The Rise of The Safety Extremist

Stop extremsimThe Rise of The Safety Extremist

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and Social Networking allows us to share our opinions with thousands, perhaps millions of people we’ve never met. But what happens when one’s opinion foments extremism. It’s becoming a problem in safety. I’d like to hear your views on the matter, so please give this post a read and let me know what you think.

Recent article by Phil LaDuke. See it here: http://philladuke.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/4250/

fa·nat·ic (fuhnat-ik) noun

  1. a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal, as in religion or politics.

ex·trem·ist (ik-stree-mist) noun

  1. a person who goes to extremes, especially in political matters.
  2. a supporter or advocate of extreme doctrines or practices.

I write provocative material.  I deliberately try to elicit a visceral response and take people to a place where they can explore their deepest held beliefs and question basic ideologies of safety. The latest in neuroscience suggests that our decisions or made and our ability to change reside deep in our subconscious beneath our defenses. When something strikes a nerve at that level it can be difficult to  have a rational conversation, but in general, if one can at least reconsider one’s belief set maybe its worth it.

Why is it important to re-examine our deepest held beliefs? Because the world is a dynamic place and if our beliefs are static we become increasingly out of touch.  If we cling blindly to our beliefs and lash out to anyone who threatens our worldview then we run the risk of becoming completely and dangerously out of touch with the realities of your profession and become a useless relic.  That should be career suicide, but sadly even the most out of touch hacks can usually find work based on their years and years of experience.  But what good is 40.2 years of experience if that experience consists chiefly of self-congratulatory affirmations and retreads of theories that are a century old.

Not that every new idea is a good one.  There is as much crap spewed by the idea d’jour pundits today as there ever has been. And just because an idea or theory is new doesn’t make it any better than conventional wisdom, but it’s important that any professional consider new ideas and emerging thought with an open mind.

That’s getting tougher and tougher to do in safety, owing to the rise in extremist thought in safety. The merest suggestion that we discard a safety truism is likely to to create nothing short of a public out rage.  Take for instance the response to Heinrich’s Pyramid.  A recent thread on the social networking site LinkedIn elicited 3,186 comments ranging from the intellectually bantering to the crackpot personal attacks. The thread quoted a recent assertion by EHS Today:

“Heinrich’s assertion that 88% of accidents are the result of unsafe acts has been dismissed as something he just made up. There was no research behind it whatsoever. “ and asked the simple question “What’s your opinion? And why?”

According to a recent article by Ashley Johnson in H+S Magazine a poll the magazine conducted found that 86% of respondents believed either completely or somewhat in Heinrich’s theories, while another 10% reporting that they weren’t familiar with Heinrich’s theories.  The article is a scathing indictment of Heinrich’s theories from experts who question his methods, his conclusions, and generally speaking nearly everything had to say.  The article was balanced by a half-hearted defense that the numbers were never meant to be statistical predictors (the were, by the way) and that Heinrich never blamed the workers (he did. In fact Heinrich was a devotee of eugenics and believed that one’s race and ethnicity played a factor in the likelihood that a worker would be injured or cause an injury to other.)

The What does this all have to do with extremism? Plenty.  This demonstrates that  despite a growing body of evidence that deeply held belief will hold sway.  This in itself is not extremism, but it does create an environment where extremists thrive.  Why do people cling to beliefs that are refuted (there are still people who deeply believe in fake photos and film footage of the Loch Ness Monster and Big Foot, even though the perpetrators of these hoaxes? People tend to want to believe in what they’re doing and when people chip away at the foundation.

Its not just the Heinrich supporters who will lash out against any suggestion that doesn’t support their world view.  If you don’t believe me just publish something critical about Behavior Based Safety.  Within hours extremists and fanatics will marshal their forces and begin attacking you.  The problem has grown to such an extent that several editors of leading safety magazines actively avoid the debate more out of a desire to avoid arguing with fanatics than out of fear or intimidation.  But intimidation of the press is a goal of extremists everywhere —from Al Quida to the Ku Klux Klan to the Neo Nazis to the safety extremists—is to discredit, attack, intimidate, and generally silence the media which, if it is truly unbiased—will never buy there bill of goods.

Extremism Is Rooted In Fear

Let’s suppose you have 40.2 years of experience in safety where you served with distinction, and someone comes along and asserts something contrary to the foundation on which your entire experience is predicated.  What happens to your credentials and accomplishments and very identity as a safety professional when all on which it is built crumbles? People will protect their beliefs with a wildness typically reserved for mother grizzlies defending their cubs; they will make ugly personal attacks and seek to gather together like-minded souls close to them.

Extremism Loves Company

Social networking sites make it easy to reach out to a world of people. Some credit social networking with ushering in Arab Spring, but it also has a darker side.  Social Networking affords us the opportunity for the fanatics to get their ideas out to a sympathetic ear. Unfortunately, when it comes to safety, people are dying in the workplace while crackpots are postulating theories that are given equal weight with responsible theorists in safety.  I will leave the readers to decide which slide of the equation on which I fall.

Read the rest here: http://philladuke.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/4250/

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

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