Why Do Anything About Injuries When You Can Pretend to Take Action Instead?

Why Do Anything About Injuries When You Can Pretend to Take Action Instead?

by  Phil La Duke. First published on his blog HERE

imageSafety is not a humanitarian effort. We all know the story of the days of yore when the loss of life—from building the pyramids to building the Brooklyn Bridge—was just the cost of doing business. Nobody liked it, but it was like IMPORTANT people died.  After all the workers weren’t considered much more than bright livestock. In fact, when a horse pulling a wagon died in the workplace it was much more of a set back than when a worker died. Irish, Poles, Blacks, and German immigrants were plentiful and a good horse was hard to find, whereas the filthy poor were a dime a dozen.

We’re more sophisticated in our bigotry toward the great unwashed now.  The careless, obstinate, ignorant workers are too stupid to save their own lives, and yet if one of them gets killed MY bonus gets affected.  Or the executive who rolls the dice with human life when asking, “how much will we get fined if we don’t comply and get caught?” Or let’s just get “safe enough”.  I hear these and worse from people who run companies and worse people assigned to the safety department.

I’m tired, people, I’m tired. Maybe I’m all punched out and just staggering around the ring praying for the bell or that knock out punch that takes me out of the match forever. Or maybe I’m just like a terrier with a rat, refusing to drop it long after its dead. Maybe.

I’ve been thinking a lot of how we as a profession got here. How did safety go from protecting the company and its workers to blaming the workers and doing everything we can to ensure that the books are properly cooked? If I’m jaded I come by it honestly.  People keep describing me as angry, but now all I can feel is disgust and guilt by association.

In his seminal work, The Jungle, Upton Sinclair provides a contemporary account of the life of a worker in a meat-packing plant circa 1900. It told the story of a man who wanted nothing more than his share of the American Dream and was thwarted at every turn. At it’s hear was the message that everyone deserves to work, earn a fair wage, and go home unharmed.  Sinclair hoped that the popularity of his book might spark social reforms. Instead, it ushered in regulations for food safety. Sadly, Sinclair summed up his disappointment saying, “I aimed for America’s heart and hit it in the stomach.”

Life for workers was slow to improve, on one hand, you had Unions fighting to organize to secure and preserve workers’ rights, not the least of which was the right to return home uninjured, and on the other hand, you had business leaders with all the compassion of a Nazi Deathcamp guard hiring strikebreakers—Henry Ford hired the University of Michigan football team to bust erstwhile UAW heads, while other companies hired organized crime specialists to brutalize Union workers.

And three decades after Sinclair wrote The Jungle, Herbert Heinrich wrote his rich book of fiction Industrial Accident Industrial Accident Prevention, A Scientific Approach a book that most snake oil salesmen who peddle the Behavior Based Swindle have never read that has become the Holy Bible that has created the cult of Behavior-Based Safety.

Defending Heinrich and his infernal tribute to stupidity, the Heinrich Pyramid, is tough. Unless you can justify:

The Behavior-Based Swindle grew out of dubious “research” of one Herbert William Heinrich a statistician who claimed to have conducted research in the 1920s that would predict the numbers of likely fatalities based on the number of less serious injuries. He further postulated that 80% of all injuries were caused by worker carelessness or recklessness.  Few questioned this work despite some things that we would never pass scientific muster today, including:

  • Heinrich’s research was based on asking supervisors of the injured workers, sometimes a two decades after the incident, what caused the injuries.  I could ask supervisors of factory workers today to tell me the causes of worker injuries that happened yesterday and get a similar response—without the slightest shred of proof or scientific investigation; just like Heinrich.
  • Heinrich’s work was never peer-reviewed, in fact, there is a growing body of evidence that he took no notes at all and never even visited a single workplace in furtherance of his research. Some have gone so far as to suggest that he made up his research, which is fair—there is as much evidence that Big Foot is responsible for crop circles after getting a particularly rough rectal probe from alien visitors as there is that Heinrich did anything more than write his opinions.
  • Heinrich was a strong supporter of Eugenics, the widely discredited idea that some races were superior and more evolved than others. Today there are a lot of people who support the idea that some races are intrinsically superior to all others. To support Heinrich is to support these groups.
  • Heinrich’s statistical relationship of 300 injuries to 1 fatality seems to have no mathematical or statistical validity. For one we have NO IDEA how large the population of the bottom of the triangle is so any statistic inference is impossible. Add to that the fact that machinery and equipment that workers used in the 1900s and teens are far less safe than it is today, and you have all the makings of an urban legend—something people believe with no basis in fact, but that sounds really reasonable. Heinrich’s Pyramid has a lot in common with

So why do people persist in promulgated this Behavior Based Swindle? Because there’s big money in stupidity, and as long as people—particularly business executives—believe this horse manure,  sharp snake oil salesmen will continue to shill it.

Behavior-Based Safety (BBS note that BS is in its name for all that is holy) is not without its charms: it’s easier to blame the worker than it is to take accountability for fixing the system errors that created the environment where workers made poor choices because they were lead to believe something was safe when it wasn’t,

You also have a chorus of imbeciles claiming that they have achieved zero-injuries using sustainable solution. Add to that regulatory and now global corporations who insist on using REPORTED injuries and in some cases a BBS system as a criterion for doing business and…well gosh darn it why WOULDN’T we implement BBS?

Except it doesn’t work except for assigning blame and driving risk underground. And when we continue perpetuating it we kill people.  Years ago, saw a case where a worker was crushed to death—his body popped like an overripe tomato splattering gore over a sign provided as part of one of the leading BBS proponents, and yet the leadership of his facility continued to use BBS.

Last week I posted a link to 80% of Safety Practitioners are Idiots on LinkedIn with the sole text of “read the post before telling me I’m wrong.” 11,067 people viewed that post but  8.069%. Only 893 people were interested enough to click a link to find out what justification I had in calling 80% of our profession idiots; based on the number maybe my estimate was off by a bit.

I have found that oft as not, people don’t really want to think about safety in hard, meaningful terms, it’s so much more reassuring to think about safety in philanthropic terms. “We’re doing what’s right” rather than “we’re doing what’s smart”. Mostly what I learned from the incredibly low percentage of people who read my one sentence post was that people today don’t really want to learn—at least not from me—rather they want to be insulted and stop around in righteous indignation.

Meanwhile, people are working themselves to death.

Did you like this post? If so you will probably like my book which can be ordered here I Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business or on Barnes & Nobel.com. Did you hate this post? Did it offend you deeply? Maybe you should organize a book burning (minimum of 150 books) but be sure you are only burning my book, I don’t want you to go to a used book store and buy a bunch of cheap books and stack mine on top.

The book is a compilation of blog posts, guest blogs, magazine article (from around the world) and new material. Much of it is hard to find unless you know where to look. A second and third book has already been green-lighted by the publisher (expect fewer reprints and more new material).

In a couple of weeks my second book will be out and I will be nagging you to buy that. So you’re already behind the 8-ball.

Remember the holidays are coming up and this book makes the perfect gift for the person for which you feel obligated to get something for but don’t really like.

In all seriousness, I have been blogging for free for over 11 years and I think I have earned a bit of revenue so buy the damned book.

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

8 Replies to “Why Do Anything About Injuries When You Can Pretend to Take Action Instead?”

  1. In the profoundly miseducated domain of safety, there is nothing more lucrative than safety theatre and performance. Spruik zero, fudge the stats and take the bonus. It’s in the best interests of such a sector to remain dumb. There is no transdiciplinart approach, just all STEM and continue to drink the kool-aid.

  2. It’s great to read any post with a reference to Upton Sinclair, especially The Jungle, which is one of my favourite books. Most lickspittle corporate safety managers with over mortgaged properties are just skating on thin ice as they navigate the safety space between the Friedman doctrine and securing the health, safety and welfare of people at work. This is usually accomplished via the brutal ideology of zero harm with the black box psychology of behaviour based safety, which is no more statistically significant than phrenology or sorcery.

    This patina of corporate social responsibility is often promoted via sausage sizzles and barbecues (without onions) to celebrate the capitalist agitprop of all accidents are preventable or safety is our number one priority.

    Corporate behemoths will simulate loyalty to fulfil its objectives or betray allies instantly if there is a soupçon of boosting the bottom line and enhancing profit. The major problem is that enough is never enough. Despite the recent soixante-huitard yellow vest revival in Paris it remains to be seen from workers how much is too much…………Sous les paves la plage.

  3. I enjoy all the articles posted here. I’m a safety professional in the US and am well aware of the Simple-Minded Safety Profession. Keep the insightful articles coming; I always get something out of them.

  4. Please NEVER stop sharing your thoughts! They are spot on and should be sending the message to the safety profession that it needs to take a good hard look at the real reasons for fatalities and injuries.

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