Common Safety Cliches & Why They Aren’t Helping
Safety clichés can often impede workplace safety and insult the victims of workplace accidents.
“He got his fingers caught; he’s in the ER.”
When I took that call early one morning, my cell phone was positioned between my hands while I was doing push-ups. I had it on speaker phone and I continued to listen and push-up with my healthy hands while the operations manager told me about his employee.
I received calls like that 24/7 during the three years I managed workers compensation claims for a family of companies across multiple states. I was the first person in their 65 year history to personally manage each injury claim and the first safety professional they had ever hired.
I wasn’t new to workplace injuries. Over a decade with OSHA prepared me for what may happen to human beings on the job. In fact, some people called me the worst-case scenario person, a title I earned after involvement in more workplace deaths and life-changing injuries than I care to recall. If you want to know how you can die or become severely injured doing your work, I’ve likely got a story for you. Morbid isn’t it?
Recent occupational fatality statistics show that 13 people die on the job each day in the United States. Yet, it’s not going to happen to you or me, or where we work, right? The sad, prevailing wisdom is that only people lacking common sense get hurt and/or injuries only happen to lazy, stupid people. Sound familiar?
So his fingers got caught. Caught, yes; fingers ripped off and others de-gloved is more accurate. I got pictures via text. That wasn’t a bad day for the employee—it was a life-changing day—just like it is for every employee who doesn’t come home or doesn’t go home the same way they arrived.
But, those employees weren’t cognizant of their surroundings or they should have been more careful or should’ve known better, right?
Trite, isn’t it?
My co-worker with the hand injury was in a small-town ER, one without a hand surgeon. He didn’t speak English. His wife and son were also my co-workers and had left work to be with him. Based on my experience, I knew this man needed more than my filing of his first report of injury with the insurance carrier; he and his family needed an advocate.
I called the ER, told them they had my employee in their care and that I expected him to be treated humanely. I asked what interpreter services they had access to and told them I was their main contact for billing, that it was a workers compensation claim and that they’d get paid.
I know that makes health care sound terrible and that I just stereotyped an entire business sector, but I also had enough experience with clinics, pharmacies, emergency rooms, urgent cares, and hospitals fitting the stereotype to know I needed to do that as a safeguard. And, yes, there are wonderful, caring health care establishments who care equally for humanity, but not all. I made calls like that frequently.
Soon, I was back on the phone with both the operations manager and the general manager. I updated them on the employee’s condition, told them he was being referred to a hand surgeon in a neighboring state and that he’d be transported.
“How likely is it he will sue us?” they asked.
I countered, “You have three employees in labor roles away from their work due to this; strongly consider paying the wife and son a full day's wages.”
“How likely is it he will sue us?” they asked again.
I countered, “How did this happen and are any other employees at risk of having their fingers ripped off right now?”
“He shouldn’t have been wearing a glove,” they answered, “It wouldn’t have happened if he wouldn’t have been wearing a glove.”
I had learned about victim blaming statements in Psych 101 my freshman year of college, so I knew what was coming next from employers who fail to rise to the occasion in the aftermath of something tragic. Twenty years in this practice has taught me tragedy results in one of two responses:
- Employers who rise to the occasion. They do all they can to ensure the same or similar doesn’t happen to someone else on their watch and react and respond to the root cause. They genuinely care about their employees. I love those employers and I’ve witnessed them in beautiful action all while continuing to be profitable.
- Employers who fail to rise. They blame victims, dismiss potential root causes, and label the injured as incompetent or disposable.
In this case, I was working with reaction #2, so I knew what was next.
I wanted to roll out the cliché carpet for them to walk on while their words rang in my head like the teacher’s voice in Charlie Brown’s classroom.
“Everybody knows you don’t wear a glove around that machine.”
Glove, glove, glove over and over again like a mantra, as if saying it loudly and with frequency would somehow bring inner peace. “Glove” was the only word I heard, ever.
Now the employee was in transport by ambulance to another state, the nearest facility with a hand surgeon; his family trailing behind. I placed a call to that facility, telling them it was my guy in-bound and repeated my workers’ comp shtick regarding expectations.
I waited until my child was out of school, told him we were going on an adventure and we set off for the three-hour car trip to that hospital. Something told me I had to go, that I needed to let this family know they’d be cared for and their wages secured.
It was pretty late when I finally got to the hospital, after dropping my child with a local friend. On the drive, I talked with the employee’s daughter who spoke English. She told me her dad was out of surgery, that more than one surgeon was needed; in fact, a team of three surgeons had worked to repair his hand, fingers, and thumb. I had asked if I could join them to explain the workers compensation process, how wages are handled, what return to work meant, how medical bills and prescriptions are paid and anything else I could think of that would make way for healing without worry for basic needs. The daughter, on behalf of her family agreed.
The hospital quiet for the night, patients bedding down. I was damned nervous. Not nervous to see this man and his injury but nervous the family would accept me, that they wouldn’t label me as some corporate demon just showing up to cover our corporate back-side.
I grew up in a blue collar factory family and heard “corporate” individuals demonized or praised for most of my childhood, so I knew what was possible.
I stopped in the hall several doors from his room, breathed my best cleansing breath, and sent a plea to the universe: please help me know what to say; please let them know I’m not an asshole.
Two things shocked me when I walked in: (1) our employee was sitting in bed, alert, with his bandaged hand and arm propped up on pillows and (2) the dozen red roses that were parked behind his wife.
Blood red roses from his company, gratuitous roses from the “He shouldn’t have been wearing gloves” people.
Days later, when I had time to go to the plant where he was hurt, I dug into that whole glove deal, looking for the root cause of the injury as I switched on my safety professional role. The plant had a safety person but I inserted myself regardless.
The machine in which the employee was caught had various sets of rollers and was designed to process a product in two stages, involving water. The maintenance manager shared that the water pressure was set too high for that machine and that a set of rollers was in need of replacement, so it wasn’t running efficiently, and frequently jammed with product. Since the rollers jammed often, the guard normally covering them was left open so jams could be cleared quickly, with minimal delay in production. Also, the elevated water pressure and open enclosure guard resulted in water spraying on employees working around the machine, so a plastic tarp was placed as a shield to protect employees from getting sprayed.
On the day of the preventable incident, the plastic tarp got sucked in the rollers and jammed the machine. The four ungloved laborers who worked product on the other rollers of the machine didn’t know how to fix it. So, the victim, who was a supervisor in that work area, came by to see if he could help. Because of his normal job function, he had to wear nitrile gloves. While wearing his gloves and using a knife, he cut the tarp free of the rollers. Once the jam cleared, the rollers engaged and pulled him in.
Glove mantra does not apply.
If you’ve been in safety practice for any amount of time, you’ve already created a prevention list in your head for this situation and everything on your list is correct. Yet, the mantra stuck no matter how high I escalated the facts.
In the hospital room and using our employee’s adult daughter as an interpreter for her parents, I greeted them, saying I was shocked to see her dad alert and awake so soon after surgery. She told me he knew the “Corporate Lady” was coming and refused to take pain medication so he could ask questions and listen.
Gulp. Universe? You there? Don’t let me hose this up.
His wife, also my co-worker, was talking with me now through her daughter. She said she was sad and scared. Sad and scared because in all the years of their marriage, it was her husband who was the strong one, the one who held them together and now he wasn’t strong, he was vulnerable and it scared her. She spoke her truth beautifully.
There were no utterances of bad corporate people that night. This family would not hear that glove mantra or other classic safety clichés about this-is-how-we’ve-always-done-it or how safety impedes production.
None of that happened in the dimly lit hospital room that night. It was simply a family who only wanted to know when their patriarch would be able to return to work, how he would be paid, and how the medical bills would be paid; their gratuitous floral arrangement in the background.
Not long ago, I queried a safety group on LinkedIn, asking to share safety clichés that have colored their career and the response was staggering. Safety clichés and victim blaming is something we all deal with professionally; it’s wrong and insulting.
Wrong because it prevents: progress, prevention efforts, cost-savings, premium reductions, efficiency identification, retention, courage, candor, and strategic planning.
It’s insulting because in each breath of every cliché the value of a life or limb is trivialized and devalued, flushing any chance to realize a positive safety culture.
Let’s be brave and speak up as corporate leaders and as safety professionals against these clichés and victim blaming.
Doing anything less insults those who’ve lost their lives on the job, like Nick who didn’t set out to be ran over by a bulldozer, or Brent who had his arm chewed off in a saw when he was 15, and Katie who was abducted from her workplace, or Joe who fell from a bridge while his fall protection gear was rigged incorrectly.
We can do better.
We can collectively challenge and refuse to accept safety clichés.
After all, what is the alternative?
Written by Jill James | Chief Safety Officer