Pipeline Observer

How Government Ruins Safety Culture

Published in December, 2017

A safety codes officer, hazmat technician and chemical biological radiological and nuclear responder Tim Moen explains

By Tim Moen

On Memorial Day 2011, San Francisco fire fighters stood on a crowded beach for over an hour and watched Raymond Zack drown in chest deep water. It was against department policy to go into the water without the official water rescue course and the firefighters knew they could lose their jobs if they tried to enter the water.

On the surface, the policy seems reasonable. Fire chiefs are required by government to make rules like this. Unfortunately, this rule backfired in an unintended way and a man died. The firefighters were put in a bad situation; they could try and save a suicidal man or they could keep their jobs.

We make trade offs between perfect safety and getting work done all the time. What if these firefighters had been free to act and find the balance between their own personal safety and saving a life? As a firefighter, I can guarantee you that my team is going to find a way to save Raymond Zack and bring everyone home safely if you give us freedom. This freedom is something we are steadily losing.

Imagine it’s your job to make rules for a fire department. It would make sense to have a rule that says, “Don’t do stuff you’re not certified to do.” A rule like this would prevent you from getting in hot water with the government. Now imagine a different environment where it’s your job to figure out the best way to serve the needs of your fire department clients. In this case, it would make sense to try and imagine all the possible scenarios you might encounter and find innovative ways of overcoming these emergencies with the resources available. It would make sense to encourage firefighters to always exercise their best judgment in serving citizens and lead them in the discipline of constant practice so that more options occur to them in an actual emergency.

There are two ways to promote safety. One way is to teach, to practice, to promote good judgment, to explore principles, to make mistakes and learn from them, to lead from the front. Then there is the lazy way; write down a rule and threaten to punish disobedience. One method results in the internalization of safety and job performance and encourages positive unintended consequences like innovation and novelty and the other way results in negative unintended consequences as employees seek to avoid punishment rather than do good for goodness sake. Following the rules does not necessarily prevent tragedies, and can in fact cause them unintentionally.

Nowhere is this top down, lazy, punishing approach more common than in government. Government has one job and that is to use force, to wield a big stick and whack people with it if they step out of line. Because of this, it is not likely to produce the kind of culture that leads to positive, unintended consequences, innovation, good customer service and an internalized safety culture.

I’ve spent time working in safety departments on large oil and gas projects and have seen how top-down control by government affects industry. I have seen how much of a worker’s day is spent jumping through hoops. Bureaucrats are hired to help the company meet government obligations and their job is to make hoops for workers to jump through—and then workers spend more time jumping through hoops and less time getting the actual job done. Is it any wonder that projects almost always run over the allotted time and budget?

Imagine how pipelines might be developed if they were built without threat of a big stick. Imagine an environment where energy companies have to balance their own corporate safety (liability and reputation) with serving their customer. Imagine an environment where energy transport workers are no longer practicing punishment avoidance, but are focused solely on providing innovation and finding win-win solutions for all stakeholders.

Imagine no landowner had the threat of expropriation hanging over their head and they were free to negotiate in good faith with pipeline companies to develop safety practices that do more than satisfy bureaucrats, but that actually work efficiently in the real world?

Imagine a pipeline landowner who has maximum input over environmental standards, routing of the pipeline and accountability. In other words, imagine what would happen if people were free. What kind of innovative solutions might emerge?

We are all better off when people are free and empowered to innovate and create. We need to respect individuals enough to not impose on their activities and their property; we need to put our big sticks down. This requires we strike the root from which all these big sticks emerge—big government. 

Tim Moen grew up on a farm in Northern Alberta. He is a firefighter-paramedic who views safety as a risk-management practice. Leader of the Libertarian Party of Canada, Tim is also a public speaker, film maker and businessman.

Published in PIPELINE OBSERVER - FALL 2016