Injuries Happen When Workers Get Caught Between Official Way Versus the Real Way

Injuries Happen When Workers Get Caught Between Official Way Versus the Real Way

Great article by Phil LaDuke about the realities of Workplace Safety – see it here

House divided

By Phil La Duke

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”

-       Paul Batalden, M.D.

There are two ways that things happen in the workplace: the way they are SUPPOSED to be done and the way they ARE done.  It’s a simple fact. And yet so many safety professionals and business leaders ignore this fact and this fact lies at the heart of worker safety. We all know that people deviate from the standards; they drift from the standard operating procedures, take short cuts, and make mistakes.  Machinery wears out. There are materials shortages; equipment failures and facilities hazards combine to make injuries all but certain. And yet when tragedy strikes, we talk about what was supposed to happen and scratch our heads in wonder and ask why it didn’t happen the way we thought it would.

It’s a ludicrous dynamic but one that plays out daily in workplaces across the world. This charade puts workers at risk.  Workers are expected (at least on paper) to do things the way they are prescribed by the standard work instructions but in the real world things don’t always go according to plan.  Sometimes this variation leads to serendipitous discovery, but more often it leads to injuries.

The problem with trying to keep the workplace safe is that while the workplace seems static and fixed.  Imposing a single, rigid procedure in place governing a amorphous and changing series of events is like trying to saddle a whirlwind. It’s madness to try to impose a single correct, safest way to perform a task. Instead, we have to consider safety holistically.  We need to equip workers with the skills and tools they need to assess each situation and to modify the way they do their jobs according to context and situation. The secret to keeping workers safe is in making them mindful of the need to adjust and modify the way they do their jobs and to empower them to make decisions related to how they do their jobs.

There are some practical obstacles to this approach, but the task isn’t insurmountable.  A good, robust procedure will likely cover most contingencies, and a list of if/then decision trees can be developed to guide the worker in the decisions required for those statistical outliers.

For this holistic approach to work, workers need to be trained in problem solving, decision analysis and several other quality and analytical thinking tools.  But don’t go crazy, the world doesn’t need yet another convoluted process to confound workers and empty the pockets of desperate business leaders.  Think simply.

First, invest in training in the core business skills.  If the workers understand the mechanics behind precisely how the company makes money—what key elements must be managed most effectively to ensure profitability, what factors in the business climates have the most impact on the bottom line, and all the other things that a good executive needs to know about the business—the workers can make better decisions and take educated risks that can lead to a more efficient operation.  Next, establish clear guidelines that identify where the worker is empowered to make decisions about how to do the job.  While it may be appropriate to do a step out of sequence to compensate for part shortages, it is not appropriate to avoid tying off while working at heights or ignoring lockout requirements because the time in the protected area is negligible.  By clearly delineating where deviation is appropriate and where it is not the worker can apply his or her judgment with confidence.

Finally, hold worker accountable for managing the risk of deviation.  If the worker is unable to complete the task following the prescribed standards, he or she must mitigate the risks (not only to safety, but to quality and cost as well).  Workers who understand their work, how the business works, and where he or she is empowered to make decisions are infinitely more valuable than workers who are terrified of making a decision because it might be wrong.

This management style may be scary for some managers, especially safety professionals.  But consider this: workers are already out there doing this.  When asked to do the impossible most workers (at least the ones we value the most) will do what is possible and hope for the best.  Few workers simply give up when the prescribed process isn’t possible, rather, they look for ways to substitute materials for those that they are missing, they use makeshift tools when the approve tool isn’t available, and they make uninformed decisions because they haven’t been properly trained to make better decisions.  As workplaces are staffed with less and less supervision it is imperative that workers be trusted to make the decisions related to the tasks that they do hundreds or even thousands of times a day. We have to stop patronizing workers by saying that they know the job more intimately and expertly than anyone ever could and start acting as if this were true (it is by the way).

There’s a lot of talk about empowering workers and holding them accountable for safety.  That’s great, but such empowerment requires training, guidance, and most of all trust.  Workers will likely rise to the occasion if the organization treats them like the intelligent, hardworking, and conscientious workers that they are.  But these workers also can smell condescension and lies a mile away. Holding workers accountable for making good decision and safe choices requires trust.

Organizations that are successful in building qualified, skilled decision makers who are empowered to deviate from the standard, take calculated risks, and make important decisions about their worker will find themselves successful in ways they never dreamt possible.  Not only will the workplace become safer, quality, morale, and cost management will also improve.  The benefits of this approach far outweigh the risks and costs associated with it.

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

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