Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Safety Profession - Not Good Enough

Recently we were watching a TED Talk from Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology. He told a humorous story of when he was the head of the American Psychological Association. He was asked to describe the state of psychology in one word, to which he replied, “good.” Next his interviewers asked him to describe the state of psychology in two words, to which he replied, “not good.” Finally, when asked to describe the state of psychology in three words he replied, “not good enough.” He then went on to describe the “good” of psychology, what it has accomplished, but pointed out where psychology is “not good enough,” i.e. needing to improve. (To hear the whole story and his subsequent talk go here).

When we were watching this story we couldn’t help but think of the safety profession. If asked about the “good” of the safety profession I think we could point to many accomplishments. The rates of injuries, illnesses, and fatal injuries at work have dropped drastically. Our profession is more recognized than ever, due in large part because of the efforts of the ASSE, BCSP, and other similar organizations. We all have had at least some part in these accomplishments.

However, when we look at our profession and look not only at how far we’ve come but also at how far we could be we have to conclude that the safety profession is currently not good enough.  This isn’t to say that we can’t get there, but rather to say that, as a profession, we need to do more to further our causes. Here specifically are some areas we think the safety profession is not good enough:

Not Exclusive Enough – Right now there exists no significant industry standard in terms of education, experience, or training for the safety profession. It’s amazing to me how many safety professionals start their safety careers in safety with literally no direct experience or education in safety at all. For example, many safety officers in construction companies were former craftsmen who were injured, couldn’t do their craft anymore, but still could work. So they were made safety officers for the company. We don’t think these people are bad or unintelligent. We just think there needs to be some sort of standard to which one must adhere to enter and stay in our profession. Society tends to expect similar (certificates, licenses, etc.) from other professions, such as hairstylists and plumbers, why not safety professionals?

We do know and readily admit that if we implemented such a standard it would inevitably be imperfect, leading to some qualified individuals not making the cut and some unqualified individuals being called “safety professionals.” Still, the number of unqualified professionals would decrease in any reasonably designed system (or, at least, the average qualification would increase). We would also rather have a system where qualified folks have to work a little harder to prove themselves than have unqualified folks have to do nothing to prove themselves. Additionally, those professions that have clear boundaries as to qualifications tend to have more respect and people tend to pay more for their services as a result.

Too Reliant on Regulation – If you want an example of this one, just ask a safety professional at what point we need to start thinking about protecting workers from falls. Most will respond with some number such as 4 feet or 6 feet. Then ask them what biomechanical calculations they performed to determine that the risk of serious injury from falling from that height was unacceptable and look at the blank stare you get in response. Most people choose fall protection not based on what is safe, but based on what is compliant.  The truth is that there is a significant risk of falling from 0 feet and dying. Obviously your risk is higher at 6 feet, but what about 5 feet? And what about the personal factors, such as health, weight, and age. Don’t those come into play?

Of course they should, but the fact is that they don’t. The problem is that as safety professionals we are spread too thin. We are supposed to understand biomechanics, injury tolerances, psychology, sociology, law and regulation, engineering, physics, and chemistry all at a level that will ensure that bad things don’t happen. No one person can be that good, so we (many times unconsciously) look for opportunities to mentally outsource our thinking. OSHA (or whatever agency we’re talking about) allows us to do that. I don’t have to do the math if OSHA has done that for me. The problem, of course, is when OSHA is wrong and the regulation is not protective.

This is one of those “easier said…” things but as a profession our gut reactions to things should not be to get to compliance and stop there. This, of course, doesn’t mean we necessarily arbitrarily go beyond compliance either. Rather, we take the emphasis off of compliance and put it on risk – are the risks acceptable and as low as reasonably practicable at the level of compliance? If not then we go beyond compliance. If yes, then we stop there. A focus on risk though is what our decisions should be based on, not compliance alone.

Not Evidence-Based Enough – What if your doctor decided to try this new treatment on you that he heard about at a conference and it sounded like a good idea, but he didn’t know of any evidence that it worked – would you be happy if he took that risk on you? Of course not! In the safety profession we are often making decisions that could literally mean the difference between injury or safety, life or death for someone, not to mention the potential economic effects of accidents. When was the last time you looked in the research literature to see if the intervention you want to implement in your organization to see if there was any evidence that it was even effective?

A large part of the problem is that most safety professionals aren’t aware of the journals available dedicated to research in safety and health issues (such as Safety Science, Journal of Safety Research, Accident Analysis & Prevention, Journal of Safety, Health, and Environmental Research, and Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, not to mention many others). Sure these journals are sometimes hard to read and understand, but part of the reason for that is because the authors don’t have to write articles for the average practitioner because the average safety practitioner doesn’t read the articles. So the academics write information for other academics, learning interesting things about safety, and the safety practitioners are none the wiser.

Of course, these issues (and more) will not be fixed or even adequately discussed in one blog post. But we as a profession need to start the discussion at least. How are we going to get better at what we do (i.e. helping organizations and people create safety on a day to day basis)? How can we be taken more seriously by decision-makers? How can the safety profession be good enough?

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