Who's to Blame?
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Who's to Blame? by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine October 2000

I am looking for a fine dividing line. I managed to make it through the 'hot coffee in the lap' lawsuit without making a public disgrace of myself. Then, I even endured the recent court ruling that awarded a significant amount of money to those people that the cigarette manufacturers were accused of harming. Unfortunately, after now hearing the arguments that are being made for safer power windows in cars, I feel compelled to make a few points about the fine line that lies between personal responsibility and the need to idiot proof something that is made available to the general public.

I would like to be able to say that the everyday workplace operates by a less ludicrous sort of standards. Having spent twenty four years helping to improve safety performance in both manufacturing and service, I recognize that there is no difference. Each day at work, management must negotiate that fine line between putting in place the proper amount of personal protection and delaying the installation of a newer, safer packaging system. We give people hearing protection, but how do we make them wear it? In helping to define this fine line more clearly, I suggest that we look at what the improvements are intended to help avoid.

In general, we put tangible system changes in place to (1) force people to behave a certain, and usually safer, way at work and/or (2) protect them from hazards that they cannot control. Governors are installed on forklifts, floors are striped and coated, two hand controls are on punch presses, and the computer screen won't change unless you enter the correct information. I don't really struggle with the need to use such approaches in some cases, but I would like help in defining when 'enough is enough.' At what point do we decide to confront the behavior problem itself head on instead of building, painting, or padding around it? Where should personal responsibility and self-awareness enter into the equation?

I have had the pleasure of being a part of two very successful safety programs, one of which was in an organization that had a relatively high rate of exposure to potential serious injuries. I have also been part of three programs that did not improve significantly across all workgroups while I was there, but I learned a lot. It was an experience with my last employer however that finally helped me understand the true keys to safety success. I already knew that most accidents are the result of unsafe acts, as opposed to unsafe conditions. I had also experienced the power that an effective safety recognition program can have in promoting sustained safe behaviors over time.

What was missing however was an understanding of how important having safety conversations with people on a consistent basis could be. Out of the twenty-three freight terminals that we had at my recent freight carrier employer, there was one location that really made great strides in the safety performance area over the past three years. They reduced their lost time accident rate by 85%. They reduced their accident severity rate by an even greater amount. Other than the cost of time, these improvements were essentially free. What did this location do differently? How were they able to make their workplace much safer without having to spend dollars on idiot proofing devices?

Let's note the lesson to be learned here before proceeding. If it works in one location where human beings work with heavy and/or sharp objects on a repeated basis, it should work in another. In other words, if it works in the workplace, it should work in the general public. The Portland terminal's safety success was a result of spending time with people to let them know why safety was important, training them to work safely, giving them feedback on their safety performance, listening to their ideas about how to improve safety, and most importantly, celebrating team and location safety successes. They were more successful than other locations because they invested the time in safety-focused practices - training, giving feedback, and recognition.

In hindsight, I now recognize that the successes I saw with my other employers were also rooted in these five safety basics. I also better understood the futility of attempting to idiot-proof systems instead of approaching safety from a behavioral perspective. I learned that banners, posters, and charts are not replacements for spending time with people individually and in teams talking about the need to work safely, and that safety money is better spent on training versus making a multitude of equipment improvements. Lastly, I learned that regular conversation (listening and giving feedback) is a necessary ingredient for helping someone develop more personal responsibility.

That said, where does that leave us in terms of making society safe for human engagement? Do we as a society lack safety training? Are most of us upset because we have not been recognized for our safety performance? Does anyone care if we live safely or not? At the same time as we are talking about flying cars in the future, we are debating the need to add the auto reverse feature to all power windows. I'm surprised that we used to be able to open the car door while the car was going sixty miles per hour down the road. What happened to automatic seatbelts - did someone choke? I really wonder if I will ever define that fine line between personal responsibility and protecting people from themselves. Let's just hope that OSHA does not have to change its name to the Occupational Idiot Proofing Administration. Keep improving!

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