Safety Culture Blog

Bless her Heart: Responsibility for Others

I was having a great conversation with a new steering team charged with launching a behavioral safety program at a plant that made feminine hygiene products in the southern United States. I was making grand statements like, “One key to an ideal safety culture that drastically reduces injuries is for everyone to take responsibility for safety,” and all the folks in the room nodded vigorously. They took the bait. They volunteered to be on the team to help build this safety culture and help their fellow workers.  This being a feminine hygiene products plant meant that they were mostly women.

I have a trick I like to play on groups like this and I had these ladies right where I wanted them. I first get them all to agree to the statement “Everyone has to be responsible for their own safety and the safety of others.” Everyone always agrees, sometimes enthusiastically.

Then I pretend to change the subject and ask, “What was the last injury you had here at the plant?” I found out that a high school intern was carrying a stack of papers down some stairs in the front office area. She slipped, fell down the stairs, and broke her ankle.

When the safety pro on the team told us the details, all the ladies were in a stir. One exclaimed, “Well bless her heart – is that Doris’ daughter who worked here over the summer? That young lady played volleyball and she probably had to miss her high school season.” What a wonderful and caring group of women; they even began planning a bake sale for her.

But then I drop the other shoe in my trick. I interrupted and pointed at the heart-blesser and asked sternly, “Why did you let that happen?” 

One could hear the collect breath intake as the indignation grew. “She was an intern… didn’t even work for us.” “She was probably carrying too much and didn’t hold the hand rail.” “She didn’t even work in my department. We work out in the plant where there are real dangers like molten plastics and sharp tools. She was up in the front office helping the secretaries.”

I continued with the punch line. “Now hold on ladies… I just said that everyone has to take responsibility for safety… you all nodded!” I then said, mocking confusion, “So therefore you take responsibility for her fall and broken ankle. So…. (pause for effect) why did you let it happen?” 

They continued complaining as they justified how this situation was different and her fall was not their responsibility. They were not happy campers at this point. I thought I had made a critical mistake and lost their trust. I was about to apologize. But then something subtle yet culturally significant happened. A couple of women started asking the right questions: “Where did this happen?” “What else was going on?” “Had she been given training?"

Finally, it was the bake-sale planner who asked, “She fell down stairs right? Were those stairs by the entrance door out front? You know, the ones near the outside courtyard where some of us go on smoke breaks? Yeah, yeah… those stairs get kind of wet when we all walk back in after a dewy morning.” 

It was that point that the heart-blesser, quietly, yet clearly, said “Gals, you know, I’ve slipped on those very stairs when they’ve been wet.” Many of the women nodded. “When I slipped and caught myself I thought, ‘I wish someone would take care of this’.” More nods. Some around the room made predictable statements like “They should do something; they need to put down some of that non-slip tape on those stairs.”

But then the heart-blesser uttered a statement worth a thousand bake sales: “I guess when I had slipped before … I was embarrassed … so I never told anyone.” The group got quiet. Then more quiet when heart-blesser said, as if to herself, “And if I would have said something … something could have been done about it… that poor young girl would have played volleyball last season.”

Lesson delivered: By not taking personal responsibility to report the near miss, the stair hazard was not fixed and this led to an injury. Everyone who experienced those wet stairs was responsible. Taking personal responsibility for the safety of others does not only mean coaching each other when we see a need to reduce risk-taking. It also means we report our own behavior and our own incidents, even if they are close calls and embarrassing. Because when we do we might help someone down the line, someone we don’t even know.

This unfortunate story can be played out almost anywhere – with sobering lessons. My friend Steve Roberts from Safety Performance Solutions tell the more tragic story of being called to a cement manufacturing plant down in Texas. The plant had suffered a fatality. Steve was, among other things, helping with the investigation. A man was carrying about 40 pounds of compound over his shoulder on a skyway positioned above the huge vats of mixing product. There were grates in the walkway that could be removed so different compounds could be poured directly in the vat. As he walked, he stepped on a grate that buckled and collapsed. He fell into the machinery below, suffocating in the cement vat. 

Steve recalls a supervisor saying at one point during the investigation meeting, “We all walked over that grate… it would clatter around because it had warped over time as we carried heavy loads over it. I just started walking around it instead of on it because it scared me.”

He ultimately arrived at a sobering conclusion: “I should have reported that and got it fixed.  Heck, any of us could have…  And poor Joe would still…”

Back to the feminine hygiene plant. Why did this injury to the young woman happen? To be sure, it’s simple to conclude that “the young woman did not use the handrail” and  chalk it up to human error… she was careless, stupid. But what is the solution to human errors? Typically it would be more exhortations for everyone to “Use Hand Rails” by way of signs and meetings. This may change behavior -- but only for a week before drifting back to old habits. And the incidents reoccur.

The next likely conclusion, also easy to arrive at, is, “They (management) did not maintain the equipment and facilities adequately to reduce the hazard of the stairs.” The typical “Us vs. Them” drama ensues with workers blaming management for the problem and management pointing at workers as the source of the problem. 

I hope the irony of this situation is not lost on anyone when you think back to your first grade teacher saying, “When you point at someone else (with your index finger), you have three fingers pointing back at yourself!”

Indeed, the missing factor key to these scenarios was a safety culture where everyone takes responsibility for the safety of others. You take responsibility for the safety of others through reporting near misses and minor injuries, identifying hazards formally, and coaching peers when anyone sees behaviors that put workers at risk. You take responsibility for the safety of others when you give safety talks at tailgate meetings, join safety committees, and praise each other for safe practices. You take responsibility for the safety of others when you actively participate in the safety culture.

It is quite probable that you, personally, never slipped on those stairs or stepped around that grate. But it is quite probable that you, personally, have had an incident that happened in your area where you were too embarrassed, scared, or thought to little of it to report. And, because you didn’t report it or just complained about management to a coworker, you did not do your part to build a culture of freely reporting your incidents so others can learn and act on them.

But if you set the right example and others see your courage, they may also see how speaking up can make a safer workplace. Then they will muster the courage to do the same. Our safety management systems must be built correctly to support a culture of reporting. This means no attribution or punishment, no long embarrassing forms, and, most importantly, you have a process where close calls get publically acted on by addressing hazards. 

Excellent safety management systems reinforce people for reporting. This does not mean giving out a prize or pat on the back. Reporters get reinforced for reporting because things got better because they reported. “I reported a problem and it got fixed. Everyone will know I did my part to build our safety culture into one where reporting is what we do, what we value, and what we expect.”  

Bake sales are not enough.