Taking a New Look At Safety

fresh look

By Phil La Duke

 Let me begin by thanking all of you who voiced your support for me over the past week. As you may have surmised I get frustrated from time to time, mostly because so many safety practitioners still don’t get it—despite cognizant arguments (I’m not talking about what I have been saying, I’m arrogant but I’m not THAT arrogant) made by really smart people so many in the field of safety cling to shear stupidity. Arguing a point that should have been conceded long ago gets exhausting and it got to me. Add to that a moderate case of writer’s block and it’s been a rough couple of weeks.

But enough about that, some time ago I posted an article that postulated that safety in itself wasn’t something we should be managing, that safety is an outcome not a priority or a factor or…fill in the blank. Safety isn’t what happens to or doesn’t happen to workers it’s an indicator of business efficiency. We have to view safety in a radically different way and I realize going into this upset some of the delicate sensibilities of some in the safety community, but safety cannot be effective on a functional level, it needs to be managed by operations. Operations ownership of safety isn’t a new idea, and certainly not a radical change, but what I am suggesting is more than simply moving a corporate function out of administration or compliance to under Operations leadership. What I am suggesting is that Operations needs to view safety as an indicator of the health of the organization, as a criterion for judging the effectiveness of Operations management.

If safety is truly a value (and it really should be) than what is it that we are valuing? A lack of injuries? Can we really say that is a value? But let’s back up. “Value” is one of those words that simpletons bandy about without really having a clear understanding of the definition of the word. I realize that in the age of Wikipedia people feel that it is an inalienable right to assign whatever definition they want to a word; sorry imbeciles it doesn’t work that way. “Values” are your personal code of beliefs, and one of the elements of a culture is “shared values”, that is, the most deeply held belief set that guides our decisions. So if “safety” is a core value it should guide our decisions as we manage our operations in five[1] key areas: Competency, process capability, hazard management, accountability, and engagement. This week I would like to tackle competency.

I tend to boil this down to a single statement: “if people don’t have the skills to do their jobs they can’t do them safely.” I stand by this, and it makes for a great “elevator speech”[2] but there is so much more to this. Recruiters have to find the right people to do the job, people capable—physically, mentally, and emotionally—of doing the job as designed. There is a lot of cowardice in recruiting and many in Human Resources will hide behind antidiscrimination laws for not doing a thorough job of screening people for their ability of inability to do the job without hurting themselves or others. The difficulty in hiring the right people isn’t completely the fault of recruiters. In many organizations the jobs are so poorly defined that it is for all intents and purposes impossible to identify which skills and abilities are bona fide job requirements. Companies, often abetted by misguided hackneyed legal advice deliberately add competency-risk to their organization because they are afraid someone will use his or her job description as a shield. In a well-managed organization competencies are mapped so specifically that an intern can see the skills and experiences that he or she would need to master/acquire to become CEO. Before you scoff and pooh-pooh the idea as nonsense, I developed such a system for a large, tier-one Automotive supplier, not only did it help in succession planning, but it helped individuals to own their own careers, and yes, an output of a good competency management system is a safer operating environment. Competency cannot stop at the date of hire.

There is seldom, if ever, a perfect hire. Even in the best case there is at least some gap between a new-hire’s skill set and the requirements to expertly do the job. Unfortunately, in most companies the training department doesn’t do individual placement testing to ascertain a new-hire’s true competency level and tends to train to the lowest common denominator (which here again they really can’t know without testing) and over train, often with a schlocky eLearning module that is about much like actual skill building as I am like a flamenco dancer. So there is much work to be done to increase true competency in our hiring and training process.

And it doesn’t end there, once someone has been hired and appropriately trained, there is still a large degradation of skills and behavioral drift where people move away from the established process, so the organization has to have a strong performance evaluation process that focuses on performance improvement and not on pay increases or cover your assets thinking that pervades so many performance evaluation processes. At this point you’re probably seeing where there begins to be overlap between the five antecedent processes. You can probably also connect the dots between getting these basic management practices right. Not only will the organization see it’s safety increase, but in all the other business elements as well.


[1] I used to have seven, I have colleagues who have identified ten, others who have as many as 35, but I’ve found that much more than five of anything confounds the organization so I simplified mine to five

[2] If someone ever gave me a little speech about what they do while I was riding in an elevator I would be tempted to smack them, but I digress.


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