BY TARA MARIA AMAVI
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.” W. C. Fields
My last column closed with this invitation: “…tune in to our next issue for a list of practices that, while popular, really aren’t effective at sustaining safety.” In truth, the word count limit of this column prevents a full list. But I’d like to hit the top three wildly popular practices, one at a time in this and the next two issues that help us sustain the current worker death rate.
Safety cultures that use slogans which include the word “Zero” or its equivalent. “Zero Tolerance” and “Zero Incident” policies are intimidating to workers. Regardless of anything you wrap it in, what an employee “hears” is “Zero reporting of incidents and unsafe acts or conditions.” You can SAY you want all incidents reported. You can SAY you empower everyone to stop unsafe acts and conditions. But, if all these words are under the headliner “Zero Tolerance and Zero Incident” then the worker has to either fail, or report the failure of co-workers, in order to report or stop unsafe acts or conditions. Further, the worker has to do this KNOWING you purport to have no tolerance, which is translated by the worker’s amygdala (the brain’s safety director in charge of fight, flight, or freeze) as “someone’s going to get fired”. This is a double bind which, according to the Free Dictionary online, is defined as: double bind.
- A psychological impasse created when a person perceives that someone in a position of power is making contradictory demands, so that no response is appropriate. “Zero” can also be hidden in practices that sound good but are actually the equivalent of saying “Zero” such as “All Accidents Are Preventable”. This phrase is the equivalent of a “Zero Incident” policy and has the same net effect.
These policies all sound great but they ignore two immutable realities:
- You cannot punish, train, pay, or incentivize any human being enough to cause him* to act contrary to how his brain is designed to function. The amygdala is the brain’s safety director and the amygdala doesn’t care about knowledge or money. It cares about experience. If workers know there’s no tolerance and their jobs depend upon pretending things never go wrong, then workers will be driven by this powerful unconscious player to cover up the scores of unsafe acts and conditions which you MUST know in order to pre-empt events; and
- Based upon the empirical reality of how selforganizing systems function, all incidents are NOT preventable. The proponents of this thought process point to the fact that in a micro-analysis of the actual chain of events you will find a triggering moment when, IF that triggering moment hadn’t occurred, the incident would not have happened. This assumes an ability to isolate that single chain of events and then blindly assumes that unwinding it would have changed everything. Exactly, it would have. It would have created a DIFFERENT chain of events, likely with the same or similar probability of convergence into an event as the first. That’s how self-organizing systems work.
What do you really get with Zero Tolerance and Zero Incident programs? Zero impact. There’s always exceptions to the rule but exceptions save very few lives. Hence, the persistently stable workrelated fatality rate, year after year, decade after decade in these here United States. More of what isn’t working.
Here’s what Albert Einstein says about that: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Tune in to our next issue and we’ll talk about why Behavior Based Safety is great in theory but nominal in intended effect.