Reegineering the Safety Culture Means Reengineering the Safety Professional

It’s said that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, and while Confucius wasn’t referring to worker safety per se, he might as well have been.  I’ve repeatedly raged against the safety professionals who parrot pundits that advocate the creation of a safety culture.  At the risk of being redundant, one does not create a “safety culture” because an organization’s view of safety is not a separate culture, rather it is but one element of a multi-faceted and complex corporate culture. But rather than yet again decry the ignorance of organizational development, basic group dynamics, and even the most cursory and rudimentary knowledge of culture, I thought I would devote this week’s blog to an exploration of how to begin culture change.  Steel yourselves safety professionals, you may not like what I have to say.

Things Have to Change

If things are going to get better things have to change.  Albert Einstein once said “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  And while ostensibly many safety professionals are making changes, for the most part the safety profession does the same things over and over again and expect different results.  Consider OSHA.  While research (much of funded or conducted by OSHA) tells us that a reactive, body-count approach to worker safety is not only counter productive but may well be dangerous, for the most part, compliance with OSHA does not correlate (forget causation) to a safer workplace.  (Has anyone ever died because a fire extinguisher was not hung at the proper height?) Further, despite evidence that discipline doesn’t work (i.e. disciplining employees for behaving unsafely doesn’t make the workplace safer; instead it drives near misses and injuries underground and ultimately makes the workplace less safe) OSHA responds to noncompliance with fines and other punishments. I’m not knocking OSHA.  In some cases fines and the negative publicity of negative OSHA findings is the only thing that spurs companies into action, but OSHA’s approach is antiquated and largely ineffective.  The response from many within OSHA and the safety community has been a call for more rules, stricter enforcement, and harsher punishment.  In short the response to people not following the rules is a call for more rules; it’s like the current safety climate is being co-scripted by George Orwell and Joseph Heller.

And OSHA is not alone in repeating mistakes.  As the purveyors of Behavior-Based Safety lost favor in the face of mounting evidence that such approaches were causing under-reporting of injuries, a spike in serious injuries and fatalities, and creating a dangerously false sense of security; they simply repackaged their products and called it “culture change” or “leadership development”.  Nothing changed in the science that called the methodology into question.  Nor had anything much changed in the products and approaches being offered.  And yet the companies still not only survive, but thrive.

The Thing That Has To Change Is You

Most of us are experiencing the worst economic downturn of lives, or certainly within our memory.  Business is changing.  Operations has had to ferret out every bit of waste and eliminate it.  There are no resources to spare and while the economy shows signs of recovery more and more safety professionals lose their jobs every day.  Is it because safety is less important now than it was when times were good? Or is it because the safety function has failed to keep in step with the changes that Operations are making.  In my experience its the latter.  When the safety department is asked to cut costs it responds by asking for more resources.  When asked for results, the safety professional tells Operations that they will have to wait years.  When Operations asks for action, it gets excuses.  If you follow the safety forums you will hear an outcry from safety professionals about the perceived lack of support from Operations.  Think about that.  It’s not Operations’ job to support Safety it’s  the job of Safety to support Operations.  The moment Safety began seeing itself as being supported by Operations a schism was created that has never closed.

What Changes Need To Happen?

It’s easy for someone to point out the flaws in the status quo, but much more difficult to specifically point to what needs to change and how.  It’s one thing to criticize safety professionals for repeating their mistakes and quite another to recommend a better course of action; let me take a crack at identifying the critical view changes that Safety must make if it is to survive.


If you do indeed read the Safety forums (as I do) you will also see a huge outcry that safety needs to start with leaders, or leaders don’t support safety, or managers won’t own safety.  Well guess what? you are leaders, or at least you had better be if you hope to survive in the safety profession much longer.  A safety professional has authority (the right to enforce his or her decisions by virtue of his or her position within the company) but too few have power (the ability to make things happen because people either like them, respect them, or fear them.)  A company can confer authority on you, but you have to acquire on your own.  Too often safety professionals look to the supervisors, managers, or executives to provide them the power to back up their authority.  For example, I’ve heard many safety professionals complain that they don’t have the power to fire (or write up, or reprimand, etc.) an employee that violates a safety policy.  Or worse yet they complain that “management” doesn’t do anything when the safety professional informs them of a violation.  This kind of tattle-tail safety not only is ineffective, but actually erodes what little respect (and by extension power) that the safety professional might have had in the first place.

Instead of bemoaning a lack of leadership, the safety professional needs to become a leader and help to shape the organization’s view of safety.  Safety professionals need to remember that when many in the organization think of safety they think of the individual.  If they think of the safety professional as a simpering cry-baby, then they are unlikely to take the safety of the workplace very seriously.    Leading safety starts by gaining and retaining credibility.  Don’t lie to the organization (See my column the Safe Side: A Culture of Myths for more details) and engage the workforce in decisions about safety and safety policy.

Act, Don’t Just Analyze

Most safety programs have come a long way from the days when they simply recorded OSHA Recordables and LWDI figures.  But even many of the most forward thinking safety processes do very little with the data they collect.  Some merely collect data and report it at the safety meetings.  If someone every has the courage to ask what the data means he or she typically gets a vague description of how the data was calculated.  But the person asking the question is really saying, “so what? Is that good or bad? what should I be doing in response to this?” and unfortunately scarce view safety professional ask those questions let alone answer them.  A key job element for the safety professional is deciphering seemingly unrelated data trends and converting that into information.  Information differs from data in that one can act on information, information can lead us to appropriate actions that support our goals.

Even those rare safety professionals who prepare solid recommendations based on good information and careful analysis are often reluctant to act on the information.  I once coached a manufacturer on statistical analysis on several key indicators of safety and we concluded that a recordable injury was imminent. Our analysis further predicted that the injury would likely happen in one of three areas of the plant, that the injury would be a slip, trip, and fall injury, and that it would most likely happen on the second shift.  Less than a week later the injury did in fact, occur.  It happened in one of the areas mentioned, it happened on the second shift, and yes, it was a slip, trip, and fall injury.  The plant was ecstatic.  They were amazed at the accuracy of the prediction and sold on the methodology we used.  Of course they had ignored the fact that the injury didn’t have to happen.  These were Operations folks, but I think it’s a good example of what happens when the Safety professional fails to act on his or her findings.  I had worked with the Safety professional on a course of action that he should take, I helped him make a plan that took him step by step what he needed to do to engage the people assigned to manage the areas most at risk.  But none of that happened.  When I counseled the safety professional he told me he had been too busy.  He wasn’t lying; in addition to safety he was responsible for planning the company picnic and that had consumed most of his time.

Assimilate, Aggregate, and Integrate

We talk a lot about the relationship between Safety and Operations.  When did these two functions become different?  Safety professionals have to actively seek not to work more closely with Operations, rather to become Operations.  Anything that isn’t Operations—irrespective of it’s value—is overhead, and overhead is a cost.  If the safety professional wants job security, he or she must be a member of the Operations team.

Becoming part of Operations is sometimes easier said than done, but the trouble tends to be fearful safety professionals resisting the move from facilities or Human Resources to Operations.  There have been several occasions  where I have met Operations leadership that were anxious to get the safety function reassigned from either Facilities or Human Resources to Operations.  The reaction from Safety was horror.  It blew my mind to think that a professional would resist a change that would be a boon to his or her career. In another case, the plant manager wanted to change the name from Safety Specialist to Continuous Improvement Specialist.  The safety professional was stricken.  I know some would argue that having the safety function report through Operations is like letting the fox guard the hen house but that is exactly the kind of thinking that has to change.  If the culture is going to change than the perception that people only act safely because they are afraid of getting caught is wrong-headed and antiquated, yet this very thinking is perpetuated by the safety professionals themselves.  Psychologist will tell you that generally speaking people tend to conform to our expectations of them, so if you believe the employees are liars, cheats and thieves, and you treat them like liars, cheats, and thieves, ultimately you will have a work place full of liars, cheats, and thieves (the ones you are right about will stay and tolerate your attitude and the ones who are not will go somewhere else and work.)  Similarly, if you believe that the primary reason that your employees comply with safety regulations is the fear of non-compliance you will reinforce the culture instead of changing it.

The safety department will never change the culture; that change must come from Operations.  If you want to be an architect of those changes you have to be an integral part of the Operations team.  And while we’re on the subject, take a hard look at the composition of your safety team.  Is it a group of hourly volunteers that get together to gripe to one another about how nothing gets fixed? A good safety committee is made up of operations, maintenance, and safety.  It has the power and authority to get things done.  If reviews trends and progress, and holds people accountable for doing the things for which they are responsible; if your team isn’t able to do that, then it’s time for a new team.

Re-examine Your View of Safety

You are a part of the world; every thing is connected.  So if you change yourself you in turn change the world.  Of course it’s only a little step, and of course it’s a long way from changing the culture to the desired state but it’s a start, and nothing was ever accomplished without a start.  Business has changed, the economy has change, the demographics of our workplace have changed, and yet for many of us, scare little has changed in how we view safety.  I’m continually surprised and disheartened by the prevalence among safety professionals of the attitude that deep down the workers are responsible for their own injuries.  That the workers are injured because they are stupid, lazy, inept, or careless.  If you truly believe that then do us all a favor and get out of the business.  You aren’t saving lives and you’re making those of us who are look bad.


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