ASSE's annual meeting
That was one safety proâ€™s simple explanation for the record 3,800 registrants at the American Society of Safety Engineersâ€™ annual conference held in Las Vegas this past June, topping the previous high of 2,900 in Denver last year.
Sin City, a giant adult movie set with 70,000 hotel rooms, is a hot convention destination, no doubt. â€œWeâ€™re out-pulling all the other cities,â€ crowed a cabbie on his way to the mammoth meeting hall.
â€œCompanies used to resist sending their people to Las Vegas,â€ said one attendee. â€œBut now the flights and rooms are so cheap it makes the decision easier.â€
Especially with the economy on the upswing. â€œThatâ€™s another factor,â€ said this attendee. â€œPeople finally believe that business is coming back and theyâ€™re traveling again.â€
Location and economy aside, ASSE officials would like to think their conference program had something to do with the record turnout. ASSEâ€™s meeting is getting the rep for focusing on how to manage and lead people. â€œSafety is primarily a social problem,â€ said Don Eckenfelder, a speaker at the ASSE meeting.
â€œSafety is about changing behaviors and cultures. This is where I learn about that,â€ said one safety director.
Indeed. Eckenfelderâ€™s talk, as well as eight other educational sessions at the ASSE meeting, had the word â€œcultureâ€ in the title. What is it about organizational behavior thatâ€™s so popular with safety pros today?
Culture is kingA convergence of trends is promoting the â€œsoftâ€ side of safety:
1) Been there, done that. After education, engineering and enforcement, what do you focus on? â€œYou have to learn how to talk to people, listen and persuade. Pushing numbers and formulas and regulations wonâ€™t motivate people,â€ said a safety manager at the ASSE meeting.
2) Outsourcing. Technical EHS work is more and more the province of consultants, leaving in-house pros to focus on organizational issues.
3) All quiet on the compliance front. (â€œHenshaw had absolutely nothing new to say,â€ said a reporter coming back from the OSHA chiefâ€™s ASSE speech.)
4) Beyond behavior. Consultants who led the cheers for behavior-based safety in the late 1990s have moved on. At the ASSE meeting, Behavior Science Technology focused on its new contract to reshape NASAâ€™s safety culture. Dr. E. Scott Geller discussed personality traits and â€œyour safety IQ.â€
5) Other issues are stalled. Many pros resist the so-called business case for safety, arguing it sends the wrong message to employees.
New performance metrics for safety, measures more reliable and relevant than OSHA data, have been discussed for years without gaining traction.
A brainstorming session of about 50 pros at the ASSE meeting offered clues why: Every company measures something different â€” near misses, audit scores, observations, job safety analyses, safety contacts, corrective actions, complaint logs, etc. â€” and thereâ€™s no urge to agree on a consensus metric dashboard.
6) Make way for the bandwagon. â€œManagement thinks culture change is the answer to everything,â€ said Dr. Steven Simon, introduced at his session in Las Vegas as the â€œfather of safety culture.â€
â€œEveryone is talking about this,â€ said Eckenfelder. â€œLouis Gerstner, former IBM chairman, said, â€˜Culture is the game.â€™â€
7) The fear factor. Who wants to miss a seat on the bus? â€œWeâ€™ve worked on all the other things and ignored culture,â€ said Eckenfelder. â€œIgnore this at your own professional peril. We need to take the lead with social sciences and not get left in the slipstream.â€
Staying power?â€œThis is a whole new way to look at safety,â€ said Eckenfelder, referring to what he called a â€œsafety culture enrichment program.â€
Actually, itâ€™s taken decades for organizational culture to become a hot safety issue. Long-time management consultant Dan Petersen wrote about safety cultures in his first two books, published in the early 1970s, and he admits he â€œborrowedâ€ from the concepts of Rensis Likert, who researched organizational cultures in the 1960s.
Why has it taken so long for culture to catch on?
Culture change strategies are not typically the stuff of safety committees, said Simon, pointing to the need for executive leadership, perception surveys, aligning with business objectives, and plans and projects to change organizational norms.
Eckenfelder was more direct: â€œSafety cultures donâ€™t rely on manuals, safety departments, new equipment, procedures, committees and statistics,â€ he said.
These cultural cracks canâ€™t be fixed by Monday. Canned programs wonâ€™t help. Nothing changes until execs are willing to open up to perception surveys and climate assessments.
So will the current buzz over culture change for safetyâ€™s sake have staying power? Some formidable barriers stand in the way. But right now, culture is as hot as a Las Vegas parking lot.