On The Road – Again

“A small step for Man. A giant leap for Mankind

~Neil Armstrong

If you want to see the world, become a consultant. In the last month, my colleagues and I could be found teaching our safety leadership tools to operations leaders at among other places, a mine in Canada, a chemical plant in Egypt, and paper mills in India and Siberia. Racking up frequent flyer miles is another benefit.

As to who went where, someone thought Siberia would be the perfect place to send the Principal in the practice.

But in case you don’t know exactly where it is (I did not) I now know from personal experience exactly where it is: Five time zones east of Moscow, due north of Mongolia. Two overnight flights to get from here to there.

If nothing else, it proves it’s a big world out there.  A big world, with a world of differences.

Or so it seems. Then you head out to dinner with a group of leaders in operations: your peers. Everyone sits down, and what happens next is totally predictable.


They spoke Russian; I speak no Russian. Doesn’t matter, I knew exactly what was going on: call the office; call the house. Most likely in that order. In the 21st Century world of industry, that’s how it is, no matter where in the world you are.

Maybe it isn’t such a big world after all. Maybe the only thing separating us is a lot of geography.

The $64 Dollar Question

Ask a roomful of operations leaders, anywhere on the planet “What are the toughest safety challenges you face – every day?”, their answers are totally predicable: attitude, behavior, buy-in, compliance, complacency, communications, contractors, culture, distractions, equipment, environment, focus, getting people to report what’s really going on, hazard recognition……….. peer pressure………

It’s not like there’s one problem; it’s a series of problems. Familiar problems that are best explained by the simple fact that people are placed in an environment with hazards and are expected to “get it done.”

And, “done safely.”

The challenge facing leaders the world over really is that simple. People are people: we humans are not naturally predisposed to work safely. That’s just who we are. And, no matter what some might think or want, it is not possible to engineer all hazards out of the workplace. As long as there are hazards, those tough safety challenges must be managed.

What if they’re not?

If a leader is lucky, nothing happens. People are hard targets to hit: it takes a lot for someone to get hurt seriously enough for it to be brought to the attention of a leader. But sooner or later, luck yields to the laws of probability.

Case in point: a recent report of a fatal incident involving a crew working at an industrial facility, sent my way by a good friend in the business. Multiple failures: defective equipment, people not trained, hazards not identified, procedures not followed. Just happened to be four of those tough safety challenges leaders the world over face; they just happened to show up at the same time and in the same place.

Equipment, training, and compliance are never perfect, nor will they ever be. Which is why “hazard identification” is such an important part of the process of sending everyone home, alive and well at the end of the day. Ultimately it falls to the people doing the work to recognize the hazards that can hurt them: they are the ones in harm’s way.

But it falls to leaders to make that happen.

Stopping the Job

In one sense, hazard recognition needs no managing: it’s something every single person on the planet does, every single minute of their lives. We humans are hard wired to detect hazards that may harm us: that’s called self-preservation, something that we do instinctively.

But most of the hazards people face at work don’t lend themselves to “natural recognition.” People need to be trained, told, or warned about them. And then there is the matter of perceptual biases: our brain’s contribution to make life easier by altering reality to suite our needs. All of which complicate what seems like a simple process, recognizing a hazard.

But that’s another story for another day.

So, hazard recognized. Now what?

That’s the hands-down winner as the easiest question on this test. Everyone knows the answer: steps are taken to provide adequate protection, so the hazard doesn’t produce any harm to anyone working on the job.

As to exactly what those “steps” are, rarely are there not options to make something safe; a lot more options than typically first meets the eye. If it were otherwise, we’d all be dialing “O” on a rotary phone to speak with the Operator – when our house is on fire!

Will any of those steps guarantee that no one will get hurt doing that job?

Of course not. Assign anyone to do any task, no matter how safe and well-designed, there is always some possibility that something bad could happen. There is no such thing as Zero Risk; there is only more risk – or less risk.

Unless the job is stopped, and not done. Then the potential for harm has been reduced to zero.

That’s the beauty of stopping the job: either (a) steps are taken to reduce the risk, or (b) the job is not done, in which case, the risk becomes zero. All of which adds up to a giant leap for safety.

All it takes is a “small step” for we humans: Saying “Stop.”

Saying “Stop!”

So, a crew is assigned to perform a task that proved to be fatally flawed. Think nobody saw anything wrong? Possibly.

Or possibly, some person who thought something was wrong failed to say something…or stop the job.

You and I can speculate; an investigator can ask, “Did something seem wrong to you?” “Did you think about saying something?” “Did you consider stopping the job?” Only the crew knows the truth, and they may decide, “You can’t handle the truth.”

What can be said with a high degree of confidence is this: for the vast majority of people, stopping a job isn’t easy. That’s not just a personal opinion: I’ve been asking about this important practice for years, and have heard from thousands, who work for a wide variety of industrial operations the world over, including some that are very, very safe. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is what it is.

If you think your operation is different in that regard, a word of caution: do some checking, get some data, ask some questions, look at some jobs that you might suspect are not all that safe.

On the other hand, if you think your operation and the people in your operation are just like everyone else on the planet, my advice is to figure out how to make it easier for people to “Stop the job” if they think something is not all that safe.

That small step by one person just might save a life.

Paul Balmert
April 2018

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