What Can The Executive Suite Expect From Safety Professionals

By Phil La Duke

About a year ago, one of my Facebook friends, a nurse, posted a frothy meme about nurses.  “we’re not maids, we’re not you’re kids baby-sitters…” and it went on from there;  a post filled with vitriol and resentment for the patients and their families for which they serve.  I commented that if she felt such bitterness at her constituency perhaps she should choose a different profession instead of whining about it on social media.  I observed that the nobility of any deed is lost when one complains that one does not get one’s proper recognition, appreciation, and accolades.  She responded by “defriending” me; good riddance. I’ve seen similar posts from policemen, fireman, and teachers and the common thread—besides being whining malcontents—is the intense lack of judgment shown by people who publicly deride their constituency. I have never trusted people who define themselves in terms of what they aren’t; me thinks the lady doth protest too much.

While I haven’t seen anything posted on Facebook where a safety professional bellyaches about the lack of appreciation shown to him or her, LinkedIn threads are rife  with complaints from long suffering safety professionals about those that lead their organizations.  From the vague lack of support to accusations of ethics just south of Heinrich Himmler, safety professionals have a lot to say about the executives of their companies and most of it is bad.  One common complaint is that even the best-intentioned executive is a slobbering oaf when it comes to safety.  Safety professionals say they want more educated leaders but scarce little is done in terms of what the executives should be able to expect from their safety professionals.  So what should the executives be able to expect? What are the baseline things that business leaders should be able to count on from any competent safety professional?

Competency

At a most foundational level an executive should be able to count on the safety professional to have mastery level knowledge of safety regulations and compliance.  The safety professional should be expected to know and understand what must be reported, how basic regulatory metrics are calculated, how safety data should be interpreted, and where to find more in-depth explanations of the most common safety questions relative to the appropriate industry.  There are limits to what the safety professional should know, of course, after all they aren’t lawyers, but the safety professional should be keenly aware of his or her limits and be open with the executive as to where the safety professional’s skill set ends.

Honesty & Integrity

Safety professionals should always be honest with the executives—if it is a good idea to do something then that’s different from it being a legal requirement.  Safety professionals who use a liberal interpretation of regulatory requirements to push through a pet project are not to be trusted.  It’s this sort of moral flexibility that gets some safety professionals in trouble.  Executives need safety professionals to keep them on the right side of the law, not just compliant.  In some cases, the performance of the safety professional can be the difference between an executive being charged with a homicide.  The honesty and integrity of the safety professional must be above reproach.  Conversely, if a safety professional falsifies data, deliberately underreports, or otherwise subverts the law, then the executive may fined him or herself in legal hot water because of what the executive knew or should have known. Executives have the right to expect the safety professional will assertively point out when the executive is dangerously close to a legal or ethical breach.

Neutrality

Safety professionals should be dispassionately reporting the facts.  Executives should expect safety data to be free of commentary, sermons, melodrama, or pontifications.  The safety professional should be reporting facts, assessing risks, and professionally interpreting trends.  The safety professional should then be presenting recommendations that are free from personal agendas and editorializing. An executive needs a recommendation that clearly articulates the expected benefits, risks and rewards, and likelihood of success, not a lot of campaigning for a pet project.

An Informed Opinion

Executives count on experts to guide their decision-making and for that to happen they need the safety professional to distill, often complex data and safety trends into meaningful and useful chunks of information.  Too often the executive is given jargon-filled gobbledygook that he or she finds of little use. Most of all, the executive has the right to expect that the safety professional will always understand that no matter how informed the opinion it remains just that: an opinion. Asking one’s opinion is not allowing one the power to make a decision for you.

Professionalism

Professionalism must extend beyond the normal niceties of office etiquette and assertiveness and move into the realm of true professionalism; the safety professional has a specialized skill set that must be brought to bear in situations with a lot of unknowns and ambiguity.  Executives need skilled experts in worker safety not zealots and martyrs who believe that their job is more of a spiritual calling than a job.  Executives neither want nor can afford a softheaded boob at the helm of the safety function.

Business Savvy

Calvin Coolidge once said, ““the chief business of…people is business” but he’s often misquoted, as “the business of business is business”. However you interpret the quote one must agree that the primary goal of any business (heck any organization) is its own propagation.  The executive’s first directive is always to ensure that the business continues to exist.  Safety people often lose sight of this.  Hiding behind the self-righteous indignation and pronouncement that safety is more important than anything in all cases alienates executives.  And while nobody wants to risk people’s lives in favor of the immortal buck, executives have the right to expect that safety professionals will understand that within ethical and moral boundaries safety isn’t always the most important consideration and even in cases where safety may be the most important consideration it may not be the most urgent.

Respect

Often the executive will make decisions that aren’t especially popular with the safety professional.  It is not incumbent on the executive to explain his or her rational for making a tough call, in fact, the executive may not be able to legally or ethically disclose the “hows” and “whys” of a decision.  Executives have the right to make these decisions without the safety professional bad mouthing him or her behind his or her back.  Safety professionals who get sarcastic, rude, or pouty because the executive made a decision that was not to their liking lack the respect that the executive is owed and should not be surprised by the consequences.

A Clear Definition of “Support”

The biggest complaint I hear from safety professionals is that the executives don’t support them (or that the executive don’t “back them up”) but when I ask for details I seldom get them.  When I talk to senior leaders they tell me “I give the safety professionals whatever support they tell me they need”; clearly there’s a disconnect between the two worlds.  Executives tend to be reluctant to buy the proverbial “pig in a poke” and may actually believe they are supporting the safety function even though the safety professionals feel very differently. Clearly leadership is essential to a robust safety effort, but unless all parties can pinpoint exactly what “support” means one side or the other (or both) are likely to be disappointed.

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Maybe You Weren’t Fired For Sticking To Your Principles

By Phil La Duke

“I was sad because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet; so I took his shoes.”

hung over mandrill

In case you were wondering, this is what I imagine a hung-over mandrill looking like

The other day I met a man who lost his job. His tale of woe may ring true for some of you; he squared off with a company leader over a safety issue. Things got heated and when things cooled down he found himself sacked…again. You might suspect that I would devote this week’s post to all the injustice associated with people, particularly safety professionals, who lose their jobs because they are forced to choose between their principles and their livelihoods, but alas, sadly you would, yet again be wrong. The person in question is a known hot head who, apart from being euphemistically described as “rough around the edges” has a penchant for going on rabid attacks. He is disliked by many and respected by few. I’d like to assume the best about people, but when you’ve lost your job several times because you’ve lost your cool…well at some point I’ve got my doubts.

If You Can’t Tell Who The Mark Is, It’s You

There’s a saying going around that says, in effect, and I will clean this up for those of you of delicate sensibility, that if you keep meeting “jerks” all day, than you’re the “jerk”. Speaking as a “jerk” of note I can attest to the truth of this saying. As it happens, I’ve also heard a lot of safety professionals bitterly complain about being fired, admonished, disciplined or otherwise pimp-slapped by their employers simply because they were trying to do their jobs. These, the wretched refuse of the safety profession, commiserate with each other, their shoulders sagging, spirits broken, kept upright only through the inflation of self-righteous indignation, decrying the injustice of it all. But is it really unjust? Or is it as likely that these buffoons were served their just desserts and found the taste unpalatable? Of course it’s true that there are safety professionals who have been unceremoniously relieved of their positions for no greater offense than advocating for safety. I only say this because I can here the murmuring of the pain-in-the ass contrarians that will inevitably throw up statistical outliers as proof that I don’t have standing to speak out on a subject. So while I make no claim of the universality of situation I will say this: a lot of safety professionals who believe they have been fired, censured, or otherwise have suffered unpleasant consequences have actually been fired because they have the interpersonal skills of a hung-over mandrill.

I’m Only Doing My Job

A lot of malcontented safety professionals will loudly protest that they got into hot water when they were only doing their job when in fact they were doing their job poorly. Maybe they did; history will judge them. The point being that, from the guards at Auschwitz to the surly safety manager, many people try to excuse some pretty reprehensible workplace behavior as merely doing your job. The more noble the calling the more likely one is to excuse dysfunction as a necessary, if not admirable part of the job. Safety professionals often believe that the fact that they are “trying to keep people safe” excuse some pretty awful “bedside manners”. It becomes more a matter of HOW the job is done than whether or not the job is done at all. It’s like the policeman who writes you a citation and throws the book at you while adding a little sermonette as he hands you the ticket. Even though you know you are in the wrong and that the officer is under no obligation to give you a break, you may still prefer that he keep the commentary to himself. And many policeman will be jerks to you when you get a ticket and—despite being jerks about it—puff out their chest and steadfastly refuse to apologize for “doing their jobs”. Now, suppose you are in a position to influence that officer’s career advancement? Are you going to be able to overlook the fact that he does his job while acting like a jerk? If so, you are a better man than I. If not you can probably understand where I’m coming from.

Life Without Consequences

It seems to me that there are many people—not just safety professionals, but workers of all stripes—who believe that they can treat others in the workplace (coworkers and even customers) however they see fit in the name of being plain-spoken, tough, or “keeping it real”; these people believe they can live a life without consequences. This idea is typically reinforced throughout their careers because their technical expertise makes them seem invaluable to the company. Some are legitimately bent—either functionally mentally ill or simply social maladroit—while others simply behave like bullies, fussing and fuming their way through life. Add to that the mistaken believe that some safety professionals have that they are the policemen of the workplace.

It’s Not Always The Jerk’s Fault

Loud-mouthed jerks typically remain loud-mouthed jerks because they are rewarded for it. They snarl at waitresses and get refills of hot coffee, they yell at coworkers and things get pushed through; special exceptions are made just for them. They come to see themselves as perfectionists, tough-but-fair, and no-nonsense. Meanwhile the bar tender is slipping a few drops of Visine in their meticulously specked Old Fashion. I’ve long thought that society in general would be more polite and generally more civil if more people had been beaten within an inch of their lives after some of the stunts they’ve pulled, but alas folks have just got too civilized I guess. What’s more, most of the biggest workplace jerks I’ve ever known—the type of people who throw tantrums the envy of a silver-spoon 4-year old, put like felt up prom dates, and generally act in ways that make you shake your head—have had numerous warnings and “one last chances”. If the behavior works why not stick with it?

The Things We Don’t Remember And the Things We Can’t Forget

I can already hear the murmurings from people who will accuse me of suggesting that safety professionals need to sell out if they want to keep their jobs. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, even a cursory read of my body of work will demonstrate my deep belief that safety professionals who remain passive in the face of gross violations, ethics abuses, or other attempts by employers to subvert their legal or moral obligations are cowards and thieves ; shirking one’s responsibilities to avoid conflict and even to save one’s job is tantamount to malpractice.

That having been said, today’s safety professional has to be persuasive and understand that his or her opinion, professionally informed not withstanding, just that: opinion. If people can’t hear past the dysfunction we cannot be effective in our roles . Maya Angelou said, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” I think this quote is the essence of what I’m trying to say. People will forgive us for being incompetent screw-ups who don’t know beans when the bag is open, but if we’re jerks, they will lie in wait for us to screw up. You don’t have to be popular to be an effective safety professional but it sure helps.

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The Madness Of Measuring Nothing

cg_measuring-cup

By Phil La Duke

These days’ organizations live and die by measurements. It seems that no matter where we work we are confronted with the dreaded balanced score card and so we are tasked with measuring “safety”. I’ve said for a long time, “the absence of injuries does not denote the presence of safety” and zero injuries doesn’t tell us a heck of a lot about the risk of injuries within a given population.

The traditional measures of safety, i.e. injuries or days away or restricted time, don’t help us predict the likelihood of future performance, and yet that is the best we seem able to come up with. We play at leading indicators like near miss reporting (as somehow indicating the level of participation of workers in safety) but even these measurements are fraught with statistical noise that can lead us to conclusions not in evidence; so many of our indicators mislead us that one has to wonder if there is any value in them at all.

Recently I was asked to address a meeting of the senior leaders of a multi-national manufacturer and I was asked what some good predictive measures would be for safety. I was pressed for time and I’m afraid I didn’t have the luxury of a prolonged discussion on metrics (my topic was Creating A Culture Of Safety Excellence). So given the fervor set in motion from my last three posts I thought I would add a bit of metaphorical fuel to the fire and lay out for professional debate, what I see as some good ways for correlating business measures to future performance in safety.

Risk Factor #1: Worker Stress and Distraction

Worker stress has a profound impact not only on human error, but on risk taking, and worker’s health as well.  Highly stressed workers are distracted and distraction leads to mistakes which lead to injuries.  Some measures that I think directly correlate to worker stress are:

  • Worker absenteeism.  Absenteeism rates are indicators of both worker stress and worker competence. Research has shown that stressed workers tend to miss more work, and when a worker misses work, his or her job is done by someone less skilled, less practiced at the job, and therefore more likely to deviate from the standard.  In other words, the worker stuck doing the job is at greater risk of injury than the worker whose muscle memory is completing many of the tasks by rote.  Of course this isn’t universally the case, but it is true often enough to correlate, and when it comes to prediction, correlation is the best we’ve got.
  • Number of calls to employee assistance programs.  When we talk about worker distraction, we tend to think in terms of distractions borne in the workplace.  Workers who are worried about financial problems, divorce, or other “off-hours” problems while working face the same dangers as those distracted by work issues.  The number of calls to EAP lines can provide a good idea of how much distraction is in the workplace which correlates to human error, behavioral drift, lapses in judgement and ultimately  workplace injuries.
  • Worker turnover.  Employee turn over creates risk in much the same way absenteeism does: it introduces greater variation into our work processes which in increases the risk of injuries.  The greater the worker turnover rates the higher the risk of injuries as newer, less competent and skilled workers replace higher performing, more experienced workers.
  • Engagement survey scores. Engaged workers tend to do things because these things are the right thing to do.  The lower the level of employee engagement the higher the risk of worker injuries.

In all these cases we have to remember that we seldom have a perfect correlation (a case where everytime factor A is true factor B is also true) and even in those rare cases where there is a perfect correlation such a condition does not mean that there is a cause and effect relationship between two factors.  But since we are looking at the measurement’s predictive value there is always a margin for error, statistical anomolies and statistical outliers.  If we had a perfect way of predicting exactly where and when an injury would occur we would be using it. 

Risk Factor #2: Worker Incompetence

When we talk about worker incompetence, we’re not talking about the nincompoop  who doesn’t seem able to do even the most rudimentary task without screwing things up, rather, we are talking about the skill level at which a worker is able to perform his or her job.

There is a strong correlation between level of mastery at which a worker performs the tasks associated with his or her job and the risk of injuries.  To that end these measurements are appropriate and predictive:

  • Required training % complete. Assuming that we require training because it is necessary to do one’s job, the lack of this training would indicate process variability.  Tracking the percentage of training provides us with a glimpse of how much risk a worker faces of being injured because he or she performed a task improperly.  The greater the percentage of people who have completed training the lower the risk of injury because of a gap in essential skills.
  • % of licenses and certificate expired. Just as the percentage of required training that is complete provides us with an understanding of approximately how many people are likely working out of process (it’s tough to do the job right simply by guessing) so too does the percentage of workers who are working despite having expired licenses and certificates.
  • Time to complete required training.  The longer it takes to complete required training the longer a worker is exposed to workplace risk associated with a skills gape.
  • Worker performance appraisal scores. This particular measure is tricky—it assumes that the worker appraisals are fair assessments of the worker’s ability to accurately complete tasks and do the job. Assuming that there is a robust worker performance appraisal assessment the lower scored individuals should be at greater risk that those who are peforming at higher levels. 

Risk Factor #3: Leader Incompetence.

Workers generally perform in ways for which they are rewarded and eschew behaviors for which they are punished. Low-performing leaders often exacerbate safety issues by behaving inappropriately in their interactions with workers. Some measures that I think directly correlate to leadership competency are:

  • 360 Reviews. 360 Reviews, that is, reviews where a leader’s team members, boss, and peers all contribute to the review, are often excellent indicators of how well a leader interacts with his or her team. The weaker the leader the higher the risk of process variation and hence a rise in the risk of injuries.
  • Leader performance review.  Leaders who perform poorly are generally allowing more variation into the work area the higher the performance of the leader the less likely workers will be harmed on his or her watch. It’s important to note that the leader’s performance review will most likely include things like the productivity of his or her team, general performance in things like cost, quality, and efficiency, in other words, things that will either directly or indirectly impact the risk of injuries.
  • Worker morale.  Of course worker morale can be effected by a host of things unrelated to the leader, but worker morale is heavily influenced by the performance of the leader.  Workers suffering from poor morale generally perform at lower levels which fall outside the processes control limits.  The worse the morale the higher the risk of variation and ultimately injuries.
  • % of safety reviews completed on time. I am not a fan of “behavioral observations”; I’ve always felt the time watching someone work could be better spent taking a more holistic view of worker safety by reviewing the risk conditions (procedural, physical, or behavioral).  That having been said, it is important that leaders conduct routine and repeated inspections of the workplace to identify hazards.  The percent of safety reviews/tours/inspections/observations completed on time is a, at least ostensibly, an indicator of the time to which workers are exposed to hazards.
  • % or performance reviews completed on time.  Completing performance reviews on time isn’t just about making employees feel good, it is also about assessing competency.  The more reviews that are completed on time, the more skills and performance gaps are identified in a timely manner.
  • % Attendance at safety meetings.  The percentage of safety meetings that a leader attends provides a good insight into the level of priority on which the leader places on safety. 

Risk Factor #5: Process Capability

Process variability creates risk; to the product, to the equipment, and to the workers.  The frequency and duration of non-standard or out of process work is a good predictive indicator of risk of injury.  Good measures of process capability (relative to safety) are:

  • % of nonstandard work.  Statistically speaking nonstandard work tends to be more dangerous and the injuries associated with nonstandard work tend to be more lethal than its standard counterpart.  The percentage of work that is nonstandard can indicate a substantial bump in risk associated with any operation.
  • % of jobs with completed JSAs.  A complete and current Job Safety Analysis (JSA) is crucial for the safe execution of work, yet I don’t know any company that has 100% of it’s jobs with JSAs, and many companies don’t have a good track record of keeping the JSA’s current with the standard operating procedure. Understanding the percentage of your tasks have good and current JSAs is a good predictor of future risk (the higher the percentage the lower the risk).
  • % of jobs with Standard Work Instructions. Personally, I prefer Standard Work Instructions (SWI) to JSAs (a good SWI should address all the safety concerns of a job), but SWIs suffer from the same problems that I discussed regarding JSAs above.
  • % behind in production.  I still have nightmares about my days working an assembly line and falling “in the hole” screams of “man in the hole” booming above the cacophony of hand tools, presses, and industrial vehicles still give me chills.  Whenever ever workers are struggling to catch up because they are behind in production the risk of injuries rises.
  • % parts shortages.  When there are part shortages (or tools shortages, or materials shortages, or labor shortages for those of you who work outside manufacturing) workers are forced to work outside the standard process.  This is incredibly dangerous because the standard process is designed with protections against injuries embedded in the tasks.  When a worker is working outside the process the organization is relying on luck to protect them.

Risk Factor #6: Worker Engagement In Safety

We’ve discussed worker engagement in a broad sense, but I think it is important enough to look at worker engagement specific to safety.  Engaged workers will work safely for no more reward than because working safely is the right thing to do.  Worker engagement in safety can be measured by:

  • Number of reported near misses.  Some will argue, correctly, that near misses are lagging indicators, but whether or not a worker choses to report a near miss correlates to the level of worker engagement in the safety process. This meaurement, admittedly, is difficult to get accurately.  Since we don’t know the total actual number of near misses we can’t say with certainty whether the current level of reporting is a high or low percentage.  Even so, the number of workers who report, even more so than the raw numbers of near misses, can provide a good glimpse into the level of importance workers place on safety.
  • Number improvement suggestions.  Workers who take an interest in improving the organization are generally interested in finding and eliminating failure modes, which will include those failure modes that will ultimately place workers at risk of injury.  The greater the number of suggestions the lower the risk.
  • Participation in continuous improvement workshops.  Elimanating variation, risk, and hazards are part and parcel of the continous improvement process so it should surprise no one that the level of participation in these activities correlate to the level of risk.
  • Number of worker grievances.  Worker grievances shed valuable light in to many of the other risk factors identified here and generally the greater the number of grievances the higher the level of risk of injuries.
  • Number of disciplinary actions for safety violations. The number of disciplinary actions for safet violations are indicative of two things: the number of unsafe acts being committed and the extent to which these incidents are taken serioiusly.

Of course one has to be careful in designing and managing these measurements to avoid unintended consequences (for example, one could easily reduce the number of disciplinary actions by not applying appropriate discipline, or one could raise worker performance evaluation simply through “score inflation” but the risk of these unintended consequences can be reduced by solid management practices and random sampling audits.

The Imperfection Of Predictive Measures

To some extent we can never have a perfect set of measures.  In many ways it’s like predicting the weather, since we are talking about probability there is always a chance that the organization will beat the odds.  In fact, there isn’t one of these measures that I couldn’t construct a convincing argument against.  What’s important is to use those of these measures that make sense and use them in conjunction with each other.  One correlation does not a pattern make, but when we look at multiple areas of risk and analyze them in a holistic context we can find a more useful way to measure safety than counting bodies and broken bones.

 

 

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Who Needs A Safety Guy?

Last Week I Covered the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) and as is always the case I ran into more than a couple of earnest looking safety professionals who, with a straight face, claimed that they were trying hard to work themselves out of a job.  It’s a lovely sentiment but it’s also hogwash.  Safety professionals love to propagate this steaming pile of propaganda; it’s the kind of gooey, sappy sentimentalism that we use to promote our sacred mission of saving lives. No offense to those among us who legitimately feel that our jobs our more a calling than a career, but I think for many of us, it’s just something we say.  It doesn’t require a lot of thought and it doesn’t carry a lot of weight.

I’ve been giving this statement a lot of thought in the last week or so and it occurs to me that maybe safety shouldn’t be its own discipline.  Maybe instead of merely giving “working ourselves out of a job” lip service we should take steps to make things happen.  Can we as safety professionals be brave enough to envision a world without us? What would happen if we eliminated the position of safety professional? If that idea scares you, you’re not alone.

The initial response I get when I ask a safety professional to picture a world without safety professionals is shock: how could I even suggest such a thing.  But given that so many safety professionals collect paychecks without really changing things year after year I fail to see how industry would suffer any great tragedy if the profession ceased to exist.

The next response is to argue that if there were no safety professionals that Operations leaders would run amuck, violating rules and breaking laws.  My response to this argument is based on the belief that safety professionals are supposed to be the safety cops and without them people would be victimized.  If this is the case, the safety professionals have failed to make a compelling argument for safety as efficiency and have failed miserably.  Industry is well rid of these professionals.

Some argue that safety professionals are integral to ensuring governmental compliance and maintaining records.  To these professionals I say that they can be replaced by an administrative assistant of average ability.

But what if the safety, quality, lean and continuous improvement functions were combined, would that be so bad? One of the first things taught in Lean principles training is the first rule of process change is to make the process safer. And certainly since injuries cost money, any serious effort  to make the workplace safer would constitute a continuous improvement project,  Finally, the goals of Quality are parallel and overlaid  with each other—both look for the root causes of a process inefficiency that results in waste.

If we were truly interested in working ourselves out of a job we would be looking for ways to consolidate our departments with other departments and to leverage the work of others in the organization to save money and make the workplace not only a safer place to work, but a more efficient and profitable organization.

If you enjoyed this blog, check out the Rockford Greene International blog www.rockfordgreeneinternational.wordpress.com

 

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Are Government Regulations Getting In The Way of Safety?

As experts chide safety professionals to be more proactive and to think of safety in terms of the potential to harm instead of the incidence of harm, governments around the globe still measure safety using reactive, lagging indicators.

Is this bad? Isn’t governmental oversight of the workplace a good thing? Do we really want to consider rolling back government regulations and risk horrible tragedies? Well…yes, yes, and no.

Despite over a century of laws and enforcement aimed at protecting workers and a wealth of improvements in worker safety, there are still high profile safety, environmental, and public health disasters that renew the cry for greater action from the government.  It’s unfair to suggest that government regulations aren’t effective.  But using an ever increasing threat of fines or even criminal prosecution isn’t the answer to making the workplace safer.  Sure some business owners and managers will begrudgingly make the bear minimum investment to meet governmental requirements but do we really want business to make the workplace safer out of fear?

When a business only improves the safety of the worker because it fears fines because of a governmental inspection it believes its compliance justifies it’s inaction beyond the bare minimum.  Smart Operations managers will improve safety not because it’s the “right thing to do”—there are a host of things in business that are the right things to do—but because it’s the smart thing to do.  As long as the government keeps its standards based on lagging indicators (incident rates, first aid cases, days away or restricted, etc.) it perpetuates the idea that any work place that hasn’t killed anyone lately can be pronouced “safe”.

We need to be practical.  Nobody ever died because a fire extinguisher wasn’t hanging at the proper distance from the floor, and simply having Material Safety Data  Sheets locked in a drawer may meet safety regulations, but it hasn’t  saved any lives either.

In defense of government regulators, we have to start somewhere.  In many parts of the world, industry has shown that it cannot be trusted to safeguard its workers or its communities.  So safety regulations are necessary.  And safety regulations aren’t broken, the philosophy behind them is.  Safety regulations start with the idea that safety is quantifiable, that is, it believes that one can pronounce a workplace either “safe” or “unsafe”. While it would be nice if this were true, the fact is that no workplace can be pronounced completely safe.  And perpetuating an audit system that pretends that it’s possible to certify a workplace as devoid of risk is wrong-headed.

Certainly, audits are important and valuable, but they are problematic as well.  Auditors inspect a facility and ostensibly find and record all violations.  After the audit, the organization resumes business as usual under the reasonable assumption that everything else it is doing is not only safe, but endorsed as safe by the government.  The organization believes that it doesn’t need to lift a finger to do anything to further protect workers, after all, it has just received the government’s seal of approval.  Unfortunately, safety doesn’t work that way.  Why?

Auditors Miss Things

Even the best, most diligent auditor will occasionally miss some violations.  Some of these violations are big, some are small; some are harmless nuisances and some are lethal.  But because the facility passed the audit, it believes that it has done all it has to guarantee worker safety.  Internal safety officers and labor reps can talk until they are blue in the face but their arguments will likely fall on deaf ears because the government has already told them that they are doing all that is required.

Regulations Target The Wrong Things

Most governments require fire extinguishers be on hand, annually inspected, hung at a proper height, identified through signage, etc., but far fewer require that anyone be trained in when and how to appropriately use the fire extinguisher.  Using the wrong fire extinguisher can make the situation far worse, but we still do a half-baked job of regulating them.

Safety Is Relative

Safety is not a binary condition.  Life is not as simple as a facility being “safe” or “unsafe”.  Regulations should be updated to reflect that safety is relative. A facility can be seen as safer than another facility that is similar to it.  Or a facility can judged as safer than it was when it’s baseline was established. Or a host of other comparisons that would be meaningful and would encourage businesses to do more  than the bare minimum.

Some regulators have tried to do this kind of comparative analysis.  In Ontario, Canada, the provincial government provides businesses with a Workplace Wellness Score.  Companies with high injuries and low workplace wellness scores face higher taxes than similar companies with lower injury rates and better scores.  Even so, Ontario’s system needs significant redesign to be most effective.  For example, injury rates and employee complaints are given far too much weight to make the program effective. Workers can shut down production by asserting that the work is unsafe to be performed.  Work stops until a Minister of Labour representative can investigate and pronounce the work safe. While in many cases this regulation is used in good faith there is widespread abuse of this law has turned safety into a negotiating tactic.  People are playing dangerous games with the law.

Audits Are Static Workplaces are Dynamic

Recently I was asked to begin reviewing the covers of a safety magazine.  The job seemed simple enough: I was to look at a proposed magazine cover and determine whether there was anything unsafe portrayed (no publisher of a safety magazine wants a cover that shows an unsafe condition on the cover).  Before agreeing to take the job, I made a point of making the disclaimer that a) nothing can ever be pronounced completely safe, and b) I was looking at a static photo without context so I couldn’t really say that the workers in the photo were working safely, but conversely no one looking at the same photo could say definitively that the worker was behaving unsafely.

The exercise got me thinking,  Safety is a dynamic characteristic that is highly dependent on context and yet audits are snapshots of a moment within the highly fluid and dynamic world of business.  However valuable that snapshot is, however much is uncovered in the audit, it’s just a snapshot.  The highly volatile and ever present variability in human behavior will always create problematic situations.  In short, no matter how thorough the audit, significant threats to worker well being can materialize literally as the auditor drives away.

How Can We Fix This?

Fixing the problem is going to be difficult.  In the U.K. politicians are openly asking if the laws designed to protect workers are too restrictive.  In the U.S. congressmen repeatedly claim that safety regulations are too strict and place an undue onus on businesses. And what’s worse is 40 years of BBS snake oil has safety professionals themselves reinforcing the believe that workers are largely to blame for their injuries.

We need to evangelize that safety is about reducing the risk of injury, and the severity of those injuries that we failed to prevent.  Safety needs to be a criteria for success not an after thought.  Safety regulations need to change from quantitative measurements to qualitative measurements.  And finally we need to make people understand that improving safety is not about cost, its about cost reduction and cost savings.

 

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Opening a Dialog About Safety

The Editor of Fabricating and Metalworking suggested that in an effort to ensure that i don’t rehash topics that I’ve already covered in prior installments of The Safe Side my monthly column devoted to worker safety.  This is what I submitted as the introductory article.

From the outside, the world of safety looks pretty simple—either a workplace is safe or it’s not. And if a workplace is unsafe it’s reasonable to expect that people will agree what specifically is making it unsafe.  But for those of us who work within the safety profession nothing could be more complex or hotly contended than what constitutes a safe workplace and what is the biggest reason that workplace is unsafe.  In fact, it’s hard to get safety professionals to agree on the very definition of the word “safe”. So instead of a column this month, I’m beginning a series on safety.  In it I will explore different ideas about safety and what can be done to make the workplace safer.

Measuring Safety

It’s a widely held belief among system thinkers, lean gurus, and Quality Operation System enthusiasts that you get what you measure and if you can’t measure something it may as well not exist. This gets dicey when you try to measure safety, because, like quality, safety isn’t seen as the presence of something rather than the absence of injuries.  And it is near impossible to proclaim the absolute absence of something.  So let’s begin our discussion with some context and some definitions of basic terms.  The absence of injury does not denote the presence of safety; rather “safety” is an expression of probability and a calculation of risk.  Because safety is a probability nothing can ever be pronounced completely “safe” instead, safety is relative.  We can accurately describe a situation or condition as “safer” than another, however.

But even so, the extremely high variation in working conditions and the even higher variation in human behavior make it tough to get an accurate read on the relative risk endemic to a given activity.  In short, for the most part all we can do is guess at the probability that a given activity will result in an injury, and even were we able to predict with statistical certainty that an injury will occur there is little we can do to predict the severity of the ensuing injury.  The difference between a fatality and a near miss (a “close call” where a worker could have been seriously injured but was spared) is little more than luck.

The Probability Gambit

One area of safety where there seems to be little disagreement is in the belief that the greater the number of hazards with which worker interact, and the greater the frequency of that interaction, the higher the probability of injury.  If a worker continues to behave unsafely or perform tasks that have been poorly designed from an ergonomics perspective eventually someone (not necessarily the worker him/herself) will get seriously injured or killed.  But because it’s impossible to say with certainty how much time or how the worker will be injured it is often dismissed as safety bugaboo.  As I used to say (when people would be overly concerned with remote possibilities) “maybe the moon will fall out of the sky.”  Warning of increased danger without being able to quantify probability is useless information—unless your sole intent is to say “I told you so”.

Man Versus Machine

Now that we have a common understanding of the definition of the term “safety” we can now explore the various, hotly contested theories of the best way to improve the safety of the workplace.  The first argument you will likely encounter is the philosophic question “what causes injuries?” One school of thought holds that because most injuries (studies have suggested that as many as 90%) have a behavioral element it follows that injuries are caused by unsafe behaviors and if unsafe behaviors are the most likely cause of injuries the most reasonable way to reduce injuries is to reduce unsafe behaviors.

Many safety methodologies focus on basic behavior modification techniques—carrots and sticks (that is, rewarding desired behaviors and punishing undesirable behaviors)—to increase safe behaviors while decreasing dangerous activities. Advocates hold that time tested research and hundreds of organizations support their techniques, many of which suggest observing workers while they work and offering feedback on the safety of their activities.  These systems encourage employers to offer financial or other incentives for low injury rates and improvements in key safety measurements.

 

No Life Was Ever Prolonged By Reminding A Person Not To Die

Critics of behavior-based safety systems contend that because nobody wants to get hurt and processes aren’t designed to injure workers the resources expended to improve worker safety would be better brought to bear against system problems. They deride safety observations as expensive and deeply flawed babysitting and incentive programs for encouraging under-reporting of injuries.  These people would have us believe that the road to a safer workplace is through mistake proofing our processes and that if people aren’t intentionally getting hurt no amount of behavior modification will change things.

Proponents of process-based safety believe that efforts to improve worker safety must be at the top of the Hierarchy of Controls (an engineering tool for determining the most effective way to eliminate the risk of process failures) Critics of process based safety counter that we can’t bubble-wrap the world and once a process is in place it is often too costly and impractical to idiot-proof the world.

To a layman the argument over behavior versus process seems pretty basic, maybe even pointless but these philosophies have staunch supporters and bitter critics and the actions you take to make the workplace safer are intrinsically linked to where you stand on this issue.

Individual Responsibility Versus System Responsibility

Maybe you’d prefer to argue the merits of holding the individual responsible over the system, or vice versa.  Some believe that strict policies and dire consequences for incompliance are the way to a safer workplace, while others argue that only an enterprise-wide solution can reduce injuries.  Both sides have their points; after all don’t we need to hold someone accountable for gross negligence and dereliction of duty?  On the other hand, volumes of research prove that populations act very differently from individuals and many experts believe that human behavior is strongly influenced by the systems in which people interact and that the pressure to conform to societal norms manifest in how people behave.

Safety Schools of Thought



Each of the activities in these quadrants represent some activity linked to worker safety in some way.  Some take a more holistic view of worker safety than others and some treat safety as a process outgrowth.

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An Inspection by Any Other Name

I’m often asked by people both inside and outside the safety discipline the difference between an audit and a safety inspection. An audit is typically annual (or semi-annual) activity conducted by safety professionals to ensure compliance with safety regulations and internal policies. An auditor typically has a check list of items that need to be verified or assessed, and audits are usually done by either an internal safety professional or an external governmental agency. Audits are reactive. Audits are a “gotcha” that ostensibly is performed so that the safety professional—whether an internal department or OSHA, the Minister of Labour, or some other governmental agency—can coach the organization.  In fact most audits result in negative consequences and for the most part they are feared and detested, and in the majority of the those cases rightfully so.

Safety inspections are regular, proactive activities that are designed to identify workplace hazards and contain/correct them before an individual gets hurt. Safety inspections are conducted by first line supervisors and/or representation (in Union environments) and use a problem-solving, failure-mode (anticipating what could go wrong) approach. Inspections are proactive. The problem with safety inspections is no matter what you call them (and there are myriad names for essentially the same activity) people associate safety inspections with some negative outcome like those associated with audits.  The result is a well-intentioned buy largely simple minded attempt to rebrand the safety inspection to take away the sting associated with it.

In healthcare, Safety Rounding is growing in popularity.  Safety Rounds are safety inspections that are adapted for use in matrix organizations. Like Safety Inspections, Safety Rounds are regular, proactive walk-thrus, but instead of first-line supervision conducting the rounds, volunteers take on the responsibility in addition to their normal jobs. The goal of a Safety Round is the same as that of a Safety Inspection, but Safety Rounds focus parallel the “Environment of Care” requirements of the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) audits. Unfortunately, the volunteer brigades tend to attract gung-ho staffers who don’t have much to do or who are shirking their core responsibilities in favor of the new assignment.  But even the best intentioned volunteers lack the authority to hold the people responsible for getting hazards corrected and in a short time the volunteers lose interest, become frustrated, or otherwise become ineffective.  I’ve seen the same thing happen in lean implementations where 5S teams were staffed by volunteers; without the power to force the first line supervisor to correct issues the same items are identified week after week, month after month.

But Safety Rounds aren’t without value.  In fact, in places where the manager that owns the area is held accountable, Safety Rounds can be extremely effective.  Safety Rounds tend to be more holistic than Safety Inspections and often those conducting Safety Rounds will ask hospital staff questions to determine the effectiveness of required safety training.  Safety Rounds may well be tied to Patient Safety, and when it is, the effectiveness tends to increase expontentially.

In Lean Manufacturing environments (which believe it or not aren’t restricted to manufacturing these days) Safety Inspections can be embedded into Layered Process Audits.  from 2008 to 2009 I spent one week a month for 15 months working with a manufacturer in Mexico to completely integrate safety into their manufacturing operating system.  One of the major breakthroughs that we made was the integration of the safety inspection into a layered process audit.  This had a profound impact on the effectiveness of the safety inspection because a) it met the requirement that a Layered Process Audit be conducted weekly and b) it documented all the process flaws into a database that made it easy for maintenance (or other departments) to correct the flaws.

Perhaps the most useless bastardization of a safety inspection is the safety observations.  Safety observations are based on the belief that if a supervisor watches someone working he or she can identify unsafe work practices and provide feedback to the worker on how to work more safely.  This practice overlooks many scientific principles that make it an expensive waste of time.  For starters safety observations assume that workers perform their tasks the same way every time they do their jobs and that the act of being observe will not alter the worker’s performance in any way.  Years ago I worked in an automobile factory assembling seats.  Once a year the engineers would do a time study where they would come and watch each operator work and count the steps involved in a given job.  Knowing that the engineers were likely to heap as much work as they possibly could on a job the operators would routinely add steps, slow their pace, and other wise queer the batter by providing the observer skewed data.  But even in cases where operators are not trying to confuse the results, the fact that their bosses are watching over their shoulders are likely to make the operators take more time to do their jobs and work more safely.  Unless an organization intends to pay someone to watch every operator every moment of every day, it’s not likely that the observations will bear much fruit and it’s highly likely that they will add costs and ignore variation in human behavior.

Some organizations have taken to calling the safety inspection a safety tour, and in so doing soften the stigma of an inspection.  I suppose that if renaming the activity makes it less threatening then we should by all means rename it.  My personal preference is to call it a Process Integrity Analysis, and I would not limit it to safety.  We have to do a better job integrating safety into the work processes, and stop calling safety out as a separate and discrete activity.  A Process Integrity Analysis should include analysis of process capability and reliability, quality, total productive maintenance, 5S, and Job Safety Analysis.  By examining a process holistically an organization can lower injuries, boost productivity, and increase quality.  If we position the “Safety Inspection” as just another element of process improvement Operations will stop viewing safety as an interruption of their jobs and start treating it as a critical discipline that drives productivity.

 

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