Debunking the Myth of The Inevitability of Injuries
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Recently I wrote a blog article that defending, ostensibly, zero-injury goals; it was a ruse, a bait and switch, a verbal slight of a hand. It’s not that I wanted to mislead anyone, not really. I meant the things I said in that post, just as I mean the words in this post. You see I know a lot of people who hold the zero-injury goal as sacred, and these people aren’t soft-headed mouth breathers who walk the Earth in celebration of their own life saving contributions to the world of safety; no these are smart, hardworking and dedicated safety professionals who believe that zero-injuries are attainable. So I wrote a post defending these people’s beliefs and taking a hard, introspective look at what I believe. I admit to side-stepping the issue to a large extent, instead of arguing whether or not zero was achievable I first argued against numerical targets (something I’m still against) then arguing that we shouldn’t be measuring safety by counting bodies (something I’m also against) but never actually addressing the issue head on. So maybe that’s what this is about, I’m not really sure.
As I said, the belief in zero injury goals by people I trust and respect sent me into a world of introspection. Those of you who truly know me well is that my head is the last place anyone wants to spend too much time alone, and out of that self-imposed sentence of internal exile bubbled up this: people who don’t believe zero-injuries are possible believe and perpetuate the myth that injuries are inevitable, that no matter how well we do our jobs someone, somehow is destined to get hurt. That’s bullshit. It’s the balm we sooth our bruised egos with when something goes wrong and we have to stamp it out.
The Problem With “Some”
People, or at least safety professionals, have mighty strong opinions on zero-injuries some logical many illogical. When I shared this post with 40-some odd LinkedIn discussion groups the most active of them sprang to life, one generating over 200 comments (which would have been great if even HALF the people responding had taken the time to read the post) and each divided into three basic groups: 1) the rah rah zealots that believe in unicorns and that the moon is made of green cheese who refuse to challenge the pro-zero propaganda, 2) the academics and safety gurus who refuse to acknowledge any value to zero-injury goals, and 3) everyone else. One argument that came up is that probability being what it is, no one with the brains God gave geese can ever believe that at least some injuries aren’t inevitable. When I asked how many is “some” I was shouted down, after all there is no way of knowing exactly HOW many SOME injuries might be. Okay, then how do we know that “some” doesn’t equal zero? When I asked for data to back the assertion that “some” injuries were inevitable I had the argument turned around on me, where was my proof? I was asked in scorn? How dare I demand data unless I produce some first? Well screw them. I didn’t make the statement that zero injuries is impossible because we have to expect “some” injuries. After awhile it felt like doing card tricks for a dog and so I dropped it. There is no sense arguing with someone who will use bellicose emotion as a substitute for logic, but I really wondered, if zero is impossible and “some” injuries are inevitable how many should we expect. If we figure the average worker works 2000 hours a year for 50 years that’s 200,000 hours a career is that person doomed to a fate of an injury? What if there are 100 workers for that length of time, should we not sweat it if 5 or 6 of them die on the job because, after all, they worked 20 million hours (if my math is right). Why do we accept the inevitability of the bad things we can’t control but not the good things in life? Does anyone believe that if a person spends $10 a day on lottery tickets that they will inevitably win millions?
Goals Versus Targets
I think a lot of this debate is really confusing “goals” with “targets”. I like to think of zero-injury goals as more philosophic goals. My goal is to get into shape and feel good, or to be financially secure in old age. Some would argue that these aren’t good goals because they are too vague to be measured, and I guess they would be right, but I still want to get in shape and be financially secure in my old age. Should I create better goals that express milestones and metrics that can help me achieve them? Of course, but I still just want to be healthy and financially comfortable. Organizations that have a zero injury goal are much the same. Should they have more specific goals that lead them closer and closer to the zero-injury utopia? Of course, but should we tell them that zero injuries should not be their goal? How many injuries should be then? Organizations that want the impossible are going to come far closer to it than those who wave it off as so much ridiculous nonsense.
Our ultimate goal must be zero injuries whether or not it is possible, that way we can push ourselves to get as close to that goal as possible.
History is full of crackpots who pursued the impossible, as I wrote in a guest post for MonsterWorking.com, “Copernicus, Einstein and Jobs all had their detractors. Then again, for every misunderstood genius there are 100 perfectly understood idiots.” Pursuing zero-injuries is like shooting for the stars, if those who do so and fail achieve great things. In my lifetime I can count physical feats (like a running a mile in less than 4 minutes, although that record was broken well before my time) that were heretofore thought impossible, impossible, that is until someone did it.
Some might argue that pursuing an impossible goal just leads to disappointment and frustration. Well to that I say that, as long as a single person gets hurt we SHOULD be disappointed. I can say from first hand experience that I was disappointed that neither of my grandfathers lived to see me because they died on the job. I was disappointed that my father died an agonizing death because asbestos manufacturers concealed the dangers from his employer. I was disappointed when my brother-in-law, who had been like an older brother to me since I was 7 years old died from work-related illness. And I was disappointed when all the other friends, co-workers, and acquaintances died on the job. I can honestly say that every one of these fatalities not only could have been prevented, but could have been easily prevented. They were foreseeable, they were preventable, and the fact that they weren’t is inexcusable.
For me the attitude that “some” injuries are inevitable is more than a theoretical, intellectual exercise it’s a license for laziness; it’s like asking me what my brother expected when he was (at the direction of his foreman) told to paint beams while he and a co-worker stood on a pallet until he was overcome by fumes and fell, striking his head. My late brother-in-law said he had never seen a place with so many safety violations. My brother was unconscious for two days and when he woke up he had complete amnesia for about a week. Miraculously he didn’t have worse brain damage—the only long-term effect is that good portions of his long-term memory were destroyed, but he didn’t have to relearn basic things like how to walk or talk so he is truly blessed. Where was the safety guy that day (yes they did have a full time safety professional)? Where was the common sense of the foreman who ordered him to do the job? Where was the ethics of the company owner who told them to “hurry up, up there ’cause it doesn’t look all that safe?” I’ve asked my brother why he climbed on that pallet and he told me that it was either that or lose his job.
Do you think that injury would have happened in an environment where zero-injuries was a value irrespective of whether or not they believed it was achievable? Is there anyone out there who can honestly say that my brother’s injury wasn’t foreseeable, preventable, and completely unnecessary? By the way, my brother’s recovery was quick and he was back on the job in a couple of weeks, I don’t know for sure, but I think it’s the same company where he works today.
If you were to ask that foreman, or my brother’s co-worker, or the company owner, or even my brother if that injury could have been prevented I’d be willing to bet that each would say that it was just one of those things that happen, that you have to expect “some” injuries. I disagree, and I think that as long as we have safety professionals perpetuating the myth of the inevitable injury we are always going to see absolute carnage in the workplace.
So yes I am against flowery zero injury slogans, and yes I think numerical targets for injuries should be abolished, and yes I even think that we shouldn’t be measuring our success by counting bodies, I will even concede that zero-injuries may never be achievable, but we can never stop trying. And if we have to measure our success in safety by counting injuries and corpses then the only acceptable number is zero.
Phil La Duke
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