Director's Reports
Group Safety Awards -
Do they nurture excellence or breed apathy?
by Rory S. McLaren

People are instinctively competitive. Young children compete in the playground to see who can run the fastest, swing the highest, or throw the ball the farthest. They compete in the classroom to see who can draw the prettiest picture, or score the highest in a test.

As they grow older the desire to compete and win grows. Many receive rewards for their efforts in the form of trophies and plaques. These incentives heighten their desire to compete more fiercely, and winning, for many, becomes an obsession. While we are all competitive by nature, our levels of competitiveness varies.

There is no greater testimony to an individual's desire to win than the Olympic Games where the best athletes from around the world gather to compete for the greatest prize of all - to be declared the "best in the world," and to earn the most prestigious of all awards - the gold medal!

No winners or losers! -
Imagine an event in which regardless of how much time,effort and dedication a person put into preparation and training, the outcome was predictable - to "win" all one had to do was to finish the race - there were no winners or losers!

The mere thought of eradicating the competitive spirit would be interfering with human nature itself.

One would be naïve to believe that the word "demise" would best describe the fate of every event in which the reward was not directly proportional to the effort. Competition, like the once-mighty dinosaurs, would certainly become extinct.

Merits of Group Safety Awards -
Which brings me to the point of my message - it is my understanding that an award is something that is given to a person or persons for achievement or accomplishment.

Almost every company in the U.S.A. offers its employees a group "prize" in exchange for a certain number of hours of no lost-time accidents - or to coin the phrase - a safety award!

Once the set goal is achieved, which is typically measured in terms of hours expired without a lost-time accident, the race ends. The "winners," and the "losers," - gather to receive their "grand prize."

All safety "victories" are celebrated in a similar manner. The majority of companies hold an award ceremony, which might include a company sponsored barbecue or luncheon.

During the course of the celebrations the safety manager (typically) gives the usual congratulatory pep talk, during which he/she shows off the beautifully made, real wood, plaque that will inevitably adorn one of the walls in the passage for all to see.

The speech is the same old rhetoric that goes something like this: "we are gathered here to celebrate this wonderful accomplishment; this milestone; this historical event.
We have worked 300,000 (example) hours without a lost time accident - congratulations, and keep up the good work - and please, have another steak!"

The manager(s), more than the workers, salivate over the accomplishment because it makes them look good.

During the prize giving ceremony, beautifully embroidered hunting or ski jackets are handed out replete with the company's name, safety theme, and in some cases, the recipient's name.

Even those persons, who were dragged across the finish line on the coat tails of their colleagues, because they were totally and utterly disinterested in the cause, are there to enjoy the moment, have a free lunch, and yes, to get a safety jacket!

Truth be said! -

The opponent in this competition is not a living, breathing human being, it is a clock on the wall ticking away, or a notice board at the entry gate, that is updated daily to show the hours.

Is it psychologically possible to fully engage the human competitive spirit when first, the opponent is an hour-meter, and second, regardless of individual performance, cooperation and enthusiasm, everyone receives the same prize?
I can see no logical reason to let one's interest rise above that of the most disinterested person(s) in the group!

This, in essence, is why the concept of a group competition is an oxymoron. It simply fails to nurture an environment that is conducive to individual excellence.

For example, if all the children in a school were competing for a common prize, what would inspire one child to be more enthusiastic than another, based on the fact that regardless of how much or how little effort one or the other exerts, they both get the prize anyway?

Now break them up into two groups, and let them compete against each other for a trophy. The team with the most dedicated players will prevail. Slackers will have a short career with a team!

When there is an identifiable opponent, competitors WILL invariably rise to an unprecedented level of excellence - their attitudes will ultimately determine their altitudes?

So why are companies racking up so many hours without a lost-time accident? There is a simple explanation - pure unadulterated luck! And let's not forget to factor in the cheating!

Need evidence! Simply arrange a "town meeting" with a few of the employees of almost any corporation, and they will "spill the beans!" In fact, I have had the opportunity, on numerous occassions, to be engaged in this type of forum. In almost every case, I was utterly astonished to learn what goes on behind the scenes!

There seems to be a common theme - safety is the number one priority until there is a breakdown and then production assumes the number one spot - for a moment of course!

There should be no dynamic within an organization that triggers the reversal of the priorities of safety and production. If there is, it is only a matter of time before the ultimate price will be paid - an injury or death because we sold our souls to production!

The only winners or losers in group safety "competitions" are the corporations themselves. And the only individuals who invariably get recognition for winning the grand prize, are a handful of managers, who, in reality, competed from the sidelines.

The truth is . . . -
Political correctness, as it is called, has the nasty habit of obscuring the truth. I have often wondered how a "politically incorrect," or if you will, a "truthful" safety achievement "victory" speech should or would sound - let me try!

"Attention everybody, we are gathered here to celebrate the fact that you, for reasons beyond my comprehension, worked an incredible 300,000 hours without suffering a lost time accident - you performed a miracle!

I have good reason to believe this, because I was directly responsible for the many adversities you endured along the way. Let me try to recall the ones I thought might have given you reason to fall - I mean fail!

Skills training - cost or investment? -
First, let me discuss the matter of training. In these times you can hardly blame us (the managers) for cutting all skills training - not that we had that much before!

The cost of training you, which will enhance safety, improve production, and keep you abreast of emerging technologies, is preposterous.

At the end of the day, you are simply skilled, blue-collar workers - a necessary evil. Surely years on the job will substitute for classroom training. After all, there is no better way to learn than by trial-and error?

Moreover, training is intangible - what do I get for it? It cost me that much to buy my Mercedes - sorry Chrysler, and it stands in my driveway - I can see it, touch it, and drive it! Besides, training dollars would take a toll on my bonus.

Tools - time saving or money wasting? -
Now let me focus on tools. Someone had the intestinal fortitude to submit a request for a bunch of tools - stuff like flow meters and pressure gauges. What nonsense! Why should the company purchase special tools? They only cost a few hundred dollars! Heck, we have worked without them for years, what do we need them for now?

Outside contractors -
Another reason why I had to cut the training budget was because we are spending too much on hiring outside contractors to do your jobs - you know how expensive outside help is!

Diagnosis by exclusion! -
I recently received a report from your Marybeth, the maintenance manager. She informs me that about 40% of the components you took off the machines didn't need to be removed, so how can you expect me to pay for training when all you do is screw up?

OSHA - the evil empire! -
On a different note, I am truly thankful that we escaped another OSHA audit - I do hate those guys - damn government intervention! Their demands are so ridiculous: only last year they robbed me - sorry the company - of $30,000.00 because they found a grinder without a guard which we could have replaced, but I remember that day well, because I was in the manage by crisis mode!

How does putting a guard on a grinder help me? Imagine having to put silly guards on all the grinders! By the way, how does a grinder work?

The real heroes! -
Those folks on the assembly lines are our real heroes. They tell me that in the past twelve months, they have experienced over 45 hydraulic hose-end, blow-off failures, and they always managed to dive out of harm's way!

Multi-craft -
And while we are on the topic of hoses, I have saved myself - oops, the company, thousands of dollars by bringing the hose making equipment in-house.

By the way, when Charlie (the janitor) is through with his work for the day, I want him to make hoses. I don't want all you "qualified" people doing menial tasks!

The risk takers! -
I want to also thank those of you who got doused with hot hydraulic oil for staying on the job and not reporting to the hospital. Imagine leaving work because you have a little hydraulic oil in your eyes!

And Mary, I heard that you did a great job of diving out of the way when Jim disconnected the hose on that crane. Thank the Lord that there is some kind of valve in the cylinder, otherwise I would have had to pay for reconstructing that building. Oh! I forgot to mention, if any of you had got killed, sure it would have buggered up this awards ceremony, but on the other hand you are simple to replace - you are just skilled labor!

I would be remiss if I did not mention Abernathy's incident - he managed to escape serious burn injuries when he inadvertently burned through the steel hydraulic pipe he was welding - who was to know that there would be pressure inside?

Abernathy is the kind of employee we need in this company. He had the brains to jump into the septic tank before he got burned enough to stay at home.

And let's not forget Klem. Klem has struggled to learn hydraulics. He is slow not because he is dumb, but because he doesn't work on hydraulics very often. However, Klem has proven himself to be our best pump mechanic. He can determine the condition of a pump by measuring how far the oil sprays when he removes a hose. We just have to make sure he continues to keep the oil out of the electric motors - that was a close call! By the way, have you managed to find a low bid to recharge the fire extinguishers?

Conclusion -
I could go on, but I have praised you enough. Unfortunately, we have decided to keep all skills training out of the 2003 budget. However, we are sure that the economy will rebound in 2004.

I would like to mention that I will be out of the office for the next two weeks because I have to attend a risk management training course in Phoenix - oh, and Charlie, please don't forget to load my clubs in the Beemer - I mean Chevy! I might get time during my intense training program to get in a round of golf!

In closing, I am mighty proud of what you workers managed to accomplish - albeit under adverse conditions.

So, on behalf of the management, we want to congratulate you all for getting this distinguished award by nothing other than sheer luck, or to put it in the vernacular - by the seat of your pants!" By the way, it will be hanging on the wall in my office. And no, you can't come in if you are dirty!

This is not a joking matter! -
On several occasions, I have been present during a safety awards ceremony.

In each case, the respective safety manager recited the BS (I learned later) on the plaque to the victors, and then held it up high for all to see and admire.

During the course of my training in each of these companies, certain individuals - the same ones who were in the race for the safety plaque - related numerous horror stories to me about non-injury accidents, associated with hydraulics, et al, that go unreported - many on a daily basis!

Hose-end failures - not an accident? -
In one instance, the workers were given a "prize" for working for a year without a lost time accident. In the same year, the assembly-line workers experienced between 50 and 100 hose-end failures.

Less than 1% of American companies report hose-end failures as a near miss, or no-injury accident!

On December 4, 2001, a Colorado mineworker died when a hydraulic hose broke loose and struck him in the face.

Failure to lock out! -
At yet another company, two electricians went up a tower to replace a strobe light. They knowingly failed to lockout the electrical circuit because the mechanism that retained the defective strobe light has automatic safety disconnects (mercury).

As the electrician reached in to tilt the mechanism inward it powered up. He was thrown backwards by the immense pulse. His partner resuscitated him. They remained in the tower until he was somewhat normal. They returned to the ground, and the "accident" went unreported.

This begs the question - what is the use of a reward system that gives people equal recognition regardless of attitude, effort, or compassion?

The proof of the pudding is in the eating! -
When I was a young lad, my dear grandmother would always use the aphorism "the proof of the pudding is in the eating." At the time, I didn't care too much for the content or meaning, I just wanted to eat the pudding!

During one of my safety stops, I decided to "challenge" the audience. After the safety manager delivered his poignant message, and the clapping was in full swing, I asked him if I could borrow the plaque for a moment.

As the clapping died, I held the "prize" in the air, and I offered the victor's a very simple challenge: "I want everyone who has worked tirelessly and effortlessly at being safe; everyone who has always stopped to consider safety before doing any job - be it here or at home; everyone who has safely and totally locked and tagged every machine, every time; everyone who has diligently worn safety attire whenever necessary; everyone who has helped another with safety; yes ladies and gentlemen I want the REAL WINNERS to come up and touch and embrace YOUR well deserved prize!"

One could hear a pin drop or a mouse scamper across the floor in that room as the celebrated "winners" the "champions" glanced at each other. Some looked down so as not to be seen by a colleague who knew that they had stumbled along the way.

A "prize" was being awarded for a group of people who talked-the-talk, but never did walk-the-walk!

There are company employees who wear safety awards in the form of jackets and hats, who have NEVER worked a safe day in their lives unless it was mandated.

Their children see them operating power tools without safety glasses, driving without seat belts, operating a weed-eater without safety glasses.

They sit at the dinner table and complain how they are being denied their constitutional rights at work because they are "forced" to work safely.

Conclusion -
A group safety competition is, in my opinion, a facade. On the surface it has the appearance of a "competitive event." However, it is nothing more and nothing less than a "competition," in which "luck over time," will determine whether or not the group wins.

In fact, a group competition could very well cause a negative effect. If a small number of people have no interest in the cause, the fact that they share the same prize as those who do, might cause the ones who care to succumb to the ways of the uncaring and complacent. At the very least, level of interest will be mediocre!

Like the latter part of the law of energy states: "it cannot be destroyed," so too can the human capacity for competition "never be destroyed." There is nothing healthier for a human than the freedom to compete and win. And those who try hardest must surely reap the grandest prize.

Safety awards should be given to those who seek safety excellence. And let the prize be measured in direct proportion to dedication and effort - success!

Let others earn the same prize by demonstrating equal or better effort. Let those who do not care to practice safety enter jobs in which safety is not conducive to life and limb. Do their families a favor - send them home - forever!

A person who is unsafe by choice is the bad apple in the basket - get rid of him/her before they all become rotten!

From the Fluid Power Safety Institute™, we wish you all a prosperous and above all, a SAFE New Year.

P.S. - Make one of your New Year's resolutions be to help at least one child learn the value of wearing a seat belt. Let's stamp out Youthanasia!

Your comments are welcome.


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