Safety Whack-A-Mole… Blindfolded
Sorry, Jason. She’s going to need bed rest!!!!
I’d been sitting in a crowded waiting room for hours with Julie, one of the executive assistants on my project. Julie was a sweet woman with a mean streak. I learned early on that it was best to stay on her good side. And I always did… which was why I was the one sitting with her that particular day.
At the time, I was fresh out of the Air Force and still learning what safety was about in the “real world.” The company I now worked for had been serving as “agent for the client” at my location for over 27 years. The project spanned six phases of construction worth billions. Our people rarely experienced injuries on that project so when Julie strained her back picking up an ice chest full of soda everyone was very “concerned.”
I’m sure the concern had nothing to do with the fact that the project proudly boasted about no lost time accident in nearly 17 years…
So, there Julie and I waited. She was tough but I could tell she was in a lot of pain. Finally, the medical assistant called her back and I walked to the door with her. I had two reasons for doing so: First I asked if I could consult with the doctor to let him know what Julie’s role was and what kind of accommodations we could make if he determined that her duties needed restrictions, and second I really (and I mean really) needed to pee.
The MA let me into the back as she shuttled Julie into an exam room. I walked to the restroom and tried the knob but found it locked. So I waited. Standing there, I watched the doctor follow Julie and the MA into the room and close the door. So much for my consult, I thought.
But then, the doctor emerged just as quickly as he had gone in. He headed straight for me.
“I know what you’re after, Jason and I hate to give you bad news. But she’s going to need at least three days of bed rest.” His lightning fast diagnosis was perplexing to me.
“She needs bed rest for a back strain?” I asked.
“That’s what she needs. I’m afraid so,” he answered.
I’m sure I was glaring at him, but I didn’t ask any more questions. He walked away and I forgot about my urgent need. I walked back out to the waiting room to call my boss and deliver the news. Our record was about to end.
My boss handled it well. He accepted the news and told me to “just make sure she’s taken care of.” I hung up and sighed with relief as my bladder reminded me it also needed to be taken care of. So, I headed back to the restroom once again.
I emerged a few minutes later to see the doctor once again leaving Julie’s room and heading toward me. He looked like he’d seen a ghost.
“Great news Jason! No restrictions or time off!?!! Julie can return to work today.” His look was shifty and nervous. Again, I agreed and let him move on.
As he walked away, Julie exited the room with a devilish smirk on her face. I can only imagine what she told him when he tried to give her time off. She told me on the ride home that she wasn’t going to be the one to break a 17 year record. At the time I considered it a victory. I didn’t know any better.
“No lives were ever saved in retrospect” – PLD
The aftermath of Julie’s incident was filled with corrective actions, new office policies, and worker training. It was as typical as any post accident ritual at any company. We spent hours determining the root cause of her injury (ahem… her back was not strong enough to perform that task in that position). We interviewed the co-worker who had been helping with the coolers. The project manager even made the decree that canned beverages were not to be carried in any greater quantity than a 12-pack (seriously).
All of it was done under the auspices of “prevention.” Which… would have been fine if it prevented anything. The problem, as with most reactionary safety, is that circumstances are rarely, if ever, duplicated. In this case, the project had similar injury when Julie’s counterpart picked up a cooler filled with ice not six months later. But, hey, she hadn’t violated the 12-pack rule.
I’m not trying to say that figuring out what can be learned from an injury is a bad thing. Those are lessons we need to learn. What I am getting at is that we spend far too much time reacting because of a consequence instead of trying to avoid that consequence in the first place. You can read between the lines of this story and get a pretty clear idea of why organizations do it, but those subjects are for another post.
The constant rear-view mentality of safety has created a mob of over-paid band-aid dispensers who no nothing more than try to prevent something that ALREADY happened. Most of them fool themselves into believing that will magically change the future. We should do better…
We should stop telling people that their safety is determined by a number
We should find ways to investigate and replicate successful work
We should engage with our people to find out what little things make their jobs more difficult than they need to be
We should look beyond yesterday and try to figure out what will kill and maim today.
Until we do, we’ll just keep playing blindfolded whack-a-mole safety.
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