Enabling: When a helping hand is no help at all

“Stopping enabling isn’t easy. Nor is it for the faint of heart. Aside from likely pushback and possible retaliation, you may also fear the consequences of doing nothing.”  – Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT, expert on codependency

I hate to see an operating company fined for safety violations.  First, it means that they were out of compliance with regulations.  But worse, fines don’t make operations safer and they take away resources that could be applied to safety.  So my colleagues and I are always glad to help an organization address non-compliance by helping them become compliant.  We are not the least bit interested in helping them hide non-compliance.  Nonetheless, once a business becomes compliant, or better yet, safer, we see no safety benefit in punishing them for past non-compliance.

A Mess in Milwaukee

In February, USA Today ran a full page article entitled “Chemicals in Barrels Put Many in Danger.”  It was based largely on reporting by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  When I read the headline, I was annoyed.  What, another article about the evils of chemicals?  But I read it and was increasingly horrified.  Fifty-five gallon drums containing an inch of residue and sometimes missing a label were considered “empty.”  Why would they need a label?  After all, weren’t they “empty”?  As part of preparing the empty drums to be reconditioned, workers were asked to dump the contents of these “empty” drums into a collection drum to be disposed.  Just to be clear, an inch in the bottom of an empty drum is almost two gallons.  Two gallons of this, two gallons of that, and pretty soon there is a pretty wicked brew.  This is exactly what workers described.

While I would expect chemophobes to run around flapping their hands in response to such a report, I was sincerely tempted to do some hand flapping of my own.  There is no process safety professional I know that would condone such a practice.  What would you do if you encountered something similar?  There are a lot of options other than saying, “This is all right.”  One is to insist that it is not all right and help to develop a path forward to address the problem.  Another option is to cease working with such an enterprise, but that leaves workers at the mercy of the situation.  A third option is to call a buddy at OSHA or the EPA and tip them off.  Then there is the press, which is always looking for a good story.

When Does a Safety Consultant Become an Enabler?

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines “enabler” as “one who enables another to persist in self-destructive behavior (as substance abuse) by providing excuses or by making it possible to avoid the consequences of such behavior.”

We have always been fortunate in that we only get calls from companies that want to be safer.  They know the direction they want to move with process safety, even if they don’t know how.  We’ve never been asked to help a business cover up their non-compliance or to sign off on clearly unsafe practices, whether or not prohibited by a regulation.  We’ve always had the good fortune of working with organizations that welcomed suggestions and recommendations on how to be safer and on how to better comply with relevant regulations.

What will we do when we encounter an outfit that is more interested in the appearance of compliance than in compliance, more interested avoiding fines than in being safe?  What will we do after we have insisted that things are not all right and have helped to develop a path forward, yet the path does not move forward?  At some point, we become enablers.

The Voice of Inexperience

As a young process engineer, I was once in a meeting with a unit business director that also included the engineering manager from my plant as well as the new plant manager.  I wasn’t there to participate in deliberations or make decisions, but to give technical details if required.  At one point in the meeting, the engineering manager, sensing resistance from the business director to approve all the spending on safety that we had just laid out, explained that “We don’t have to do this all at once, but we do have to show that we’re making progress.”

To which the business director responded by asking, “How little do we have to do and still be able to show we are making progress?”

Being young and impetuous, I blew up.  “ ‘How little?’  That is completely the wrong question.  I work in that plant and so do a lot of other people.  I mean, in the plant.  You don’t.  The question isn’t ‘How little?’  The question is, how fast can we make these improvements?”  There was a moment of stunned silence, and then the engineering manager resumed.  I wasn’t fired, but I didn’t work there for much longer after that.

This is a story I tell myself occasionally, to remind myself that sometimes we have to speak up.  I’m especially prone to telling myself this story when I haven’t spoken up, when I’ve rationalized helping a company “to do what they are able to do” rather than “to do what they must do.”

A Whistleblower

The USA Today story and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporting were primarily the result of a safety consultant to the reconditioning facility blowing the whistle.  The articles indicate that after six years, this consultant finally felt like he had to do something.  So he secretly recorded conversations and discussions with his iPhone.

Whistleblowing is not something I encourage.  A whistleblower’s career is pretty much over after that.  Who would trust them with the sensitive information they need to do their job?  For consultants, the consultancy for which the whistleblower works will be tarred with the same broad brush.  At some point, though, it becomes necessary to do something or else simply acknowledge that you are enabler.  There will be pushback; there will be retaliation.  “Stopping enabling isn’t easy. Nor is it for the faint of heart.”  There are no truer words.

Don’t Be That Guy

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions.  They are not entitled to their own facts.”  I believe that I have a duty to make sure the people I work with understand all the facts.  However, I recognize that how much weight each fact is given when making a decision is a decision about values, and that it is presumptuous on my part to insist that my values are superior.

Nonetheless, I have an ethical and moral duty to make the world a safer place, as does everyone who does this work.  To prospective clients, don’t put me or other safety professionals in a position where they are faced with moral and ethical dilemmas.  Don’t be that guy.  You are not going to end up in the newspaper because of anything I do, but I cannot make the same promise for others.

As for other safety professionals, I invite you to think about what you should and what you will do if you ever find yourself in a similar situation.  Are you an enabler?  A whistleblower?  A quitter?  There is nothing but ugly choices, which means that you have to know what you will do before you encounter this situation.  Once you are in it, it will be very hard to figure it out, and no matter what you do, someone is going to believe that your hands aren’t clean.  Don’t be that guy.

By | 2017-07-24T16:35:22+00:00 March 23rd, 2017|Process Safety Management, Recommendations|0 Comments

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