if one could be professional and deny fallibility? They said no and so I pointed them to the global safety congress denial of zero and the SIA love of zero (showing all the evidence) and asked them again if safety was a profession and they said yes. I asked them to list the curriculum (regulation and systems) they had studied in their diploma and what they did in their job (counting and reporting) and suggested they had been profoundly mis-educated, outrage. Then asked them what in their training had prepared them for effective listening, questioning and engaging others in the field, nothing!
    The bigotry of course is the same as religious cult doctrinal belief (remember the safety congress 2017 ‘we believe’, talk about soteriology). In the same seminar I asked how many had studied or researched on human consciousness? None, Ethics, none. Politics, none, Philosophy none, Semiotics, none, Education and learning, one person, etc. and so based on no research and a diploma in safety one is able to call out claims made about the human unconscious based on a STEM diploma and STEM experience then in confirmation bias claim some knowledge on the nature of human decision making.
    All this blame and fixation on worker fault totally ignores all that is known about human consciousness and unconsciousness. Talk about Behaviourist swindle, absolutely, and even then no-one in the room of 30 safety people had ever studied the philosophy of behaviourism, materialism or positivism. Many had no read a book since their diploma/degree and certainly nothing outside of the field of safety.
    Thanks for the post, and if people are offended then maybe that’s an indicator of the bigotry itself.
    Again, congratulations on your book.

  4. Great article, Phil Through my incident investigations, I have found exactly what you have described. Those reckless (stupid) people exhibiting “wrong behaviors” usually have to because of poor design, lousy installation, close clearances, no tools, wrong tools, faulty tools, ……….but I sure get excited pushback when I classify the reasons (root causes) to those responsible (supervisors, engineers, ….)

  5. Both Phil’s articles and Rob’s back up comment above are unfortunately total horse manure. Let me explain where you think you are in this world, and how far off the mark you are in reality, no matter how well respected and successful you think you are in your area of expertise….which for this very reason, should not break out into the realms of true H&S management.

    I can say this because I work for an organisation where I head up H&S functions for a division that employees over 2000 people (with counterparts who also head up functions spanning 50000 employees in total) and we spend millions a year on SSOW, hardware improvements, systems improvements, training, senior management education, PTW systems and employ the cream of the crop when it comes to supervising and operating engineers right down to floor level operatives, factory works and cleaners.

    To further reinforce my view about how much rubbish you are both talking, I am a fully qualified and Chartered H&S Professional and can fully recite my entire syllabus and professional training. I also hold Chartered status with the British Psychological Society having completed my Masters in Psychology post-grad before completing H&S studies, upon which I added my Master practitioner in NLP. I’ve been a professional consultant for 20 years and worked all over the world where technology differs, and behaviours differ also. If you haven’t sussed it yet – I understand people first as does everyone in my organisation, and then systems.

    So for you to be talking about safety practitioners in general not understanding human decision making protocols / human factors and rule and error based decisions and all the other worldly physical, social, financial, environmental, organisational and personal factors which can affect an employees state of mind, frame of reference, life values, drivers and fundamental human givens and needs which then link to how they may make a decision in any given situation…just goes to show that you are talking to and dealing with safety practitioners who are as ignorant as you both are.

    1. P – You seem to have unwittingly provided good evidence of what both Phil and Rob are alluding to – was that your intent? I am also wondering what processes you have in place to ensure the effectiveness, or otherwise, of all that safety stuff you and your very large team are involved in and supporting?
      PS: based on you email address and handle I have my doubts about your legitimacy. I do wish that anybody who wants to rubbish the work of others would have the courage to identify themselves.

  6. Black box psychology is almost as bizarre a cultural product as phrenology or sorcery and it disregards the existence and significance of human self-consciousness. Nonetheless, there has been extraordinary growth in the research of human behaviour, which includes psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, behaviourism, cognitive behaviour therapy, cybernetics, sociobiology, ecopsychology, neuropsychology, neurolinguistic programming and neuroscientific imaging plus several shards or crystals of neurochemistry.

    Dalrymple critically evaluates how psychology undermines morality and provides further interesting observations and extensive comments on this vast, arcane and dynamic discipline. Notwithstanding these remarkable developments and despite the logorrhea, it would be a bold person who claims that our self-understanding, with the forlorn hope of an existence free of inner and outer conflict, is now greater than that of Montaigne or Shakespeare.

  7. Out of curiosity, would you say that “risk management” is a profession? Reasonably often there appears to be a view put forward on this site that replacing the term “safety” with “risk” somehow absolves problems of “safety” both in terms of professionalism, concepts and practice (and that a “risk management professional” is somehow more valid than a “safety professional”. Yet, “risk” suffers many of the same afflictions as “safety” – lack of consensus around what the concept is or should be, lack of evidence around the effectiveness of “risk management” activities and practices, lack of curriculum, lack of ethos. I personally do not believe that “safety” is a profession and am not offended by arguments that it isn’t, but I am interested to understand why beliefs about “risk” and the validity of the title “risk management professional” don’t appear to be challenged with the same fervour as that given to anything “safety”.

    1. I personally don’t consider risk management to be a profession but I do prefer the term over safety as it is less myopic, more holistic and not as constrained by fear, blame, compliance, mechanistic process etc. I remember in the 80s, risk management was simply insurance. I agree that, similarly to safety, risk management is a term that rolls too easily off the tongue and is not well understood or applied. Safety (the archetype) tries to make the transition to a higher level with its “risk assessments” but generally fails to pull it off with any success as it is stuck in safety type generic, simplistic linear thinking. I guess I am less likely to challenge a “risk management professional” because at least there is a modicum of realization that there is more to work, life and everything than safety. Many safety people, even if they have stopped worshiping Zero, tend to be under the illusion that risk can be (almost) eliminated by simply applying the hierarchy of control and don’t appreciate byproducts, consequences and risk shifts. I think that a person who uses the term risk probably knows a little bit about critical thinking and understands ALARP rather than the dogma of hazard elimination, compliance and Zero

  8. Thanks, Dave. I understand your position, but would respectfully say that this does not align with my own experience. As you have alluded to, “risk” historically has referred to problems of “known” probabilities and is has been particularly focussed on how these problems should be rationally solved. My own experience is that many who practice “risk management” carry this sentiment through to the field today and are particularly linear and hyper-rational in their thinking, albeit weighing up more than just “safety” outcomes. I’m not saying that they inherently any “better” or “worse” than “safety” people, but rather that the two present similar challenges and it seems strange that one seems to be subject to far more scrutiny than the other.

  9. Well you had me curious from the start with the competing ideas of risk as “entirely subjective” and the notion of “real risk”. I am still trying to work out whether these ideas are indeed compatible but have been reluctant to ask… if risk is “subjective” then what exactly is “real” risk?

    My own belief (which I have been clear about) is that that risk is socially constructed and lies somewhere between “objective” and “subjective” and between “facts” and “values”. But the two seemingly more dichotomous (dare I say “binary”) statements play with my head.

    1. I hope rob long can chime in on “real risk” – he wrote the book :-). Perhaps safety looks at risk mostly objectively ie individual physical hazard identification and control in isolation whereas I like to think that “real risk” applies more critical to thought to that hazard or situation – how do people really interact with it and each other (different for everybody, heuristics, unconscious decisions), is it really a hazard or high risk or is that just what someone imagines or are there particular biases influencing or has it been socially amplified?, what else is going on around it? What are the byproducts and risk shifts of the various controls we could apply if in fact we should do anything at all? Could the risk be good for us? Are there more important things to focus on? Etc etc so I guess there may be some objectivity but seems mostly subjective to me – sorry to ramble, just gotta rush out the door – a massive subject and worthy of a proper discussion away from a blog. Can I send you s free copy of “Real Risk”?

  10. Thanks, Dave. I think I understand your position and it makes sense, though does still seem to be a tendency more toward risk as objective facts rather than “entirely” subjective (and just to pre-empt and be clear, no I don’t think that the existence of subjective facts precludes the existence of objective facts or visa versa). An extreme post-modernist answer would have been far more interesting and fun though 🙂

    As for a copy of the book, appreciate the offer. However, I do have access to a copy via colleagues and will one day get around to reading it (not a criticism, it’s just not top of my reading list right now) so it would probably be of greater benefit to somebody else at this particular point in time.

    1. Yeah I just chose objects as an example of how they may be handled differently by a safety or risk approach. My engineer brain can’t cope with too many extreme post-modernist thoughts 🙂

  11. The following is worth reading:


    Different = Different, it does not equal wrong.

    This is why transdisciplinarity (Nicolescu ) which embraces the middle fertile ground between the objective and subjective is so critical.

    The SIA BOK and the WHS curricula adopt an inordinate positivist or objective approach. Indeed the scientific approach is certainly not superior, it often produces more questions than answers.

  12. Riskcurious, I’m with you. Neither risk or safety management are professions. No profession with any integrity would deny fallibility. The global adoration and cultic worship of Zero destroys any sense of vision, imagination or education required in a profession.
    Social psychology has roots in a post-Marxist, post-modernist and post-structuralist worldview. Whilst here is not the place to discuss, there is much that is helpful in critical constructionism. I don’t know how one could suggest there could be an objectivity or subjectivity. My own philosophy is an existentialist dialectic, light years removed from the objectivist-materialist stuff of safety. Unfortunately, safety thinks there is only one worldview and anyone who contests the objectivist-materialist worldview is WRONG.
    The objective-materialist worldview simply cannot exercise doubt because compliance within the behaviourist-positivist world gives security. We have nothing to fear from subjectivity nor from freedom.
    Safety doesn’t ask questions outside of its worldview nor study anything in its curriculum that moves beyond its own confirmation bias.
    As for ‘real risk’ we may need another format to discuss the notions of hermeneutics, wisdom, discernment, semiotics and dialectical thinking about risk. The book was designed to challenge the industry and its false consciousness about risk. The book seeks to introduce readers to a different worldview about risk.
    I don’t discuss my ontology much in books or the practical outworking of such a worldview. Most people are not interested in philosophy, certainly not many in safety. The adoration of zero keeps safety in a world of dumb. When zero is the ideology there is nothing to learn.
    My philosophy is something best workshopped in interaction dialogically and dialectically. Which is what we do, and why people come to such workshops.

  13. Dear Rob,

    You have just added Piaget to my reading list over the holidays but I have to address the ALP Fair go final draft, which contained just two pages on safety. Nothing on reforming the curricula or eviscerating SWA. It needs Greg Combet appointing as the chair and the SWA Act must provide SWA with true independence without any ministerial influence. It also requires a decent budget.

    1. Ha! Springer philosophy where naked women bring ratings in utilitarian profits masked as scepticism and critical thinking. Not much wisdom there.

  14. Yes, Piaget is fascinating. I read his Insights and ‘Illusions of Philosophy’ in the 70s as part of Education degree. Page 6 ‘there exists a logic of action distinct from mathematical logic’. he talks of wisdom as a process of trying to coordinate: values, ethics, aesthetics, poetics, semiotics and social/psychological matters. He certainly gives the reductionist scientist view of postivism a belting. He is much more interested in an holistic sense of being human and a person than the spoon-fed illusion of certainty spun by STEM ideology.
    The ALP and LNP in general don’t really rate safety as an issue, why would they. It’s only the cult of safety that thinks it comes first and everything else comes second. That is why it doesn’t need to study politics or ethics, once it is armed with zero. The ALP just continue the mistakes of Howard in WHS so as not to arm the propaganda of the Tories. So we won’t see any reform of the SWA or OFSC in the future. All is well when fear rules absolutely.

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