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Helping Us Understand Who We Protect (A Book Recommendation)

Keeping workers safe is an ever-changing mix of technical know-how and psychology. It’s the psychology element that many times proves to be the most vexing. This is especially true in root cause investigations when the line of questioning inevitably veers towards “What was that employee thinking?”, “Why did he/she do that?”, and “Were they actually trying to get hurt?”. Given this, it stands to reason that employee psychology is central to a number of popular safety philosophies including human and organizational performance (HOP) and behavioral based safety (BBS).

Employee psychology is also crucial to the success or failure of safety incentive programs and safety discipline programs. Having written or contributed to a number of such programs in my career, I counted myself among those who believed they understood how and why employees behave the way they do. Ultimately, better understanding the psyche of who we’re protecting should lead us to be better, more effective safety professionals. That brings me to the “Oprah’s Book Club” portion of today’s program...

Over the weekend, I read “Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America” by Linda Tirado (Link to Amazon). The book is a firsthand account of the author’s life on the edge of poverty, and recounts her experiences as an hourly employee (and sometimes “temp” employee) in several different industries.

From an occupational safety perspective, my key takeaways from the book included the following:

1. Employees of the sort described by Tirado are just trying to get to the end of whatever shift it is that they’re currently working. Doing so "safely" may or may not be a conscious concern. Significantly, the end of their shift at your workplace may see them going directly to a second (or third) job at another workplace. Perhaps we should consider whether our employees are more tired (and less alert) than we typically assume.

2. Tirado mentions several work-related injuries that she suffered at various jobs. She obviously omitted details around whether (and when) she reported these injuries to management. Given the author's inherent fear of losing her job(s) and the inability to spare time for medical care, it’s doubtful that the injuries were properly reported. In light of what I say in #3, below, consider re-emphasizing the importance of front line supervisors keeping their eyes open for injuries at all times.

3. The all encompassing weariness and hopelessness of Tirado’s personal situation (her characterization, not mine) leave me with serious doubts about the efficacy of BBS and both safety incentives and safety-related discipline (e.g., for failing to timely report an injury) as they might apply to this type of employee. This is not to suggest, however, that these programs serve no purpose in the typical workplace.

I’d like to end with two important caveats with respect to the book. First, the viewpoints expressed in the book clearly apply only to a subset of employees in any given workplace. Nevertheless, as EHS professionals, we owe it to ourselves and our respective workforces to make an effort to understand what makes these folks tick. Second, the book is understandably politically polarizing (but, what isn’t these days?). To slip into lawyer speak, I’m not offering the book for its truth. I’m offering it because someone took the time to say what’s in the book (apologies to my fellow litigators for the slight perversion of one of the exceptions to the hearsay rule).

At the end of the day, I’m for anything that could help us keep a few more people safe. This book could be one of those things.


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