PETERSEN'S PAGE: The ABCs of safety

July 1, 2005
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Behavior-based proponents are correct: safety excellence cannot be achieved without proper behaviors.

But culture builders are also correct: proper behaviors cannot be obtained without the right culture.

And the real hook? The right culture cannot be achieved without accountability.

This is not an either/or process. All three — accountability, behavior and culture (the ABCs of safety) — must be built in the proper sequence in order to achieve excellence in safety. Accountability builds Culture, which gets Behaviors resulting in Excellence.

Management accountability — a system of role definition, correct measures of performance and adequate rewards contingent on that performance — forces managers to take proactive actions each day. These actions build a culture that states, “Safety is so important that all managers must do something about it every day.” When employees believe this, their behaviors will follow — behaviors such as working safely and becoming involved to facilitate the process.

Elements of a safety program, such as safety policies, manuals, meetings, committees, inspections, investigation of incidents or recordkeeping analysis of incidents, are tools of the trade in most companies. Different organizations use these same tools, but some have more success than others. Success depends on how companies implement the ABC formula.

Two scenarios

Imagine two different safety scenarios, where two organizations faced the same situation. An accident occurred. Both organizations investigated as part of their program.

The first organization had a clear policy to follow up on all incidents, and the investigation was launched. The investigation reached the supervisor, who had discovered that a worker did not adhere to the safety policy and narrowly escaped serious injury to himself and others. The employee was told of his unsafe behavior, and the safety infraction was noted. The employee promised not to engage in the unsafe practice again, and the necessary safety records were updated. Management acknowledged this supervisor for fostering workplace safety.

In the second organization’s investigation, the supervisor considered the circumstances of the accident, namely that it occurred when production pressures were greatest. The supervisor discovered that the worker was ill while under severe pressure to meet production deadlines. The supervisor also acknowledged mechanical problems had slowed production that week, increasing frustration among workers and management. Company officials also acknowledged that maintenance must be done immediately, and that the company must reinforce its safety commitment by allowing the time to perform necessary maintenance between each job.

The second organization’s investigation also revealed that recent company cutbacks had all employees concerned about job security — drawing attention away from safety practices and documentation. Workers petitioned upper management for the necessary actions and changes. Managers planned a meeting with all employees to discuss the current financial and organizational issues. They asked workers to maintain safety while working together to improve production since those things would help the corporation’s viability.

Culture defines the difference

Why did one company blame the employee, fill out the incident investigation forms and get back to work, while the other company discovered it must deal with fault at all levels of the organization?

The answer is “culture.” A company’s culture is at the heart of how safety system elements or tools, such as incident investigations, are used. The culture is also expressed in the way company values are demonstrated. What happens when the pressure is on to get a job out the door and workers seemingly must choose between doing the job safely or doing it quickly?

The culture clearly announces every day to every worker whether safety is a key value and where it fits into the priorities. It dictates how an employee will act and how they will be treated. As a result, it also dictates behavior (hard work, goofing off or working safely). We know, to a large degree, an organization’s culture will determine the extent of casualties, trauma disorders, stress claims and compensation paid. It dictates whether elements of a safety system will work or flop.

Safety programs succeed within cultures where managers, supervisors and workers are accountable for using various safety tools to provide structure and discover where problems exist. Achieving alignment or agreement on how safety tools will be used must be done to create a true safety culture. This is participative, positive and flexible; it has upper management support, supervisors’ accountability and middle managers actively involved.

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