Posted: August 2003
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Article SummaryThis three-part interview was published in ISHN E-News. Excerpts were also published in the September 2003 issue of ISHN (Industrial Safety & Hygiene News) – the paper version, which is also on-line – under the title “Charting your course: 25 keys to safety success – Advice from Dan Petersen, Peter Sandman & John Henshaw.”

Peter Sandman on Safety

Part 3:  On reputation management, employee outrage,
and finding your niche as a safety and health professional
ISHN E-News, August 8, 2003
(ISHN E-News is a free e-mail newsletter
published by Industrial Safety & Hygiene News)

In this edition of ISHN’s e-newsletter, we present part three in a three-part interview with Peter Sandman. The world-renowned risk communication consultant describes risk communication as “embodying three key tasks – alerting people to big risks they mistakenly consider small; reassuring people about small risks they mistakenly consider big; and helping people bear big risks they rightly consider big.”

Visit his Web site ( to access a library of his articles and handouts.

We interviewed Peter Sandman at his home in Princeton, N.J., on a Friday morning in July. You might be familiar with his views on risk communication and outrage, less so with his thoughts on workplace safety. The first part of this interview focused on engaging management in conversations about safety. Part two focused on engaging employees. Part three covers reputation management, employee outrage, and finding your niche as a safety and health professional.

Mr. Sandman welcomes your comments regarding this interview. You can direct them to

Gaining Acceptance

Q) You’ve mentioned that your clients only accept maybe ten percent of your recommendations. Should a safety professional have the same expectations, that only ten percent of what they want management to do in safety will be accepted? Or is there something different about the nature of your consulting – many times recommendations for risk communication – that gives you that percentage, where an in-house safety person might be dealing with different circumstances?

A) I think there are several niches that are viable. You can have a niche which is the one I have as a wild man who makes crazy recommendations and everyone figures, well, we’ll sort through all these crazy recommendations and find the three or four or five that are sane. That’s kind of my niche, I shake people up. And when they float back down to earth they figure out which of my suggestions they want to take.

It’s not the only possible niche, whether you’re a consultant or a safety professional. Whatever your role is, I think you can position yourself as the crazy person, 10 percent of whose ideas are taken. You can position yourself as the moderate, 50 percent of whose ideas are taken. You can position yourself as the very conservative advisor, nearly all of whose recommendations are taken.

I think the last is not a desirable position. It seems to me, the job of the safety professional in part is to stand tall for safety. If you’re not getting much management pushback, the odds are overwhelming you’re not pushing hard enough. You’ve got to expect management pushback.

Now a corollary to that is you’ve got to have a code with your management for those times when they just can’t push back. It seems to me you’ve got to have a way of saying to management, “Look, we both understand that I push a whole lot more safety stuff than you’re prepared to do, and you want me to push more than you’re prepared to do. But this one you’ve got to do. If you don’t do this one, you’re in deep trouble and I’m on the edge of quitting. This one I’ll go to the mat for.” You need this code. You need an agreed upon signal that this has got to be one of the ones you win.

Safety and the High Ground

Q) You have said you don’t require your clients to be altruistic. Safety people tend to be altruistic by nature. They can get frustrated because they feel they shouldn’t have to justify safety plans in economic terms, sometimes it is just the right thing to do. How much can you expect from a company when it comes to being altruistic?

A) There is a seesaw here. Companies are run by people. People do have values. And they do have altruism, which coexists with their selfishness. The problem for me as a consultant or a safety person going to the CEO and saying, “You shouldn’t do this for economic reasons, you should do this for moral reasons,” is that it gets you on one side of the seesaw. It actually pushes the CEO to respond in a way that’s much more economic-centric than the CEO would have been, left to his or her own devices.

I think it is just profoundly unwise for me as a consultant, or for a safety person, to set up an interaction where you stand for morality and management stands for profitability. As a safety person, I’d much rather go in there and get on the other side of that seesaw. Say to the CEO, “I’m only going to argue for those safety innovations that I think have long-term payoff to the company.” Let the CEO say, “No, no, no. I want to hear about the ones that are morally right also.”

You quoted O’Neill earlier. I think it’s wonderful to have a CEO like that telling you if you’re a safety person, “I as CEO am so interested in safety, I’m interested in safety precautions that don’t pay for themselves.” That’s terrific. If you’ve got a shot at your CEO saying that, why would you want to steal the line? So safety people ought never to say that.

And if the CEO isn’t inclined to say that, then a safety person can, I think, have his cake or her cake and eat it too. You can say, “Lots of people would argue that this is a moral issue, and I’m on their side sometimes. I’m the safety guy. I sometimes feel like whether it pays or not, companies should save lives. I know a lot of our employees feel that way, and our union feels that way, and some of our shareholders feel that way.”

Then immediately you want to say, “Of course, I understand that there have got to be limits to that or you go bankrupt. You never get your car out of the garage. You can’t maximize safety at the expense of everything else or you don’t produce any product. So I understand there are limits.”

It’s possible to go on to say, “But my tendency, like the tendency of most people who make safety their full-time preoccupation, is to think safety matters more than profitability. I am, boss, suppressing that tendency because that’s not how I can be most useful to you. I want you to know that. These are my tendencies, you hired me because I care more about safety than money, but I understand that the company has to pay a lot of attention to money. So I’m going to be giving you a financial argument for safety. You’re not going to hear the word ’morality’ from me again this month. But I wanted to put it on the record that I am worried about that.”

A safety professional doesn’t have to pretend to be more interested in profitability than in safety. But you do have to acknowledge that profitability runs the company, and that profitability should run the company. And it would be very self-defeating, I think, to refuse to make a profitability-based case for safety improvements that really are profitable.

The last thing you want to say to the CEO is, “I don’t want your damn safety improvement if it is cost-effective. I only want the ones that will make you bankrupt.” The safety professional who gets too much on his or her high horse, who starts saying, “I don’t care what it costs,” is going to push the CEO into saying, “Well you need to care what it costs. You’ve got a budget just like everybody else. Everyone else cares what their priorities cost, why shouldn’t you care what your priorities cost?”

Self-Defeating Behavior

Q) That’s where a safety person can get hung up sometimes. Some take the high ground, saying “I’m not the same as sales or marketing coming to you with a budget, I am on the side of the angels, I am saving people’s lives, so I’m coming to you with a different argument. What could be more important than saving people’s lives? So you have to listen to me with different ears than you do for some of the pitches you get from other departments.”

A) I think that is very self-defeating because it gets in the way of their noticing and arguing the ways in which saving people’s lives is a win-win. The safety person can own the temptation and then forswear it.

They can say to management, “I’m tempted to say to you that this is about saving people’s lives, and it’s more important than the economic argument. I’m tempted to say that, but I’m not going to say that. I want to say something that is a little different than that. What I want to say to you is the economic case for safety is subtler than the economic case for marketing. It is an economic case, but it’s more indirect and subtler. And I’m going to need some time to make it to you.”

That is a much stronger position to be in, and with any luck your CEO winds up saying, “Look, even if the economic case is weak, I don’t want to kill people if I can prevent it.”

You don’t want to steal the good lines. You don’t want to force the CEO to be the fiscal conscience of the company because you’re the safety conscience. You let the CEO be the safety conscience.

Reputation Management

Q) Do you see safety, health, and industrial hygiene people employed within organizations having a role to play in reputation management?

A) The link between environmental quality and reputation of course is very well established. So within the environmental health and safety world, the environment piece is very closely tied to reputation. The evidence that being known as a major polluter is devastating to corporate reputation is very strong. The evidence that being known as environmentally progressive helps corporate reputation is not as strong, but it’s still pretty strong. So the environment piece, absolutely, is linked to reputation.

The health piece and the safety piece are less closely tied to reputation. If there were a safety Greenpeace, and it were successful, and it built a movement, safety would be tied to reputation in the way environment is.

Safety already obviously has some tie to reputation. My sense is, at least as far as external reputation is concerned, a big accident does big damage to reputation. Three years ago, I would have said a big accident damages your reputation, but a lousy safety record absent the big accident doesn’t damage your reputation – it should but it doesn’t. So the only real link between safety and reputation was preventing big accidents.

But now we have terrorism as a safety issue that is very closely hooked to reputation. And as a result, so is preparedness for terrorism – which means that preparedness for all sorts of sabotage, even if it isn’t terrorism, is likely to become a reputation-related issue. Companies that are attacked as insufficiently prepared for a terrorist attack or an attack by a disgruntled employee will see their reputations suffer, even if they haven’t actually had an attack or even a major accident. Bhopal was almost certainly employee sabotage, so there is certainly precedent for thinking the largest so-called accidents aren’t accidents at all. The question is whether corporate reputations will begin to be sensitive to safety preparedness.

This is already true, for example, in the nuclear industry, where preparedness for terrorism and even preparedness for a major accident is a big piece of a nuclear plant’s reputation. I don’t think that’s true yet for most industrial facilities, but I think it may become true. And terrorism will be the entrée.

Employee Outrage

Q) You talk to companies a lot about external forms of outrage. Activists. Neighbors upset over a waste facility siting. Safety people are concerned with internal sources of outrage. Complaints about dangerous jobs, smells, exposures. They’re on the frontlines of dealing with internal outrage in a company. But why don’t we see the outrage in this country over job stresses that we do in Europe? How are employees channeling their anger over layoffs, job insecurity, etc.?

A) A couple of things come to mind. Employee outrage is no different than external outrage – with one very important exception. That is, employees are likely to suppress their outrage, hide their outrage, until it gets much higher. This is also true of company towns. You always need to be more alert in a company town because they’ll hide the outrage. If you’re dealing with the 800-pound gorilla, the only employer in town, the linchpin of the economy, people don’t bitch and moan about the emissions until they’re ready to have a revolution.

The same is true of employees. Employees for very good reasons hide their outrage. It’s damaging to their careers. In times of layoffs, the evidence is overwhelming, employees who were complaining a lot are much more likely to get laid off than employees who were not complaining a lot. So the main reason, it seems to me, you don’t see employee outrage is because employees don’t want you to see it. It’s dangerous to let you see it. So we’re seeing only the tip of the iceberg.

Q) So what’s happening beneath the surface? If it’s not being expressed one way, it’s got to come out another way, doesn’t it?

A) Well yes, and that’s part of why the literature on stress is such a big deal. Where Europe and the United States are different is not in our analysis of what’s happening, but in our values about what it means.

In Europe they say, “People are really stressed on the job and they come home miserable and fight with their spouse or don’t have any energy for sex. That means we need to change something at work.” In the United States, they say, “People are miserable at work and they come home and have a fight with their spouse and they don’t have any energy for sex. That means they need couples therapy.” {Laughter}. Europeans think the stress at work is intolerable, and the task is to reduce work stress. We think the stress at work is intolerable and the task is to learn to tolerate it better.

Q) Why the difference?

A) I think it’s because we’re a cowboy capitalist culture. I kind of like that, but it has a downside. In a more socialist culture, in a more community-oriented culture, where individual achievement means a little less, and group satisfaction means a great deal more, it makes sense that the analysis of people unhappy at work is to stop making them unhappy.

Our analysis is, learn to cope with your unhappiness better. For us to move in the European direction would be a huge cultural change.

What’s important for safety people to understand is this: What happens is that outrage goes underground in the workforce, until it becomes extremely high. That’s why the phrase “going postal” is an American phrase and not a European phrase. Because we have this vision people will get so upset they’ll bring a gun to work. That’s a classically American vision, because we figure we’ll let it go that far. And we say you’ve got to be ready for the people who go postal. We don’t say, nearly as much as we should, “Well, is that a sign of something suspiciously wrong?” What we say is, “Well, there are always people who will go postal, who can’t take the heat.”

Underground Outrage

Q) So what’s the safety person to do then?

A) There are lots of things. Let’s suppose there is an employee and he’s been muttering, he got passed over for a promotion, he knows he’s at risk of getting fired in the next downsizing. He doesn’t much like his supervisor, he’s going through a bad divorce – some or all of the above. He’s been muttering at lunchtime, “I’ll get those bastards.” One of the questions I’ve been asking clients is: What happens?

Does the supervisor have the authority to reassign this person to a less risk-sensitive venue? Let’s further assume this employee works all day long around “the button” – where if you push that button the chlorine sphere explodes. That employee is in a very safety-sensitive position. He works in a place where he could wreak havoc.

Does the supervisor have the right to get him counseling? Does the supervisor have the right to get him reassigned to a less safety-sensitive place? What happens?

We know a very high percentage of people who go postal have precursors. And the precursors are ignored. You want to know what the safety professional is doing about the precursors. It’s a place where EH&S and HR merge. Because now you’re talking about low morale as a safety problem. Low morale is usually considered an HR problem. But is low morale on the safety person’s agenda? If it isn’t, then he’s ignoring a piece of the safety problem that is a bigger piece than it was. Going postal isn’t as rare as it used to be.

I pay attention to drills. Companies drill for accidents, they train their EH&S people in how to respond. The impression I have is, 20 years ago, even 10 years ago, the typical drill was a real accident. Now the typical drill is a hostage taking.

What does this tell you? Somebody is making up a drill and they’re making up what they imagine is likely. Ten years ago what they imagined to be likely was a piece of equipment malfunctioning. What they’re imagining to be likely now is an employee going berserk. Part of this is because we’ve done a lot to make equipment malfunction less often.

Everything we do to reduce the probability of accidents increases the probability of sabotage. We’re teaching people how to commit sabotage when we say, “Don’t ever do X, Y and Z at the same time or the plant will blow up.” And then we downsize. So we’ve trained people in how to blow up the plant and then we’ve ignored their morale problems.

I think this is a big issue. Of course sabotage is not the most common outcome of relevance to the safety person, but in a very high percentage of accidents, low morale contributes. Long before people get to the point where they’re going to sabotage the plant, they get to the point where they’re careless.

There is literature on one-car accidents as possible suicides. The boundary between suicidal and careless is a tough boundary to walk. The boundary between homicidal and careless, when you’re doing things that are dangerous to others, is also a tough boundary to delineate. The invisible thing that is already happening is this: people are having accidents because of low morale. The invisible threat is people causing critical catastrophes, intentionally committing sabotage because of low morale. I think they’re both real risks.

Dave Johnson is the ISHN E-News editor. He can be reached at, (610) 666-0261; fax (610) 666-1906.

Copyright © 2003 by Business News Publishing Co.

Peter Sandman on Safety

Excerpts were also published in the September 2003 issue of ISHN (Industrial Safety & Hygiene News) under the title “Charting your course: 25 keys to safety success – Advice from Dan Petersen, Peter Sandman & John Henshaw.”

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