Safety In the Tower of Babel

Even the less devote among us likely recall the story of the Tower of Babel.  As the story goes mankind grew so proud that a group of people decided to build a tower to heaven.  This angered God and He confounded there efforts by creating different languages.  Unable to communicate with each other the tower project collapsed into chaos.

It’s not my intent to pontificate or draw some smug moral conclusion here, but I think there is a lesson germane to safety in this story.  Recently I read several links in the safety, organizational development, and system thinkers threads on LinkedIn and was struck by the complete lack of a professional lexicon for worker safety.  Take the term “hazard” for example, in healthcare the term hazard can mean something very different that it does in manufacturing. When people talk about a hazard in healthcare they are typically describing a physical hazard, and while an exposure risk, sharps injury, or ergonomic incident may well cause injury, they are treated as discrete elements and the correction of those things are often assigned to different departments.  That seems pretty inefficient, but before we cluck our tongues at healthcare, there is a far greater problem in other industries.  A recent thread asked safety professionals to define the term “culture” and scores of responses, some similar and others very different.  The debate was heated and nothing was resolved.  A similar thread argued about hazards some claiming that unsafe behaviors were not hazards, rather a category unto themselves, while others held that a hazard is any thing with the potential to do harm.

For me the argument is more than just an irritating intellectual pursuit, it’s a real danger.  If safety professionals can’t agree on the most basic definitions of the trade then they can’t communicate them effectively to Operations, and when they can’t communicate in clear, concise, universally understood terms they lose all credibility with Operations and whine that the leadership doesn’t support them.

And we’re not making any progress.  The arguments rage on the academic/philosophical definitions to no avail, and thus we can never create a working organizational definition, and without that we will continue to measure the wrong things, misinterpret data, and misleading ourselves regarding our risks.

Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of answers.  There are so many vendors making a lot of money and perpetuating ideas that are scientifically and psychologically dubious that I think the field of safety is in real jeopardy of being seen as “warm fuzzy” psychobabble that lacks any sort of credibility with executives and Operations leadership.  The safety function, the safety discipline needs to be torn down and re-engineered and I would recommend that the new safety function follow very closely the tenets of Deming.  Forget safety incentives, forget safety slogans, forget safety culture, in fact, forget safety as an external function altogether.  Instead, work on hard-wiring safety into the day-to-day routine.

To build an organization that values safety one must start with doing a better job of managing talent.  Organizations must do a better job of defining specific safety duties and tasks in the job descriptions and recruit more judiciously against criteria that are predictive of a candidate’s views on working safely.  I freely acknowledge that I haven’t yet figured out just what those predictors might be, but just getting recruiters and hiring managers thinking about whether or not a potential hire would  exhibit the kinds of attitudes and behaviors conducive to a safe workplace is a major step forward.

Next, organizations need to rethink the way in which they orient new employees.  Too often the safety orientation is clearly delineated from the overall new employee orientation.  I understand there are laws requiring that certain courses be provided but there is no reason the requirements for Hazcom or Right To Know can’t be integrated into a session that deals with EOC, Sexual Harassment policies or similar legal or company mandated messages.  By integrating the “safety” training into broader topics around employee rights and responsibility, working safely becomes just another expectation that the company has of its employees.  And when safety becomes just another condition of employment workers will tend to internalize working safely.

Additionally, too often there is a disconnect between new hire, classroom safety training and quality on-the-job training (OJT).  There are reams of research on adult education that demonstrate that the most effective training is the lessons that most closely resemble the actual work being performed.  In other words, OJT (when well designed and effectively executed) is the single best way to train workers.  Unfortunately, OJT is far and away the most poorly designed and executed form of training.  In the best case, OJT typically consists of a new hire shadowing a veteran worker who walks the new worker through the job according to the Standard Work Instructions.  In the worst case, the new worker is thrown to the wolves and expected to figure the job out over time.

Many of you reading this may believe that your OJT is superior and truly does the job, but let me challenge your thinking a bit by asking a couple of questions:

1) How do you evaluate the effectiveness of the training? Do you do smile sheet evaluations? Pre- and posttests?

2) How long does it take for a new worker to become fully competent? Days? Weeks? Months?

3) Do you track indicators of the effectiveness of OJT as a safety metric?

4) How often does a worker get refresher training on the tasks covered in OJT?

5) How do you train your supervisors to judge the competency (including the ability to work safely) of people assigned to their teams?

Simply put quality job-specific training is the single greatest tool for ensuring worker safety, but sadly relatively few resources are typically deployed for making sure this happens.

Perhaps I’ve strayed from my point a bit, or maybe it appears as such, but all of this improvement in talent management and training can’t happen until the safety professionals operationally define safety.  Recruiters can’t screen candidates on the basis of the likelihood that a worker will take safety seriously until the safety professional educates the recruiter on the traits for which to look.  Human resources/OD can’t refine job descriptions to include key safety tasks and behaviors like identifying and removing hazards until the safety professional is able to operationally define the word “hazard”. And finally supervisors can’t coach workers on how to work more safely until the safety professional educates them on just what that means.

This is a challenge that is likely to haunt safety professionals for some time, because many of us don’t have a clue how to come to a full understanding of exactly what it means to have a “safe workplace”.  As long as we have pundits shilling the latest safety fad (most notably and recently the “safety culture” fad) and safety professionals trying to impress other safety professionals instead of tackling some of the fundamental issues that impede safety progress we will keep floundering.

I’m not saying that we should dismiss the idea that we need to improve our view of safety (i.e. “build a safety culture”), but I am saying that it is irresponsible, if not impossible, to try to lead a culture change employing people who aren’t qualified to do so.  It’s equally pointless for the safety professional to expect to do this alone or even to lead this change.  Ownership of safety by operations starts here.


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