Safety: We Can’t Apply Static Solutions to Dynamic Environments


By Phil La Duke

“I’m over the hill, I know it, but it CAN happen to you. Every year you get a little older and a little slower; it happens to everyone.”

—Butch Cassidy to the Sundance Kid,
Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid

One of the most difficult things associated with creating a safe workplace is that the workplace keeps changing, and—at least in many organizations—our safety solutions don’t. Some of you are reading this and already throwing up defenses.  Of course safety changes, after all we do Job Safety Analysis on tasks where an engineering change has been made, we review our safety policies annually, and we do continuous improvement workshops designed to make the workplace safer. It’s fair argument but too often the pace of change outstrips the organization’s ability to update—and indeed sometimes overhaul—it’s approach to safety.

The workplace—any workplace—is continuously changing: bearing wear out, lanyards fray, people get older and everything, and I mean everything, is grinding it’s way toward the end of its useful life.

But our safety strategies seldom acknowledge or address the magnitude of variation in our system. In many respects, safety is a static solution to a dynamic problem and that can be dangerous.  If our policies, procedures, and controls are designed to protect us from a static problem but that problem is dynamic the very measures designed to protect us may not only fail to do so but may in fact subject us to greater danger.

The problem is difficult to manage and far from limited to safety; all of the SQDCME are effected by this constant march to mortality, and because the problem isn’t exclusive to safety we can leverage tools from other disciplines, not only does that help us manage the problem, but it helps us to forge bonds and make in-roads into the other functions and these may prove to serve us well when we need to enlist their help.


The first, and potentially the most useful, tool at our disposal is Total Productive Maintenance or TPM as it is commonly called. TPM was created in Japan in the early 1970’s to improve machine reliability by anticipating maintenance needs and planning maintenance before originated in Japan in 1971 as a method for improved machine availability through better utilization of maintenance and production resources. TPM is operator focused rather than maintenance focused and operators are expected to make basic checks of the worthiness of their equipment according to a carefully designed schedule.  The idea driving TPM is that the operator knows the equipment better than anyone and can tell, almost intuitively when a machine is about to malfunction. I use the word “malfunction” instead of “breakdown” because in this instance context, that of TPM, the operator should be so in sync with the equipment that he or she knows that something is amiss long before it actually breaks down.  A good analogy, or at least one I think many to which many of us can relate is driving our car.  We know when something is wrong by the way it steers, whether or not the brakes feel soft, if it is making a funny noise, or something doesn’t smell quite right. We are far more capable of knowing that something is wrong even if a mechanic is more qualified to identify the cause of the problem and repair it.  Anyone who owns an automobile or major appliance probably knows that it is generally cheaper and more effective to keep the equipment running well than it is to pay to have it repaired once it has broken down.  This goes deeper than simple preventive maintenance, but also speaks to how the equipment is used (To continue the analogy—from not overloading a washing machine or driving a car in a way that protects the transmission or engine.)


Another useful tool safety can leverage is 5S.  I’ve written extensively on how 5S relates to safety, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here.  In general terms 5S is another Japanese methodology for making the workplace more efficient.  In the original Japanese, 5S used five words that each began with the letter S (seiri, seiton, seiso, seiketsu, and shitsuke) but because there is no direct translation you will tend to see variation in the exact words (so nitpickers looking to find fault will be disappointed here) used as English equivalents.  Perhaps the most common are: Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain. Some companies have added “safety” to the mix but it really isn’t necessary since the 5S activities will nearly always result in a safer workplace. In broad strokes the continual nature of 5S makes it an ideal tool for managing the ever-present changes that are going on in the workplace. Sorting materials and tools not only make it easy to keep excess stock from accumulating in, and blocking, exits, pedestrian walk-ways, and aisles, but it also helps reduce damage to dunnage and tools which otherwise might cause injury. Setting in order (sometimes called “straightening”) helps us to continually check the condition of our tools, workflows, and facilities. Shining, and people often scoff at the idea of scrubbing down the work surfaces until they sparkle but, at least in my experience, it really helps.  Clean floors, tools and work services eliminate trip hazards, and can expose previously hidden hazards like frayed wires, and damaged walking surfaces. Standardizing helps ensure that procedures are in place and up to date and may also ensure that chemicals are properly stored, flammables are in appropriate cabinets and so on. But the final S, Sustain, lies at the heart of addressing the dynamic work environment. Only through continual sustainment efforts can we hope to create a dynamic solution.

There are certainly other tools that can help the safety professional to build dynamic approaches to the ever deteriorating and degrading workplace but to some extent safety professionals need to seek out the tools and solutions that best fit their industry, their segment, and their organization.


#managing-safety-dynamically, #process-degradation, #safety, #worker-safety