The Laboratory for Testing Safety Efforts

EHS Today - January 2022
By: Terry L. Mathis
Printable Version

Several of my academic friends and associates have criticized me for being critical of them and their approach to safety. Ironic to use criticism to condemn criticism. But to me, I was not being critical but analytical. While I disagreed with many of their conclusions and approaches, I carefully read everything they wrote. I find academic investigation to be interesting and potentially valuable. However, such activity is science, and safety is technology. Science discovers the principle and technology applies it to the real world. During my corporate career I headed a number of project teams assigned to solve a problem or explore options to take advantage of an opportunity. In every team we had academic subject-matter experts. In no team were they ever in charge.

I think the structure of these teams tells volumes about the best role for both academics and technologists. Science unapplied is virtually useless. Technology based of false assumptions is not only useless, but dangerous. The two need to work together harmoniously to be truly effective. People from both disciplines have tried to learn the other and be a holistic practitioner of good safety practices in the workplace. Few, if any, have achieved sustained success doing so. Not that there have not been successes in reducing accidents using the knowledge of such practitioners. Several such safety self-proclaimed experts have success stories attached to their efforts. But almost all also have failures.

I believe that the failures are not due strictly to poor practices or faulty logic. Every academic who proclaims that their methodology is superior to all others has a failure rate. The most successful academics who started large consulting practices blame their failures on the consultants in the field. The assumption is that the methodology is perfect, but the field personnel are not. That assumption is partially true. Consultants can make mistakes and fail to carry out the plan. But consultants can also take the exact same approach at one site successfully and at another without success.

So what truly differentiates success from failure? I suggest it is not the science foundation of the approach. It is not the technology developed from the science. And it is not the inconsistencies in practice of the consultants delivering the services. The difference is the safety culture of the site where the improvement efforts are taking place. What works with one safety culture does not necessarily work with another. Every group of workers have had a different experience and have come to different conclusions about the safest way to work at their site. Every group of workers has a different relationship model among its members which dictates what is okay to discuss and what is not. Every culture is impacted by a different set of supervisors and managers who may have vastly different leadership styles and practices. Every culture is impacted by different environmental workplace conditions including equipment interfaces and procedures. Every culture has a unique set of pressures for production numbers, quality and timing. All these factors make it virtually impossible to develop one methodology that works for all.

Many academics find it difficult to accept that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to safety. Science seeks out universal truths and such truths should address safety universally. But the devil is in the details. While the science may be universally true the application of it can be as variable as the culture in which you are attempting to apply the science.

At a conference years ago, an academic was pointing out a principle of psychology he called "stated intent." The premise was that if a person stated their intent to do something to others, they were more likely to follow though and do what they stated they would do. But when they used an example of how that could be used in safety they proposed asking a worker to fill out a card stating their intent to wear a particular piece of PPE. When they ask the other panelists what they thought about that approach one of them suggested they would get the card back somewhere they did not want it. The science was accurate, but the technology was not a good fit with the safety culture. If you want to build a structure, the physics are the same on earth and on Mars. But the environment is different and the application of the physics must be suited to the environment. The universal truths must be tempered with the situational realities.

A client company asked me to develop training for salespeople to sell a highly technical product. They asked me if they should take technicians and teach them to sell or take sales people and teach them the science behind the product. I told them I had successfully taught science to non-scientists but had never successfully taught salesmanship to non-salesmen. We brought in their sales force and taught them to sell the new product with great success.

I think this exemplifies the challenge of marrying science and technology in safety. I have found it much easier to take people familiar with the culture and its members and teach them safety science than to take scientists and teach them all the soft skills needed to implement safety processes in a specific safety culture. I have successfully taught a few consultants to both assess a safety culture and to customize an approach to safety to fit that culture. But most consultants only mastered a few and not all of the skills needed to deliver customized safety improvement.

I have spent my last 28 years assessing safety cultures and customizing approaches to help them reach safety excellence. I have taught a very few others to do likewise and have attempted unsuccessfully to teach several others. The five books, 250 blogs and podcasts and over 200 articles I have published were based on my experiences with my client companies. I think the real world of safety is the perfect laboratory in which to study and perfect safety technology. The acid test for any approach is if it works in the real world, where it counts.

Because I am no longer working directly with clients or consultants, I am running out of real world material and will not be writing a regular column in the near future. Thank you all for following and most of all for passionately caring for the safety of yourself and others.

Terry Mathis, Founder and retired CEO of ProAct Safety, has served as a consultant and advisor for top organizations the world over. A respected strategist and thought leader in the industry, Terry has authored five books, numerous articles and blogs, and is known for his dynamic and engaging presentations. EHS Today has named him one of the '50 People Who Most Influenced EHS' four consecutive times. Business leaders and safety professionals seek Terry's practical insight and unique ability to introduce new perspectives that lead to real change. Terry can be reached at or 800-395-1347.

Subscribe to our newsletter