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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Mind Your Own Business: The Far From the Last Word On Building A “Safety Culture”

photo of the Diego Rivera Mall at the Detroit Institute of Arts taken by Phil La Duke

There is a nearly ubiquitous conversation ragging in the safety forums: how can one create a “safety culture” within my organization. This debate is troubling from a couple of perspectives.  First, there really isn’t any such thing as a “safety culture” the fact that people blather on about this topic shows a very deep ignorance of organizational culture.  Every organization of more than five people has a culture. In simplest terms, a culture is the codified collection of the norms, shared values, and rules of an organization. Cultures evolve to protect the organization’s interests and to determine what is acceptable behavior. In so doing, corporate culture makes it possible to govern the organization.

In some organization’s the corporate culture is so strong that changing from within is almost impossible, in fact, it is far more likely that a new hire will adopt the corporate culture rather than change it, no matter how strong the desire or ardently the new employee works for change.

I’ve studied corporate cultures and worked in OD for years.  I won’t bore you with a lot of pedantic excrement filled with a lot of jargon and theory, but if you want that, believe me there are plenty of people out there to fill your head with it.

Cultures are made up of shared values—kind of shared opinions of how important something is relative to the other elements of an organization.  Organizations tend to have a value of safety, that is, the organization places some value on safety relative to the other activities on which it can expend its resources.  Some cultures view safety as unimportant while others view it as of paramount importance, but all cultures place some priority on worker safety, and therefore, all organizations have a “safety culture” albeit some have a strong safety culture while others have a weak safety culture.

Even if a safety culture could be achieved (at some point it becomes a purely semantic argument) such a culture would neither be advisable or desirable.  A safety culture would mean that safety would be prioritized above all other business elements. Customer satisfaction, productivity, profitability, quality, and profitability all would take a secondary role over worker safety.  It sounds great, but in practical terms,  it doesn’t exist, nor should it.  No company exists primarily to ensure the safety of its workers.  In fact, most companies exist to make money.  This isn’t a bad thing; the safest companies in the world are the ones who went out of business because they didn’t make any money. Pursuit of a safety culture is a mish mash of Polly Anna idealism, cheap sales talk, and excuse making. (“I’ve done all I can; the culture is broken”).

As for the larger issue of a culture change, that may be necessary but that isn’t the job of the safety professional.  There are people with degrees in Organizational Behavior, Industrial Psychology, Organizational Development (OD), or other advanced degrees that qualify them to create culture change interventions. These people have years of Organizational Development experience before they are able to lead such a change; they aren’t safety professionals who have read a couple of books or attended a couple of speeches at a safety conference.   It’s been suggested that the skills of the safety professional and the organizational psychology field aren’t mutually exclusive; perhaps not. But just because someone read a couple of books about airplanes and has a flight simulator on his PC doesn’t make him a pilot. And frankly I would prefer a cardiac surgeon perform my coronary by-pass surgeon to a butcher, but effectively they share as many skills as a self-important puffed up safety huckster who believes—however earnestly—that he has the same skills as a professional skilled and experienced in OD.

So let’s shut up about creating a safety culture; it makes us seem even more out of touch than we already do.  We should however, foster an environment where safety is valued, but that isn’t a culture change, it’s a change in values.

Changing the values of an organization doesn’t take a whole lot of special skills.  A tenacious and conscientious safety professional can immediately start creating a heightened sense of value for safety within his or her organization.

Engage Leadership

I have written and spoken extensively on ways to engage leadership so I will just quickly summarize the key points here. In organizations that place a low value on safety professionals tend to have little or know credibility with the senior leadership in an organization.  Building credibility begins by speaking the same language and relating safety to the things that senior leadership find most compelling.  If the organization values sales above everything else, the safety professional should express the cost of injuries in terms of the amount of additional revenue it will take to replace the money spent on worker injuries.

Run the Safety Function Like a Business

Every safety function that is run like a business (i.e. the primary purpose of the function is to provide some service that is of quantifiable value) is much more likely to survive and thrive than those that are manage like overhead.  When the safety function sees itself as a for hire service provider it is far more likely to instill the kind of confidence required to build demand for safety.

Position Safety As a Partner In Improvements

For far too long, the safety profession has seen itself as serving a greater good that the rest of the organization, while the other departments busied themselves making money or improving quality, or making materials flow more efficiently, Safety saved lives. And while that is beyond important, it positioned safety as a parent and a policeman, but never a partner.  Safety became the smug outsider in the organization and then wondered why nobody trusted it.

But it doesn’t have to be like that, the Safety function plays an important role in bolstering operating efficiency (worker injuries interrupt production and make the operation less efficient), increasing profitability (worker injuries cost money), and creating a lean workplace (injuries are  waste).

Lead

Day after day I interact with safety professionals who deride leadership of their organization as indifferent or even hostile to safety.  These sad sacks talk in “us versus them” distinctions that make me wonder why they have jobs at all.  If safety professionals want to effect real change in how much value and priorities they have to be credible leaders not whiny crybabies who feel powerless to effect change.

People listen to those who have something to say, they learn from those who have something to teach them, and they follow people who are going to take them someplace better.  If you can’t these things for others there’s probably still important role you can play in worker safety, but shut up about culture; you don’t know what you are talking about.

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