Stuff and Fluff

Have you ever been driving down the road and seen an advertisement for a restaurant showing a wonderfully juicy and amazing burger? Your stomach starts to growl, and you decide that you just have to have that amazing burger. Once it's served, you sit down and with anticipation bite into the burger, then it is like biting into a piece of rubber or plastic and you throw most of it away. This is how safety can feel to some people. There is a difference between just having the advertisement and making sure your end product is as advertised.

Safety needs to be more than just fluff and advertisement; you need a follow through with ensuring the behavior supports what statements you are trying to make. There is a phrase called "fluffy safe" -- it pretty much means that you have all the wonderful documents, pretty signs, and all the show of being safe, but when the behavior of workers is not being viewed and reinforced, then it just becomes fluff. A safety professional's job is not just to ensure all the right documents and signs are posted, but also to ensure they are understood and adhered to. I once heard that "people will do what they are reinforced to do."

Teach, coach, and mentor the right behavior, and then it will become part of that worker's nature to do the right thing. Just like a good restaurant, if it looks good and then is good, you will go back to that restaurant. Ensure that you support your stuff so it does not become wasteful fluff.

The Winnie the Pooh vs. Barney Fife Approach to Safety
A friend of mine helped me name this section because we have had many discussions on the effect of these approaches. The Winnie the Pooh approach is when safeties try to be everyone's buddy, so they just walk around and smile and do not accomplish anything except receiving a paycheck. Do not get me wrong -- there is not anything wrong with being friendly, but there is a fine line between being friendly and being too friendly. Safety professionals need to be approachable, but they also need to be observant and know when correction and action are needed. We are a support element and, as I said before, we are there to coach, teach, and mentor the right behavior. Being friendly is a plus, but safety has to be a passion, and if the workers see you walking what you talk, then you will gain that respect. A safety professional should not be the back end of a joke but should be a person who is friendly, admired, and the go-to person for safety questions.

The other side of the coin is the Barney Fife approach, or Safety Cops. Safety is not there to ticket and see how many people you can run off the job. If there are numerous workers being fired for safety issues, then someone else needs to be looked at. I once had a so-called safety professional tell me that he "had people lined up in the parking lot wanting to have a fight." If that is what you are looking for, then you need to be a bouncer at a club, not a safety professional at a job.

The effects of a safety cop are so much more damaging to a site's workers' behavior than the Winnie the Pooh approach. Safety needs to be more than a paycheck; it should become a passion. If you really want to change behavior, it will take plenty of work and studying on your part to be that well-rounded safety professional. Always remember that it is better to be an influence and support than the bad guy and disruptor. Safety is the key, not a badge!

HSSE Specialist Russell Overby of Lake Charles, La., worked for BP Biofuels for the past five years. He has a B.S. degree in Occupational Safety and Health and served for eight years in the U.S. Army. His background is in construction and petrochemicals.

Posted by Russell Overby on Apr 12, 2013