Forget Injuries—They Have Nothing to Do With Safety
Latest blog by Phil LaDuke – see the whole post here
A while back I presented The Seventh Value at an international safety conference and after my talk a member of the audience challenged my assertion that the absence of injuries does not denote the presence of safety. Last week I posted an article defending Zero-Injury goals that sparked debate that is still going hot and heavy. Never one to leave bad enough alone, I took it on step further in this week’s post. I hope you will give it a read, tell me what you think, and if you think it’s worthwhile share it with others.
Last week I posted an article defending (to some extent) Zero-Injury goals that touched off a powder-keg of on-line debate. I have gone back and forth on the idea (on one hand zero-injury (or zero-harm, or zero-anything) goals don’t work very well (for a variety of reasons that I don’t feel like getting into right now) and on the other hand if our goal isn’t zero than how many people can we kill in the workplace and still call it a job well done?) until I finally landed on a position with which I can live: who cares?
Now before you start rounding up pitchforks and lighting torches to drive me from the village, hear me out. We as a society have been using injuries as proof of an unsafe workplace and the absence of injuries as proof of safety and nothing could be further from the truth. Is it safe to leave a toddler home alone? Is it safe to walk around an unfamiliar and bad neighborhood at night? Why? After all most toddlers wouldn’t be harmed and most people don’t get mugged, and yet most people I’ve talked to agree that many practices like this (or using tools with the guards removed) aren’t safe.
So if we can agree that there are many, many activities that aren’t safe irrespective of the outcome, why do we persist in using injuries as the chief criteria for determining what is safe and what is unsafe? In some organizations safety professionals claim credit for saving lives simply because they reminded people not to die. In other organizations safety professionals are hammered by leaders for injuries that they didn’t cause, but failed to prevent. Nobody much likes the system, and nobody wants injuries and fatalities. And yet we persist in chasing numbers that don’t matter and juking stats that tell us nothing about the safety of the workplace.
The Measurement Craze
Industries’ fierce desire to measure every element of the business is a by-product of the quality revolution, and in many people’s eyes, if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, the Safety function directly copied the Quality function’s approach to measurement. In some respects this makes sense, because an injury is not unlike a defect; both are the outgrowth of a process defect (and no I won’t be baited into an argument over whether or not the cause is procedural, behavioral, or systemic. I’m sorry to disappoint but it really doesn’t matter to a meaningful degree—unless, of course you are selling some new whiz bang approach and you have to differentiate it from the pack). In other respects it makes no sense whatsoever, since, as we’ve already established while there is a quantifiable relationship between the absence of a defect (the part either is within the tolerance limits of its standard or it is not) there is no such quantifiable relationship between a worker’s safety and injuries. Let me put that another way: we have a good understanding of what constitutes a defect (since we also have a clear understanding of the specifics criteria for an acceptable product) but we don’t have a clear understanding of the specifics of safety, that is, we don’t really have a clue how much risk a worker faces at any given moment so it’s tough to measure safety in any meaningful way. Many organizations have become so obsessed with measurement that they are losing site of the real purpose of the safety function: to help both the organization and the individual to make better choices when it comes to safety.
It’s About Risk
When we talk about safety we’re really talking about risk, that is, how probable is it that our workers will be injured in the normal course of their work days? The gross misunderstanding of basic statistics in general, and probability in specific, lies at the heart of the trouble so many organizations have in tackling worker safety. I know it sounds like heresy but in a real sense injuries have little to do with safety and in fact often distract the organization from the real task of lowering operational risk. Individuals who would never gamble with company funds blithely roll the dice when it comes to the safe execution of work. If we continue to concentrate on injuries at the exclusion of risk we lull ourselves into the false sense of security and when we achieve a year with no injuries we throw a big party and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, despite the very real risks that lurk unseen in our midst.