I’m Just Not That Into Safety Anymore


By Rob Sams, Owner and Principal Consultant at Dolphin Safety Systems

I have spoken with a number of Managers over the past few months who have argued with me that ‘safety’ in our workplaces means that we must do everything we can to control people so that they do not hurt themselves at work. These people have said to me, “we can’t let dangerous things go untouched”; “we can’t let people make choices that may lead to them being injured” and “doing everything that is reasonably practical means that we have to have systems, and people have to follow them”.

These conversations typically end with something like “the law says that we need to provide a safe workplace, I’m not going to jail and risking my house just because someone doesn’t follow a rule. All your fluffy stuff about motivation and decision making sounds fine, but I’ve got to follow the law, so I’ll stick with implementing procedures, thanks anyway.”

If this is what ‘safety’ is all about, I’m just not that into it anymore.
If being ‘safe’ is all about controlling people in our workplaces, we need to be aware of the trade-off for controlling people’s behaviour and actions. We need to be aware that this stifles learning, and is demotivating for people who no longer have control over the decisions they make.

The need to control and fix people also creates relationships that are rigid, yet we want flexibility and mature judgement. The more we seek to control others the less we create ownership, and the more we create co-dependence and as we know co-dependence is a mental health disorder. The truth is that as we become rule focused, we shift away from empathy and become focused on compliance. Those who are attracted to compliance, rigidity and control tend not to be able to create wholesome relationships based on mutual respect and understanding. Instead, controllers ‘command’ others, ‘dictate’ to others and rarely listen. Anyone who treats another as an object will only use and abuse others and will never be respected in a mutual way.

So why is it that ‘safety’ has turned into an industry that is about control, rules, and process and less about people?

When I started in ‘safety’ in 1993, my motivation was pretty clear, I wanted to work in an industry that was all about people. But ‘safety’ seems to have changed over the years. Being in ‘safety’ now is often seen as being the ‘fun police’. So often people in safety are forced into policing and inspection roles, asked to report to management on violations and non-conformances. They are often asked to report on ‘safety numbers’ and trends. Then, when they provide this information, there is usually much debate and discussion about definitions of things like incidents and frequency rates. I know that these things frustrate many of my friends and colleagues in ‘safety’.

So many of the people I know that work in ‘safety’ got into it because they care about people, they are nurturing and kind people, they are engaging and passionate. Yet, the realities of their role mean that they rarely get to work with people and share this passion and kindness. They become known in their organisations as internal regulators, and people take a different view of them. For example, a friend wrote to me recently and shared this story:

When I introduce myself to people they usually ask the standard question; “so what do you do?” When I tell them I’m a Safety Advisor, it’s really not often that I get a positive response. Most of the time people’s faces change, and not in a good way. Their eyes scan me as though I am a different breed of a person. Sometimes they even step back slightly as if I’ve got some sort of highly communicable disease. Often they’ll say something like “oh, you’re one of those people”. Or “and you seriously enjoy that?” Or “that has got to be one of the worst jobs in the world” or “how do you enjoy all of that paperwork?”
-Safety Advisor from an International Organisation, 2014

I find this sad and disappointing, but I’m not surprised. It is hard when you are in a traditional ‘safety’ role to get away from the rigour of systems, process and control. It is expected of you, and even when you second-guess the value of this approach, it’s often easier to continue, than to try to break the nexus and change thinking. So how do people in ‘safety’ deal with these frustrations and concerns?

My friend who wrote to me, enjoys our regular catch up’s every few months where we share ideas, experiences and feelings. When they express frustrations and concerns, I don’t feel the urge or need to ‘fix them’, I don’t have to provide solutions. I just listen and ask questions that help them think through options, they need to decide what works best. For me, this is what being a friend is about, I demonstrate that I care without having to solve their problem. So sharing your thoughts with a friend who will listen, rather than solve, can be a great way to work through frustrations and concerns.

Another thing I have found to help is that, along with a number of other friends and colleagues, we’ve formed what we call a ‘Thinking Group’. A small group of us get together every 6-8 weeks and allow ourselves time to ‘think’. During these catch up’s we don’t solve problems, we don’t develop new procedures and we don’t review trends. We just pick a topic or two, and without any specific agenda, we share our thinking. This is a great way to step outside the busyness of everyday life, and away from the constant control and process of our ‘day jobs’, and use our imaginations.
I find that these are two great ways that help with deal with frustrations and concerns.

So if you can ways to work through your frustrations, what might you be able to do differently to change the way that your organisation sees ‘safety’ and limit your frustrations and concerns?

For a start, one of the methods that I have adopted is that I no longer tell people that I work in ‘safety’. I don’t want people to think that I’m interested in controlling people, policing people and reporting violations. I don’t want people to conjure up an image that I like to walk around with a check-list telling people what they are doing wrong. I don’t believe this is how you improve safety.

Instead, I tell people that I enjoy learning about how people make decisions & judgements. My work is to share this learning and help people to discern risk themselves, not for me to do it for them. My work is to coach people and ask questions, not to control them, so that they can realise themselves that they may be in danger. My job is to motivate people by providing good information in a way that helps them learn, not just nod and understand, which is typical of how ‘safety’ training is often done.

My job is to value people, their views and opinions. This often involves me helping them to think clearly. Sure there are procedures, risk assessments, investigations, however all this is done thinking first about the people who are going to be involved, not just what the law says.

My jobs is let to people have control of their own decisions.
I wonder, if you are one of those people like my friend, who are frustrated with how ‘safety’ is viewed, whether you might be able to change the way that you go about your job? If you switched controlling to supporting, would people view you differently? I’d love it if the next time my friend goes to a party that people would appreciate what they do and, even thank them, rather than alienate them.


The Use of First Aid Kits and Fire Extinguishers on Our Roads

In Ghana, it is a requirement that all drivers (both private and commercial) should keep first aid kits in their vehicle. Also, it is a requirement for drivers to keep and maintain a fire extinguisher in their vehicles in case of fire. For these reasons, The Motor Transport and Traffic Unit (M.T.T.U) of the Ghana Police Service usually inspect these equipments in the various random check points or barriers so as to ensure that drivers are complying with these orders. People who flout the rule are usually fined or receive a warning of a certain kind.

Keeping first aid kits in a vehicle is not the problem. The problem here is; do these drivers know the reason why the first aid kits have to be kept in the car? I once had a conversation with a driver who about the use of first aid and the answers he gave me were very dangerous to say the least. I asked; why do you keep first aids in your cars?” he answered; “usually on a long journey, a passenger will complain of a headache or stomach ache. In such situations, when you have first aid, you just give the passenger some of the drugs so they can be healed.” I then asked again; “have you been trained to administer first aid?” He answered; “must one be trained before they can dispense paracetamol to someone complaining of headache? This is just an easy everyday job? These answers nearly knocked me out unconscious.

Administration of first aid is highly a trained job. When we are injured or suddenly unwell, what we want and need is someone to help us – someone who knows what to do. First aid is an emergency treatment administered to an injured or sick person before professional medical care is available. This should not be done anyhow. No untrained person has the right to attend or administer first aid to a casualty. Also, some people react badly or are allergic to certain medications as a result, one cannot administer drugs to someone without knowing their medical histories. A first aider cannot by their initiative administer drugs to a casualty. So the question is, why do we allow these drivers to administer drugs to passengers whiles on the road? Who takes care of the passenger in case the drug rather escalate the sickness or they develop a severe side effect?

In my profession as a safety officer, we are always advised not to keep oral medications in a first aid kit so as to avoid the temptation of administering it. Authorities therefore must come out clear to tell us what those first aids in our cars are for? Who is supposed to administer the first aid? What should be the content and when and how it should be administered and on whom. Until these issues are clarified and our drivers are properly informed, many people will continue to die on our roads due to mishandling and improper administration of first aid.

Fire extinguishers are also a major safety concern on our roads. Drivers keep these equipment with the view that when fire immediately erupts, they can fight it. Fire extinguishers look very simple but one has to be properly trained in its use or else risk their lives in trying to use the equipment.

Today, most drivers keep fire extinguishers in their cars for the sake of conformance. Knowledge on its use is very little. Even most of our enforcement officers have very little or no knowledge on the use of fire extinguishers. I once observed a police officer inspecting a fire extinguisher that has been out of service for a very long time but did not even realise it.

The use of fire extinguishers have to be part of the trainings the drivers go through before they are issued driver’s license. Among other things, the drivers should exhibit competency in all areas of firefighting before their licences are issued out to them. By so doing, drivers will know how and when to fight fires and when not to risk their lives trying to put fire off.

Achieving zero incidence on our roads should always be the target of the National Road Safety. To achieve such feat will not come on a silver platter. Both road users and enforcement agencies will have to be committed to working towards the achievement of zero incidence.