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Safety Ethics Through One Professional’s Eyes

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by Scott Montgomery, Advisor, Safety Management Group

In August 2007, while crews were dismantling the former Deutsche Bank building that had been severely damaged when the Twin Towers collapsed, a fire broke out that killed two firefighters. Days later, a scaffold collapse seriously injured two other firefighters. But the deaths and injuries weren’t what stunned the safety industry; it was the allegations of safety violations that may have contributed to the tragedies. After a lengthy investigation, a site safety manager and two supervisors for a subcontractor were indicted for charges that included manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment.

To safety professionals worldwide, the Deutsche Bank site incident provided chilling evidence of what can happen when ethical safety practices are compromised or simply forgotten.

For safety professionals, ethical practices are far more than some theory discussed in a classroom. The ultimate goal of the profession we’ve chosen is to make sure that people are able to go home unhurt at the end of the workday. While there are many other benefits to a safety program, such as improved productivity, higher-quality work, better morale, and lower insurance rates for owners and contractors, ultimately it comes down to looking after other people. After all, a lot of the work that’s performed on construction and in industrial sites can hurt somebody.

Some workers assume that a safety professional’s primary job is enforcement, but my experience has taught me that education is far more important and effective. While every situation and worksite is different, the best safety professionals I’ve seen have focused on helping people understand why they need to be safe and follow safe practices.

I’ve been fortunate to have spent my entire career consulting with companies that are in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program, demonstrating the importance that they place on ensuring a safe workplace. I’ve particularly appreciated seeing that every time I’ve observed other companies and colleagues grapple with safety issues.

One thing I’ve often noticed is that many workers just haven’t had the proper training. If they haven’t been taught about safety in the field, they won’t know the proper practices, and they’re likely to share the common misconception that safety rules are in place only to keep them from doing their jobs, or to complicate their lives.

That’s why I emphasize education. If I see workers failing to use the right procedures, I’ll stop them and say, “Hey, guys, this seems to be unsafe. Can we take a moment and maybe think of a different way to do this?” I’ll explain what OSHA and the owner’s rules say, and remind them that following through will keep us all safe.

It takes time to educate people, but when they see that you have a genuine concern for their safety, you build trust. I know that I’ve connected when workers come up to alert me that another contractor on the site isn’t following the safety rules. They’re not trying to “tell on” them. Instead, they recognize that another worker may be injured, and they don’t want to see that happen.

Ultimately, remaining true to one’s ethical beliefs demands refusing to comply with unsafe requests. On those rare occasions when a contractor or a worker asked me to overlook something or ignore an unsafe situation, I’ve stood my ground. I look the individual straight in the eyes and tell them that it just isn’t going to work. If an action is going to put people in harm’s way, I’m going to have nothing to do with it.

It’s not because I’m afraid of headlines like the ones surrounding the Deutsche Bank site. It’s just that I don’t want to see anybody hurt. That’s what being a safety professional is all about.

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