Causing Safety (In Case You Missed It)

By Phil La Duke

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Last week I traveled to San Antonio, Texas to speak at the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) formerly American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE).   For what it’s worth I happen to think that the ASSP does hands down the best safety conference and expo anywhere, and again big thanks to those of you out there who work tirelessly as volunteers  to make this show such a high quality event.

My topic was Causing Safety, I have been thinking about how to break the cycle of bleeding indicators and measuring the presence of nothing.  I reasoned, that we already know many of the things that make the difference between a safe workplace and a unsafe workplace so why on God’s green Earth do we work only defensively.  A couple of cocky sports teams not withstanding defense is not playing to win; it’s playing not to lose.

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I didn’t have a moderator and the session wasn’t recorded so what I said during this slide is between the audience and I.

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For too many years safety professionals have squabbled over the most basic terms of the profession.  Hazards, incidents, near misses, all may have very different connotations depending on the workplace and the most basic term, “safety” may have the most definitions.  Safety has to be more than the absence of injuries.  I am from the Detroit area and I like to tell people that I can take their loved ones, leave them overnight in an unlocked car, take no security precautions, and return them unharmed to them the next day.  Where they safe? Most people have a horrified look on there faces and say, “no”.  Why weren’t they safe? They weren’t harmed, but the potential for harm was so great that a reasonable person would judge them to be “unsafe”.  Why then do we persist in using body counts as a measure of safety? Instead we need to focus less on preventing injuries and more on promoting the antecedent practices that promote safety; the things that cause safety.

Over the years I have identified six elements that to one extent or another cause safety.  You may have more, but I’ve found these six are the most powerful.

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It should surprise no one that competency, that is, people’s ability to do their jobs is essential to safety.  People who either because they don’t know how to do their jobs, or are physically or intellectually incapable of doing their jobs cannot do the jobs safely.  Competency begins by having clearly and accurately described jobs so that hiring managers and recruiters can get the right person for the job.  Once on the job workers must be trained—not just watch an experienced worker do the job for a week or two—and this training should be a mix of core skills and safety training.

Even the most competent person can subconsciously drift from the process, fail to retain components of the training, or begin taking short cuts, so it is critically important that the workers’ performances are periodically evaluated and given appropriate feedback.  Of course if there is significant deviation from the process, the training given to workers may be poorly designed, developed, or implemented.  All training should be piloted and evaluated before given to workers.

Finally, failing to address a competency issue because “it’s all common sense” is a sure ticket for getting someone hurt or killed.  Common sense is the universal understanding of a topic, and new workers entering your environment may take years to develop this common sense shared by veteran employees.

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All processes that are “under control” (to use a Statistical Process Control (SPC) term) have an upper and lower control limit.  This is the range of performance in which, statistically, your process will perform.  Even though people’s behavior can be wildly unpredictable, they still tend to perform within physical and intellectual control limits.  If the range of the control limits of the process exceed the limits of the worker’s abilities, the worker will be harmed—sometimes the injury will be sudden and acute while others will develop gradually and create chronic injuries, but there is no doubt that this will happen.

Your process isn’t supposed to hurt people, and if you find yourself trying to protect workers using the bottom of the Hierarchy of Controls you’re process is probably insufficiently robust and stable.  When workers are forced to work out of process the risk of injuring them become exponentially higher, as the protections put into place to prevent harm were designed with a standard process in mind. Every deviation away from the standard design places the workers at heightened risk.  Of course process improvement should never be seen as a success if it prioritizes production over people.

Your process isn’t supposed to hurt people, and if you find yourself trying to protect workers using the bottom of the Hierarchy of Controls you’re process is probably insufficiently robust and stable.  When workers are forced to work out of process the risk of injuring them become exponentially higher, as the protections put into place to prevent harm were designed with a standard process in mind. Every deviation away from the standard design places the workers at heightened risk.  Of course process improvement should never be seen as a success if it prioritizes production over people.

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It may sound schmaltzy or soft-witted but I firmly believe that leaders (and that includes safety professionals, anyone in a supervisory or managerial position, or simply a person of great influence that is respected by his or her peers) you have to visualize and personify the change you want to see, every day, every hour, every minute, and every breath.

As I look at the shelf in my office I see scores of books on leadership and all of them agree that leading by example is the single greatest way to encourage the behaviors that you want to see in whatever organization you are leading.

Having safety as a core value is not enough unless you live in alignment with your core values. Leaders must consistently and articulately communicate safety as a value.  That doesn’t mean walking around talking about how much we all love and value safety, rather leaders much explain exactly HOW these values manifest in our decision making, how we prioritize our work, and precisely what these values mean.

Too often, leaders try to “cascade the message” and this results in something I refer to as the “hour glass effect”.  The hour glass effect is the tendency for messages to be passed from senior leaders to middle management who then filter the message such that only a fraction of that message reaches the working level of the organization.  You have a level at the top that wants an engaged and safe workforce, and workers at the bottom who want to go home unharmed and don’t want to watch their coworkers maimed or dying in the gore of an industrial accident.  But you also have a bottleneck in the middle of the organization whose livelihoods and perhaps their jobs rely, not on the safety of the workers but, the extent to which they can push efficiency, production, and quality.  It’s always easier to risk someone else’s neck than your own, and many are far too willing to roll the dice with workers’ lives.

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If you work in safety, you don’t need me to tell you how to manage your hazards and risks, or maybe you do, but there are only three points that I want to make here:

  1. Hazard and risk management are skills, and as such they need to be taught, honed, and periodically reinforced.
  2. Hazard and risk management doesn’t just happen; it’s not all common sense.  Your organization has to have a robust system that identifies, contains, and corrects hazards and that mitigates risks.
  3. Risk is not universal.  The risks of working in upstream oil and gas aren’t the same risks as over the road trucking or retail or…well you get it.Slide8

When it comes to Accountability systems  there are three main considerations:

  1. People need to understand risk tolerance, that is the amount of jeopardy they are willing to accept while they do their jobs.  Every person has a different risk tolerance, but each workplace must draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable risks.
  2. Accountability doesn’t automatically equate to punishment.  Management has to respond differently to human error (which is neither deliberate or avoidable), risk taking (we expect all workers to take at least some educated and informed risks) and recklessness (where the potential benefit is so grossly outweighed by the risk of catastrophic consequences.)
  3. People must be held answerable for their roles in safety and to do that the organization must clearly define and articulate exactly what that role is—when safety is everybody’s job it becomes nobody’s job.

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Human error is our brain’s mechanism for testing the safety of rapid adaptation.  We make an average of five mistakes an hour, but don’t worry most of these mistakes are benign.  As much as we may want to punish someone for doing something that they didn’t intend nor plan to do so is unjust.  In most cases people feel terrible about making a mistake and punishment is unnecessary.

Risk Taking is different from human error in that it is deliberate and planned. We expect workers to take risks, in fact many jobs risk taking is essential.  But we need to ensure that people know their decision rights.  Decision rights are the limits we set on the level of risks workers are allowed to take.  Organizations have to draw a line in the sand and make it clear the exact point where workers are no longer allowed to take risks.

Recklessness should never be tolerated.  Recklessness is where a worker exceeds his or her decision rights and takes risks that are so out of proportion with any reward that the risk is impossible for a reasonable person to justify. Recklessness endangers the entire workforce and should be dealt with sternly and decisively.

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Worker engagement is becoming a buzzword, Engagement is the quality that drives us to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.  Engaged workers understand that no one wants to get hurt, and they don’t want to hurt anyone.  These workers will guard their coworkers from harm and will stop work  when they judge the work to be unsafe. Engaged workers believe that if they see a hazard they own it and follow the “see something, say something, do something” approach to safety.

Worker engagement is often confused with worker motivation.  A motivated worker will work toward a reward or incentive but once that reward or incentive is achieved it ceases (or at very best case reduces) it’s ability to motivate.  Organizations cannot create engagement through recognition and reward programs, instead, engagement is built on trust and communication.  When you expect workers to do the right thing and you communicate this expectation workers tend to become more engaged.

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Then people asked questions and I answered them.

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And of course I provided information on how to stalk me.

I want to thank all of the many people who attended the session and hope that they enjoyed my talk as much (or more) than I did delivering it.

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