Superstition-Based Safety?

safety ritual

by Phil La Duke

Does this sound familiar: You do what all the experts say, you read articles on how the world’s safest companies, or you come back from a conference ready to implement the hot safety tool? But instead of creating your safety Utopia your efforts fall flat. You end up doing all the right things but—far from getting the remarkable improvements you’ve been expecting—your efforts fall flat. You end up trying idea after idea but nothing seems to make a difference.

I have been on far too many sales calls where I was stopped cold be the same objection: “we’re already doing that”. I would always get frustrated, because I in my arrogance I reasoned that given that I had invented this process there is no way on God’s green Earth that someone else was “already doing that”; except that they were. It really messed with my head when I first realized that what I thought was this profound and innovative approach was being doing done by numerous other companies around the globe. I shouldn’t have been surprised, my approach is based on the practices and values of the world’s safest companies and since many of these practices were widely known and used it was reasonable for these people to believe that I had nothing new to offer. Except there was one important difference: my approach rapidly improved safety performance and drove down the monies companies spent on worker injuries—both the frequency and severity of injuries fell exponentially, so if these folks were doing the same thing, why weren’t they getting the same results?

I’ve spent a fair amount of time pondering how two so very similar approaches can produce such dramatically different results and I have reached several conclusions:

  1. Requirements without Context. When people are given an assignment without a clear explanation of why they are doing it the behaviors become ritualistic. After a time these behaviors become deeply imbedded into the culture and since the population has no understanding of what these events are supposed to accomplish they just keep doing them often complaining bitterly that they are getting nothing out of the activity. Think of your safety meeting, what exactly are the expected, tangible outcomes? Do these meeting achieve these outcomes? Are achieving these outcomes worth the time and effort spent to achieve them. It’s important to recognize that people don’t always recognize ritualistic behavior (I’m not talking about drawing pentagrams on the floor after all).

Perhaps the most common ritual is the safety metrics review. Why do we review our metrics? If all we do is trot out our latest performance without asking ourselves what these figures are telling us than the safety metric review (no matter how wonderful our leading and lagging indicators are) then we are wasting our time and the company’s money.

  1. A colleague of mine used to describe most companies’ safety efforts as “administrivia”. I like the term. For me it conjures up images of people dutifully going about their business without any expectation of change. In many organizations, safety is filled with administrivia; things that we do because our policies say we must or things that we do because someone other organization says we should, or things we do because it’s a safety tradition. There are many things that we do in safety that may have added value at a time but don’t any more. There are still others than add value but not enough to justify their continuation. All of these things attach themselves barnacle-like to the organization and slow us down, make is less nimble, and unproductive.
  2. Compliance Without Understanding. In some organizations the corporate office has laid out a strategy or a plan and the sites have dutifully implemented its elements. All is right with the world. Unfortunately, those at the site don’t really understand what the purpose of what they are doing. Because they don’t understand why they are doing what they are doing they don’t ascribe the same importance to getting it write, doing it on a regular basis, or even be able to ascertain whether or not it has been done correctly. The lack of understanding leads again to ritualistic behaviors and superstition-based safety, but in this case, the ritualistic behavior will never be questioned or even seen as anything improper.
  3. Absence of Connection. Companies with world-class safety performance connect everything they do to improve safety into a performance improvement system. Many organizations miss this and instead create independent and discreet activities that limit the effectiveness of the safety efforts. Without a flow of clean data that can be interpreted by the people with the power to act on the data these activities simply produce data that is inaccessible to those who need it. Furthermore, without a connection between the activities it is impossible to get an accurate read on the effectiveness of the safety efforts; trends get more difficult to see and accurately interpret which leads to misinterpretation of the data. In some cases the organizations start to see trends where there are none and are misled into thinking that a course of action is working (or not working) when the opposite is true.
  4. Organizational Inertia. Sometimes the organization gets so caught up in tactics and activities that it loses sight of the fact that in the end results are all that matters; we get no points for trying hard if we fail. Organizational Inertia is akin to the worker who is disengaged; the man or the woman who is just punching the clock caring neither about success of failure. Inert organizations will continue doing things in the name of safety because they are afraid that if they cease these activities someone will accuse them of not caring about worker safety, far better to continue ineffective activities than to be branded as antagonistic or indifferent to worker safety.

All of these factors make the difference between high-performance safety infrastructures and safety pomp and pageantry, between safety systems that work and those that don’t, and in some cases they make the difference between life and death.

Advertisements