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Simple sabotage: basic rules to influence productive and safe behavior.

I subscribe to an email list service called Atlas Obscura whose mission is to send me interesting diversions throughout the week-every week--along with a bit of suggestive advertising. Topics may include anything from the best haunted houses to visit in Michigan, interesting places to take your dog, or any of a long list of important items, places, or occurrences happening in the world without me. One of these diversions recently piqued my interest more so than the others. It was a small offering about a declassified piece of World War II nostalgia called the Simple Sabotage Field Manual.

The Simple Sabotage Field Manual, dated 17 January 1944, was written under the guidance of and signed by none other than William "Wild Bill" Donovan himself. Wild Bill was America's first lead spy. He is known, according to Wikipedia, as the "Father of Central Intelligence" and during World War II ran the Office of Strategic Services, better known as the OSS. The job of the OSS was to coordinate the espionage activities between US Armed Forces and other allied powers, execute missions, and generally wreak havoc on axis powers. This manual was part of that havoc planning.

Intent is to Teach

The intent of the Simple Sabotage Field Manual is to teach a low level of "simple sabotage" to personnel across a broad range of activities, including personnel working "behind the lines." Simple sabotage refers to acts or omitted activities that don't require any "formal" sabotage activities such as the use of explosives or any other complex, multi-discipline operations.

Simple sabotage is based on "universal opportunities to make faulty decisions, to adopt a non-cooperative attitude, and to induce others to follow suit" according to the manual. Simple sabotage acts are those that may not even be realized at first glance but will strategically lessen the overall effectiveness of opponents through decreases in efficiency, bottlenecks, worn out equipment, or incorrect field orders.

These acts can be committed by the common man or the "citizen saboteur" with little preparation or tools, just the right havoc wreaking attitude which may, after all, be the "human element" in the overall act of sabotage "responsible for accidents, delays, and general obstruction under normal conditions." My radar for "things that I can steal and use in safety management" pinged after reading that last passage in the manual. The "human element" responsible for accidents and delays? General obstruction and normal conditions? These are the bread and butter of my life's work.

The Simple Sabotage Field Manual would actually be a pretty decent safety manual if it were written in a "don't" rather than a "do" frame of mind. The following passage from the manual illustrates this point: "In basements where janitorial supplies are kept, allow oily and greasy waste to accumulate as this will sometimes combust."


For the simple saboteur, this is gold. Such housekeeping issues are routinely overlooked even in today's risk-averse working conditions, but accumulating waste in an out of sight, out of mind utility closet is a recipe for a disaster for which little, if any blame could ever be assigned. For the simple saboteur, this is a good day's work; although not as overt as blowing up a bridge, this kind of thing can still destroy an office or a manufacturing facility.

The take-away for today's safety professional or business owner is to open up those closets, review housekeeping, and review procedures for oily waste and accumulation areas before becoming the victim of the careless saboteur.

Other activities identified in the manual brought more safety messages to mind.

Activities: Let cutting tools grow dull. They will be inefficient and slow down production. Power driven tools are never efficient when dirty and electric contacts and lubrication points may be fouled by insertion of foreign matter.

Safety Message: A good tool inspection program is needed to keep the process moving effectively.

Activities: Allow engines to run with low oil levels for extended time, douse hot machines with cold water or other coolants, allow loose connections on hoses and clamps, do minimal inspections, don't inspect tires or rims, don't tighten all the bolts evenly on the rims, and mix light and heavy oils for Increased wear and tear.

Safety Message: Vehicle and heavy equipment inspections are often times a tedious and time consuming part of the job. However, operating equipment in less than optimal conditions leads to premature loss of efficiency and early equipment failure in addition to operating at less than prescribed safe conditions.

Activities: Mismark and mismatch solvents and other operating chemicals at the facility. With a little bit of luck, the simple saboteur can induce premature corrosion of machine parts and cutting jags in addition to premature wear on vessel walls.

Safety Message: Mark all chemicals and have the operational discipline to run an effective Hazard Communication program which deals with the proper use and storage of any facility's chemical inventory. (Interestingly, the use and abuse of chemicals in industry is a common theme found in the manual and is historically common within industry. Even today, OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard is still within the top four of most frequently cited standards during workplace inspections.)

General Interference

The acts of the simple saboteur are designed to be elusive so the blatant active error or omission of procedure may not be immediately felt within the organization. But, the cumulative effects of many of these hassles can lead to inefficient workplaces, a loss of cohesiveness in the operations, and overall lowered morale as time is taken up with responding to the minutiae of these small hassles, which brings us to the psychological effect of the simple saboteur.

We wake up every morning with a capacity for making decisions, thinking clearly, and using all our talents to the best of our ability. Some mornings are better than others, and we are fully equipped to handle whatever our organizations can throw at us--up to the point where our decision making ability decreases.

There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the less time we spend on low impact decisions, the more time we have to make the big differences in our lives. For example, it has been said that Steve Jobs wore his iconic jeans and black turtleneck daily so that his capacity for making decisions was not wasted on deciding what to wear to work.

Regardless, a common target for the simple saboteur, according the manual, is entitled General Interference with Organizations and Production and focuses on bureaucratic ineffectiveness and other social animosities identified by theorists such as Max Weber, who was one of the great thinkers in the development of organizational psychology.

Weber's early work influenced the development of hierarchy in the workplace, chain of command, and the concepts of consistency. He believed that through exemplary performance in assigned tasks, organizations would find operational efficiency and perfection with the overall good of society. Henry Ford's production line and strict adherence to assigned work tasks were likely influenced by these notions.

Subtle Influences

There are subtle influences from Weber's bureaucratic theories at play in the Simple Sabotage Field Manual. Weber thought about the bureaucracy of large industrial enterprise and promoted an efficient workplace through rationality and strict adherence to assigned roles and the chain of command. Any disruption in the chain of command, any thoughts or questions outside assigned work responsibility, or the retributive assignment of simple work tasks to exacting standards or clarification all work against the efficiency of the organization and serve to lower morale--perfect outcomes for the hobbyist saboteur.

Here are a few examples, inspired by the manual, to use when one's goal is simple sabotage:

* Make travel as inconvenient as possible for enemy personnel. Make mistakes in issuing tickets and leave gaps in the journey; book two people on the same seat. Slow down the process by doing things by hand or by laborious double checking. Make sure luggage doesn't make it to the desired destination. While there is not necessarily a safety message here, there is something to say about the quality of the experience, which can lead to a foul mood, short temper, and loss of concentration on the next trip through Prudhoe.

* When possible, refer all matters to a committee for "further study" and make the committees as large as possible, never less than five people, assuring that decisions are hampered and distractions are maximized.

* Refer back to matters discussed at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question and advisability of that decision.

* Don't order new working materials until all current stocks have been depleted assuring a production slowdown. When placing orders, go for the low quality materials.

It's actually kind of funny. The same targets for the saboteur during World War II are still with us today, though for less deliberate reasons--we hope. Their impact on our wellbeing, however, is still very relevant. Dealing with these issues on a daily basis erodes our capacity for effective decision making, lowers morale, and hinders innovation. Volumes have been written on the subject of organizational effectiveness and the impact to the business world, so we can stick with how this affects safety performance. For that, there are a few more gems in the manual to consider, such as when training new workers give incomplete or misleading instructions.

There is nothing more important than the first couple of days on the job for a new employee. These people are taking in everything from first impressions, attitudes from their co-workers, organization clues from the HR process, and the general appearance organizational processes. It is essential that employers get this right through a consistent approach, consistent personnel, and consistent resources so that each new employee is starting out on the right path. At this point, safety orientation and initial training for the job needs to be energetic and upbeat, coming from experts in their areas.

Another simple saboteur trick is to never pass on skills and experience to a lesser skilled or new employee.

For the sake of safety performance, essential jobs skills and safe procedures are the most important elements that need to be passed on to new employees. If a business has a mentorship program, this is the time to make sure that mentor has the energy and the drive to shape the future safety attitude of this new employee. Put leaders in these positions at this point; it will pay off in the end.

This was a fun assignment and article to write. I consider myself a bit of a history buff but I really never considered the role of the simple saboteur in any of the world's great wars, but you can imagine their cumulative impact and subtle influences on their targets. For your own enjoyment, I recommend downloading a copy online at Original-Manual.pdf, or I understand that a book has been written called Simple Sabotage: A Modern Field Manual for Detecting & Rooting out Everyday Behaviors That Undermine Your Workplace by Robert M. Galford, Bob Frisch, and Cary Greene. I don't have that book, yet, but I will get one. O

Brian McKay is an Environmental, Safety and Health (ES&H) Professional whose interests include the development and implementation of evidence based ES&H management practices across all size organizations and industries. He has a Master's Degree in Public Health and is a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) and Certified Safety Professional (CSP). Contact him at or (907) 406-4296.
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Title Annotation:SAFETY FIRST
Comment:Simple sabotage: basic rules to influence productive and safe behavior.(SAFETY FIRST)
Author:McKay, Brian
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:Mar 1, 2016
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