Why does rubbish safety sell?

People in safety bemoan the success of so-called safety programs that have no real footing and are more likely to cause harm rather than good.  So why does safety rubbish sell?  The answer is that it is the same reason that hosts of other seemingly underwhelming products sell for excessive prices; or just downright dangerous things  when well marketed are bought.  Marketing improves the sales of a product beyond its otherwise justifiable level.  That’s the idea of marketing.  To sell something beyond it’s inherent utility or value. Why do mind-altering drugs sell?  Why is fast-food consumed in great volumes.  Why do people smoke?  Just because something is traded does not mean it is useful or provides any benefit to the consumer; or if it provides some benefit at least not a benefit in proportion to the price.

An example of this in the safety world is leadership programs aimed at the new-age safety goal of zero harm.  My view is that if it says leadership on the seminar brochure; don’t go.  Ideally as a business leader you would find out that your work, all of it, makes a difference and you need to do it better.  That would be fairly inconvenient.  Hence an easier sell is that the threat to zero harm in the workplace is lack of compliance of the workers in the business.  Everything is actually fine if people only behaved with care.  Hence the leaders role is only to provide visible support to the ‘safety program’.  Tell ‘leaders’ in the organisation that actually they don’t need to do anything different.

“Mmm” they muse, rubbing their chin.  “That’s good.  I thought for a minute that my work, which remarkably matters in every other respect to the business, would also impact every part of the organisation in terms of safety.  Apparently not!  It doesn’t seem too logical but it is convenient.”

The ‘safety program’ is actually run by the provider.  It’s a widespread activity and concomitantly expensive.  This is because the people who need to change are not a few leaders but actually the operatives in the business.  This suits the actual leaders very nicely because they are already busy doing proper work; that is working on elements that keep the wheels turning such as delivering on strategy, finance and production imperatives.  They can appear to be doing something and it only take a 20 minute walk-around every so often and devoting the first 1 minute of each board minute to the priority of safety.

It will be a massive load off for leaders to have a nice way to avoid changing their own work to make the business safer.  With some help they’d be quickly capable of recognizing how their work affects safety but it would be one less job if it could be avoided.

Done properly a leadership program in safety would cost very little, but would involve more work for the leaders, more change, and would be well-outside the ‘rule enforcer’ capabilities of the providers.  Hence there is very little capability to perform such a program and very little advantage in marketing it anyway.  It would involve demonstrating and discussing with a business leader how their entire work affects safety downstream.  It would involve imagination coupled with a deep understanding of the business, the practicalities of safety and a willingness to learn about the leaders work.  Everything they do would matter.  Not a walk around where they tell people who’s work they don’t understand how to do it.  Not safety interactions for 20 minutes a week to show commitment, but infusing their own work with a better consideration of how it does and will impact safety.

Put simply, leadership in safety involves doing your own work better.  But who will want to sell you a product that is relatively inexpensive and works well?

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About John Culvenor

Hi, Thank you for taking a look at this blog. I work in engineering, ergonomics, creativity, design, training, etc. Often this is about helping solve legal puzzles through accident analysis. Sometimes it is about thinking up better designs for equipment, workplaces, and systems. This blog is about good design and bad design, accident analysis and how it can be done better, and how we can make a better, safer world by design!
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5 Responses to Why does rubbish safety sell?

  1. rodcurrey says:

    Great to hear an opinion that I have once reasoned, (doing your work better). This not only applies to leaders but everyone. Thanks for that confirmation.
    “In every work of genius we see our own rejected thoughts” Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1882.

  2. Thanks Rod. Clever use of the quote!

  3. rodcurrey says:

    Also I have worked for corporate giants that pay millions for safety program’s that dont work. Most program’s rely on everyone using it correctly, training is enthusiastic initially then it wains. Then no one checks it is being used as intended. Then after 12 months new employees don’t know it even exists etc etc. It,s like last years Christmas or birthday presents…..what presents did I get from whom?

  4. It’s a shame when the money could be spent usefully. Your story reminds me of Dumb Ways to Die. Said to be the best ever media campaign in safety. The best – in the world – of all time. Yet it did nothing and has disappeared. So if the best behavioral campaign did nothing – it’s no wonder that the remainder don’t work.

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