In last week’s post, I introduced Bob, a smart operations director I coached in a large chemical corporation where we both worked. We were touring a plant when when a group of senior mechanics backed up a claim I’d made to Bob when we were en route: those of us in senior management were only aware of about 10% of our plants’ incidents and injuries.

The next week, Bob called me into his office and asked me to explain why that was the case. He was frustrated and feeling a bit blindsided. I felt for him and tried to soften the blow. “I speak to groups about safety performance often, and whenever I ask them to raise their hands if they’ve ever had a work injury that they never reported, invariably, almost every hand in the room goes up,” I said.

“Yeah, I get that, Cort,” Bob said. “But why?”

I knew our lack of injury reporting was a symptom of a more insidious problem with how we approached safety. I also knew Bob wasn’t ready to have that conversation yet. So, at this point in our coaching engagement, I simply answered his question by sharing just a few of the reasons why people had told me they didn’t report injuries and incidents over the years.

Here they are:

“I don’t like being perceived as bad or dumb.” I explained to Bob that we’ve been conditioned to believe that people injured at work have done something wrong or stupid. “Just look at our company’s injury report form,” I told him. “Under the Employee section are checkboxes next to words and phrases like inattention, rushing, failure to follow procedures, and improper tool use. I’ve even seen forms elsewhere with options like careless, reckless, and irresponsible. As an operator once told me, ‘If they’re going to call me careless, then I couldn’t care less about their injury reporting policy.’”

“I will be investigated and everyone will know exactly how I screwed up.” Almost all companies investigate incidents and injuries, no matter how minor. As background, here’s how those processes usually work: a team is formed. That team interviews everyone involved to determine the “root cause.” Once the team has its root cause, it writes a report that describes what happened, outlines the cause, and makes recommendations. The team then presents the report to management, who decides what recommendations will be implemented and whether or not the injured person will be punished (and how). The team publishes this report, and it is shared and discussed with all employees at the next safety meeting.

“How would you like it if you made a serious mistake, and a report describing how you screwed up was plastered all over the company’s walls?” I asked Bob.

Note: There are much more serious issues with the typical accident investigation approach. In fact, these “witch hunts” as I’ve often heard them called can do more harm than good. I’ll discuss this issue in next week’s post.

“I’ll cost my co-workers their safety award.” I once worked in a plant where the benefits clerk reported a minor injury to her index finger in mid-December that cost everyone their annual safety bonus. “The tenor-most managers lost more than $20,000,” I told Bob. “Everyone forgot the 29 injuries we’d had before Beth reported hers, but no one has ever forgotten Beth’s. To this day, her nickname is Gold Finger.”

“I’ll be turned into a number or category.” Although well-intended, injury classifications and statistics dehumanize sacred beings. “Safety is about people,” I told Bob. “The second we start labeling them as the ‘injured party’ and categorizing what happened to them as ‘lost-time” or “recordable,” all as we point to numerical safety goals, we’re no longer treating them like people. That language objectifies human beings. No one likes being discussed as an ‘it.’ I call that ‘iting’ them. When you ‘it’ someone, you stop relating to them as a person.”

Then, I told Bob a story I also included in my book, Heretics to Heroes: a refinery manager named Jerry was participating in a seminar I was leading. After noticing that the manager continually defined safety in terms of “recordable” injuries, I asked him to imagine he was in his office the next morning and that someone walked in and said, “We just had a man get burned.”

I then asked Jerry two questions: 1) “What is the first thing you’re going to say?” and 2) “What is the first thing you’re going to do?”

After several uncomfortable moments, Jerry looked from his table and replied with obvious shame, “I’d ask, ‘Is it going to be recordable?’ and then I’ll call my boss and tell him we had another recordable injury.”

“So in other words, Jerry, you’re going to be more concerned with covering your ass than the well-being of your employee,” I said.

My comment yielded a loud gasp from the audience, but Jerry answered, “Yeah, I’m going to cover my ass.”

I explained to Bob that I felt comfortable asking Jerry this because 1) he seemed like a caring manager who had forgotten what is important, and 2) I’d acted the same way when I was manager until something happened that opened my eyes.

I told Bob, “I felt comfortable asking Jerry this because 1) he seemed like a caring manager who unfortunatley had forgotten what’s important, and 2) I’d acted the same way when I was a manager until I had my eyes opened up.”

Then, I asked Jerry if there was someone in his life that was extra special. Without hesitation, he said, “My oldest boy, Jerry Jr.” I asked him to imagine being in his living room next weekend, only to have someone come to his house to tell him Jerry, Jr. had been burned. Jerry sat still, eyes on my face.

I asked him the same two questions again. He sat up in his chair, gulped, and said, “I’m going to ask, ‘Where is he?’ and then I’m going to go to him to make sure he’s okay.”

Finally, I asked Jerry to once again imagine that someone burst into his refinery office to tell him someone had just been burned. “No kidding, Jerry,” I told him. “What is the first thing you’re going to do?”

“I’m going to ask, ‘Where is he?’ and then I’m going to make sure he’s okay!” Jerry replied passionately. The other 70 managers in the room burst into cheers and applause.

Bob had been listening to the story quietly. “So, Bob,” I said. “Who’s going to believe their leader cares about them when one of them gets injured and they’re not referred to by their name, but as the ‘injured party’ and then classified as ‘recordable?’ Who will report injuries and incidents to management who doesn’t even treat them as people who can be hurt in the first place?”

Bob had another meeting, so we left the conversation there. We agreed to meet again a few days later. In my next post, I’ll tell you what we discussed––it was the big talk I’d been anxious to have with Bob, the conversation that began to help him realize there was a fundamental flaw in the way we––and most companies––approached safety.

It’s the reason why, despite decades of hard work and billions of dollars spent on safety programs and processes, we still hurt a lot of our people, and from time to time, even kill them.

Let’s go All-In.