Safety Never Sleeps: Creating A Culture of Vigilance

We-Never-Sleep

By Phil La Duke

Creating a safety culture is all the rage today, and whether you are a snake oil shyster or an organizational psychologist working in safety everyone seems to agree that we need to create cultures of safety to be successful in reducing injuries.  I don’t know about you, but I get a more than a bit nervous when everyone agrees on a single course of action.

The concept of a “safety culture” in itself is both widely known and impossibly vague.  In broad strokes a safety culture is a state where “safety” is a shared value.[1]  I put the word “safety” in quotes because it is the most basic definition of our profession and the most poorly defined.  I have had people define it as the absence of injuries, but that doesn’t necessarily make one safe.  I have been in plenty of unsafe situations where I never even came close to being injured.  Some say that safety is the absence of risk, but since such a thing can never be true defining safety as such is to admit that safety is an impossibility. There are even some that will say that safety is a state of mind, that we either feel safe or we don’t, but if that’s the case pursuit of safety is the pursuit of complacency (a feeling of quiet pleasure or security, often while unaware of some potential danger, defect, or the like; self-satisfaction or smug satisfaction with an existing situation, condition, etc.[2]) and since one of the major players in the safety community now openly claims that complacency is the cause of something like 60% of all injuries this creates a circular logic—we can only be safe if we feel safe and if we feel safe we are complacent and if we are complacent we can never be safe.

Safety is too broad a concept, too philosophical on which to build a culture.  So if not safety what then?  A couple weeks ago I began toying with the concept of a culture of vigilance.  What, I asked myself, if we decided to pursue a culture of vigilance instead of a culture of safety? Could it work? What would it look like?

I envisioned a culture where people valued the approach more than the result, where risk taking wasn’t a sign of bravery and ingenuity but of recklessness and irresponsibility, I asked myself what might that look like.  It’s tough in a world where the “cowboy culture” is no longer a uniquely American thing the world loves an action hero and the ubiquitous rogue anti-hero pervades pop culture from Australia to Greenland, from Hollywood to Bollywood, from Argentina to Japan.

Arsonist Are the Best Firefighters

There is nothing like the feeling of sweeping into a mess and saving the day.  Unfortunately, too often we idealize people  for cleaning up their own messes.  We rarely praise someone for planning and executing a task with such precision that nothing even comes close to going wrong; it’s boring, and as my daughter (and Chris Rock) are fond of saying, “you don’t get credit for doing the things you are supposed to do”.  But maybe we should give credit for the people who get it right, and that’s what I think lies at the center of a culture of vigilance.

Rewarding someone for putting out the fire he or she set is a bit like the puzzling practice of having far less harsh penalties for attempted murder than for actual murder, I mean, in so doing aren’t we just rewarding failure? Not to make light of murder, but if we adopted a culture of vigilance the penalty for TRYING to commit murder (the intent or the action) would be the same as it would be for SUCCEEDING in killing someone (the outcome).  We need to focus on what we can control and stop focusing on those things beyond our control.

The Values Of A Culture Of Vigilance

If such a thing as a Culture of Vigilance can be said to exist there must be shared values associated with it.  I would like to submit the following for your consideration:

  1. Success is borne of planning. Solid planning is required for Operations to run smoothly with minimal variation and lowest possible risk; the better we plan the safer we are.
  2. We Cannot Prevent What We Cannot Foresee.  One of the first things we should be asking ourselves when someone is injured is not “what could the injured person have done to have avoided being harmed” (not that this question isn’t worth asking, but it shouldn’t be the FIRST question), rather we should be asking “was this foreseeable?” and if so, “why did we fail to foresee this?” and then “if we did foresee this, what did we do to mitigate our risk?”
  3. An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Cure.  It is always smarter and more effective to prevent injuries than to react to them and we need to build safety systems that spend far more effort preventing injuries than in treating them and preventing recurrence.
  4. Safety Never Sleeps. A culture of vigilance means that we are relentlessly pursuing the prevention of injuries and that we can never be fooled into thinking that nothing can go wrong; we are piloting The Titanic , a ship that once regarded as the safest ocean going vessel, right up until it sank.
  5. Vigilance is Exhausting So It Takes Everyone Working Together.  Constant vigilance creates a state of chronic unease that leads to stress and injuries so we have to get as many people involved as possible; many hands make for light lifting.
  6. Knowledge is Power.  We won’t be perfect, but as long as we learn from our mistakes we can continue to improve, and continual, incremental improvement will make the workplace safer.
  7. Every Injury Is A Big Deal.  We may never achieve zero-injury, and zero-harm may remain an ever elusive goal, most certainly we can never achieve zero risk,  but its never okay to hurt workers.  People can argue whether or not the idea of zero injuries is a faerie tale or the only acceptable goal, but both sides should agree that hurting workers is never okay and that anytime  a worker is harmed we have failed at our jobs.

 

[1] Before anyone runs off at the mouth about how this isn’t how he or she defines safety culture please read https://philladuke.wordpress.com/2015/06/07/safety-in-the-age-of-wikipidiots/ and then kindly keep your definition to yourself; I don’t care Daniel Webster you don’t get to just make up definitions to suit your purpose although I guess that’s essentially what I’m doing, but hey, it’s my blog; such is my right

[2] Dictionary.com

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