Safety Myths

Don’t eat before swimming.

Suntans are healthy.

Complete bed rest cures a bad back.

Getting cold will give you a cold.

These and statements like them all seemed like common sense rules to live by at one time or another. Then scientific evidence proved them to be ineffective or downright harmful. They were myths.

In the workplace, extravagant sums of time and money are squandered replicating safety activities or approaches that seem to be the right thing.

Fads, hunches and “programs of the month” abound. Companies everywhere experiment with approaches to promote safety that they wouldn’t dream of implementing to encourage productivity or quality. The drive for safety seems to cause many of us to completely abandon science and sound business practices and follow the slogan and sound bite school of operations.

Here are some of myths and the reasons they should trigger skepticism.

Safety is our number one priority!  What happens to priorities? I’ve asked this of hundreds of participants in classes and workshops and the universal answer? Priorities change. They change all the time for all kinds of reasons and people know that they change.

I’ve visited companies with safety listed as number one goal in manuals, policy statements, and banners across the entrance and asked line employees to rank the priorities of management. Production is usually at the top of the list. Quality or customer service follows. Employees are smart enough to see through company sloganeering.

If you want people to believe that safety is important, drop the word “priority” from safety vocabulary and substitute “value.” Values are those components of any workplace culture that provide constant guidance even when priorities conflict.

Values are not situational. They cannot be turned on and off at will.

Let’s say you find a lost wallet on the street. It has cash and credit cards and other important papers. What do you do? Contact the owner and return everything. Why? Because honesty is one of your best values. Suppose you are out of cash for that day. Times are tough. Now what do you do? Return it anyway! You still believe in, even though your priority for the day is to get some cash. Values always modify priorities.

Now the goal is clear: to establish a value system that includes safety. It encompasses quality, customer service, and concern for each other. At its heart, everyone does the right thing even if no one else is watching.

This is hard work. Statements will not magically change behavior. Modeling those values will. You’ve got to provide consistent and constant leadership.

Accidents happen! No, They don’t just happen. Accidents are caused and we know what causes them. It’s not a matter of luck or inherent danger. Accidents are not accidental. They are the result of decisions, business pressures, conflicting priorities, lack of knowledge or skill, inadequate resources, and unsafe conditions.

I remember the first machine shop I visited as a young safety engineer. One machinist after another raised a hand to display a missing digit or two—or more. There was a hint of pride as they explained, one way or another, that you weren’t a real machinist until you were missing a body part. Accidents happen.

Not only are accidents not accidental, they don’t have to happen. Risks may be ever present and taking risks sometimes grows businesses, and creates stars and heroes. However, the best risk takers know the risks and go to great lengths to control them. Watch a movie stunt team. They make engineering calculations, control every possible variable, make test runs, check and recheck equipment. Failure happens sometimes but tens of thousands of these stunts are successes.

In the business world, there are exemplary companies that do not tolerate accidents. A culture has been created where everyone believes that accidents are wrong and everyone knows how to keep them from occurring. These companies are also thriving and productive.

Some manufacturing leaders have lost time injury incidence rates of .02 or .03. Consider a rate of .02 as one injury in 5,000 employees. The average manufacturing company in the United States has one lost time injury for every 21 employees. For the best companies, being 240 times better than average is still not being injury free; but I won’t argue if they tell me accidents don’t happen!

Accidents off the job are none of our business! You think? If you do, you’ve got lots of company. What our people do on their own time is their business. We’ve got enough problems trying to keep them safe at work, how could we do it away from here?  If one of your people gets hurt at home or on the highway, nearly all those costs kick in. You probably pay them. There are medical insurance expenses, overtime and replacements to get the work out. There can be training costs and reduce output on return and administrative costs.

Because their exposure to injury is greater away from work, chances are good that non-work injuries occur far more frequently than do work injuries. These injuries may be more severe. Consider automobile accidents. Severe trauma on the road far exceeds severe trauma at work.

Even if it’s a family member who is hurt, some of the costs will impact you. Your employee may lose some time dealing with the injury. Medical insurance costs will still build. Even if at work, the employee may be distracted by the events at home.

Obviously, in today’s environment, no one expects you to establish rules for conduct outside the job. However, you certainly can make sure the safety values you instill at work are taken home.

*Excerpt from Safety for the Leader/Manager by Lawrence H. Dawson


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