When It Comes to Safety Management Systems, One Size Does Not Fit ALL

Every couple of years a new big thing comes into vogue in worker safety.  Behavior Based Safety, Process Safety,  Safety Culture all share one thing in common: they promise a universal approach to worker safety and it is a promise on which it seldom delivers.  The problem isn’t with these approaches to safety as much as it is with the erroneous belief that a single approach can address the diverse and divergent safety needs of dissimilar organizations.  The issue rests with the difficulty in the commercialization of a single system such that vendors can sell the system to a diverse client base.  I should explain that I don’t think there is anything wrong with this practice; whether a company is selling training programs or high-end consulting services it is common practice to start with some sort of common material or philosophy.  There’s always a trade off between a static, standard product and a dynamic highly customized one. If one chooses a system that is most likely to meet one’s needs one should expect to pay a premium for this customization.

But in many cases the providers of safety management systems position their offerings as a panacea, or at very least imply that their systems will get results irrespective of the environments in which they are deployed.  In the interest of fairness I should disclose that I currently help companies design and build worker safety management systems.  That having been said, I don’t advocate a custom-designed system for every organization.  It’s as wrong to recommend a customized system to everyone as it is push a static system to all organizations.

Make/Buy Analysis

Whenever an organization considers making a major purchase it typically does something called a Make/Buy Analysis.  This activity, which is often called a variety of terms, involves determining whether or not its better (usually cheaper) to go to the outside for a good or service or to assign it to an individual inside the company instead.  For years I was responsible for doing this kind of analysis to help executives at the company for which I worked determine whether it was wiser to fill a position with a new hire or to invest in the development in an existing employee who would then be promoted.  I would dispassionately review the required skills and compare them against the skills of the existing employee.  When deciding whether or not to buy a new system or building your own the discipline involved in Make/Buy Analysis can be useful and the considerations are the essentially the same:

Cost

No matter what the business decision, cost is usually a primary consideration.  Even if the return on investment promises to be large, the cash out lay involved in a business solution can quickly torpedo.  While it may be true that it takes money to save money it’s equally true that you have to have money to spend money. This is less about the actual expenditure than it is about cash flow, so merely arguing the merits of the investment may well fall on deaf ears.

Effectiveness

In the end a safety management system that doesn’t work, or that fails to achieve its peak efficiency, will be cause the safety advocate that championed it to look frivolous and cause him or her to lose credibility.  It’s rare for an outside, canned system fail outright, but fairly likely that the system will fail to achieve the promised results; this puts the safety professional in a position where he or she has to make excuses for the shortfall.

Of course there is potential for an even more catastrophic failure of a home-made safety management system.  Homemade systems are often a mishmash of theories that the safety professional cobbled together from books, speeches at professional conferences, or from tools and tactics “borrowed” from pundits. The problem is exacerbated by safety professionals who, while skilled in safety and compliance, lack the experience in culture change or systems design to create an appropriate safety management system.

Business Case

Business leaders more likely to not only expect a Return On Investment (ROI) but also to expect a sizable ROI within a year, if not sooner.  Conventional wisdom now holds that all expenditures should return more capital than the amount expended and any cash outlay competes with other opportunities to invest.  Unfortunately, many Safety departments lack the infrastructure to accurately measure the cost of the lack of a system which makes it impossible to calculate a precise ROI.

The decision as to whether to adopt a canned program or to build one using internally will always require careful deliberation and analysis, but unless one takes great care at the onset one is likely to end with a system that is in effectual and that degrades the organization’s confidence in the safety professional.

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