One of the great risks in any criticism is being misunderstood. But, without risk, there is no learning. Without criticism, there can be no improvement. This book by Rosa, is a such risky book but one every safety person, CEO, CFO and GM, should read.
Rosa’s book presents a basic thesis, that the safety industry abuses its best people. It tells the story through many interviewees and testimonies of people have left safety or, are thinking to leave the safety industry, and why. It tells the stories of many good people with the best of intentions, who come into the safety industry wishing to help and care for others in tackling risk. They quickly discover that this is NOT what they are being asked to do.
Here are a few quotes from the book that capture the conundrum that faces people in safety:
My last internal EHS role was at a generic drug manufacturer. To this day, it has been the worst of my professional career, I often felt excluded and micromanaged. There was a team of three of us, two white men and me, a black woman. They would have meetings without me. They would go to lunch without me. I was the newest member of the team so obviously they all had a history; but the blatant exclusion was disappointing and upsetting. My manager would track my whereabouts and how long I was there. She wanted a minute-by-minute detail of my tasks every day. The thing is that I’m very relational and I can easily get absorbed in a conversation with an operations supervisor or manager or walking through a process and lose track of time. She would berate me for it. (p.5)
I could not, in good conscience, recommend a career in safety to someone who has other options. The money is OK, but not great considering the frustrations of the field. Additionally, despite all our gains, safety still is not a prime consideration for too many of today’s leaders. Our culture in the US is to applaud profit, not safety. Everything in business will always take a backseat to profit, including the safety of the workforce. (Safety & Health) (p.7)
I went off work after I developed an anxiety disorder due to the fear of being held personally liable for workplace incidents. I was responsible for asbestos removal, and the Ministry of Labour was critical of the removal procedures. As the supervisor of these projects, I was personally threatened with a substantial fine. There’s always that stress of, Did I make the right choice? Did I push hard enough for management to make the right choice? (p.8)
Of course, many people are not named in the book, compliance and obedience is a common theme.
Unfortunately, when the best leave an industry, those who remain can tolerate the status quo in silence. And in safety, silence is golden. Resistance to dehumanisation is framed as anti-safety.
There is not a week goes by when I don’t get a note from a safety person who has been sacked for challenging zero. And our survey (https://spor.com.au/zero-vision-survey/) indicates that 85% of safety people don’t believe in it. Indeed, 90% believe zero creates dishonesty. This alone highlights the disconnect between those in authority and power and those who have to do the work.
This is the daily dilemma of a person in the safety industry. Many know that injury rates are NOT a demonstration of the presence of safety but are required to give metrics endless amounts of time and detail. And then when injury rates fluctuate, Safety is blamed for any variation. The pressure to fudge the numbers is huge.
Rosa’s book demonstrates a fragmented industry. It is a story of those who enter with a vocational calling to care and help and an industry (mostly through associations, regulators and curriculum) that wants the opposite. Just look at the marketing for the Global ‘Zero Event’ soon approaching in November in Sydney. So much that is presented is completely out of touch with the daily grind and moral responsibility of the daily OHS task. Indeed, there is nothing being presented at this ‘zero event’ on the foundational importance of ethics and moral responsibility. Says so much about an industry that is so amateurish about ethics (https://safetyrisk.net/a-guide-to-tokenism-in-ethics-in-safety/ ).
If an industry can’t even get its foundations (its ethic) in order, how are safety people expected to tackle the challenges of their work? Oh yes, that’s right, obey the code, conformance to standards, police regulation and don’t be critical! And resistance to the normalisation of policing will be smashed as anti-safety.
Without an ethic of risk, this industry just wanders aimlessly without the meaning and purpose, without the motivation and purpose requires for people to do their job. Hence, why Safety is so fragmented, so disillusioned and fractured into clubs. All watched over by a collection of ‘purple circles’ that ensure that those on the coal-face remain obedient and compliant. And the last place one can find comfort in resistance is in the associations, that adore the best sycophant with 5 meaningless post-nominals that at best, pronounce the volume of safety indoctrination endured.
Here are a few more quotes from the book:
I only realised this years later but I was into my third or fourth major ‘under-the-radar’ transformation before I had any ‘top-cover’ support (ABC company), and even there while I had resources to engage and harness (‘mavens’ in Gladwell speak) I worked out quickly that most of my peers in the LT, and the VPs and others all the way to the top, were smirking behind their hands thinking ‘yeh good luck with that buddy.’
Like all things, you don’t know any different until you know different, but in retrospect those early ones felt like I was being pushed out into No-man’s land on the Somme, with a big pole, and expected to ‘see what you can do’ and not either step on a mine, get entangled in the wire, or sniped (quite possibly from behind). Paul Cristofani, Safety risk consultant. (p.13)
I am completely done with seeing safety professionals die young of heart attacks, strokes, or suicide. I am tired of watching people lose their relationships because of this job, I am over watching people suffer at work because we refuse to do anything about it, and I’m sick of witnessing the depression that exists within our profession. We simply pretend that the problem does not exist, all the while professionals are suffering. (2020) (p.17)
I am looking for a job where I can try to do my best in these 2 areas, where people are the center and we want to learn from our daily operation based on a trust relationship. I think I’m still young, so I keep struggling and pushing forward on my organization and I try to not give up when I’m feeling alone on the field. 36 year old H&S advisor (p.24)
It is also unfortunate that many who want to leave safety can’t, because the industry creates a trap. And real professions don’t want to employ long-term safety advisors because of the image/reputation/mis-education under which they suffer.
I am asked by many in safety how they can leave (https://safetyrisk.net/how-to-leave-the-safety-industry/). It is not easy but it can be done, especially with diversifying in education and moving into a caring profession. This quote captures part of the problem:
As much as anything I think the research in this study demonstrates that the safety “profession” suffers from role confusion. Hard to call any work without a clear role a profession. I’d love to see our national safety organizations (ASSP / NSC) take a stronger leadership role here but I’ve lost confidence in that prospect. Jim Loud, S&H consultant (p.24)
Role confusion is an understatement. Many who come into safety get the care quickly squeezed out of them. And those who I have helped move into a caring profession often write back and thank me for helping them find congruence between their vocation and occupation.
Unfortunately, even the curriculum (indoctrination) offered to the industry is closed and confines employment opportunity. I know of no profession that doesn’t offer a generalist foundation in education and learning, or ethical foundations, which is why Safety is NOT a profession (https://safetyrisk.net/the-mis-naming-of-safety-as-a-profession/). And this quote:
That’s why I’m actively looking to leave the field. There is no genuine care or interest in protecting in HEALTH and SAFETY. It is a largely performative role.” To make matters worse he wrote, “Only problem is, which fields can we transition to when we only, realistically, have glorified administrative experience.” Risk manager (p.26)
Unfortunately, those with power at the top of associations still talk like this:
The ISSA’s Vision Zero strategy offers easy-to-implement solutions for companies and policy makers. In fact, there are companies that have managed to reduce their Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate by adopting the ISSA’s Vision Zero proactive leading indicators. Also, there are social security institutions who have had great outreach success by aligning their prevention strategy to the Seven Golden Rules of Vision Zero. Dr Mohammed Azman bin Aziz Mohammed President, International Social Security Association. (Invitation Page 7. To the global Zero Event)
To the average safety person who works in a high-risk industry, this language is complete nonsense.
If you continue to talk nonsense to safety people (https://safetyrisk.net/talking-zero-nonsense-to-people/ ), all it does is create alienation, disillusion and despair. No wonder there is such resistance, but make sure you keep quiet about it.
So, thanks for writing this book Rosa and to the many in safety who feel alone as if they are the only one’s in resistance against this warped view of what safety is about: counting, metrics and policing regulation. This book is for you.
This is a comforting and positive book for safety people and, it articulates what you feel and know. It also provides recommendations that give substance to the resistance.
And, if you are in safety and want to do something constructive about this conundrum that Rosa’s has documented, I suggest you contact her and seek her counsel and get her to present to you: the positive, practical things you can do, so that the best people stay in safety.