When Truth No Longer Matters

“These incidents are the direct result of the incompetency, criminal negligence and almost treasonable administration of the national defense by the Navy and War Departments.” – Col Billy Mitchell

In most organizations, we do things for the right reasons.

Then there is safety.

In safety, too often we convince ourselves our intentions matter more than the result. For example, after a mishap resulting in injury or even death, leaders (and safety advisers right behind them) implement programs, training, engineering actions, and PPE policies. And we feel good. After all, we’ve taken on the problem, right?

Wrong.

When an organization’s sole impetus for action is blood (or an OSHA citation), we have failed. Not we the organization, but we the safety profession.

We have failed to tell the truth.

Col Billy Mitchell, in the quote above, was responding to the frequent deaths of pilots in the early days of military aviation, deaths regarded at the time as “just part of the job.” Soon after, Mitchell was convicted at court-martial for his words. According to the prosecutor, whether or not he was telling the truth was irrelevant. If free speech were allowed, the military would turn to chaos. The prosecutor went on to say,

“Is such a man a safe guide? Is he a constructive person or is he a loose talking imaginative megalomaniac?… Is this man a Moses, fitted to lead the people out of a wilderness?… Is he not rather the all too familiar charlatan and demagogue type…and except for a decided difference in poise and mental powers in Burr’s favor, like Aaron Burr?”

Billy Mitchell’s words and actions would go on to inspire many others, to include Gen Hap Arnold, who would later create a safety branch in the Army Air Corps and then to lead the Air Force as a separate military service.

Does truth matter? Does it matter enough in our profession?

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