By Phil La Duke
Injury rates are down, the safety function is running like a well-oiled machine and senior leadership is happy, so now you can relax right? Wrong. If safety is the probability of injuries and we know that the risk of injury is never zero, then most of us understand that we have to remain vigilant in our efforts to create a workplace with the lowest possible risk…blah, blah, blah. But realistically do we really need to keep trying new initiatives after we have licked the biggest hitters in safety? Isn’t that just some academic argument? Well, yes and no. In some cases, we truly can wind down some of our safety efforts. After all, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to be hyper-vigilant in workplaces where most of our hazards are well managed and quickly contained or corrected—that’s like continuing to look for your car keys after you’ve already found them (“where else MIGHT they have been but weren’t?”) Unfortunately, most of us aren’t working for organizations that are quite there yet and still have some work to do.
In fact, it’s highly unlikely that we will ever get there. We tend to think as safety (and other business systems) as its own system when, in fact, all our business systems are interconnected in highly complex ways. What’s worse is that all our business systems operate in a dynamic business climate and this continuously changing environment makes it impossible for us to ever pronounce the workplace permanently “safe”.
When we are confronted with a new situation we generally feel nervous, or tentative, or unsafe in some way. Even the boldest among us is likely to exercise heighted care when first confronted with a new situation, but as we get used to the situation we become more comfortable. We acclimate to the changes and feel more comfortable taking what a less seasoned observer might describe as unwarranted or even reckless. This same process of acclimation that allows us to perform our jobs with greater levels of skill also puts us at higher levels of risk.
Over Confidence and Complacency
Many organizations fail to recognize that the hazards shift and evolve. These organizations, reckoning that they have solved the safety puzzle become less vigilant. It’s a dangerous phenomenon. Hazards insidiously grow while the perception of danger diminishes, leaving the organization open to unexpected catastrophe. Some of you may be skeptical; it’s often difficult to accept that you may be losing ground when all indications are to the contrary. But as long as the work environment changes and your safety management system stays the same, you are at significant risk. And the kinds of catastrophes that strike seem to come out of nowhere.
A key source of variation in organizations is turn over. We talk a lot about the effects of employee turnover on the safety organizations (well at least I talk a lot about it) but one of the most destructive changes to the organization is executive turnover. Executive turnover can throw the vision of the organization into a tailspin, but even moderate turnover at the middle of the organization can change the environment enough to cause variation sufficient to pose a significant hazard to the workplace.
A prime driver for change in an organization is disruptive technology. Clayton M. Christensen Harvard Business School professor coined the term “Disruptive Technology” to describe a new technology that unexpectedly displaces an established technology. Most companies are successful because they have mastered sustaining technologies. But disruptive technologies introduce hazards far beyond the changes brought by the technology itself. Disruptive technology generally produces ripple effects that, owing to the organization’s lack of experience and familiarity with the nuanced nature of the new technology, can manifest in lethal hazards.
Drift is the natural tendency to move away from a standard or a norm. When we drift we tend to believe that risks are justifiable and fairly benign—like driving a car and thinking yourself safe even though statistically the faster we drive and the longer we drive we will make dozens of poor choices, risky choices and errors. Our subconscious minds experiment with ways in which we can drift from the norm; it makes us make mistakes to test the safety of quickly moving from one environment to the next. This process allows us to quickly adapt when our survival depends on it, but it also subjects us to the risk of injuries.
All these factors—from acclimation to drift—build to put us in harms way. But the biggest thing we have to fear, isn’t, as FDR once said, “fear itself”, but the absence of fear. We are often most at risk when we believe ourselves to be “safest”.