Can you recognize "exposure creep"?

June 9, 2009
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Editor’s note: Part I of this series appeared in ISHN’s May issue. Parts 3 and 4 will appear in ISHN’s September and October issues.

In ISHN’s May issue, we discussed the first step toward a zero-harm organization: shifting the focus of safety performance away from injuries and toward managing and minimizing exposures. Zeroharm organizations work on developing individual and organizational fluency in the recognition of exposure changes — and using those changes as the prompt for action and the measure of performance.

This shift is no easy task. It means asking people to act despite their belief that an injury will not occur — for example, halting the work, authorizing the repair, stopping the crew or missing the corporate meeting for a safety summit. This change often implies a significant shift in culture. This month we look at nine characteristics of a culture that supports zero-harm performance.

The zero-harm culture
In most organizations, an employee who stops a job because an injury is clearly imminent can be sure of organizational support. In an exposure-focused organization, we are asking people to take action when the outcome may be more ambiguous. We want employees to act not just when an injury is imminent, but anytime they recognize “exposure creep”— a change that increases exposure to themselves or someone else.

In many cases, the change may not even seem likely to cause an injury at all. Whether or not employees, at any level, take us at our word and respond to that exposure is dependent on the relationship they have with the organization, its leaders and each other — and what they see as valued and rewarded. It depends on the culture and climate leaders establish.

In simple terms, culture means the long-term shared values and beliefs of an organization — commonly described as “the way we do things here” or the “unwritten rules.” Climate, on the other hand, describes the prevailing, but shorter-term, influences on a particular area of functioning (such as safety or quality) at a point in time.

Nine key characteristics
There is a great deal of research about characteristics of culture and its effects on performance outcomes. In safety, research identifies nine measurable characteristics that are predictive of outcomes. These characteristics can be thought about in three distinct groups: basic organization factors, team factors and safety-specific factors.

Organization factors
  • 1 — Procedural Justice refers to the extent to which the individual worker perceives fairness in the supervisors’ decisionmaking process. Surprisingly, this dimension has very little to do with the outcomes of the leader or supervisor’s decision but everything to do with how the decision is made.
  • 2 — Leader–Member Exchange refers to the relationship that employees have with their supervisor. A very transactional relationship, focused only on the job, is less conducive to “going above and beyond” than a relationship where my supervisor demonstrates a personal interest in me, my needs and my goals.
  • 3 — Management Credibility measures employee perceptions of the integrity of upper management. In other words, do employees see that leader actions match what they say, treat people with respect and dignity and act in a way that tells people that they are valued?
  • 4 — Perceived Organizational Support reflects the extent to which employees feel there is an alignment between provided systems and resources and stated objectives. Do employees feel they have the support and resources necessary to be successful?
Team factors
  • 5 — Teamwork reflects the extent to which employees see their role in the big picture and believe what they do or are doing adds value. High teamwork indicates that employees understand how they can assist each other in pursuit of the objectives and that helping out is an expectation.
  • 6 — Work Group Relations measure how well employees get along with co-workers. Do they treat each other with respect, listen to each other’s ideas, help one another out and follow through on commitments?
Safety factors
  • 7 — Organizational Value for Safety measures the extent to which employees perceive the organization has a value for safety performance improvement. Put operationally, do the activities that we do as an organization mirror what we say? Do safety activities reflect a true value for safety or are they perceived as “checking the box?”
  • 8 — Upward Communication reflects how well communication flows freely upward through the organization. This is catastrophe protection for the organization. Every major event we have ever investigated or read about has a common theme. Someone always says, “We told them this was going to happen someday.”
  • 9 — Approaching Others measures the extent to which employees feel free to speak to one another about safety concerns. Importantly, this dimension reflects more than communication about overt things where it is obvious someone will be hurt; it indicates the extent to which people openly discuss risk and exposure.
The culture difference
In order to achieve zero-harm performance, it is imperative that you know how well you are doing on each of these dimensions. Of the nine dimensions linked to high performance in safety, only three are actually specific to safety. The other six are the foundations to high performance in any business outcome. Safety leaders who work to create a zero-harm culture stand to improve overall performance.

In these days of lean resources and uncertainty, safety is a very powerful way to communicate ethics and values — and to engage employees in the mission of the organization. In the September issue, we will look at specific practices leaders can use to begin developing this culture.

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