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Safety Community

Why Can’t We Achieve Safety Excellence? Part 2

In the second part of this two-part article, author F. David Pierce discusses the role of the safety community in helping achieve safety excellence.

The fact is that we have made a lot of progress reducing the high variation in safety performance in American industry. One of the major assets for safety stability has been the Occupational Safety and Health Act itself. But we’ve had more than 45 years to take safety performance from poor to excellent and we haven’t been able to get beyond near stagnant improvement.

Part One of this article discussed the first two reasons why we haven’t been able to achieve safety and health excellence in America: the first is industry itself and industry leadership and the second are the paradigms that are accepted without challenge. The third impediment to safety excellence is the safety community.

The Safety Community

How does the safety community hold us back from achieving world-class safety and health performance? We no longer can say the safety “profession” any more, as the many different ways that safety is done in the myriad of industries is extremely diverse. This section will discuss how we think and communicate, and how we teach, educate and train our safety and health professionals. Here are some of the ways the safety community gets in its own way when it comes to achieving world-class safety excellence:

Different “wiring” – Our dominant “wiring” is opposite that of business leadership. If I were to use one descriptive term that describes the vast majority of safety and health people, I would use the word “passionate.” We maybe are more passionate about what we do than any other profession or job sector.

Passion has a companion term that almost always rides shotgun, and that descriptive term is idealistic. Being passionate, we want the best solutions, the best decisions, and we give 110 percent. In business, passion is good. Idealism isn’t.

Why? Because the opposites of idealism are pragmatism and realism, both of which are foundational thought processes in business. Idealism in a pragmatic environment is like speaking Swahili to a native Norwegian. It’s not understandable. If something doesn’t fit with any business paradigms or beliefs, it immediately is discounted by leadership as being unrealistic and not practical, and the person speaking it is perceived as an outsider.

Different “language” – Over the past 30 years, I’ve heard well-meaning safety experts advise safety people to “speak the language of business,” but the definition of what that means has focused on being able to understand balance sheets, cost-benefit, problem-solving, etc. Our error has been that we’ve missed the root, the foundation of “speaking the language of business.” 

Most successful safety people in business are pragmatists passionate about safety and health and totally dedicated to improving both, but pragmatic in their thinking and approaches to leadership. Given almost any decision, a pragmatic safety person will accept the decision – not become defensive or defeated – and find ways to move the ball down the field and make improvements, regardless of the decision.

The worst case – We’ve been taught and have accepted “worst-case” messaging. Safety people regularly offer the worst case as an example. Industrial hygienists, for example, will take a worst-case exposure sample or place a dosimeter on the worker who receives the highest level of noise exposure. We must learn to tell a balanced story, not just the worst case.

The fact is that business leaders don’t want the worst case. For example, their worst case is to go out of business. Do they talk about that? No. They may talk about how to assess risks or threats to their business so that business continuity planning can be put in place, but they never talk about the worst case.

When we use worst-case messaging, we place ourselves at opposite ends to the way business leaders think. If we change and insist on telling a balanced story, the least risky and the most risky, we align our message with business continuity planning and the thinking of leaders.

Single-option solutions – We tend to provide only a single option for decision-makers and accept only decisions in support of our “ideal” option. This common occurrence is rooted in our idealism. We look at a safety or health problem and we identify the best solution. The complexity of that solution and the associated cost seems to be determined by how technically trained and competent we are, meaning that those safety and health people who are technically savvy or highly educated tend to have solutions that are more complex and more expensive than those safety and health people who aren’t. This is a simple correlation, possibly with causality, that I’ve observed over 40+ years.

We tend to offer only one choice, one option for decision-makers. That one option becomes a “take it or leave it” choice for leaders, and also based on my experience, the resulting decisions don’t even meet the Peter Principle odds.

These “take it or leave it” decisions are mostly “leave it” decisions. Why? It’s because business leaders want and need many options to make the best decisions. We must become skilled at supplying many options – from “do nothing” with honest consequences to “buy the farm” with honest consequences as well – if we want to change how we are perceived and how successful we can be.

Packaging information – The safety community tends to not package information well. There’s a simple non-dictionary definition of the word “tact” that I always have liked. It defines tact as the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.

When you think about how to package information, think about consumer packaging is used to convey information to the buyer. If you go into any store, you can see the genius of packaging. For products that have historical ties, the packaging is traditional because we have learned to recognize those brands.

This traditional packaging is replaced when a producer wants to increase sales by rebranding or introduce a new product. Packaging for these products are bright, bold, colorful, placed at eye level, put on aisle end caps, near the registers, etc. Why? Because they are packaged and placed this way they catch our eye and our attention. It’s scientifically  been proven over and over that color and placement not only increase sales of products, but it almost makes buying them irresistible.

This is an important message for safety and health people. If we want to “sell” an idea or get others to support a safety concept or option, we need to become very good at how we package that information. We tend to communicate information in a technical manner, perhaps thinking that this will strike a higher note for leaders or impress them. In fact, it is like having a product on the bottom shelf; they don’t see it or have little interest in it, so they don’t pay any attention.

Prioritization – We waste limited safety resources by not prioritizing by risk. Everything is not created equal. Without a weapon, a grizzly bear has a huge advantage for survival in a physical conflict with a human. Without medications, a simple virus has a huge advantage over an unsuspecting human. The same can be said of safety and health risks.

Some risks could result in multiple fatalities, while others could never rise to that risk level. Yet, it is a common practice for safety and health people to treat all risks the same so they misdirect effort and resources on resolving or studying minor risks and miss the opportunity to focus on major risks. A successful safety and health professional studies and knows the risks and, just as important, manages resources by risk.

System theory – We don’t understand systems. Without getting in to a very long article explaining systems, the basic concepts of systems are that:

• Systems exist or are created to accomplish some valuable result or accomplish a purpose,

• They are made up of many parts and sub-systems, all which must work together to accomplish the result or purpose and

• No part or subsystem can accomplish that purpose or that result absent of all the other parts or subsystems.

How is this important for us? Any business or company is a system that exists to accomplish a valuable result (make a profit), or accomplish a purpose (solicit money to find a cure for some disease, educate people, etc.). Safety as a function only is a part of that business system.

Too often we think that if safety “wins” then the company “wins.” This is opposite of system theory. In fact, safety must “win” along with all the other parts of the system so that the system – the business – can succeed. Why is this perspective important? Because it is a common belief in safety professionals that they are competing with all the other company parts rather than working toward cooperation and interrelated success.

What is the take-away message here? That we must help everyone else succeed, not just safety. Safety actively must contribute for all parts to succeed. Safety can’t win alone. We must understand systems.

Teach success – We don’t teach our safety and health professionals to be successful in a business world. Take a look at almost any college curriculum for educating safety professionals or industrial hygienists; it doesn’t matter if it is a baccalaureate or post-graduate program. The curriculums teach technical skills and sciences to make graduates very knowledgeable technocrats in safety or industrial hygiene.

These new EHS professionals go out into the business world without the non-technical education that ultimately will determine if they are successful and provide value to the business. I believe that all of our safety and health professional education curriculums must include a new course that includes real-world persectives and offers guidance on working as part of a whole system, aka the entire business.

 “Do or Do Not, There Is no Try”

Certainly, two to five serious injuries for every 100 workers every year isn’t the best we can do. What stands in the way of achieving world-class safety and health performance across all industry isn’t new.

One of the truths necessary for change is that we acknowledge the way things truly are broken. Whenever a member of Alcoholics Anonymous speaks, he or she always starts out by saying: “I’m (first name) and I’m an alcoholic.” It is the power of acknowledging what is real and what is true that fuels the possibility of change.

Industry, business and leadership are broken when it comes to achieving world-class safety and health. We – our profession, our practice, our passionate ways we do things and teach things – also are broken. Widely held paradigms concerning safety also stand in our way of excellence.

How do we change? It has to be done one company at a time, one safety and health professional at a time and one safety and health educational curriculum at a time, and it won’t be fixed tomorrow. We must have the courage to change and stay the course.

(Read Part One of this article in the August issue of EHS Today or online at

F. David Pierce holds a master’s degree in industrial hygiene from the University of Utah and multiple safety and health certifications. He has published five books on safety management and over 100 articles. He currently resides in Salt Lake City and is principle consultant in Leadership Solutions Consultants Inc.

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