Understanding Safety Culture is an art not a science so…

“Define and measure what you can and seek to understand the yet undefinable and currently unmeasurable through the evidence as it presents itself through thoughtful observation.” Alan D. Quilley CRSP

If we don’t get practical (even though we maybe technically and philosophically somewhat incorrect) we won’t be able to help anyone with changing the outcomes.

Our knowledge and abilities to measure “culture” may indeed be limited today. We need to continue our “attempts” to define the, as yet, undefinable factors that we “think” may be at play here. Over time, some of the many truths about culture will appear and what seems mysterious and hazy at the moment will become clearer and hence more manageable.

The adventure continues…when you’re standing a few inches from the trunk of a large tree, so close that you can see nothing else but you are hearing birds singing, feeling the humidity and smelling pine, it’s difficult to KNOW that you are in a forest…but it would be a good guess!

The Best Book I Ever Read

The following is an article I wrote a few years ago for the Canadian Occupational Safety magazine hat I write for. I also included it in my second book “Creating & Maintaining a Practical Based Safety Culture” I hope that you have a “Best” Book…actually I hope you have many…I do. Obviously a follow-up article is in order and on it’s way!

 I was having lunch recently with a long time friend and colleague. He’s also an author and we were chatting about life, family, books and our profession. During this reflection time he casually asked me “What’s the best book that you’ve ever read?” This question coming from an author begs the answer “Well, yours of course.” In this case, I just couldn’t bring myself to say that, even though my friend’s book is indeed a fine and thought provoking literary work. This question, although casual in nature, sent me on a thought journey of significant proportion. You see, at the moment, I blurted out one of the management “best seller” books I had recently been reading and I went on to talk about how inspirational the author was but honestly my answer wasn’t very carefully selected.

After lunch I jotted the question down in my notebook for further reflection and exploration. So here’s what I’ve come up with as a more thoughtful answer…

Define “the best”

If I define “the best” as the one book that influenced me the most, I’d answer differently than “the best” being defined as most entertaining. I have some favorite fiction writers that I turn to when I’m sitting on a sunny beach somewhere. For this question, I decided that “the best” meant the most meaningful in my life, the most influential, and the book that perhaps even changed my life.

I have an extensive library mostly filled with textbooks from my formal education studies and my professional practice. I have all of Dan Petersen’s books; many organizational behaviour and business management texts. There is a large selection of texts that the Board of Certified Safety Professionals list as required reading. I put these to good use in our workshops to help budding CRSP’s in their studies to pass the examination. There’s a Behaviour Based Safety section with the entire list of well known authors in their field. There are even several Occupational Hygiene texts that I’ll freely admit I only use as references and have not read cover to cover.

As I gazed at what is a significant collection of OH&S knowledge I couldn’t help but focus on a thick, tattered text which sat in the very first position top left.

The Short & Fat NSC Book

The National Safety Council’s Accident Prevention Manual for Industrial Operations 5th Edition (1964) with its lightly soiled and scuffed cover and slightly damaged binding grabbed my attention. I opened the cover to see my name proudly printed on the inside cover beside the name of the fellow OH&S officer I had worked with so many years ago. This fellow was retiring and he had given me his “resources” book. He’d used it in his career and he was now passing it on to me since his need for it was about to diminish significantly. I believe he was planning to go fishing! I wish that I could remember more clearly our conversation about this book but I believe he told me that someone had given it to him. From the condition and date of publication that would certainly make sense.

This text had a huge influence on what I thought about the history and science of safety management. At the time I was very new into my chosen profession and really not very knowledgeable. I was very eager to learn so that certainly influenced the amount of impact that this book’s contents could and would have on me. The knowledge packed between the worn covers revealed a whole new way to look at protecting humans. Safety hazards and controls such as guards, pinch points, rotating shafts, levers and mechanical advantage were all revealed to me. Roll over protective structures, ladders, scaffolding and toe boards were all detailed for my sponge-like, information thirsty brain to absorb. I learned about Job Safety Analysis, fall protection, hoisting and rigging and the Accident Investigation. I even learned the proper way to pick up that special nicely squared box that fits oh so well between the knees of the worker in the picture so he could lift “with legs and not his back.”  Partly because of what I learned from this book there was a time when I could quote chapter and verse the controls for trench cave in and the cut back angles for various types of soils. It was all there alright, just waiting for me to inflict this new knowledge that I’d gained on my unfortunately less informed fellow humans.

Back then I was an OH&S officer for the Alberta Government driving around the province enforcing what were fairly new OH&S Act and Regulations. Inspecting random worksites and investigating serious injury incidents filled my day. Writing “orders” for improvements to the non-compliant masses. Indeed the science of safety filled my days and often well into the night. Through my formative years I often referred to this National Safety Council text as my safety “bible”. It would be many years until I realized that this text was really only half of the puzzle. I would gradually find out that the “short and fat “ text was missing a big part of the “art” of safety. That art I would learn from many other sources and mentors…but that’s another story for another time.

The National Safety Council has gone on to improve their knowledge of the art and science of safety management and pass it on to us through their many texts and products. A book by the same title as my aged text is now in its 12th edition. I highly recommend that you consider adding this text and many of their other wonderful resources to your library.  You can even get their materials on CD. By the way I’m not on commission nor is there any financial arrangement with me and the NSC…they are just great folks who’ve given a great deal of themselves to help us understand how we can help each other stay safe and healthy.

Now I guess I’ll have to give some thought to which young safety geek I should pass this old trooper of a text on to when I retire…whoever you are…don’t be holding your breath, I’m having way too much fun at this!