RE: [xmca] A Culture of Safety at Work

From: Worthen, Helena Harlow <hworthen who-is-at>
Date: Thu Jan 17 2008 - 18:07:47 PST

This is helpful, too, as is Mike's reference to the Gary Alan Fine article which I can get from my library.

In this situation, the "culture" is the object upon which the activity of learning (teams of students learning, management learning, workers learning) takes place. As the learning happens, the object is going to change. We'll have to note that. But first we have to learn what it is, from the multiple points of view involved.

Thanks --

Helena Worthen, Clinical Associate Professor
Labor Education Program, Institute of Labor & Industrial Relations
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
504 E. Armory, Room 227
Champaign, IL 61821
Phone: 217-244-4095

-----Original Message-----
From: [] On Behalf Of Steve Gabosch
Sent: Thursday, January 17, 2008 12:35 AM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] A Culture of Safety at Work

Mike is right, Helena's questions and post deserve a serious
response. I had too many ideas at once so I waited for others to say
something, and now Mike just did. So here are few thoughts that come
to mind.

I watched the safety "culture" at Boeing Commercial Aircraft factories
transform considerably over the period 1979 thru 2007. Many of the
items Helena mentions below were involved - protective equipment,
process improvements, new habits, new forms of problem solving on the
factory floor. Many industries changed their safety "cultures" during
those decades, and still are. Some, like Boeing, changed safety
practices for the better, especially from the point of view of death,
injury, and "lost work day" measurements, and some seemed to get worse
- for example, coal mines, and other areas where unionism has eroded
or been eliminated in recent decades, such as meat packing. The
bottom line is that safety takes a lot of capital investment and daily
resources, and only happens when management really gets serious about
changing how work is really done. The traditional method of ignoring
safety problems until someone gets hurt and then blaming the hurt
person(s) for the incident is still very much in use at Boeing, (using
slick "coaching" meetings that are "documented", for example) but this
atmosphere of intimidation is also accompanied by, in more and more
cases, genuine dedication of resources to investigate changing a
process that created a problem. This is relatively new.

Something I also noticed over the years, highly capitalized factories
like Boeing use safety laws (OSHA and the state level versions of it)
to compete with other outfits - when Boeing decides it is willing to
invest in a safety improvement, it often becomes a government
regulation that others now must follow. In this way, Boeing can use
the government to dominate areas of high tech and large scale metal
processing and other forms of production, setting standards and
thereby having an influence on industry profit rates. My point here
is that this safety "culture" is very much tied to very large and far-
reaching economic issues, many now global.

A very interesting aspect of changes in safety "culture" (the term, of
course, is loaded with multiple meanings) is the resistance to these
changes by some workers who are used to living at a certain level of
risk and have developed skills and acclimations to certain ways of
doing things. Typically, these are the older workers. At the same
time, younger workers and workers newer to a process are often more
inclined to insist that management make the investments in making
things safer. So there is sometimes friction among workers on this.
Management manipulates this, playing the more conservative workers
against the ones more willing to insist on a change when the change is
too expensive (for now, anyway), and then turning around on another
issue and pitting the more change-oriented workers against the more
acclimated ones when a process is producing too many "lost work days"
and medical problems (repetitive stress injuries, back problems, etc.)
that are associated with a given process (use of vibrating tools,
bending over a lot, etc.) and management wants to change the
statistics while also blaming the bad habits of the workers who won't
do things the right way. (This is the kind of situation where the term
"safety culture" is most frequently used by management). Issues
about productivity (doing things more safely often takes more time in
the hour to hour sense) are always lurking behind safety discussions,
where workers are expected to maintain the old pace and the old quotas
but keep adding on new ways of trying to get things done.

A driving force in the culture change on management's part, of course,
is the fear of lawsuits from workers and their families holding the
company responsible for health problems, as well as injuries and
deaths on the job. All of management's efforts are very much designed
to make the company look like it was doing everything possible should
they be taken to court. A lot of these safety campaigns often look
very much like CYA (cover your a**) maneuvers when this is kept in
mind. Juries are much tougher on companies on these kinds of issues
these days (reflecting an overall change in consciousness about health
and safety), so Boeing, like many others, has had to adapt their ways.

The role of the Machinist Union in the Boeing safety changes has been
very interesting, participating with the company in many joint
councils and teams that oversee safety problems and efforts. Much of
this process has been written in the labor contracts in the past
decade. This joint effort has both involved the factory workers and
union officials in safety improvements in new ways, and also caused
the union to sometimes become an accomplice in sweeping some safety
issues under the rug - after all, the bottom line in all this really
is money, and there is only going to be so much available for safety
improvements at any given time.

And that is the ultimate answer to Helena's question, in my opinion.
It is about management seriously investing in safety and spending a
lot of serious money where it counts. Ultimately, it takes
transforming the way things are done, from the bottom up, to make work
as safe as possible - to make the work process more and more human.
As one peels away at any given safety issue, layer after layer of
capital investment, social relationships, political and economic power
relations, etc. etc. become revealed. Down deep, fundamental issues
of class structure are at work. In every instance, if one looks into
it like this, profit greed versus human need, private property vs
human rights, are in perpetual conflict within every big and little
safety and health problem in every workplace. Management "safety"
solutions, while perhaps addressing one problem, often become a
bandaid over something else further underneath that is also generating
real health and safety issues. And so it goes. Safety is a lens into
how any business operates, how the world economy is structured, how
work is done, how each and every artifact interacts with its user -
how humans organize activity.

Ok, enough from me! 28 years of living this stuff at Boeing every day
obviously left me with some attitude! LOL. Safety consciousness has
truly changed in recent decades in all social classes (probably for
very different reasons). These deep-going human issues and the
complex changes they address are a minefield for CHAT thinkers. My
hat is off to Helena for raising this so intelligently. I hope others
chime in.

- Steve

On Jan 11, 2008, at 10:21 AM, Worthen, Helena Harlow wrote:

> Hello --
> Here's a concrete situation that I'm up against where the question
> of what constitutes "culture" matters.
> I'm on a team that is looking into working conditions at a power
> plant. It's an old (1940's) plant with a whole lot of old equipment.
> About 40 people work there. Management as asked us (a mixed team of
> students and professors from Human Resources, Sociotechnical
> Systems, Engineering, and Labor Education -- me) to come and study
> the place specifically to look at the "culture of safety" at the
> plant. By this they mean the human interactions, behaviors,
> practices that address the exposure of workers to the risks that
> abound in the plant which include high pressure, hot steam,
> electrical current, moving parts, noise, dust, asbestos, explosions,
> etc. etc. etc. So....where in the interface between and among human
> beings and all this equipment does a "culture of safety" get
> created? Is it in the regular use of safety glasses, hard hats, ear
> plugs and gloves (personal protective equipment)? Is it in the open
> lids of vats of acid that becomes gaseous and corrodes the steel
> beams that hold up the conveyors? Who is responsible for creating
> it? What are the social connections that engender a "culture of
> safety"? What undermines it? What defeats it? Whose responsibility
> is it? How can it be created?
> The answers to these questions are totally concrete and they are
> different depending on who you're talking to.
> So here's a use from real life (what's a good word for that --
> colloquial, non-technical, practical?) of the word "culture" where
> in practice the people on the team are all agreeing that we all know
> what we're talking about by the word culture, and we're getting
> started at going around trying to answer the question, "How can a
> culture of safety be developed at X power plant?"
> I'm going to use Andy's formulation of the subject/subject of
> analysis, to the extent that I understand it, but I'm also using the
> Engestrom triangle which has "tools" at the top and rules/customs/
> historic practices etc on the lower left hand. I don't see a problem
> with keeping both in mind when figuring out how to approach a
> complex problem where you have to keep your information organized
> while doing things. The theory is the tool, here -- you can draw a
> picture of it and put it up on the wall for people to use to talk
> about things.
> Comments?
> Helena
> ________________________________________
> From: [] On
> Behalf Of Andy Blunden []
> Sent: Friday, January 11, 2008 1:26 AM
> To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
> Subject: Re: [xmca] artefact 4
> Chapter 5 of Mike's book, "Cultural Psychology," found at
> concludes as follows (p. 144):
> "We can summarize the view of culture given here in the following
> terms:
> 1. Artifacts are the fundamental constituents of culture.
> 2. Artifacts are simultaneously ideal and material. They coordinate
> human
> beings with the world and each other in a way that combines the
> properties
> of tools and symbols.
> 3. Artifacts do not exist in isolation as elements of culture.
> Rather, they
> can be conceived of in terms of a heterarchy of levels that include
> cultural models and specially constructed "alternative worlds."
> 4. There are close affinities between the conception of artifacts
> developed
> here and the notion of cultural models, scripts, and the like.
> Exploitation
> of these affinities requires one to conceive of schemas and scripts as
> having a double reality in the process of mediation.
> 5. Artifacts and systems of artifacts do not exist as such in a second
> sense: they exist as such only in relation to "something else"
> variously
> referred to as a situation, context, activity, etc.
> ..."
> _______________________________________________
> xmca mailing list

xmca mailing list
xmca mailing list
Received on Thu Jan 17 18:09 PST 2008

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Wed Feb 13 2008 - 12:33:27 PST