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PETERSEN'S PAGE: The problem with policies...

February 1, 2005
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ISHN is honored to debut this regular column by Dr. Dan Petersen, CSP, P.E., author of 17 books, Safety & Health Hall of Famer, winner of every major safety award, and tireless advocate of applying sound management practices to safety.

There are no “must haves” and no “essential” elements in a safety system — numerous studies lead to this conclusion. Take a safety policy. Is your safety policy important? It depends on your workers’ perception. Do they see management’s commitment and support as fact carried out every day?

Or… do managers write the safety policy and then fail to ensure that it is enforced by managers and supervisors on the job every day? In fact, this is often what happens.

You see, it’s a worker’s perception of his organization’s culture that determines whether or not any single element — such as a safety policy — will be effective.

This presents some serious problems. Our safety regulations tend to instruct organizations simply to “have a safety program that consists of five, seven, or any number of elements.” But it’s obvious that many of these prescribed activities will not work, and in fact will waste time, effort and resources that could be used for the proactive activities that will prevent loss.

Safety system elements do not determine safety results. You might have all the correct elements or components in place. You can look great on paper. But it’s the culture in which these elements are used that determines your success.

In a positive safety culture, almost any elements will work; in a negative culture, probably none of the elements will get results.

The way it should be

Culture can be loosely defined as “the way it is around here.” Safety culture is positive when the workers honestly believe that safety is a key value of their organization and can perceive that it is high on the list of organization priorities. This perception by the workforce is possible only when:

  • management is seen as credible;
  • the words of the safety policy are lived on a daily basis;
  • management’s decisions on financial expenditures show that money is spent for people (as well as to make more money);
  • measures and rewards provided by management force mid-manager and supervisory performance to satisfactory levels;
  • workers have a role in problem solving and decision making;
  • a high degree of confidence and trust exists between management and the workers;
  • there is openness of communications; and,
  • workers receive positive recognition for their work.

With the right culture, like the one with the eight characteristics described above, an organization hardly even needs a “safety program.” Safety is dealt with as a normal part of the management process. In a positive safety culture like that described above, almost any element of the safety system will be effective.

Paper dreams

Having a policy on safety seldom achieves anything — unless it is backed by systems that make the policy live. For example, if your policy states that supervisors are responsible for safety, it means nothing — nothing — unless the following is in place:

  • Management has clearly defined the supervisor’s safety role and the activities that must be carried out to satisfy the safety responsibility.

  • Supervisors know how to fulfill their safety role, are supported by management, believe the safety tasks are achievable and carry out their tasks as a result of proper planning and training.

  • Supervisors are regularly measured to ensure they have completed their defined safety tasks (but they are not measured by an accident record). Also, they obtain feedback to determine whether or not safety tasks should be changed.

  • Safety task completion is rewarded in the performance appraisal system or in whatever is the driving mechanism of the organization.

    Daily accountability

    Paper elements of your safety program will not drive performance at any level of your organization — with managers, supervisors, or employees. These truths hold at all levels: 1) tasks must be defined; 2) there must be a valid measure of performance (task completion); and, 3) a reward contingent upon performance must be present.

    Your safety policy does not drive performance of safety — accountability does. Accountability is essential to building culture. Only when your workers see your supervisors and management fulfilling their safety tasks on a daily basis will they believe that management is credible and that top management really meant it when they signed the safety policy documents.

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