Let’s Try “Sense Based Safety”

SENSE

By Phil La Duke

I belong to 50 LinkedIn groups and I am active in each of them. They range from groups catering to trainers and industrial designers to those focusing on specific industries in which I work.  The vast majority of those groups have one thing or another to do with worker safety.  Each day my in box is blown up by multiple emails from LinkedIn.  Some update me that one of my contacts has a new job or work anniversary while others announced the topic d’jour in one or more (mostly more) discussion threads, and increasingly the topic is centered around (fill-in-the-blank) based safety.  Since a cadre of companies made millions shilling Behavior-Based Safety and since the shine is off BBS, at least in some circles, saints and snake-oil salesmen alike are clamoring to create the next big thing. I’ve seen proponents of  Culture-Based Safety, Process-Based Safety (not to be confused with Process Safety) Values-Based Safety, Ethics Based Safety, Respect Based Safety, Change Based Safety, and more; it’s exhausting, and what’s more, it might be dangerous.

I like to think that I try not to get in the way of someone trying to make a buck, but when it comes to safety selling a system that you just “thunk up” without research or at very least having successfully implemented it somewhere else puts people at risk.  I warn you, dear reader, that I am in a cranky mood, even for me, and my patience is just about shot.  I’ve spent the better part of the last two months travelling relentlessly doing, what may come as a shock to many of you, actual work in the field of safety. It gives me a lot of hotel time where I can read about the latest fad masquerading as safety science in the threads.

Why can’t we just agree on a “sense-based” approach to safety? Do we need a complex model to lower our risk and make the work place safer? (Apart for lining the pockets of safety consultants who attach themselves tick-like on the soft, white underbelly of commerce) why do we have to reinvent the wheel every 6 months?

I’m not talking about leaving the safety of the worker in the hands of “common sense”.  I’ve written reams about how there is no such thing as common sense and the more of the dribble I read in the discussion forums makes me believe not only isn’t there common sense, there isn’t all that much uncommon sense either.

We don’t agree on basic terminology of our trade for crying out loud, words like “safety”, “hazard”,  “injury”, “incident” all seem to be subject to a public debate; it wearies the soul.

So what is so horribly wrong with approaching safety in a way that makes sense based on, it least in my arrogant opinion would be some universal truths about safety:

  1. No one wants to get hurt. So much of what we do in safety wrongly presupposes that people are getting hurt because on some level they want to blow their backs out, loose those pesky digits, or get some really cool scars. The reality is that few injuries are the result of deliberate actions by individuals fully mindful of the risks and consequences they face because of their actions.
  2. Your processes aren’t supposed to hurt people. I like to explain that safety is about things running smoothly.  When things go haywire bad things happen—products get scrapped, equipment gets damaged, deliveries are delayed, and yes, people get hurt. Rather than trying some new hair-brained scheme focused on redesigning human behavior how about we safety practitioners start working to keep the system running smoothly? Operations could use, and would appreciate, the help.
  3. People Make Mistakes. Sometimes we focus so much on how stupid people are, or how careless they are, or how clumsy they are, that we forget that in general people are no more stupid, careless, or clumsy than we are.  It’s easy to point fingers and say “if they would just do what we told them to do they wouldn’t get hurt” but how many of us have hurt ourselves (or almost hurt ourselves) doing something stupid.
  4. Punishing People For Making Mistakes Drives Errors Underground.  I have worked in safety for over 15 years and I have only seen a handful of organizations that grant immunity for self-reporting.  So if a fork-truck driver gets distracted and slams a post he or she is often forced with the decision to report the incident or to get the heck out of the area as soon as possible and hope nobody saw the incident.  We lose so much important information about weaknesses in our system because we shoot the messenger.  Should we hold people accountable? Yes, absolutely, but instead of disciplining them for making the mistake hold them answerable for identifying the best way for preventing others from making similar mistakes.
  5. Absolute Focus On a Task For a Prolonged Period Is Impossible. Whether it be driving screws on an assembly line or driving the idea that a person can remain intensely focused on a task is absurd, and brain research has found that prolonged focus leads to stress and fatigue.  We need to stop trying to combat this by hanging posters around telling people to behave safely doesn’t do anything except make the simple minded think that they are doing something when they are not.
  6. Incentives for Zero Injuries Lead to Zero Reporting.  Safety incentives aren’t going away, too many people LOVE safety incentives.  Sadly, more often than not paying people not to get injured results in the “blood in the pocket” syndrome where workers put a field dressing on their work injury and seek medical attention from their family physician.  Incentives make the numbers look good, the workers love them, and the company loves them.  Unfortunately, this leads to situations where workers only report the most serious injuries and where unidentified process risks lie lurking until, seemingly out of nowhere, someone is killed.
  7. Competence Is Key.  Worker competence—from the front line contributor to the CEO—is the single best way to ensure worker safety.  A person who has mastery level skills in doing his or her job is far safer than someone who can’t do the basic tasks associated with their job, and yet we still treat the safety and training functions as if they were completely unrelated.  The idea in many companies seems to be that anyone with a pulse can do training and anyone period can do safety.  We need competency at ALL levels or the system is at risk of failing.
  8. The Absence of Injury Does Not Denote The Presence Of Safety.  Safety is a relative term; we have to stop thinking in terms of something being “safe” or “unsafe”.  Safety is the absence of risk and is therefore never possible in an absolute sense.  We need to educate everyone in the company to see safety as risk and to ask, “is there a safer way to do this?”
  9. We Can’t Prevent Everything But We Can Always Mitigate The Risk.  There are two elements to safety: probability and severity.  In many organizations there is too much focus on prevention (i.e. lowering probability to zero) and not enough focus on reducing severity (i.e. installing redundancies that would reduce the extent of an injury to the least serious condition, for example: a bruised knee instead of an amputated leg.) Something has been lost in the argument over whether or not zero injuries is achievable and that something is that lowering the severity of the injuries that DO occur is at least as important as preventing injuries.
  10.  Most Of Us Don’t Have a Clue How to Interpret Indicators.  Lagging indicators, leading indicators, predictive analysis, the safety function is no slouch when it comes to gathering information.  Some of it is misleading (three data points do not a trend make), some of it is pointless when viewed in a vacuum (look how many injuries we had last year) some of it is pointless period (look at the Pareto chart of injuries I made!)  and some of it requires a working knowledge of statistics to draw any meaningful inferences, and yet we continue to festoon the workplace with pretty charts and graphs that make us seem smart, well that is, until someone asks us to explain what it all means and then we don’t seem all that bright.

Last week a lot of people reading this returned home from the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) conference in Orlando with their heads stuffed with new ideas about how to reengineer the safety function.  Some of them may have gotten a legitimately good idea or two.  Many others are preparing to embark on the latest flavor of quackery.  All I am asking is for of you to think twice before getting swept up in the latest safety hustle.  We are after all, stewards of the funds with which the company have entrusted us; try not to waste it on snake oil.

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