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Safety… do I hear 1? 2? 3?

11/23/09

Hi All -

Tonight’s episode of Dirty Jobs is a repack called Safety Third. In it, I look back at some of the bumps and bruises we’ve accumulated in the process of putting this show together and offer a few observations about the role ofrisk in the workplace. The observations made are mine and no one else’s, except where attributed, and reflect nothing but my own experience over the last five years.

Like Brown Before Green, the expression itself – “Safety Third!” – has already prompted some to accuse me of deliberately trying to stir up trouble – a charge to which I happily admit. (Few things on television are less interesting than people doing and saying things that no one ever doubts or questions.) However, my main goal in saying “Safety Third” is not to pick a fight – honest. I genuinely believe that safety in the workplace is a really important topic – critical in fact – and worth an honest conversation. However, that conversation is often stifled by a rigid set protocols and rote procedures that discourage flexibility and sometimes, common sense.

The points I thought were important to make are all addressed in the wraps but if history is any indicator, I’ll be hearing from people who object to the overall tenor and tone or perhaps misunderstand the most important aspect of this show. I don’t mind being disagreed with, but I hate to be misunderstood. So permit me to spell out the most important point right here, and please, feel free to pass it on to those who have concluded something different.

Here it is:

The goal of saying “Safety Third” is no different than saying “Safety First”. In both cases, the desired outcome is the avoidance of injury or calamity in the course of doing a job.

So then, why question the universal wisdom of Safety First? Why poke the bear? There are several reasons, but here are the most important, repeated here for posterity. (Or at least, for the immediate present.) I hope they help clarify my position.

1. “Safety First” discourages personal responsibility. Is it reasonable to assume that someone would hire you to work in a hazardous environment, and then tell you that nothing is more important to them than your personal safety? Of course not. Difficult and dangerous jobs are accomplished by people who are willing to assume risk – and the assumption of that risk must come before anything else. Lawyers and insurance adjusters and government agencies have altered that simple equation by perpetuating the belief that your employer might actually care about your safety more than you. That’s dangerous, in my opinion, (even if it’s sometimes true.) Mitigating risk makes good financial sense, in the same way that wearing a harness at 600 feet makes good common sense. But telling an employee that his Safety comes before everything else sends a mixed and somewhat suspicious message. The fact is, companies don’t go out of business when people get hurt. (Well, rarely.) They go out of business when they run out of money. (Bailouts notwithstanding.) Wouldn’t it be more honest, (and possibly more effective) for a boss to say to an employee, “Look Joe, this is a business and if you get hurt on the job, our insurance premiums will go through the roof. Productivity will suffer. OSHA will fine us or maybe shut us down. Our profit and your personal safety happen to be tied together, but don’t be confused by that coincidence. Our motivation is profit. Your motivation is a paycheck. We’re not your parents and you’re not a child. Let’s be clear about why we’re each here and let’s not mess that up with a careless and stupid injury.”

2. “Safety First” is just not true. If Safety were really more important than catching crab, we’d have no crab. If Safety were really more important than construction, we’d have no buildings. If Safety were more important than washing windows, we’d have dirty windows. If Safety were really and truly first, we’d all wear helmets and wrap ourselves in bubble pack and drive rubber cars at speeds of 10 miles per hour assuming we ever left the house in the first place, which of course, we wouldn’t. There are many things that we value above a sense of safety – convenience, speed, efficiency, fast-food, sex, roller coasters, motorcycles, rushes of adrenaline, and of course, getting the job done. Certainly, all of these things can be pursued with varying levels of care and I’m all for taking prudent precautions. But telling me that my safety is more important than my willingness to assume the inherent risk just doesn’t follow. Without risk, there is no need for safety. And of course, there is always risk. Risk is everywhere. It can be understood and managed, but never eliminated. Risk is first.

3. “Safety First” has become a platitude. For five years, I have seen Safety First banners hanging in factories and construction sites all over the country. Hundreds of them. At first, it worked. It got my attention and made me feel more aware. It also made me feel good to think that so many people were concerned for my wellbeing. However, when you see the same thing day after day or hear the same message repeatedly, it starts to lose its relevance. It becomes rote. As a mantra, Safety First is effective only to the extent that it gets my attention, and reminds me to stay focused and aware. When it loses that impact, complacency sets in and complacency – with the possible exception of stupidity and bad luck – is the biggest threat to coming home in one piece. Safety First has become predictable and for me, those ubiquitous banners are now all but invisible. Safety Third, however, gets attention. It stimulates conversation. It demands an explanation. It makes people say, “What the heck are you talking about?” And that, in my opinion, is a good thing.

From what I’ve seen, the key to personal safety is personal accountability and it seems to me the most genuine way to foster that in a grown-up employee is to tell them the truth. If Safety were really first, companies would pay their employees to be safe. Of course, they don’t. They pay them to work, and to assume risk. Saying “Safety Third” reminds me of that simple fact. And that keeps my crew and me more focused, and hopefully, more safe.

As always, thanks for watching.
And for cryin’ out loud, be careful!

Mike