What Makes an Effective Safety Professional? – Part 3

This article is the third in a series that details the qualities necessary to be an effective safety professional that began with, “What Makes an Effective Safety Professional – Part 1” and continued with “What Makes an Effective Safety Professional – Part 2“. As detailed in the introductory article, the author focuses on three essential points:

1. Technical Proficiency

2. Teamwork

3. Character

This article will focus on the second of the three qualities.


Teamwork lies at the heart of any enterprise. There is very little that can be achieved by an individual acting alone, irrespective of their talent or ability. This is true of all types of human activity, and the safety profession is no different. It is as difficult to become an effective safety professional without the cooperation of others, as it is to be an effective footballer at a malfunctioning club. Teamwork has proven to be one of the most effective means ever devised of achieving goals and objectives. We humans are extremely well equipped psychologically to work within groups in order to take advantage of this. Our evolutionary forebears, who suppressed their own individual self-interests in favour of their group, reaped the reward of others doing the same for them, giving them a considerable competitive advantage when it came to survival in difficult times. But cooperation and teamwork is not unique to humans. So what makes us so good at it?

It was not until we unlocked the psychological means to both yoke individuals efforts and skills (cooperation), and preserve advances made within a group (culture), that our species began to make unparalleled leaps forward. The evolution of these traits gave us a formidable tool, a ratchet, which then led on to our most impressive cognitive achievements. For example, the first word or symbol was not simply a connection between an object and its description; it was an agreement between people as to what it meant. Subsequently, linguistic and mathematical symbols led to social institutions and then on to complex technologies.

Humans, though, also cooperate differently than all other social creatures. Something that is readily apparent to those of us who have the opportunity to observe groups of domesticated animals on a regular basis is that all the animals in a group do pretty much the same thing. Apparently this is also the case among our closest primate relatives (Tomasello). But humans are very different. Our ancestors inhabited a social environment where individual humans specialised in one area or activity which might then be exchanged for goods or services that others specialised in.

This raises an interesting question; do humans, therefore, differ from each other in innate abilities and dispositions that make us suited to different ways of prospering in society, or do we acquire these qualities following a lengthy interaction within an evolved cultural system or meme (Nature or Nurture)? There is a tendency to think that these traits are simply learned, but studies of identical twins separated at birth have clearly demonstrated the power of genetics to influence all aspects of our lives. Right down to what we watch on television, what type of books we like to read and whether or not we like to attend religious services.

However, Michael Tomasello (The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition) believes that “The introduction of Darwinian ways of thinking… should have rendered this debate (Nature or Nurture) obsolete“. Furthermore, he hypothesises that the reason it has not been rendered obsolete is that the natural way to answer the question “what causes trait X” is to choose one of the alternatives above. This is because our ability to reason is largely dependent on the language we use to reason with. For example, babies cannot reason much because they do not have language. Reasoning requires language because complicated ideas require words. It follows logically, therefore, that the words we use will then impact on our reasoning (linguistic determinism). So, if the word ‘cause’ did not exist in the English language we would have to ask “how did trait X come about”, which would lead us to think differently about the process (indeed, it might also lead us to think differently about how accidents come about as well).

Tomasello favours the view that traits are not ‘caused’ they come about following complex interactions between genes and an environment. However, the question remains; could this mean that we have evolved temperaments and abilities which, when we interact with a social environment, make us more effective at, or predispose us to, different roles within society? Well, farmers have operated under this assumption for centuries. We breed animals specifically in order to produce particular behaviours, intellectual abilities and temperaments. For example, as well as breeding sheep to produce large offspring, multiple offspring, and hardiness, we also select sheep that have a proclivity to be good mothers, don’t stray, and are docile. And these traits are hereditary. Farmers have also found that Sheep Dogs are naturally good at complex tasks like herding (even inexperienced humans struggle at this): Golden Retrievers are prone to bring things back: And Dobermans seem to want to guard stuff.

Similarly human culture may have naturally selected people who have a predisposition to guard it, pray for it, make things for it or protect those who live in it. Mark Pagel in his wonderful book ‘Wired For Culture’ states that one of the most remarkable discoveries he came across while studying complex systems, was that order, or more precisely a lack of entropy, can seem to appear out of randomness when individuals follow a small number of local rules. He also theorises that if people use the simple strategy of win stay lose shift, then, over time, they will become highly sorted and everyone will end up doing something they are good at.

In his 1981 book ‘Management Teams: Why They Succeed or Fail’, Maredith Belbin identified nine specialist group roles which, if present in the right combination, could create the perfect team. It was based on almost a decade of research that was conducted in association with three other scholars: Bill Hartston, mathematician and international chess master; Jeanne Fisher, an anthropologist who had studied Kenyan tribes; and Roger Mottram, an occupational psychologist. They studied business games at Henley Business School in the UK and then observed, categorised and recorded the contribution of the team members. They originally supposed that high-intellect teams would succeed where lower intellect teams would not. However, the outcome of this research was that certain teams, predicted to be excellent based on intellect, failed to fulfil their potential. Whereas, teams characterised by the compatibility of their roles were more likely to be winners. More information about these team roles can be found at http://www.belbin.com/

However, while Belbin draws on examples from real organisations, it is worth bearing in mind that the development of the model is based on specially selected subjects in the artificial environment of the business school exercise. Nevertheless, I decided to examine the traits from the LinkedIn thread (Describe in one word… An effective safety professional is ________________ ?) under Belbin’s nine team role characteristics, to see if there is a typical role that safety professionals might naturally fulfil within an organisation.

Belbin’s Team Roles

Effective safety professional - Teamwork Image 1

Effective safety professional - Teamwork Image 2

The results of this exercise proved very interesting. It would seem, based on my interpretation of the LinkedIn posts, that safety professionals do not need to fulfill any one particular role. This, I must admit, surprised me. I expected the majority of effective safety professionals to be to be Monitor/Evaluators. Perhaps that is due to a bias in my experience or due to a subconscious recognition of myself in the role. However, oddly enough, I seem to see myself in all the positive characteristics and in none of the allowable weaknesses…. The vagaries of the human mind!!

In any case, it would also appear from my, albeit subjective, analysis of the responses that safety professionals are least likely to be creative, imaginative or given to the generation of ideas that solve problems (Plants). Perhaps that role might be the preserve of production line management, or perhaps it could be due to the fact that the Plant’s weaknesses, ignoring incedentals and not communicating well, are simply not conducive to being an effective safety professional.

It came as no great surprise to me, though, that the Resource Investigator did not feature very high on the list. In fact I was only surprised that it was not at the bottom of the pile. Because the Resource Investigator, to me at least, sounds very like the worst kind of safety professional that I ever came across; what an extremely effective safety professional of my acquaintance, Phil La Duke, calls the safety cheerleader. Almost all of the safety cheerleaders that I came across were incredibly positive, well-meaning individuals who firmly believed that the farmer and the cowman should be friends. They saw their role as caring for everybody and trying to find a fair and happy compromise whenever there was tension between workers and management. And there was always tension between workers and management. Management were continuously seeking to increase production and reduce costs while workers were resolutely seeking to lighten their workload, improve their conditions and get extra pay. Often there wasn’t a happy compromise to be found. One side made the rules and the other side had to follow them. Either management said it has to be done this way or workers said we’re not doing that.

Their desire to avoid conflict meant that safety cheerleaders were only ever effective at getting worn machinery replaced or introducing a paperwork trail which could be used in the event of an insurance claim. Their understanding of risk, safety and production was, for the most part, minuscule. Management never had to justify a risk to them because they had convinced themselves that management were doing everything they possibly could to improve safety in the workplace. Safety was, therefore, simply a case of workers being careful. There was no question in their minds of calculations being made involving risk, reward and loss where a workers safety was concerned.

It has been my experience that effective safety professionals, on the other hand, are constantly involved in conflict. They hold people to account as well as recognising good work. They make management understand that if they choose to accept a particular risk there is a liklihood that one of their employees will get badly hurt. But they do not shrink from the implications of that reality either. They are prepared to go down into the trenches and wade through the hypocrisy. The company wants you to take THIS risk because the cost of removing it far outweighs the benefits. However, the company does not want you to take THAT risk because the consequences to yourself and the company of the risk materialising are unacceptable. And they make sure workers understand that the dichotomy is not immoral or illogical. Sure, management cares about their employees, most managers are human beings after all, but they have to make as much money as they possibly can as well.

Ironically though, people who don’t compromise, and are driven by idealism, can be just as innefective as the safety cheerleader. Which is why it surprised me to find the Shaper at the top of the list. The caracteristics of the Shaper, in my view, seem very similar to a lot of the very ineffective safety professionals that I encountered, who saw themselves as moral crusaders, self-righteously struggling with inadequate resources to keep ignorant, obstinate and reckless workers from harming themselves, while uncaring, arrogant and deceitful managers hindered and obstructed them every step along the way. There was no point in engaging in meaningful dialogue with these people. The only logical course of action to take was to simply humour them. These crusaders seemed to think that they were the only ones who could see the world as it really was. And, though they seemed to be aware that their own background shaped their views and ideas (they frequently used anecdotes to justify themselves), they somehow felt that other peoples background only helped to explain their biases or covert motivations.

Moral crusaders also tended to be very pompous and persnickety, treated risk takers with disdain and seemed to think that the end justified the means. I suppose when you believe right is on your side all that matters is the destination not the route by which you arrive. They also tended to believe that all acidents could be prevented; it was simply a function of good management and worker compliance. I suppose it is difficult to launch a moral crusade that could be scuppered by randomness (or one of Taleb’s black swans).

In fact, they displayed little or no understanding of risk, something that must be confronted by every company operating in a competitive commercial environment. Risk, of course, is a function of mathematical probability, which means that sooner or later the risk will realise its potential to cause harm. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be a risk. Indeed, it has been my experience that in the real world it is sometimes thought necessary to run very high risks over a short duration due to unforeseen or unforeseeable circumstances. Effective safety professionals help manage these unwanted events. Moral crusaders on the other hand, either hide of their own volition, are kept in the dark by production line supervisors or are simply ignored.

Having said all that, I suppose I should also say that the moral crusaders I encountered were not bad people. Most cared deeply about their job and the people who faced danger in the course of their work. They tended to be idealists. And most of us were idealists at some point in our lives.

Of course, we then grew up. We realised that there is more than one moral framework; that we live and work in grey areas; that certainty is unlikely; and that all risk cannot, indeed should not, be removed from human endeavour. Idealists can be wonderful people but I have always found it very difficult to work with them. They don’t want to hear opposing views and they don’t compromise. This makes it impossible to find common ground… which is why I prefer pragmatists myself.

Perhaps there are other elements of the effective safety professionals character, though, which can explain why the same traits that make one safety professional effective, can make another impossible to work with. I will look more closely at individual character in a forthcoming article.


Liam MoranLiam has worked on construction sites in the US, UK and Ireland, and spent over 17 years working as a skilled butcher for a meat processor while continuing to run his family’s farm. Following the closure of the processing plant, Liam returned to college where he obtained a First Class Honours Degree in Construction Management, and went on to work as a Site Engineer for a construction company. Liam became interested in Health and Safety when he wrote a thesis, The Effect of Group Dynamics on Safety Culture, for his Honours Degree qualification and subsequently went on to gain a post graduate qualification on the topic from Trinity College Dublin.



What Makes an Effective Safety Professional – Part 2

This article is the second in a series that details the qualities necessary to be an effective safety professional that began with, “What Makes an Effective Safety Professional – Part 1“. As detailed in the introductory article, the author focuses on three essential points:

1. Technical Proficiency

2. Teamwork

3. Character

This article will focus on the first of the three qualities.

Technical Proficiency

Many people want to be a leader. But the first step on the road to leadership is technical proficiency. In order to lead people, one must first of all have their respect. Nobody will follow someone they do not respect, irrespective of how much they may like (or fear) them. Technical proficiency is the foundation of any manager’s respect. They must be able to manage before anyone will look to them for leadership. Indeed, there is a large grey area between where management stops and leadership begins. The terms leader and manager are often synonymous because they are both concerned with achieving goals and objectives. Management, in my view, is predominantly functional, while leadership is almost exclusively psychological. They are two sides of the same coin, though. Both must be present for either to be effective, and both must work together coherently.

Henri Fayol was one of the first management theorists to define the functions of management. He postulated that managers must forecast what needs to be done, organise resources and persuade others to do what is required by coordinating, commanding and controlling them. Fayol believed that these functions were universal, that all managers perform these tasks in the course of their daily work. While his ideas of command and control may seem old fashioned, I believe they still remain at the heart of all management today, just repackaged and rebranded to appeal to a more politically correct ethos. For example the ABC model (Antecedent, Behaviour and Consequence) of human behaviour is routinely used for command and control. Instead of getting an order to be obeyed, you get an antecedent which will trigger a behaviour bearing in mind a consequence. Those in command simply use different means of control. Fayol’s functions remain, in my opinion, as valid as the day he wrote them although I would now give communication its own category because in the intervening period it has become an essential function in its own right. It’s the grey area between management and leadership.

Effective safety professional - Image 1 - Part 2

When I examined the 134 responses on the LinkedIn thread (Describe in one word… An effective safety professional is ______________?), I came to the conclusion that of the 82 comments that could be sorted neatly into technical proficiency or character traits: 37 (46%) could be construed as technical traits and 45 (54%) were purely character traits. Of course some of the posts could not be categorised so neatly. For example, my own paltry contribution (valuable) was neither a function of management nor a characteristic of leadership. It is simply the effect of supply and demand. However, the posts that could be categorised into the functions of management were allocated by me as follows:

Effective safety professional - Image 2 - Part 2

Planning and Command and Control appear to dominate.

However, it must be acknowledged that the majority of the traits posted were character traits. In fact, a lot of the traits that made it into the function of management were borderline character traits. I just chose to interpret them for the sake of this exercise as functional. For example, ‘Approachable’ was categorised by me as being a communication function. However, there is more to being approachable than simply engaging in an exchange of dialogue. One can approach a cash machine and exchange information, but I doubt that is what the person who posted the word ‘approachable’ had in mind when they made their contribution on LinkedIn. The more I think about the traits posted, the more it seems to me that the traits required to be an effective safety professional are almost entirely character traits. These will be examined in forthcoming articles.


Liam MoranLiam has worked on construction sites in the US, UK and Ireland, and spent over 17 years working as a skilled butcher for a meat processor while continuing to run his family’s farm. Following the closure of the processing plant, Liam returned to college where he obtained a First Class Honours Degree in Construction Management, and went on to work as a Site Engineer for a construction company. Liam became interested in Health and Safety when he wrote a thesis, The Effect of Group Dynamics on Safety Culture, for his Honours Degree qualification and subsequently went on to gain a post graduate qualification on the topic from Trinity College Dublin.


What Makes an Effective Safety Professional?

When I was considering what to write for this article, my first port of call was to review previous contributions in order to see what had already been covered. I was immediately struck by the breadth, depth, scope and expertise of my predecessors. Many of the contributors were from the top echelons of Health and Safety and it occurred to me that I was woefully out of my depth. Upon reflection, I felt my perspective is very different from my predecessors – it’s the view from the bottom up so to speak – was worth sharing.

Most of my working life has been spent at the coal face, where safety initiatives were done TO me, WITH me, and often in SPITE of me. I have worked in what are, statistically, some of the most dangerous professions; agriculture, construction and meat processing. My understanding of what safety is, how it is applied, and why, did not originate by applying weighty theories and smart ideas while wearing a sharp suit. It was acquired (initially at least) through shifting weighty objects and using sharp tools while wearing a boiler suit. Also, I have been managed by people who used a staggering array of management styles and I have seen several management initiatives succeed and fail, which I believe has given me some insight as to the reasons why in both instances.

Based on that insight I came to the conclusion that the management style was largely irrelevant, what mattered was the manager. Some managers were very effective and some weren’t. But it wasn’t until I returned to college to study management and applied theory and knowledge to my experience, that I began to consider what made the difference. Essentially, although there are a large amount of variables involved, I believe it can be boiled down to three things:

1. Technical Proficiency

2. Teamwork

3. Character

While I have encountered many managers with an abundance of any one of those attributes, all three must be present for an individual to be really effective. To date, I have only ever come across one such person. He was an incredibly charismatic individual who was extremely proficient technically, knew his job inside out, but it was his capacity to get other people to do what he thought was necessary that really set him apart. Whether it was management or workers, people wanted to do things for him; and it seemed effortless. He was both a people manager and a process manager. Perhaps this explains the rarity. I read somewhere that most managers are promoted because of their technical prowess and that most of those who are subsequently let go are let go because they lacked interpersonal skills.

So, based on my experience, I decided to write an article on what I believed would constitute a truly effective safety professional. Unfortunately, my first attempt was a monumental disaster. I ended up with the first chapter of a book on the subject of why safety professionals fail. But there was precious little insight as to what makes them succeed. I abandoned the exercise. However, when I came across a comment thread on this topic running on LinkedIn, I began to reconsider.

It is a one line question that had elicited 134 responses at the time of writing:

Describe in one word… An effective safety professional is ________________ ?

I decided to have a closer look at the responses and break them down into the three categories which I believe are required for an effective safety professional. I chose to ignore the LIKE facility (comments on LinkedIn can be LIKED by others), though, as I felt this would probably be people who had already commented wishing to approve of similar comments.

I will go through my ‘findings’ in a short series of forthcoming articles.


Liam MoranLiam has worked on construction sites in the US, UK and Ireland, and spent over 17 years working as a skilled butcher for a meat processor while continuing to run his family’s farm. Following the closure of the processing plant, Liam returned to college where he obtained a First Class Honours Degree in Construction Management, and went on to work as a Site Engineer for a construction company. Liam became interested in Health and Safety when he wrote a thesis, The Effect of Group Dynamics on Safety Culture, for his Honours Degree qualification and subsequently went on to gain a post graduate qualification on the topic from Trinity College Dublin.


Myth busting: All Accidents Are Preventable?

Recently my friend Alan Quilley had a fine article at this very spot dealing with some Safety Myths.  I thought that it would be a good idea to expand a bit on this and explore some myths further, starting with a very persistent one that has found its way in many a Safety Policy and also several text books:

All Accidents Are Preventable.

The question of course is: Are they indeed?  Why then don’t we see this happening in our everyday observations?  Just check the news or your company’s incident statistics.  Why are we still having accidents after almost a century of more or less serious safety management efforts, scientific and technical progress and increased societal demands through better standards and regulations?

If the presumption that all accidents are preventable would be true, aren’t we trying hard enough after all?  Or can’t we after all?  Or is this (as some cynical folk think) just a phrase that is used to justify so-called ‘Zero Harm’ goals?  The latter thought isn’t so absurd, by the way, because ‘zero’ is only achievable if indeed all accidents can be prevented.

Some may argue that some things cannot be prevented because if someone’s out to get you, they surely will.  Safety professionals have thought long about this and that’s probably one reason that ‘Acts of God’ usually are excluded from accidents and that most ‘safety definitions’ of accidents (check a popular one on Wikipedia) describe them as “unintended” events thus excluding terrorism, sabotage and the like and sending these events over to the realm of security.

After some thoughts I’ve come to the conclusion that the often heard manta of “All Accidents Are Preventable” is true only if we add a couple of words.  Let’s discuss some good candidates:

All Accidents Are Preventable…

…In Theory

What theory that would be, I’m actually quite unsure about.  But some safety academics seem to think so.  By the way, the denominator “academics” here is meant in the meaning of “safety professionals living in ivory towers with little or no relation to reality”, not in the ordinary dictionary meaning of people involved in higher education or research of safety.

Actually, the term theory is not defined as “a contemplative and rational type of abstract or generalizing thinking, or the results of such thinking” (Wikipedia definition) either. Nor is it a “generalized explanations of how nature works”.  Rather we use ‘theory’ here as the opposite of ‘practice’ and one might even see it as a synonym for ‘dream’, ‘vision’ or even ‘delusion’.

…In Hindsight

In real life and at the sharp end decisions are usually made under difficult circumstances, a lot of uncertainty, limited knowledge and time pressure.  Mostly we manage very well, but sometimes the outcome of our decisions isn’t quite what we expected or hoped for.  We did our best, but things went otherwise because we did the wrong thing regarding the circumstances of which we hadn’t the full overview at the time.  As a result of all of this an accident happens.

These difficulties and limitations are significantly absent after the fact.  Then one suddenly has full overview of circumstances, there is plenty of time to reflect and contemplate, gather additional information (preferably to confirm a hypothesis) and best of all: outcomes of the decisions made are known, so no uncertainty at all!

We do have blind spots in real life, and so do organizations.  In hindsight we seemingly don’t suffer from this.  Of course there are still blind spots but at least we now see the things that went wrong, which are the things that we should have seen before, according to everyone pointing their fingers afterwards.

…Given unlimited knowledge, resources, perfect prediction (and quite some luck)

This is the best of the contextual candidates.  If we didn’t have those annoying limitations discussed before. If we just knew everything with an enormous deal of certainty and precision, including the results of our actions and decisions.  If we had unlimited resources to remove all hazards.  Truly, no accident would happen. Ever. Or rather never.

But, how realistic is that scenario?  People have limitations and resources (time, money, etc.) yet must face exactly the same problem.  Anyone who has experienced otherwise should really share his experience with us mere mortals.  It must have been a really boring experience by the way.  So where does that leave us who are living out there in the real world?

Let’s just face it, we cannot prevent everything.  Let’s just be very realistic about that.  We don’t even want to prevent absolutely everything – some things we just can live with (the proverbial finger cuts when filling paper into the printer being just one example).  This is clearly one reason that in many safety and OHS legislations the ‘reasonably’ criterion is found.

Mind you, this is not an argument out of fatalism! We cannot prevent everything, but that doesn’t take away the responsibility to try as hard as we can within reasonable boundaries.

Allow me to quote Prof. James Reason from the conclusion of his fine 2008 book “The Human Contribution”:

Safety is a guerrilla war that you will probably lose (since entropy gets us all in the end), but you can still do the best you can.

Let’s take these wise words at heart and get on it.  Maybe we cannot prevent all accidents, but we can prevent a substantial part if we want and work systematically and structurally.  Hopefully we’ll succeed in preventing the most important ones. Good luck!



Carsten Busch photoCarsten Busch has studied Mechanical Engineering and after that Safety. He also spent some time at Law School. He has over 20 years of HSEQ experience from various railway and oil & gas related companies in The Netherlands, United Kingdom and Norway. These days he works as Senior Advisor Safety and Quality for Jernbaneverket’s infrastructure division and is owner/founder of www.mindtherisk.com.




The Blind Spots of Behavioral Observation Programs

Behavioral observation programs are a mainstay in many safety systems that are looking to move beyond compliance and get employees involved. The idea is pretty straightforward – have employees observe other employees doing job tasks. The observers then judge whether the behavior is “safe” or “unsafe” and provide immediate feedback to the employees who did the tasks. You seem to accomplish a lot with a program such as this, including:

  • Immediate and specific feedback to employees for “unsafe” behaviors, which enhances learning;
  • Employees get involved in the process and take ownership of safety at the site; and,
  • You get another feedback loop that you can use to identify exposures and risks at the site (you can also use it as a handy metric).

This sounds like a panacea for all your safety performance needs. So what’s the problem?

Well, the problem with most behavioral observation programs is that they don’t account for some blind spots that the programs tend to have, both practical and foundational.

Let’s start with an example of the practical – First, when it comes to identifying “safe” and “unsafe” behaviors, your employees are far more likely to identify obvious “unsafe” behaviors that lead to smaller accidents than they are to identify the less obvious behaviors that are more of a grey area and, coincidentally, are more associated with serious injuries and disasters. So, for example, behavioral observation programs are very good at identifying whether or not employees are using the required PPE for a given task. However, these programs are not very good at identifying whether technical procedures that are only indirectly related to safety are being followed or even if those procedures are adequate for the reality the employees are facing. In cases where deviance from procedures is normalized you might have employees note a given task as “safe” because that’s the way the job is normally done, without realizing the risks involved. So the program provides an unreliable data source, causing you to think that your system is “safe” when, in reality, you are drifting toward danger.

The bottom line from a practical perspective – behavior observation works for obvious behaviors. If “safe” and “unsafe” behaviors are not as obvious though then the behavior observation program may be a false indicator.

This leads to the foundational blind spot of behavior observation programs – the programs tend to assume that behavior is either “safe” or it is “unsafe.” This is categorically false. Behavior is inherently tied to the context and almost any behavior you can think of, if put in another context, is either safe or unsafe. Even the proverbial safety “no-no,” running with scissors, is sometimes the right thing to do (medical professionals run with scissors all the time in emergency situations).

Now it may be possible to identify a behavior that is always unsafe (using some definition of “safe” and “unsafe”), no matter what the context. But that’s not the point. If we really have to think hard to find something that’s always an unsafe behavior, is the idea that behavior is either “safe” or “unsafe” a really useful concept?

What if instead of a behavioral observation program we just had a performance observation program? Instead of judging whether the employee is doing things right or wrong, we just observe and try to understand how employees are doing work. Then, we ask questions (not just about the things we think they did wrong!), listen to stories, trying to find the best way to do the job in the context that the job is to be done. With the rich understanding of the reality the employees at the sharp end face, instead of telling them that what they are doing is wrong, we give them the tools (equipment, knowledge, time, etc.) they need to learn to adapt their behaviors to the contexts they face. We move past the obvious things and get to the real story of how work is performed in the organization. We move from a place of judgment to a place of cooperation. Then we not only get the basic advantages of traditional behavior observation programs noted above, we also eliminate the blind spots and build a foundation of trust between ourselves and the real source of safety in our organizations – our workers.


Ron Gantt photoRon Gantt is Vice President of Safety Compliance Management. He has over a decade experience is safety and health management. Ron is a Certified Safety Professional, an Associate in Risk Management, and a Certified Environment, Safety and Health Trainer. He has a Master of Engineering degree in Advanced Safety Engineering and Management, as well as undergraduate degrees in Psychology and Occupational Safety and Health. Ron specializes in safety leadership, system safety, safety management systems, and human and organizational performance improvement.


The Myths of Safety – React If You Will

Sometimes when you critically examine and expose well established myths you run the risk of having folks who believe the Myths attack “other” issues around the revealed “truths.” Some of it even gets “personal.” In the following article (and many other articles I’ve written) I understand this “danger” and I’m more than willing to take that risk. I’m hardly claiming absolute correctness and knowledge of these issues, but I do believe we should, as a profession, examine what and why we believe what we do.

Penn & Teller’s Showtime TV series is a perfect example. If you haven’t seen the series I highly recommend it. Not because I agree with everything they say but because what they do is challenge what they believe are myths and in some cases, lies. They encourage their viewers to think critically. The series is certainly not meant for the faint of heart. Their approach isn’t for everyone and it’s certainly an adult conversation with graphic language and at times has sexual content. This approach is used not to titillate but to be outrageous to get the viewer’s attention. I believe they accomplish these goals…get people’s attention and encourage viewers to critically think about what they believe is true. I’m not alone in enjoying their approach…they ran from 2003 – 2010. Check it out and keep your minds open; some of it is uncomfortable to watch.

Critical thinking is essential if we are to successfully help our fellow humans work and play safely. Our agreement is not. In fact we may learn more if we don’t agree. So let’s examine some of what I believe are the most prevalent and dangerous myths in the world of Safety Management. You may agree, you may disagree, and perhaps the real positive is that we’re at least examining what we believe to be true.

The Myths of Safety

1) Safety is #1

Some companies and professionals have adopted this “chant” as the ultimate statement of commitment to creating safety at their companies. The real issue is that your corporation is NOT created to be safe. The owners and shareholders have invested their money to make a profit, provide a service and/or to create a product. This is the reason for a corporation’s existence. How we accomplish this is indeed important. Doing it safely while being environmentally friendly, a good corporate citizen, ethical and legal is the real measurement of success. We need not number the priorities. They need to happen ALL AT THE SAME TIME! Safe Production is and should be the goal.

2) Counting Injuries is a Measurement of Safety

We’ve all done unsafe things and not felt the consequences of our unsafe behaviours. Standing on a chair, using a grinder without safety glasses, using a knife as a screwdriver are all examples of common unsafe behaviours we have done. That being the reality, unsafe/safe and injury/uninjured are NOT linked. AT ALL. If no injuries means we’ve been safe then we would have a great deal of evidence available to us to support that statement, right? Then consider how often you have done things unsafe and yet avoided injury. In this case, no injury was an outcome but how it was achieved was not by being safe.

3) Zero Harm/Injuries is a Commitment We MUST Believe In and Commit To

Thinking that something can’t be accomplished without believing in it is simply NOT true. The opposite is also NOT true. If this “faith” in something were the secret to accomplishment then believing in unicorns would have made them appear. Companies that have mistakenly linked Zero to some measure of safety are in error. No injuries can and does in many cases mean you were lucky. These types of goals also motivate some very wrong behaviours like hiding injuries through reclassification and accommodation.

4) Passing a Safety Audit Means You’ll Be Safe

There are many well intentioned standards and audits available in safety management. Many of them have impressive names with very long numbers attached to them. Some are international and have been created with “world-wide” input making them sound even more impressive. The reality is that most if not all are “opinion based” documents with little or no REAL evidence that they reveal any “secrets to success.” Groups of well-intentioned experts get together in a room and GUESS what they believe will work. Some of it is indeed highly intuitive and very much linked to good management practices. The problem comes with combining these “statements of intention” into something that if you PASS you will be on the road to success. As stated, there is little or no independent evidence that any of these work. In fact there is much evidence that they don’t. Passing an audit does nothing but state that you’ve “passed the audit.”

Most, if not all, of the popular audit instruments were created by well-meaning groups of people and are not based on any scientific evidence. Now, most of the questions in these audits are likely to be positives to your company outcomes but let’s examine a typical example question.

“Does your company have a signed Health & Safety Policy?” Arguably a good way to communicate your company’s intentions regarding the management of H&S. Problem is, the score. What is it worth? What are other questions in the audit worth toward your passing mark? Have they been measured in a test using control group companies which compare outcome measurements with inputs? If the scientific method has not been used to validate the audit… we have to admit that we are just guessing. Some very unsafe companies can and do pass audits. That being true, then this audit process is flawed. I’m not suggesting you abandon your audits. I am suggesting you read the results with a clear view of what the audit score may not be telling you about your safety management system.

5) All Incidents Are Preventable

What a beautiful idea…that ALL pain and suffering can be eliminated. Problem is that to prevent an incident, we would need absolute power over all things and absolute insight into the future consequences of our decisions. Absolutes in human experience don’t exist so the use of the word ALL makes the statement wrong without even considering what it takes to prevent incidents. See above for the other opposite end of the impossible scale (read ZERO)

6) Safety Can Be Done TO People

As in most human experiences “the few controlling the many” has a predictably poor outcome either in the short and/or long term. The idea that safety can be delivered like a pizza to passive workers who will just take our orders and comply is overly optimistic and frankly just the wildest of fantasies. So re-examine the Orientation DVD you’ve created and realize blasting passive workers with tons of information in a 20 minute DVD is not likely to have much of a long term impact on their safety. “Too much, Too Soon” comes to mind. This seems to be an efficient way to orient new employees. All too often we fail to really measure their retention and their resulting behaviours as an outcome of this “training.”

7) If We Make Non-Safety Illegal We’ll Reduce Unsafe Behaviour

At no time in human history have we eliminated undesired human behaviour through a “crime and punishment” approach. It hasn’t worked on our roadways with speeding and now the newest illegal act of driving distracted will hardly be eliminated by making rules and randomly (at best) pouncing on the violations. Human behaviour does work within a system of Activators, Behaviours and Consequences. This indeed is a complex area and has and is being studied continually. What we do know with some certainty is that random consequences are not very effective in changing behaviour. Being “caught” by some authority and then feeling the negative consequence of a fine can motivate some. It is in the full range of consequences that can provide very real motivators to support safe behaviours and help to take away the motivation to have unsafe behaviours.

The real knowledge about consequences is that positive consequences are much more influential and effective than negative. Focusing on the positive makes people WANT to get caught doing the safe behaviour. A focus on the negative enforcement accomplishes making people want to avoid being caught doing the prohibited. Is that really what we want…people avoiding punishment? A current example is how many “texters” are now trying to hide their “illegal” behaviour by texting while they drive with their phones in their lap out of sight of the enforcers. A win? Hardly. We’ve actually in all likelihood made it worse.


Well there you have it. Some of the most popular “myths” in safety management. You certainly don’t need to agree with what I’ve presented here, but you do need to examine (as we all do) what we believe and why we believe what we believe. As always, I’m always open to new ideas and views on these subjects… it’s what true professionals do.


Quilley - PhotoAlan D. Quilley is the author of The Emperor Has No Hard Hat – Achieving REAL Safety Results and Creating & Maintaining a Practical Based Safety Culture© . He is president of Safety Results Ltd., a Sherwood Park, Alberta OH&S consulting company (http://www.safetyresults.ca/). You can reach him at aquilley@safetyresults.ca.


Safety Observer Training Done Right

All employees are openly encouraged to report hazards when they are discovered.  In many organizations, this is a basic tenet and often included in the duties and responsibilities of each employee.  Some organizations take this one step further and utilize worksite safety observations as an activity to provide meaningful employee involvement in the safety program.  This is commendable and even encouraged but certain requirements must be met in order to provide a beneficial experience for both the company and the employees.  First, the employees must have proper safety observer training.  Second, the employee must have a way in which to report the findings efficiently and effectively, preferably also having the work-stop authority to engage with the observed party and work to provide a safe outcome.

According to OSHA , a “competent person” is defined as “one who is capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards in the surroundings or working conditions which are unsanitary, hazardous, or dangerous to employees, and who has authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them”.  I would say that each person tasked with performing worksite safety observations must meet this definition to some extent.  To become a competent person, an employee can obtain the capability through a combination of training and experience.  The authorization must be established with the company and the employee and should also involve tools and techniques to positively intercede.

This leads me to a recent conversation I had with a safety director on this very subject. Here is the gist of the exchange (Safety Director = SD; Myself = CU):  Safety Competency - Image 1

Upon looking at the data, we saw that the PPE category comprised of over 35% of the observations. We also found that about 50% of all inspections documented no hazards. Safety Competency - Image 2a

We went back to the data and saw that there were very few observations in these areas.  In addition, the checklist used for these critical areas were insufficient and didn’t really incorporate lessons learned and contributing factors discovered during the injury assessment process. Safety Competency - Image 3

We both agreed that the current way of doing things could definitely improve.  There was a broad assumption that the training provided was sufficient and met the safety observer training objective yet the data did not support the reality.  I then began to explain how we did this in the military.  When I served in the United States Navy, we used a Personnel Qualification System (PQS) program.  The Naval Education and Command describes the program as follows:

The PQS is a qualification system for everyone where certification of a minimum level of competency is required prior to qualifying to perform specific duties. A PQS is a compilation of the minimum knowledge and skills that an individual must demonstrate in order to qualify to stand watches or perform other specific routine duties necessary for the safety, security or proper operation of a ship, aircraft or support system. The objective of PQS is to standardize and facilitate these qualifications.

Although the wording was a bit odd and we weren’t on a ship, we did feel the concept was sound and could be used.  We felt that there were two primary components to this process. The first was that of knowledge (e.g. How to ride a bike).  The second part was that of demonstration of that knowledge (e.g. Actually riding the bike).  Here is the basic structure we used:

  1. We reviewed the basic structure of the system and felt the best way to roll this out would be to break this up by safety categories, such as PPE, Housekeeping, Hand & Power Tools, and Fall Protection.  There were several reasons for doing this.  First, the categories matched the observation checklists used.  Second, each category was focused enough so that training could be done in a relatively brief time.  Third, the knowledge was specific enough to the hazard, as opposed to a basic overview, such as from the OSHA training.
  2. Each category had both a knowledge and demonstration component identified.  This involved developing training methodology that would be used to impart the knowledge, such as a training session.  In addition, an activity was designed to demonstrate the knowledge, such as conducting a walkthrough with a safety professional or conducting a hands-on evaluation with tools and equipment.
  3. Training would include how to approach and coach as well to ensure observers positively interceded when they saw hazards and at-risk behavior and not just document them.
  4. Each employee would have a ‘qual card’ developed to show their progress, category by category.
  5. Each employee was limited to conduct observations based on their qualifications signed off on their ‘qual card’.

After rolling out this concept and implementing it, there were a few hurdles, such as finding the time for the individual attention to each employee.  This was made more manageable by targeting those employees with the greatest need based on quality aspects, such as high frequency of 100% safe inspections, high frequency of PPE observations, and low participation overall.

The process was done in such a manner as to make it manageable (aka eating the elephant one bite at a time).   The benefits turned out to be quite numerous such as defining clear expectations, confidence to participate and intercede, and increased communication.

Employee involvement is a vital part of any safety management system.  For the involvement to be useful, it must be meaningful and mutually beneficial for the employee and the company.  Structuring a program that defines the purpose, communicates it respectfully, and provides the tools necessary to fulfill the obligation is what is needed to achieve this benefit.




Capturing and Using Leading Safety Metrics


As safety professionals we collect data.  It doesn’t make a difference if your focus is general safety, occupational hygiene or a combination of the two.  We perform safety observations, collect air samples and perform some analysis on the data to make inferences on potential hazards.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could use data to predict the future?

Data Collection can predict what?

Collecting the right data points can help in forecasting potential exposures that can then be prioritized and an effective elimination or control mechanism developed.  The first thing we have to determine is what data we need to obtain.

There are two types of data categories that we hear discussed in the business world today; leading and lagging indicators (or metrics).    Leading indicators tend to be direct or indirect precursors of an incident, such as workplace conditions and behaviors.  Collecting this information provides the opportunity to implement preventative actions prior to an unwanted incident or injury.  Much like a coach, you manage your team as the game unfolds, trying to score.

Lagging indicators are those that are historic.  OSHA recordable, DART rate and experience modifications are like opponent’s points on the scoreboard.  At the end of the game, it’s too late to change them.

Let’s say that you are the Safety Director for a large construction firm of 1,000 employees.  The safety committee has decided that using worksite observations as a leading indicator will allow us to predict exposures and develop control options.    These leading indicators, such as with quality worksite safety observations, diversity of observers, and actions on collected safety data, have proven to predict injuries.  For more insight and detail, view this white paper from Predictive Solutions.

Data Collection

Determine how the data will be collected before it is collected.  If supervisors or frontline workers are to be collecting information, then a simplified mechanism that allows for data collection and storage with minimal disruption in their work day will aid in obtaining their support.  This also provides for the collection of reliable and useable data.

Pre-determine how large of a sample pool that will be effective.    Collecting safety observations on small construction crew of less than five people, three times a day, may not be advantageous.  Develop a strategy to ensure contractors and crews with the most manpower coupled with higher risk activity are afforded more observations than smaller crews with less at-risk activity.

How should the data be captured and analyzed?

As leading indicators are collected, there must be a plan in place to utilize them beyond the immediate activity.  Simply observing and correcting is known as the ‘whack-a-mole’ approach and doesn’t promote safety, because the same things could pop up over and over without effective resolution.  For example, a police officer pulls a car over for speeding and gives a warning.  Does this stop the at-risk behavior – in this case, speeding?  How do you know?  Can the observations be tracked– both positive and negative – to establish a tendency or trend?  Following an action plan to address a trend, can the observations support a positive shift? A single instance of finding and correcting an at-risk behavior or condition is but the first step.  Establishing overall tendencies from the expected outcome over time is the goal.  Prioritizing the undesired trends is then the next logical step.

In addition to acting on the data, the findings and the resolutions must be communicated.  Providing feedback to observers on action items resulting from the observations is crucial.  This way they understand their efforts are being heard and acted upon.  Coaching observers on good quality observations is also vital so that management is confident enough to act on the data obtained.


Unlike lagging indicators that measure a process purely on failures, leading safety metrics and indicatorscan measure a process on accomplishments.  Developing a sound strategy on what is being done to achieve safety is much more effective than hoping and praying that no injuries occur.



Paul WatsonPaul Watson has over 27 years as an occupational health and safety consultant.  He has worked in environmental contracting, the nuclear industry and the private sector.  As a Senior Industrial Hygienist with the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH), Mr. Watson participates as a member of the Industrial Hygiene (IH) group and Manages CTEH’s Northeast IH Operations. He oversees projects and performs industrial hygiene activities including qualitative and quantitative IH/safety surveys, air sampling/monitoring, and indoor air quality surveys. He leads a team of IHs in performing air sampling, noise surveys, review of  SDS and preparation and/or review of site specific health and safety plans.   He is primarily responsible for providing data management and evaluation support to CTEH project managers in the areas of industrial hygiene, toxicology, litigation support, risk assessment, and emergency response.


Management Support Is Essential for Safety – But What Is It?

Management support: We all say we want it, need it, and can’t do our jobs without it.  Saying that management support is essential for safety “success” has in fact become something of a safety profession mantra.  A majority of safety professionals, 51.2% according to a 2002 ASSE survey (Kendrick/Pater 2), however, don’t believe they receive that support. But what do we mean by management support?  What specifically should we want our managers to do to in support of safety?  Is asking for support even the right question?  As a staff/support function, shouldn’t safety professionals really be asking what they can do to support management?  If we really want support for safety, not just ourselves, we must also know what to ask for.

The “Wrong” Support

Over the years I’ve come to believe that one of the principal reasons management fails to support safety is that we (the safety profession) far too often ask them to support ineffective, and sometimes counterproductive, practices.  Some safety professionals believe, for example, that management must rigidly enforce the safety rules and procedures with punitive methods that kill employee trust and cooperation.   Others cite the importance of management in financing and paying lip service to their flavor-of-the-month, off-the-shelf quick fixes and “silver bullets.”   Perhaps worst of all, some safety professionals seem to view management support as firm backing for their attempts to run the entire organizational safety effort with management and the workers as idle bystanders.  Support that enables the abdication of management from the safety effort is not what you should want.

The “Right” Support

Rather than attempting to manage safety for them, we should want and expect our management to be good managers – of safety!  It’s not enough merely writing memos and speeches for managers to deliver.  Safety professionals need to help management actively drive the safety effort like other important organizational objectives (e.g., production, quality, schedule, costs).  Most managers got to their positions because they were successful at getting things done.  Safety professionals should encourage managers to use the same skills that got them recognized as effective leaders for the safety effort.   Why manage safety differently than other important organizational objectives?

So What Specifically Should We Ask Our Management to Do?

After 40 years of observing and assessing both successful and unsuccessful safety efforts, I’ve concluded that we need only three things from our management to attain and sustain safety excellence.  Here’s the support for safety I want from management and what I tell managers anytime I get a chance.

1.  Own safety.  Line management safety ownership cannot be delegated and must be demonstrated.  Don’t attempt to farm it out to safety specialists, consultants or employee committees.  Only you (line management) can make safety an organizational value and part of the culture.  Maximize your resources, including your safety staff, the management team and workers, to help you succeed but stay actively and visibly involved.  Recognize that just as you own production you also own how that production is achieved.  Production, quality, cost and safety, are all your responsibilities. Safety problems are your problems. Just telling employees to work safely is not enough.  Get out of the office and see what your workers are doing.  Use these work observations to partner with your employees to identify ways you can work together to help perform work more safely.

 For greater details into the concepts of Safety Management by Walking Around, see these articles:

Many high safety performance companies believe these on-the-floor, face-to-face employee interactions are the single most important action managers can take to promote safety (Thomen, 1991). Nothing you do will pay a bigger dividend than your visible good example and commitment.  It’s simply not realistic to expect employees to take safety more seriously than you show them you do.   Finally, be very skeptical of any quick fix safety solution, especially if it takes safety management out of your hands or requires you to handle safety differently than your other top business priorities.

2.  Manage safety like it’s important.  Make sure you have integrated safety into every aspect of your business from design and procurement to facility shutdowns.  If you don’t build safety into your business functions, you’ll later find safety in competition with them.  Like quality, safety is merely part of the work process that is your ultimate responsibility.  Don’t let it get separated.

Ensure that you and your management team meet routinely to hold yourselves accountable and to personally discuss (and not just listen to the safety manager) safety issues and progress – like you do for other important business objectives.  Ensure timely and appropriate corrective actions are taken – and that they are effective.  Your employees expect and deserve prompt attention to their concerns and suggestions for improvement.  In short, expect and lead continuous safety improvement.

If you and your other line managers aren’t already leading the safety effort with active participation, improvement is not going to happen overnight.  The point is to get started and don’t stop.  First you’ll need an effective PDCA approach to safety (ANSI Z10-2012 is a useful guide) that is committed to continuous improvement, and the will to make it happen.  You may well find that you just need to work smarter rather than harder.

3.  Get Your Employees Involved.  Although safety is ultimately your responsibility, you can’t manage it by yourself.  I have not seen top safety performance in any organization that did not have active and widespread engagement of the workforce in the effort.  Top safety performers recognized years ago that employees aren’t the safety problem; they are an important part of the safety solution.  These companies engage their workforce in a variety of meaningful safety activities.  They expect, and get, the large majority of their safety input (i.e., opportunities for improvement) from their workers.  They actively solicit and respond promptly to this input because they know it gets results.  Employees are given genuine opportunities to influence their own safety by helping design their work environment, policies and work procedures.  This adult-to-adult engagement clearly demonstrates to the workforce that they are respected and taken seriously.  As a result they are much more likely to work safely – and more productively.


Every employee wants and deserves the support of his or her management.  Safety professionals are no different.  We all want respect, decent remuneration and adequate resources to accomplish our assigned tasks.  It is also true that not all managers are created equal and we don’t always get the managers we would want.  Certainly not everyone in a management position is an effective manager of anything, including safety.  If your management believes that safety is your responsibility – not theirs – you’ve got your work cut out for you.  Regardless of your management, however, the main role of the safety function should be to provide the best possible guidance (i.e., support) to line managers who alone possess the responsibility and capability to achieve high performance in safety.  Safety professionals need to stop trying to do all things safety and instead use their talents, expertise and good judgment to support management in doing the right thing.


ANSI Z10-2012, American National Standard – Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems.

Kendrick, James and Pater, Robert. 2006. “The Future of Safety Leadership” Presented at the 2006  ASSE Professional Development Conference in Orlando, FL.

Thomen, J. R. (1991). Leadership in Safety Management. New York: Wiley.


ASSE PictureMr. Loud’s (jjl7280@aol.com) over 40 years of safety experience includes 15 years with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) where he served as the supervisor of Safety and Loss Control for a large commercial nuclear facility and later as manager of the corporate nuclear safety oversight body for all three of TVA’s nuclear sites.  At Los Alamos National Laboratory he headed the independent assessment organization responsible for safety, health, environmental protection, and security oversight of all Laboratory operations.  Mr. Loud is a regular presenter at national and international safety conferences.  He is the author of numerous papers and articles.  Mr. Loud is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP), and a retired Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM).  He holds a BBA from the University of Memphis, an MS in Environmental Science from the University of Oklahoma and an MPH in Occupational Health and Safety from the University of Tennessee. 


Construction Safety: Stopping Killing Conditions

Safety professionals are often perceived as alarmists. When you stop a project because a crane is just “a bit off level” or isolate a work area because the rebar is not capped, you can be seen as “just a bit too careful.” The common retort from those overseeing the work you stopped is, “Really? What are the odds of that happening?”

The following is a discussion on the need to reset how inspectors must look at a hazard based on fact. If the condition has killed in the past, it’s a “killing condition” allowed by a system that is “creeping” from what’s allowed. More on that later. For many reasons, we are reluctant to admit this tendency and, in turn, people get injured or killed from the killing conditions we allow. Why are we reluctant to step up? I suggest several reasons:

  1. Those in charge of operations allow hazards to exist. Their goal is production. Whether in a manufacturing plant or building a high-rise, the responsibility of the operations team is to make widgets to sell or spaces to rent. Anything that slows down that process, such as quality or safety control, is an obstacle. Those in charge do not see the possible outcome, so the safety inspectors must recognize that, when they find a hazard, no accident has occurred. This is why many in charge can’t understand the risk.
  2. Another reason is personal acceptance of hazards we all possess, shaped by years of encountering the same condition without harm. This is the fellow who climbs his roof each fall to clean out his chimney with nothing but experience between him and the driveway.
  3. We may have had a “close call” or been injured from a similar killing condition, but we were not killed. Think repeat drunk drivers, skiing without a helmet, and that taped cord in the garage missing its ground.
  4. Hazards are accepted and often embraced by professionals. Consider the ironworker who refuses to tie off at 28 feet above a killing surface because “it takes away my manhood.” This remains the classic example.
  5. Another reason is that rules allow a killing condition. For example, refer to the archaic Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulation of allowing ironworkers to work 28 feet above a killing surface. (See above.)
  6. The need to keep your job is yet another reason. When your boss tells you to jump into an 8-foot excavation, you are reluctant to say, “Fat chance, boss man” if you need to feed your kids.

System Creep

When looking at contributors that allow killing conditions on your project, you don’t need to look far. Over the years, all safety systems will creep from what is right to what is allowed. This was recognized as a contributor to the Challenger disaster. Although there were incidents (foam routinely striking the orbiter), the launches went okay until they didn’t. That anomaly was accepted—foam strikes on the shuttle continued, and that became the new normal. System creep.

Recently, I was traveling down the New York State Thruway, and a crew was clearing trees and brush from along the edge of the highway. Some of the trees were only about 20 feet from the travel lanes, while the original fence line was 40 feet from the edge of the road. Over the years, a tree likely grew on the traveling side of the fence, so they mowed around that one, then another grew next to it. They mowed around that one, and the forest crept closer to the lanes. Before long, the trees were too hazardous and too close to the cars. That system needed to be reset by cutting the trees back. That is a good example of system creep. In construction, that is easily recognized as a messy site.

A second contributor is a hazard that is unrecognized or does not cause an incident until late in the game. At that point, it is discounted, or, when the hazard kills, it is considered a rare occurrence. Consider this dated but great example from California. The bottom line exemplifies our tendency to study rather than accept the obvious.

1997-12-22 04:00:00 PDT SAN FRANCISCO— A 2-year-old girl stumbled while walking on the Golden Gate Bridge with her family yesterday, plunging through a narrow gap 167 feet to her death on the ground below.

The girl, identified as Gauri Govil of Fremont, fell through a 9 1/2-inch space between the sidewalk and the traffic lanes. The gap runs along a metal barrier that separates the sidewalk from the roadway, and is barely visible to pedestrians.

Although more than 1,200 people have jumped to their deaths from the world-famous span since it opened in 1937, bridge officials last night could not recall a similar accident. “This has not been viewed as a risk for children to fall through,” said Mervin Giacomini, chief engineer for the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District.

We will certainly be looking at that space in a new perspective. If there is a potential for accident, we will take whatever action is necessary.”

“Geez, TJ, if you drink too much water, that will kill you. Where do you draw the line?” Safety professionals often hear such chatter, for we are often viewed as an obstacle and barrier to the good people who build our buildings. Our role is typically unseen. In most cases, our success is measured when nothing happens. In the book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb helps explain the frustrations of why workers can get killed on a safe site (randomness) and provides a compelling observation on those who avoid wars and hazards—and why they get the short end of the stick.

It is the same logic we saw earlier with the value of what we do not know; everybody knows that you need more prevention than treatment, but few reward acts of prevention. We glorify those who left their names in history books at the expense of those contributors about whom our books are silent. We humans are not just a superficial race (this may be curable to some extent); we are a very unfair one.

The tendency to overlook or soften our views of a hazard during inspections is ours (the inspector’s) alone. Everyone sets his or her limit of hazard perception and tolerance based on what one knows, experienced, and fears. I do the same, and so do you.

Be Honest and Nice during Inspections

When having a correcting conversation as you inspect, try using real examples, be blunt, and be honest. Speak as you would to your son or daughter. Consider this scenario. You are approaching a crew rigging precast panels and need to tell the foreman to stop the pick, suspecting a poor strap. That requires some finesse—but do not let them make that pick. Here is how you might do this:

Just checking on rigging today: How many panels do you need to set? Well, no need to shut this down, guys, but let’s take a quick look … make sure you can keep this going smoothly.

You have identified both the hazard and the value of the inspection (keep production going), and you included the entire team in the learning (“let’s”). Plus, you never asked them to stop. But they will, for you have answered their question of “What’s in this for me?”

Highlight Killing Conditions

As you tour a work site, you will see conditions that have killed in the past—from cords missing a ground to scaffolds without rails. Finding these conditions is relatively easy, but getting the user to understand the threat is the challenge. Another example: You are inspecting a work site and see some scaffold similar to that shown in Figure 1.

Click here for Figure 1: Shoddy Scaffolding.

Can these conditions kill? Certainly. The material is good but the erection shoddy. One can see the chance to fall from the scaffold (no rails) but also the potential for someone to step on the Styrofoam on the top levels thinking there are planks underneath.

First, keep in mind that, although many competent persons are appointed, they may not be as competent as needed. Just the right person in the right place at the right time can result in disaster. The disaster is not his or her fault but is evidence of system creep. You can focus on what you see, but the goal is to avoid those killing conditions.

So, take the time to tie in some real-life examples as you discuss the need for some additional training. Let the workers on the planks know that you just read of a student slipping off some scaffolding, falling head first into an open barrel, where he died. Focus on “What are the odds?” This confirms to the user that this is indeed a killing condition. By doing so, the workers will understand how their work could kill someone. Bringing the news clipping along proves you care.

Seeing Is Believing

During a recent inspection, I noted an ironworker whose leg straps on his harness were extremely loose. As we watched him set a piece of steel and come back down in the scissor lift, I asked the crew who had gathered, “Did you guys ever see what happens to a guy when he falls, and his leg straps are loose?” No one knew the damage that habit could do to men only. I later brought back a photo of what had actually happened to someone else and left it with them. When we went by later in the day, each and every leg strap was tight. Teach by example.

Encountering a Killing Condition

When you spot a killing condition, your first role as an inspector is to immediately protect it. That may require standing in the same spot for a few hours until the threat is gone, but never leave a killing condition without addressing it. If the power cord is bad, find the owner and take it out of service. If the scaffold is unsafe, get the people off, and find the person in charge. Regardless of the pushback later, if what you see could kill someone, and you continue on—shame on you!

In the photo shown in Figure 2, some borings had been augured for goal posts. When these were discovered unprotected at the ends of the playing field, there was no immediate threat—except to me. But the field was also in a nice neighborhood surrounded by nice kids. These holes had been left open for 2 days. So, I called the foreman over and stood by this particular boring until he gathered a crew and a machine and brought over some nice pipes that looked a lot like the goal posts. They were rigged and loosely placed in the hole, thus eliminating the killing condition. That threat had existed for 48 hours and was corrected in 30 minutes. The safety program clearly stated that no holes could be advanced until covers were staged and ready. Not done. System creep.

Click here for Figure 2: Open Boring.

As the corrections were being made, the foreman started the “What are the odds?” conversation, so I recounted what happened to Joe in Southern California, detailing how the late Joe could only take one breath as he fell into the boring and probably died holding his breath, for he could not exhale. That’s paints a picture. From that point on, the foreman and I had an understanding that lasted.

It is critical that safety professionals recognize and react, but it’s just as important that they move from telling people to providing a lesson and simple examples of similar conditions that actually killed someone.

Tirelessly Praise Elimination

The safety professional recognizes it is important to praise any progress or achievement no matter how small. Should you recognize that a crew has taken on the elimination of a hazard or brought one to your attention, make a big deal of that. Spotting a killing condition that has not killed—that is everyone’s gift.

Take the time to capture a photo of the worker who spotted a hazard. Write up a lesson learned or the best practice that resulted and post it for everyone to see. Recognition of what is done right and done well trumps discipline every time.

A Resource

My friends describe me as a storyteller, and that is accurate, for I have the ability to remember incidents and details that bolster most of my arguments with the “what are the odds” folks. When I read the article detailing how they found Joe Alamillo stuck in a hole, I filed that away. Joe was a father who did not just pass away—he was killed. That was not an accident but the result of system creep.

One of the best resources to find examples of killing conditions is a summary of incidents compiled by a Bryan Haywood. Bryan is one of the top safety professionals in the county and my “go-to” guy for questions on confined spaces, as that’s his expertise. Bryan publishes a roster of recent industrial, construction, and other accidents you can access from www.safteng.net. These are quick summaries and links to real cases where killing conditions were encountered. Though not everyone died from the condition, that was just luck. Tie one of these examples to what you see in field and share these as near misses. Find a crew in a 6-foot trench “just for a few minutes”? Here are some examples from that website, which are provided at no cost every week or so:


  • EXCAVATOR on BARGE FATALITYDelta barge worker dies in accident (a construction worker, 49, was killed after a piece of equipment he was working on fell into the delta – he was operating an excavator from a barge around 1 p.m. when the machinery fell into the water – he was trapped inside the submerged excavator and was pronounced dead at the scene)
  • WORKZONE FATALITYConstruction worker killed on Selmon Expressway (a construction worker died after he was hit by a dump truck – he was working in a construction area of the expressway at about 4:44 a.m. when he was struck – he was taken to a hospital, where he later died)
  • TRUCK FATALITYConstruction Worker Killed In Nevada (a man was killed at a construction site – he was run over by a water truck and pronounced dead at the scene)
  • SCAFFOLDING COLLAPSE3 workers injured in BGC construction site accident (a structure that was supposed to ensure safety at a construction site instead sent three workers to the hospital – a heavy meshwork of steel and wire designed to protect pedestrians from falling debris gave way at the hotel worksite around 1:30 p.m. – three men suffered injuries mostly on their arms and legs and were brought to a nearby Medical Center – four other workers were then under the structure but were able to run away as it gradually fell to the ground)
  • TRENCH FATALITYMan killed when trench collapses (workers were working in a six-foot trench and installing an electrical conduit when a wall on the trench collapsed and buried a worker, 35, – by the time he was uncovered by emergency personnel, he had passed away due to the injuries sustained in the collapse)
  • SCAFFOLDING COLLAPSE Two men taken to hospital after scaffolding accident in Northampton (two men were taken to hospital after scaffolding collapsed – the men were both at the top of the scaffolding and fell from a height of up to 15 metres – one patient, a 55-year old man, sustained serious chest injuries as well as a potential head injury – the second patient, 42, sustained injuries to his lower back)


As safety professionals, we have the ability and opportunity to help reset system creep and guide those allowing that creep. Often, we can help those in charge recognize that creep. Like the trees growing too close the highway, it can be corrected. Work with the crews so they understand that the same hazard you are looking at killed someone before, and then provide what happened as a lesson. The goal is to make someone so uncomfortable with an obvious hazard that he or she is forever compelled to correct it.

A safety professional’s success will be measured when those you have taught come back and show off what they have done. That is a system being reset.


Thomas Lyons (left), with his son, Andy

Thomas Lyons (right), with his son, Andy

Thomas (TJ) Lyons CSP, CRIS – Mr. Lyons is a safety professional living in Warwick, New York, working for Innovative Technical Solution Inc. of Walnut Creek, California. With a strong background in construction safety and industrial hygiene, he focuses on reducing or eliminating risk through proper planning, implementation of best practices and lessons learned at the project level with a focus on driving from risk management to risk elimination.Board certified as an Occupational Health and Safety Technologist and Certified Safety Professional, he is proud to have taken some of these skills to his local community. A past assistant chief, NY State adjutant fire instructor (hazardous materials) and EMT, he sees the need to drive safety from the field to the home as often as possible.

In 2001, Mr. Lyons was awarded the IRMI Gary E. Bird Horizon Award for his efforts in implementing the OSHA Voluntary Protection Program on the first construction project in the state of New York. He has presented at the IRMI Construction Risk Conference and is often found heading up a table at the Construction Café.

Mr. Lyons was a past chapter writer for the American Society of Testing of Materials (ASTM) and for the recent American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) Construction Safety Management and Engineering Volume 1 and has recently penned a chapter on preplanning for the second edition currently in the works.



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