The Big Lie
Warning: Reading this could make you mad. But, calling you out on your safety program, or lack thereof, could save a life. Literally.
The recycling industry hurts and kills a disproportionately high number of people compared to other industries. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010, workers in the “refuse and recycling” industry were killed on the job at the rate of 29.8 fatalities per 100,000 workers. That’s compared to a rate of only 18 fatalities per 100,000 for police officers. Given the nature of the work we do, it seems inconceivable to me that our jobs are 33% more dangerous than that of a cop. 

Our dismal numbers make us the 7th deadliest industry in America, at precisely the time when regulators around the country are jacking up fines and hiring new regulators. Six-figure OSHA fines are becoming commonplace, and seven-figure fines are not unheard of.

As the director of safety for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, I hear from members all the time who are apoplectic over the brazenness of newly-empowered and freshly-enabled OSHA compliance officers who arrive unannounced and spend days or even weeks picking through operating areas, writing up every discrepancy they find. The general consensus of those who are audited by OSHA is that they have been victimized by overzealous bureaucrats.

I counter that those compliance officers are merely doing their jobs by catching business managers in the act of not doing theirs. If this moment in history is, in fact, the perfect storm of regulations and litigation, then the storm is the direct result of a rain dance we’ve performed for forty-two years.

Yes, forty-two years. That’s how long OSHA regulations have been around, and they have seen precious little alteration in that time. For the vast majority of workers toiling today, the regulations have been in effect for every moment of their professional lives. To claim ignorance of a body of law that has been around for so long is disingenuous, at best. At worst, it’s a prime component of a multifaceted delusion regarding worker safety that I call “The Big Lie”.

The truth is that we really do know about safety regulations. We just don’t care. And our fatality statistics prove it.

To be clear: I’m not suggesting that we don’t care about our employees, or that we wish them harm – in 30 years in the safety business, I’ve never run into a situation where business owners didn’t prefer a healthy workforce over and injured one – I’m just suggesting that we don’t care enough to do enough to protect them.

“Safety is Number One.”

We’ve all seen the sign that proclaims safety to be the top priority. It’s on walls, on advertising boards, and sometimes even stitched into workers’ uniforms. Safety. Is. Number. One.


Quit lying. Safety is not number one. Production is number one. Money, customers, units processed and quality are all higher priorities in most businesses. We say that safety’s first because we know that’s what we’re supposed to say. People expect it. But we don’t believe it in our hearts.

Think about it. If you’re like most managers I know, you don’t tolerate tardiness or absenteeism in an employee, but you’re more than willing to forgive a safety infraction. You’ll accept “oops, I forgot” as an excuse for not wearing protective equipment or not locking out a machine, but you’d never accept that as an excuse for a quality violation.

The simple fact of the matter is that safety rarely has an equal place at the management table. Every day, we actively manage for productivity and quality and profit, but safety is relegated to a tool box talk and a meeting every other Thursday. Certainly, safety is not first.

In the interest of honesty, every business owner needs to make a choice: He either has to stop perpetuating the The Big Lie and take that sign down, or he needs to figure out a way to turn the sign into a statement of truth. The second choice is preferred.

And it’s easier to do than you think.

Managing For Safety is Like Managing for Anything Else

We need to stop thinking of safety as an asterisk on a larger mission of profitability. Safety and productivity are close siblings, not distant cousins. We need to stop having separate production meetings and safety meetings, and start having safe-production meetings. We need to reorient how we think about the management challenge that is safety.

When we manage for anything – quality, productivity, whatever – we intuitively break the management challenge into four steps:

1.  Establish the goal.
2.  Communicate the goal to others.
3.  Put a plan in place to achieve the goal.
4.  Evaluate the plan as we go along, and make corrections as necessary.

In the space available here, we’ll only be able to get through Step One – but Step One’s a doozy.

Establish the Goal

Nine times out of ten, the safety management model stumbles on the first step out of the gate, when we first attempt to establish a goal for safety. For a goal to be capable of evaluation, it must be stated as a positive integer. We don’t tell our management team, “we want to make more money this year than last year.” That’s far too soft. Instead, we establish solid goals of making X dollars by processing Y units at a margin of Z. Once the goals are established, managers are held accountable for achieving them.

When it comes to safety, though, establishing goals becomes more difficult. Absent a good measure of safety, companies often resort to something like, “zero accidents.” Let’s think this through.

Is zero really our goal, or in our heart of hearts, would we really be happy if we had fewer injuries this year than last year? Be honest now.

If you had ten lost time accidents last year, wouldn’t you be doing the happy dance if you only had five this year? Sure you would. The problem is that we can’t go on the record saying, “our safety goal for 2012 is to injure five employees.” Talk about your mixed messages.

Besides, most safety goals aren’t really goals, anyway; at least not in the same sense as production goals, which are the ones we make sure everyone understands. We tell our management team that their goal – consistent with that big sign on the wall – that there’s zero tolerance for anyone getting hurt. And if someone does get hurt, the consequence to the injured employee’s manager will be ...


There’s no clearer evidence of The Big Lie than the disparity that exists between the consequences to a manager when he fails to meet production goals versus when he fumbles his safety goals. Management incentives are typically all about production, with little or no consideration given to safety. 

The Myth of the Careless Employee

More times than not, “worker carelessness” is listed on workers compensation forms as the primary cause of accidents. When this is the case, the typical corrective action listed is, “instructed the worker to be more careful.” Among safety professionals, this is considered less-than-optimum accident investigation.

We accept this as truth, though: workers are careless. If that is indeed the case, then why not hire more careful employees and be done with it? In fact, if worker carelessness is, in fact, a primary cause of accidents, why don’t we solve the problem permanently by firing the person who does the hiring? We don’t do that because it’s a preposterous solution to a preposterous allegation.

By and large, in my experience, workers aren’t hurt when they’re being careless; they’re hurt when they’re doing what they were told to do.

Consistent with other elements of The Big Lie, employers tacitly encourage “careless” behavior by rewarding the resultant perceived productivity. We allow workers to take short cuts, to drive too fast, to not wear seat belts, to operate equipment whose guards are missing or broken, and to toil in unsafe conditions often because those conditions and practices are so commonplace as to become invisible.

In the hundreds of accidents I have investigated in my career, the vast majority of injured workers sustained their injuries while performing tasks exactly the way they’d always been performed. If they didn’t lock out the machine it’s because they never lock out the machine. It’s only after the bottom fell out of their luck jar and they had the audacity to get hurt that their bosses start calling them names: Careless. Stupid. Inattentive.

Here’s a self-test: If you’re the boss, and you don’t require workers to shut down a piece of equipment whose guard is missing or damaged, if you don’t discipline workers for driving a fork truck without a seatbelt, or if you don’t continually seek out potential hazards and fix them on the spot, then you’re the one being careless.

And if, as a result of your inattentiveness or carelessness, someone gets hurt, don’t dishonor everyone by calling it an “accident.” Call it what it is: a management failure. If it’s your job to move units out the door, then it’s also your job to send your employees home whole and healthy. I’m not suggesting necessarily that the injury was your fault, but merely that it happened on your watch, and you’re responsible, just as you’re responsible for the good stuff that happens on your watch.

After someone is hurt, concentrate on finding the string of failures that led to the injury, and worry less about whose fault it was. Beginning with a presumption of carelessness ruins morale, and guarantees that similar injuries will happen in the future. Investigations need to be about fact-finding. Leave the name-calling for the school yard.

A successful safety program – the long journey toward transforming The Big Lie to a statement of fact – begins when you establish real goals, and you hold managers accountable to them.

“Zero accidents” is a counterproductive goal, if only because it doesn’t measure anything positive; it merely measures the absence of a negative. Even if you achieve the goal, you won’t know why. That’s not management. That’s rolling the dice.

So, what are good safety goals? Only you can decide what’s most relevant to your operations, but the key requirements are that the goals be a) measurable, and b) reasonably achievable. It’s also important that the goals focus on managers and supervisors, not on line employees. (Line employees only get away with what their bosses let them get away with.)

Some suggested goals: Achieve an average score of 90% or better on weekly audits conducted by other managers (i.e., cross-inspections); conduct X safety training sessions per week; ensure an average turn-around on safety work orders of not more than X days.

The idea is to raise the profile of safety to the same level as productivity.

At the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, ISRI Safety provides a wide range of safety outreach services to our members. We go to their facilities and train their employees on-site. We help managers untangle the knot that is the safety management challenge. These services are offered free of charge, but with one stipulation. They must sign the ISRI Safety Pledge, which states in part, “Our mission as a company is to serve customers and produce high-quality product safely. If we cannot do it safely, then we will not do it at all.”

Unless a company is willing to embrace the notion that no dollar in revenue – no million dollars in revenue – is worth a drop of blood, no amount of training, counseling or engineering will be able to make the workplace safe. n

John Gilstrap has been a safety engineer for 30 years, and is the director of safety for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries in Washington, DC. He is also the New York Times bestselling author of nine thrillers. His books have been translated into over 20 languages. Contact John at

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