EHS OutLoud Blog
Unselfishly Safe

Unselfishly Safe

If it weren’t for diaper rash, I might not be here today.

Not too many people can make that claim, or at least would have the guts to admit it – especially in a national magazine. But it’s true. Diaper rash saved my butt – literally and figuratively.

When I was just a few months old, my dad (who was 22 at the time), happened to be watching me when a friend asked him if he wanted to go to the bookstore. My dad was – and still is – addicted to reading and collecting books, so this was like asking a kid if he wanted to go to Disneyland on a school day.

He regretfully declined. I can imagine him looking at me and lamenting, “My book collection will never make library status because of you.” I’m just kidding about that last part.

According to the story, I was a little cranky (a rash will do that to a baby), but more importantly, my dad feared the wrath of my mom if he’d chosen to take their firstborn to the bookstore instead of taking care of her poor baby at home (a wife will do that to a husband).

A short while later, my dad received a phone call reporting that this good friend had been in a very serious car accident and was lucky to be alive. This friend was a bigger guy, and as a result of his size and the steering wheel, was blocked from going completely through the front windshield. This was 1978 and there were no air bags.

My dad’s friend suffered injuries to his head and face and bruises to his upper body. My dad would have been holding me in the passenger seat (the California laws weren’t as strict as they are now), and buckling your seatbelt wasn’t required by law. So you probably can imagine what might have happened to us if we’d been in that car.

This story got me thinking about the choices that we face while performing our daily tasks, and the ramifications that those choices have.

When it comes to being safe at work, we often forget that it’s not just about what we want or what’s best for us or even our company. We forget that there are a lot of people in this world – family, friends, colleagues, roommates – who depend on us, and at the end of the day, these people need us to continue to be part of their lives.

We’ve become an incredibly entitled society. We’re bombarded with marketing messages telling us that anything standing between our desires and us is bad. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a huge fan of working hard, striving to be successful and taking care of No. 1. However, when I see this attitude toward safety in the workplace, it’s very worrisome.

Selfish Acts, Unsafe Acts

W.H. Heinrich, who is considered to be a pioneer of industrial safety in America, developed a theory we’ve come to know as “Heinrich’s Law,” which estimates that 88 percent of accidents and incidents are caused by unsafe acts. Most safety professionals are familiar with this theory. Whether you agree or disagree with Heinrich, I challenge you to look at the accidents in your experience and think about whether this theory has some truth to it.

During accident/incident/near-miss investigations, if you look at the contributing factors (human factors more specifically), you’ll notice that these events typically fall into one of these categories:

  • Unsafe acts – These can be divided into two categories: errors (individuals’ mental and/or physical actions that fail to achieve their intended outcome) and violations (willful disregard for rules and regulations).
  • Preconditions for unsafe acts – Individuals fail to prepare physically and/or mentally for duty (lack of rest, alcohol consumption, self-medicating, poor dietary practices, off-the-job overexertion, bad habits).
  • Unsafe supervision – Failure to administer proper training and/or lack of professional guidance (risk without benefit, no risk assessment, improper work tempo, poor crew pairing).
  • Organizational influences – Failure of resource management, organizational climate and operational processes (structure, policies, culture).

When I look at an accident and consider each of these categories, I can point to all of them and name selfish choices or decisions that were made by someone that resulted in failure to some degree.

The obvious ones are taking shortcuts (UA), choosing to work impaired (PUA), not preparing crews correctly and pushing production (US), and failing to own safety at the highest level (OI). If you’ve ever sat with family members in the emergency room nervously waiting to see if their dad will ever be able to walk again, you know exactly how “me” choices affect more than the injured individual.

So the million-dollar question is: What do we do?

Maybe it’s as simple as putting aside selfish desires and looking at the bigger picture. Maybe as safety professionals, we take a look at our own work habits and get more involved with our co-workers on a “human” level, instead of focusing on all the reports, meetings and audits that we have to complete.

I wish I had the right answer. But I do think this unselfish approach to safety needs to spark some conversations.

When the opportunity or invitation presents itself to gain a little bit more, go a little bit faster, reach a little bit further or take that quick shortcut, we probably should stop for a minute and consider the effects that this decision might have on our loved ones and the others around us.

I’m glad my dad did.

TAGS: Safety
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