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Ideas in the Wild: How Joe Geng is Helping Protect the Hands — and Lives — of Workers Around the Globe

Around the globe, hand injuries are the number one preventable industrial accident — in manufacturing, construction, oil and gas, you name it. But what actually works to protect workers’ hands? What kind of training actually gets through? What causes a worker to act safely (or not) in the moment? Which stats are meaningful and which […]

Around the globe, hand injuries are the number one preventable industrial accident — in manufacturing, construction, oil and gas, you name it. But what actually works to protect workers’ hands? What kind of training actually gets through? What causes a worker to act safely (or not) in the moment? Which stats are meaningful and which are useless? What infrastructure changes and PPE (personal protective equipment) decisions actually pay off? How do cultural issues play in? How have others reduced hand injuries by 50, even 90 percent?

These are the questions Joe Geng wanted to answer in his new book, Rethinking Hand Safety: Myths, Truths, and Proven Practices. He talked to major companies, leading safety experts, veteran safety managers, industrial psychologists, independent trainers, glove designers, and on-the-line workers to create this eye-opening, perspective-shifting, hard-hitting manual for changing a company culture, altering worker attitudes, and finally doing hand safety right.

I sat down with Joe to find out what inspired him to write the book, his favorite idea that he shares with readers, and how companies are applying the lessons in this book.

What happened that made you decide to write the book? What was the exact moment when you realized these ideas needed to get out there?

It was basically the realization that we could only get so far helping our customers reduce their injuries with good glove design. Up to that point we were like the man with the hammer who sees every problem as a nail. Gloves were our hammer, so to speak. It was the realization that we couldn’t completely prevent all injuries with gloves alone.

We took a step back and wondered what else we could do to help our customers. We didn’t know the answer but figured we were in a good position to find out. Our sales team was visiting dozens of companies every week, so we knew we could uncover the best practices that led to reduced hand injuries. Writing a book seemed like the right discipline to force us to find those answers and structure them in a helpful way.

What’s your favorite specific, actionable idea in the book?

There were a lot of surprisingly effective tactics we found for reducing hand injuries. My favorite was an oil and gas driller in Alberta. They were having a lot of serious hand injuries. The ran a campaign where each worker was given a pair of pink gloves. Every time they saw a coworker doing something unsafe with their hands (ie. not wearing gloves, using a tool incorrectly, etc), they were encouraged to call them out on the unsafe behavior and the offender had to wear the pink gloves for the remainder of the day and endure the ribbing of all their buddies.

For every incident that was called out, the company donated $5 to breast cancer research. Their hand injuries dropped by 30%. That tactic worked for them because they had a good safety culture and camaraderie already in place. This idea would’ve backfired without that.

What’s a story of someone applying this lesson in their business? What has this lesson done for them?

This is from a speech Paul O’Neill, ex-CEO of Alcoa, gave about management taking responsibility for safety.

“Oftentimes, the things that move organizations are, unfortunately, not happy stories. But after I’d been at Alcoa about three months…there was an incident at an extrusion plant outside of Phoenix, Arizona. This was a night shift. There was an eighteen-year-old kid who’d worked for the company for about three weeks. He jumped over a protective barrier…between his observation space and the machine that was producing extrusions. This particular machine had a boom on it, so with every cycle the boom would cycle, cycle, cycle. The machine was subject to jamming. The aluminum material would get jammed in the machine and it would be hung up. This kid jumped over the barrier and pulled the scrap material out of the action part of the machine and it released the boom. It came around and hit him in the head. Killed him instantly. He had a wife who was six months pregnant.

“Two supervisors who had been there fifteen or twenty years watched him do it. Actually, they must have taught him how to do it, because I don’t think he made it up on his own to jump over the barrier and pull the material out of the machine.

“So I got the whole executive crowd together, all the way down to the plant supervisor level. We reviewed the diagrams and the machine process and all of that. When we were done with that technical part, I stood up and said to the assembled crowd, ‘We killed him. Yeah, the supervisors were there, but we killed him. I killed him, because I didn’t do a good job of communicating the dedication to the principle that people will never be hurt at work. Obviously, our recruiting process didn’t do a very good job or our measurement process didn’t do a very good job of ensuring that people who are in this chain believed that safety was the single most important thing.

“…I tell you what, the people in the organization were stunned by the idea that they should accept personal responsibility for this death. Sure, they all regretted it. I tell you, there was never a more caring organization in my experience, in a traditional sense, than Alcoa. Every person that was injured or killed, they mourned. Believe me, they really mourned them. They regretted it and all of that, but until then they didn’t understand they were responsible for it.”

My takeaway from that is how he took complete ownership of the incident. Instead of saying “Well, that was a stupid thing to do,” he said “I killed him because I didn’t do enough to prevent it.” When I’m confronted with behavior from another person that I don’t understand, it’s a powerful reminder that what they’re doing probably seems logical from their perspective and I need to do more to understand where they’re coming from.

For more advice on protecting the hands (and lives) of your workers, you can find Rethinking Hand Safety: Myths, Truths, and Proven Practices on Amazon.

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