Getting shot in the back – Fear is Cowardice

The scene plays out in Western movies.  The villain Jesse James, the most famous member of the James-Younger gang that terrorized the Minnesota area in the later 1800s, is shot in the back, defenseless, by a fellow member of his gang out to collect the bounty on James’ life.  Robert Ford now is considered by history to be a… as the 2007 western movie stated in its title: The Assassination of Jesse James by the COWARD Robert Ford.

 Work injuries are like getting shot in the back.  They attack unknowingly, often within the context of your own “gang” of work colleagues, leaders, and equipment.  The question that must be answered is “How do we stand up to it?”  By striking FEAR in the heart of all concerned?  No!  I argue that fear is perhaps the major cause of injury.

 Consider the outbreak of Meningitis among patients who had medical shots in the back to relieve chronic pain.  The steroid in the shot, supposedly developed in a sterile lab, had been contaminated during the production process and shipped throughout the U.S.  As of this writing 14 people have died across the 12 states the outbreak has spread to.

The contaminated steroids were linked back to a pharmacy called the New England Compounding Center.  The New York Times reports that employees were concerned about the production process that hired unqualified people then overlooked their quality errors.  Salespersons were used in production during rush orders. Near misses included a narcotic almost being shipped at twice its potency.  The pharmacist involved was working overtime and hurrying to get his production numbers for the day. 


People quit over their concerns.  Former employees, risking a confidentiality agreement violation, have talked about a culture of shortcuts that threatened the safety of the medicines.  When employees raised safety concerns and tried to stop production they were fired.  The focus was on the bottom line: “This line is worth more than all your lives combined, so don’t stop it.”  Fear was used to hide the safety concerns and it killed people.

Is this a unique situation?  Hardly.  According to ISHN, Norfolk Southern has been fined over $1,000,000 this year alone for firing workers who reported work-related injuries.  The same thing happened at Pacific Railroad making me concerned about the fear culture in the rail industry.  Workers have been fired for simply raising concerns at Heartland Transportation and Goodman Manufacturing according to OSHA.  The list goes on.

The fear message sent: Report an injury or a concern and we’ll fire you.  The chilling effect?  Less reporting, more injuries. 

Managing safety with fear is cowardice.  Quit hiding behind your workers.  Look your safety concerns in the eye!

Cowardice a trait wherein fear and excess self-concern override what is socially-deemed as right (Wikipedia)

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


Tim, I thought you might enjoy the response from one of the folks in the field after forwarding your newsletter.

"Did you know that we celebrate the Defeat of Jesse James Days in my hometown of Northfield, MN.   We did not capture or kill him, but the townspeople defeated his gang of thugs when they tried to rob the First National Bank.  There are more twists and turns to the story of why they chose Northfield, but I will have to save that for some other time.   I recently attended that celebration as it is always the first weekend after Labor Day.   It happened back in 1856 and you can still see bullet holes in the buildings."


I am so glad to see this article address the bullying that is becoming far too common in the work place under the guise of "safety". I have been in the safety field for 15 years and watched companies go from not mentioning safety to employees at all, to beating them in the head with how safety is their responsibility and not management's. I find this wrenching. So many times I have come across employees who have a safety concern, but will not mention it to the supervisor because they will get in trouble. They hide injuries so they do not get written up or fired. This "safety culture" seems to have become more prevalent during the past several years of economic hard times. "You're should be glad you have a job!" Right?? Not at the expense of an employee's safety!

A few months ago I interviewed for a safety position. When asked "How do you plan to get employees to work safely?" I answered with safety awareness, training, and getting feedback from employees regarding what the company could feasibly do make it safer. I got blank looks and bored stares. "Well, what about discipline? If they can't work safely they don't need to be here." True IF the proper training and hazard prevention is in place, but not a replacement for management doing their job in providing a safe workplace. Safety is not about working AROUND the hazards.
Posted by Linda Tuhacek


Cynthia Laux • We don't have a problem with people reporting getting hurt. It is the one that doesn't report or report accurately. We will not fire over the reporting of an accident. There are too many people (and companies) who still believe that is the correct way. I want employees to come to me with a safety concern. I do not know everything and these are the people that run the equipment. Saying that however, if they are doing dangerous acts such as not LO/TOi to a piece of equipment they have been trained on, that is a different story. Or not wearing safety glasses on the production floor. They are trained from the day they start on such items. It is not bullying to require employee to follow their employer's safety rules. If they are bypassing the company's safety policy or do not like the policies in place, they have a right to self-terminate or be terminated by their employer. Safety is an equal responsiblity of employers and employees. I watch employees on a daily basis who believe they are above the rules but I have also seen employers with the same mind set of being above having to do what is best for their employees.           

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