Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Enough With The “Safety Darwin Award” Pictures

We all have seen the pictures, such as this one that show workers doing things that they probably shouldn’t be doing. You might have chuckled at them or shaken your head in disgust or sadness or both. That’s a normal reaction, and that’s not really what we want to talk about.

The problem comes when some of us (and yes, we are embarrassed to admit that we have done this too) have gone to the next step. There are many in the safety profession who use these pictures regularly as a means to get laughs out of their audience. This could be in a training class, to show how dumb some workers are, or, it could be done amongst safety professionals, such as on a social media site. You even occasionally see people post these as “Safety Darwin Awards”, the implication being that these pictures are an example of natural selection weeding out the less intelligent and capable of us.

Sharing these pictures with the intention of making fun of workers or insulting their intelligence has to stop. We are better than this!

To illustrate what we’re talking about let’s look at the implications of sharing these pictures in a way that ridicules workers. First of all, it turns us into bullies. We are trivializing the realities our workers face and not only thinking badly about them, we are openly ridiculing them to others! Whether we intend to or not, we are saying that they are stupid. And if we go far enough to use a frame such as the “Darwin Awards”, we are implying that these people deserve to be hurt or killed because they are so stupid. Why would we be at all surprised if our workers don’t trust us? Why are we so annoyed that they don’t like when we come around, when it’s possible we might take a picture of them and publicly shame them for a mistake? Don’t get us wrong – we are not saying that what we are seeing in the picture is acceptable. We are saying though that public shaming may have significant negative consequences that we do not intend, but are real nonetheless.

Second, when we post pictures such as this on social media or in a training class we are making a statement about where we think the problem is in our organizations – workers doing stupid things. The implication is that if it weren’t for our workers being dumb we would be safe. Our organization is inherently safe, it’s just a few bad apples that are spoiling things. Here’re some examples. Don’t be like them!

This line of thinking just doesn’t jive with reality. Think about it – how many of your organizations are perfect? Hm…none? If we had to guess we’d say that many of you have consistent problems in your organization:
  • Aging or poorly designed equipment
  • Not enough resources (time, money, people, etc.)
  • Inadequate training
  • Outdated procedures
  • Conflicting goals

Any of these sound familiar? If no, then you obviously work in the unicorn factory and you can stop reading now. For the rest of us, this means we have an imperfect system and a lot of your risk stems from these imperfections. You not only have to deal with these imperfections, but your employees do as well. However, most organizations we’ve worked with do not have any systematic way to assist employees in dealing with this complexity. We leave it to the employees to figure out. So we have a gap between what we know to be true and how we act. We know our organization is imperfect, but when it comes to safety we approach it with the understanding that our system is perfect. So if we see a picture like the one above then the reason behind that picture isn’t that we haven’t provided the worker with the tools (equipment, knowledge, etc.) necessary to do the work safely and they are naturally adapting what they have in order to get the job done in the safest way they know possible. It’s not our fault. It’s that they are dumb (or sometimes because they are immoral).

When we see these sorts of pictures we need to step back and take a hard look at how we react and what that says about our safety worldview. And what does what we do with our gut reaction say about us as professionals? The time has come for our profession to grow up and stop ridiculing the people we’re trying to help.

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