The Evolution of Safety Human Factors According to Band-Aid Bob

This is a story of the people who helped shape today’s safety industry and paved the way for future changes in the management and perception of health and safety. This is also a story of the evolution of health and safety according to a safety professional we’ll call Band-aid Bob.

In the Beginning

In the late 1800’s, there were no health and safety professionals. Companies would never have thought of retaining people specifically to manage health and safety for them. In fact, in the workplace, humans really were not ranked all that high as a resource. In the mining industry for example, mules were often used to haul equipment and materials in and out of the mines. When a serious incident occurred such as an explosion, rescue operations focused not on humans but on the mules. A dead mule cost the mine around $24 to replace. A worker, making around $3 per day, was inexpensive to replace as there was generally a lineup of people willing to work in exchange for pay. If a worker was only injured he would be sent home to recover with no pay. If he recovered fully, he would be allowed to return to work.

In the early 1900’s (i.e. around 1914), workers’ compensation insurance was established in many areas in North America. The insurance provided compensation to employees who were injured as well as to the families of those who had died on the job. It was at this time that companies started hiring people to help patch up their injured workers and to get them back to work as soon as possible, as well as help prevent further injuries. Some called these people “safety advisers”. The evolution of the Safety Adviser’s role is perhaps best shown by the legend of an individual known as Band-aid Bob.

Band-aid Bob wasn’t his real name, but that is what he came to be called. If ever there was a safety person who could patch people up after they were injured, it was Bob. At this time in the evolutionary history of health and safety, there was no such thing as formal health and safety management systems. Workplace injuries were common and accepted as part of the job. People like Band-aid Bob were typically hired by only the largest of companies who needed someone to administer good first aid and felt they could afford the overhead. Many of these safety people were workers with work injury disabilities such as a missing hand, fingers, or toes. After all, if anyone knew anything about health and safety, it had to be an already injured worker.

Bob was very good at his job. One evening, tired from a hard day of administering bandages, cauterizing wounds, and massaging strained muscles, Band-aid Bob decided to take some time for himself. He packed up some gear and hiked into the mountains. Trekking up Mount Doringba, he made an incredible discovery that would change how companies viewed employee health and safety.

High on the mountain, Bob stumbled onto some tablets inscribed with strange writings. Among many broken pieces of tablets, he found two intact pieces. Excited about his find, he brought the two tablets back to the City and had them transcribed. The tablets’ writings proved to be pivotal to health and safety as they identified key elements to achieving health and safety excellence. The elements included: Management Commitment and Involvement, Hazard Identification and Assessment, Records and Administration, Inspection, and Investigation.

Soon Bob found himself on a speaking tour spreading the word about his findings, laced with interpretations from none other than Band-aid Bob himself. When asked about the significance of the writings, Bob would respond, “These key elements are needed in order to achieve safety excellence. Success in implementing these elements means you will never have to bandage up an employee again.”

Present Day Health & Safety Management Systems

To many people, Bob’s new approach to safety made a lot of sense and, over time, Bob gained quite a following. Soon word spread and companies all over the world adopted the elements. Mounting interest in the elements gave rise to numerous health & safety associations, safety professionals and consultants who all helped spread the word to millions of companies and their employees. Many companies hired people dedicated to implementing and maintaining these landmark elements. Billions of dollars were spent implementing them.

For a time, improvements to health and safety were achieved. Companies employing the elements noticed reductions in incident and accident rates. Fatality rates decreased. Insurance rates decreased. This success lasted for many years but, there came a time when fatality rates stopped decreasing and some people started to question the value of the basic program elements. Others suggested the basic elements had improved about all they could improve in their companies. They called for a re-evaluation of the status quo, but the prospect of change was a very hard sell. By this time, so many people had bought in to the basic health and safety elements that had been passed down to them by Band-aid Bob. Their livelihood depended upon them. To now buy into alternative approaches threatened their very existence and would suggest they had all along been following the wrong path.

And so it went on for many years: companies entrenched in Bob’s basic elements failed to achieve the safety excellence promised them. Many health and safety professionals reported difficulties in getting the elements in place and functioning fully. At this time in the evolutionary era of health and safety systems, many viewed health and safety as a program, separate from all other aspects of the business. As with other “programs” when times got tough, health and safety systems got cut or downsized to make way for leaner programs yielding profit. For many of these companies, survival and productivity were the real number one priorities. Health and safety was silently considered to be an extra cost of doing business. It was around this time that some important truths were revealed that would result in another enormous shift in health and safety management philosophy.

Dissatisfaction continued to increase with the current approach to health and safety. Band-aid Bob Jr., grandson of Band-aid Bob (who had passed on to that safe haven in the sky) and also a Safety Adviser, reflected on the state of health and safety at this time. More than 90 years had passed since Band-aid Bob had discovered the basic safety program elements. This approach had failed to yield the improvements to employee health and safety that had been promised. If ever there was a time to re-think the old failed philosophies around health and safety program management, this was it. So, Band-aid Bob Jr. packed up his things and retreated to the mountains, coincidentally to the exact mountain and spot where his grandfather had retreated many years ago.

The New Approach to Health and Safety Management

When Band-aid Bob Jr. arrived at the spot where his grandfather had made his discovery, the area, at first, seemed clear. But then he stumbled on a half-buried rock and upon closer examination, he noticed that it was more than just a plain old rock. Also, he noticed other rocks poking out of the earth. He spent some time digging them out, packed them up, and returned to his home in the City. Without hesitation, Bob went to work on cleaning up the rocks and putting the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle. When he was done, he found that he had two more complete tablets containing more direction on how to achieve safety excellence.

He had them transcribed into English. When he showed off his new find, there was a great commotion, but mostly there was disbelief. “How could there be more elements?” people exclaimed. There were many meetings and discussions about the new elements and they were examined one by one. Following is a summary of what some call “Health and Safety Human Factors,” along with some of the meeting discussions.

Values/Safety Priority

A company’s real health and safety priorities are revealed not by cleverly crafted policies posted throughout the facilities, but by how the employees carry out their work. It only takes one incident of management telling a crew to drive to the worksite in a blinding storm, to carry out work short-staffed, to work hastily, or to skip the pre-job safety meeting, to undermine thousands of verbal and written affirmations of “safety first”. Workers’ behaviour are strongly influenced by their perceptions of the company’s real health and safety priorities. If they believe safety takes a back seat to production, employees will make the decision to take that trip in bad weather or work shorthanded. When an incident occurs it is easy to blame the employee for not complying with the documented procedures. Unfortunately, the company’s real values and priorities are rarely identified as even contributing incident factors.

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