Overheard in an executive suite: “We don’t want to be world-class; we just want to be ‘safe enough’.”  This doesn’t mean executives are heartless capitalists willing to break the bodies of workers just to earn an extra couple of bucks, and it doesn’t necessarily mean they care any less about safety than the rest of us; as Michael Corleone might have said, “it’s just business.” 

“Safe enough” begs the question, “Safe enough for what?” (Although I admit, asking that question to your executive is likely to get you an organizational smack on the mouth.) Let’s look at the question another way. Let’s replace “safety” with “profits.” What executive would ever say, “We just want to be profitable enough”? It’s absurd; likely to get the executive fired in short order.

So how can we build the same sense of gravity around the issue of safety?

A shift in thinking

I find the most difficult aspect of organizational change isn’t the executives — if it results in a substantial return on investment they will generally enthusiastically support it — rather it is safety practitioners themselves. Change must begin with how the safety function views not only its role but its view of safety itself. I have come to believe that safety cannot be directly managed because safety isn’t a process, it’s an output.

All processes have three elements: inputs, transformations and outputs. This is true of everything from building aircraft engines to renting cars to travelers at the airport. You start out with stuff (inputs), you do stuff with or to it (transformations), and you end up with other stuff.

If we see safety as an output, we start to approach things very differently, and for the better. Consider how the safety of the workplace would change if your organization focused on effectively managing the following five areas:

Competency. From executives to temps, people who know how to do their jobs are better able to do them safely. Competency involves more than just training; it’s about recruiting the right people for the job, assuring that they are physically, mentally, and emotionally capable of doing the work. Of course, training is important. And the closer a worker comes to achieving mastery-level skills in his or her required tasks, the safer the workplace is, not only for the worker, but for those who work with or around him or her.

Process capability. The more robust your process the less variation there is in it, and the more often your process returns a predictable result the safer it is to work within that process. In other words, if you don’t know what is going to happen when you throw a switch or if workers are forced to improvise to get the process to return the desired result, there is a much greater risk of injury than if workers are able to follow the process every time and get the job done.

Another element of process capability is process discipline. Process discipline is the extent to which workers follow the prescribed (and presumably safest) method for doing the job. Workers who work “out of process” are essentially relying on luck to protect them.

Risk management. Complete safety is the complete absence of risk, and we all know that this is impossible. We can, however, manage our risk by identifying, containing, correcting, and communicating hazards before someone gets hurt. Organizations that proactively look for ways to eliminate workplace hazards (potential process breakdowns) typically perform at far better levels than companies that wait for things to go wrong before addressing them.

Accountability systems. People need to be answerable for not doing their jobs, managing their performance inhibitors (those things like stress, lack of sleep, hangovers, drug or alcohol abuse, etc. that make it more likely that they will commit errors), risk-taking, and recklessness. A system based on Just Culture can guide companies on how to fairly and equitably hold people accountable, but it has to be more than just the front-line workers who are held accountable. Leadership decisions can have lethal consequences. We have to stop focusing all our attention on individual worker behaviors and also hold leaders at all levels accountable for their actions.

Engagement.  For me, engagement in safety is evident when people realize that the world is an intrinsically unsafe place and it is only through active participation in yours and others safety that we can survive. Safety doesn’t just happen; we have to all work together to make it so. 

If we want to escape “let’s just be safe enough,” we have to view safety in a radically different way. We have to talk about safety as an outcome of good business, and we have to convince our leadership that settling for being “safe enough” is as wrongheaded as aspiring to being “successful enough.”