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Why safety fails:When good safety systems go bad

November 14, 2012
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For many organizations the great recession has forever changed the way organizations gauge the success of its safety efforts—and for a lot of us—our safety management systems that were once judge effective by senior managers are now considered failures. 

There are a relatively few reasons that safety systems fail.

Lack of vision

To truly accomplish anything, an organization must have a clear and specific vision of “what success looks like”.  Unless the organization knows what it means to accomplish any progress toward the shadowy goal is only luck. 

But what does a vision for safety look like? For many under-performing safety organizations safety is as simple as “nobody has died recently”.  This may sound crass, but the reality is that decades of inappropriate incentives and hackneyed quasi-behavior based safety (which for me, is redundant, but I am trying to acknowledge that there are a handful of elements of BBS that an even smaller population has managed to achieve some meager results.) have created corporate cultures where the only acceptable response to being injured is to conceal it and seek treatment outside the workplace.

What’s more, safety professionals who are asleep at the wheel are content in their ignorance.  These safety professionals rationalize their under-performance systems with an “if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” attitude that is likely to get someone killed. 

Wake up people! The injuries are still there and risk is climbing until it will someday soon reach the threshold where catastrophe is all but certain.

An over focus on tactics

I’m not knocking tactics—heck, tactics are the activities that get things done.  Organizations that have marginal safety functionality tend to over-emphasize the tactical while ignoring the strategic. 

 Let’s face it, the safety function is fraught with the tactical, we keep records, file for permits, track training, and a host of other tasks that really don’t keep people safe.  In other cases, the tactics are misaligned against the strategy.  In organizations where the long-suffering safety professionals labor tirelessly in pursuit of nothing in particular, you most likely looking at a failing safety system.

Lack of change management expertise

We would ask an accountant to retool a machine, or an electrician to manage your cash flow, but for many companies, it makes perfect sense to entrust the safety professional to drive change in the organization.

Tragically, the opportunity presented by C-suite executive’s dissatisfaction with the status quo is being squandered by schemes that put the safety professional in the driver’s seat of organizational change. 

Lack of measurements

The world’s safest companies understand the relationship between safety and overall operating efficiency.  Poor safety performance is typically symptomatic of deeper organizational problems.  It should surprise no one that companies that perform most efficiently overall also perform better at safety than companies that struggle in other areas. 

One of the keys to becoming (or remaining for that matter) a high performing organization is score carding and measurements.  Safety score carding requires a company to collect, display, interpret, and act on a combination of leading and lagging indicators.

No return on investment

For half a century the safety function has been allowed to exist in a world where money was no object. Suck it u. You know what I’m talking about. Safety was seen as the right thing to do in the best case and a necessary evil in the worst.  Companies who are successful in terms of safety (and even those who are fairly indifferent to safety) expect the safety function to produce a quantifiable return on investment.

Excessive complexity and bureaucracy

Perhaps the most destructive practice to safety is the tendency for safety to empire build.  Many of the systems currently in vogue require numerous players to actively engage in complex and or bureaucratic activities.  In workplaces where operations is expected to do far more with unprecedented fewer resources, the idea that a supervisor will routinely watch each of his or her team members perform their job and offer feedback is unrealistic. When you give smart people limited options and expect them to do time-consuming tasks that provide not tangible pay off you had best realize that they will only pretend to do those.  Eventually the complexity and unsustainability of these systems combine to create a catastrophic breakdown in safety.

Insufficient leadership commitment

It’s said that when Cortez came to the new world he burned his ships, to demonstrate the inevitability of change.  There was no turning back, to waiver was to perish.  It’s this kind of unmistakable and impermeable dedication to change that leaders (and I would include the safety professionals in this group) must exhibit to successfully drive change (the great management thinker, Peter Drucker, once said that “you don’t manage change, you create it.” Drucker believed that we needed to continuously drive change toward improvement.  Safety leaders who are content with their same old tired inefficient methods will ultimately see decline to the point of ruin.

Certainly the failures of management systems aren’t complete and utter system failures; but just because the system doesn’t crumble into ruins don’t mean the problems that many organizations aren’t serious.  To defend inaction by claiming that things aren’t as bad as they could be is akin to claiming that you needn’t repair the damage done by a house fire simply because the flames failed to burn the house down to its foundation..

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