Friendship Beats Irony… if you let it


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A couple months back at my University a young man, a student, was found dead in the creek that runs through a small park on campus. Apparently, he had gotten intoxicated at a party, and then went to a bar with friends.  He ended up leaving the bar at 2am and walked home alone.  He went to the park, slipped on some of the rocks surrounding the creek and was rendered unconscious in the water where he drowned.

Events like this shock us and leave us saddened for the family who has lost a lifetime of memories, joys, and sorrows.  This heartbreaking event is horrible and it happens too often.  This sort of event doesn’t have to happen.

Many of us upon reading the news began to consider his friends that were with him that night.  They noticed his level of intoxication when he left the bar; yet he left alone.  Why did his friends let him leave alone that night?

Did his friends not identify the risk involved with letting him be alone in that state?  Did they know how to intervene to get him out of harm’s way?

On the heels of this tragedy, the University emphasized a program they call “It’s Up to Me” whereby they do sessions in the dorms of freshmen and teach them skills that will help them identify a risk another student may be taking and give them strategies on how to intervene in a way that may save their peer’s life or prevent an unfortunate injury. This would include alerting the campus authorities if need be. 

A good example of the solution can be found in, which has programs designed to prevent bullying in schools and ask kids to “Be More than a Bystander.” The premise is that punishing the bullies does not work because they are rarely caught and often reinforced by those around them for their actions.  Instead, the most important prevention is to teach children how to step in when they see the precursors of bullying and get the child out of the situation  (e.g., distract the people involved, call other people over, interrupt).  . This proactive approach is based on the notion that when unfortunate events happen to someone, it is often the inaction of others that allowed the event to happen.


The workplace can be a place of serious hazards and risks.  Mature safety programs have taken great care to build a culture where peers look out for each other.  If you have a program like this, you know it was hard to build. 

You first had to work though trust issues.  In the workplace where people work together for years, friendships form and mature. 

There is an ironic human reaction to NOT want to say anything “bad” to someone you consider your friend.

Get the irony? If the person is indeed your friend, you would want to alert them when they are in harm’s way, instead of hide the risk from them,right? 

We tend to worry about how other people will react to what may be perceived as criticism.  So we avoid it.

Another irony: Decades of research has shown that the more people who are around you when you are in trouble, the less likely that any one person will help out.  This is called the bystander effect, and it’s an unflattering account of human nature.  We prefer to blend into the crowd instead of being individually accountable.   

Or worse - Consider the events this past week where in New York City a man from Queens was pushed onto the path of a subway train where he was killed.  The New York Post ran a picture of the incident with the headline “Doomed”.  The public outrage that followed asked the question: “Why didn’t the guy who took the picture intervene?”  Instead he took a photo and sold it to the Post.,  How many dozens of people were on that platform?


Fortunately, when friendships mature and trust is built between people, the willingness to speak the truth finally evolves.  But how do you build this trust?

It goes beyond teaching hazard and risk identification along with coaching skills. 

I think trust is build by the reaction of the recipient.  A friendship usually enters the trust phase when one person asks the other for help.  They open themselves up and the both friends are now more likely to say something because they have been “invited”.

Research shows that feedback is much more likely to be accepted if that person first gives permission to the person offering feedback.  There are interesting ways this has been done-usually in the context of a Behavior-Based Safety program. 

Most safety programs that have effective peer coaching built on trust find it is a game changer.  What makes this kind of safety culture difficult to build is that you have to find a way for help to be invited. 

The trick is for permission to be granted comprehensively, to everyone on site, in an honest and public way.

I’ve worked with an electrical contractor whose employees decided to put stickers on their hard hats that says: “Just Shoot Me.”  If you have that sticker displayed, you are asking for help. 

An iron works company replaced their “# of Days Without an Injury” counter at their time clock with a big white board that says: “Please let me know if I’m at risk of injury by alerting me right away.  I’d appreciate it.”  Each employee has signed the white board (sometimes with a smiley face).  And, get this, the board is erased every Monday and folks have to recommit weekly.

A final bit of Irony – this time some positive news:  When YOU ask someone to be on the lookout for your safety…YOU’RE more likely to help others in this way too. 

A bit of Reciprocity Theory there for ya!


I’m going to make sure that my University’s “It’s Up to Me” program has this critical component in it.


Teach them well. Teach them often. Teach them early.  Friendship Beats Irony if you let it.

Please drop me e-mail at and tell me how your company and its employees have approached this critical step toward safety.


Timothy Ludwig’s website is where you can read more safety culture stories and contribute your own.  Dr. Ludwig is a senior consultant with Safety Performance Solutions (SPS:, serves as a commissioner for Behavioral Safety Accreditation at the non-profit Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies (CCBS: and teaches behavioral psychology at Appalachian State University, in Boone, NC.  If you want Tim to share his stories at your next safety event you can contact him at

Referring to your story, “Trust beats irony – if you let it,” I was reminded of an incident at our power plant a few years back (while I was the Plant GM). We had an extensive chemistry lab, consisting of 8 chemical techs, a chief chemist and a supervisor. Our plant was involved deeply into the safety and health movements of the time, including several principles of BBS. Trust was a central theme of our culture that had been steadily built during my management tenure. The incident involved a chemical technician with 27 years of job experience. His supervisor was a 5 year employee with a BS in Chemical Engineer, but less than one year’s experience as a supervisor. On the day of his accident, the chem. tech was assigned to take samples of one of our caustic storage tanks, a job that was very routine for him. He would be doing this alone as was always the case. When he began to draw the sample, he made a valving mistake and received a direct shot of caustic to his face. He was not wearing the prescribed PPE for this job, only safety glasses with side shields. Fortunately, he was somehow able to initiate the safety shower and eye wash fountain nearby. He was taken to the hospital where there was extreme concern that he might loose eyesight to one or both eyes. After two weeks he had eye dressings removed and ultimately regained his eyesight to 100%. From that moment on, every time I saw him, I was reminded of the incident and so thankful that he could see. This was a very safety minded employee with a stellar safety record, so... how could this have happened? As the crew discussed the incident during our incident analysis session, this is what they learned: On the night preceding the incident, the employee was called to the emergency room of our local hospital because his mother had become seriously ill. He spent the entire night there and then came to work. Looking back, most of his coworkers, as well as his supervisor, stated that he was much quieter than usual and that he looked tired. No one asked him is he was sick or feeling ok. They all felt terrible about their lack of concern. They thought it might be “personal.” His supervisor really took it hard. She was the last one to talk with him before he left the lab to begin his day. She never inquired about his seeming lack of engagement. We had a philosophy at our plant of sharing mistakes with everyone. We had even been known to celebrate mistakes where no one was injured. When we discovered a very unusual cause and learned so much as a result, we thought it was important to make a big deal about it. Whether they were considered operating mistakes, maintenance mistakes or managerial mistakes, we openly published them (part of our Trust culture). This sharing publicly was a concern strongly opposed by our union at first and quite frankly by many in management, especially our Human Resources people. Events that were shared could lead to discipline, depending on circumstances. We walked a tight line with the sharing process and made it work to everyone’s satisfaction. Trust and communication between our local union reps and plant management staff was the key. As this story of our chemical incident was shared within the plant, our corporate Safety and Health people decided, with consent of those involved, to go Systemwide with the learning process. It was widely distributed throughout our company and provided a great learning experience for carrying out thorough two way pre-job discussions. It was emphasized that this was not an accident. “Accidents” are not in one’s control (like being hit by lightning). This was negligence of an insufficient management process and on the part of several people, any one of which could have prevented it. That same year our plant was asked by the Ohio Manufacturers Association to make a one hour presentation at their annual meeting about our recent recognition by the Governor of Ohio, who had presented us with the Ohio Award for Excellence in the manufacturing category, the first of its kind to be awarded in the state. As part of that presentation to the OMA, our chemical supervisor along with our union president described the caustic spill accident as part of our Trust and Communication presentation. Both broke down in tears during their talks (as did most of the attendees). It was very effective and a great motivator for BBS programs and learning from mistakes. Dan Lambert

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