This story by Dr Long would seem totally ludicrous if it weren’t true! We hear these stories every day yet those with the most to gain and the ability to change it are the only ones in fear and denial. I wrote previously about The Safety Revolution or the “Tipping Point” coming but in the context of the headline I shall call it “Safety Judgement Day” – Dave
You Spell the Devil L-T-I and God P-P-E
The weeks before Easter had been hectic and I was looking forward to having Thursday off, not to be. I received a call from a friend distressed by bullying by a tier 1 company. (A company that only 2 years ago was found responsible for the suicide of a young boy through bullying). My friend was a subcontractor managing the project. It was a small project worth $1 mill (a single building) at a high risk facility.
The phone call and then barrage of emails that were forwarded by my friend showed that a young man had twisted his ankle on site. Yes, that’s right, this story is about a sprained ankle.
The story starts with a sprained ankle, a young man waiting in sick bay for an hour then taken to hospital by the principal (tier 1) contractor. As the reactive emails followed I was able to track a fever of anxiety about this LTI, not the well being of the young man. By the time I had read the fifth email and several formal letters written to my friend (threatened with termination of contract) I was aghast at the final letter that asked for a written assurance that no more incidents would happen on site. What???
In less than 2 days this LTI had become the Spanish Inquisition and the Devil (the LTI) had to be purged. My friend was requested to a meeting on the Thursday and asked if I could attend and this was allowed. The meeting now involved the Regional Director and the Regional Site Manager. Senior Managers were advised of my attendance at the meeting. This event had now consumed my friend’s time for the entire 3 days prior to the meeting and his own foreman had taken leave due to bullying. The young man who had twisted his ankle had been taken off the job by the sub-contractor and his parents were not allowing any contact with him, especially by the Principal contractor.
Before I was able to attend the meeting I had to undergo a zero harm induction. Yes, that’s right, all that mattered on this site was the words ‘zero harm’ and so sat through this propagandist drivel whilst the principal risk on site (chlorine gas) was never mentioned in the induction. Indeed, the evacuation point was fixed at the gate and never mentioned the two wind socks on site nor that we were on a high risk facility. The evacuation point actually took workers closer to the major hazard. The engineer that ran me through the induction allowed me to take pictures of the documents and I share two with you:
I took many more photos about ‘Safety First’ etc. the site had more slogans than an advertising agency wall. The documents themselves showed that the tier 1 company had no idea about culture, had learned nothing from the court ruling about bullying associated with the suicide they were responsible for nor, that zero harm was not a ‘unique’ approach. Indeed, it is telling that the language in the induction was to ‘vigorously pursue’ the goal of zero harm (in bold red, more evidence they have no idea about the psychology of colour or the danger they created with this language). I was then told that this was an open site and that ‘zero creates a culture of open reporting’ and that I was encouraged to ‘speak up’, that this was a ‘speak up site’.
I couldn’t get out of the car without all the sacred PPE on (gloves, glasses, hard hat, hearing protection etc) even though I was only walking to the site office. If an LTI is the new Devil then PPE must be the Lord God and Savior of this new religion. On the way to the site office for my zero harm induction I walked past more (un-notified) hazards and lack of exclusion zones than chocolate eggs at Woolworths. In this new religion the fetish with PPE covers all sins and if one speaks the language of ‘zero’ all is forgiven.
Once I had done the induction I was allowed to chat to a few workers just to get a feel for things and even with the simplest of open questions I learned that the site had a culture of suspicion, micro-management, cynicism, pessimism, secrecy, distrust, anxiety and ‘double speak’. I was told to my face by one worker that lying and not reporting was the only way to ‘survive’ on this job. Wow, and I got this in only a few minutes. Everyone on site knew about the rolled ankle and were staggered about all that followed, including this special meeting I was to attend. My friend had already told me that he was prepared to walk out of the meeting (and give up the contract) if it got silly.
The meeting started and I wrote notes furiously so as not to be caught up in the moment. The first comments led by the Manager by the tier 1 was about ‘incidents’ and the evil word (LTI) came out in less than 10 seconds. Ah, he spoke it – ‘LTI’, the Devil had been named. No mention of the young man and a total refusal to use his actual name. We were told that no one was being ‘stitched up’ and that all they wanted was to ‘cover ourselves’ and a guarantee to have no more LTIs. The Regional Director then said ‘we want to make people stop making bad decisions’. I the entered the meeting and it didn’t take long to realize that they too were pawns in the theatre of a zero harm play. Neither manager knew anything about culture or why people make decisions. So, after some words of no guarantees, a brief 101 in culture and social psychology and an offer of mediation with the sub-contractor the meeting concluded.
During the meeting A3 photos were produced about other situations that they deemed hazardous (selective harm). I suggested that such a practice was not in their best interests and that in my brief time on site that they already had a ‘toxic culture’. I suggested that this toxic culture was their greatest risk and that anxiety, fear and silence would be the cause of the next incident. I didn’t bother talking about zero as this is not likely to change, the zero religion now captivates most tier 1s and most cannot imagine life without it. They think they have nothing to replace it with and are wedded to Bradley curves, bird triangles and the seduction of absolutes.
So, we went to visit the subcontractor to tell him the outcome of the meeting and to see if I could have a conversation with the young man. The sub-contractor was on another site, which happened to be a site where I had been coaching Managers for the past 3 years (on leadership and risk) in a far more mature and people-centred company, their tagline is ‘building leadership’. We arrived to find out they had had a person with a twisted ankle on site the previous day – no Spanish Inquisition, dealt with the issue, supported the injured person and family, dealt maturely with people and got on with building the job. The comparison between the companies is startling, and people wonder why I get concerned with the language of absolutes.