Safety excellence is often whispered in hushed tones, akin to the search for the Holy Grail. Everyone seeks it, and many make finding it their life’s quest. But what is ‘it’?

Many of those asked simply spout the clichéd line of “You’ll know it when you see it.” Others will proffer the typical “zero injury=safety excellence” mantra. Simply put, safety excellence is producing work safely while concurrently promoting a continuous improvement approach within a learning organization.

Safety excellence must be defined in a comprehensive view that encompasses the vision of what is desired along with the strategy, plan, and budget necessary to fulfill the ideal. The vision is the future-state desired result, while the strategy, plan, and budget actually address how to achieve it. Take this vision statement for example:

“Our vision is to proactively evaluate our risk in order to prevent any harm to our employees.”

While succinct, it can be broken down into several components:

  • It clarifies a direction of change
  • It motivates action in the right direction
  • It helps to align people to a common purpose

Don’t dream or hope

The vision is simply a desire compressed into a broad statement. Without direction and action, it is no more than a dream or a hope. The strategy, plan, and budget help to define how the vision is to be achieved in a practical manner. This can be done by defining the process and measurement criteria that help to maintain momentum and determine if an organization is on the right track. This encompasses everything from building a team to drive the process down to the minutiae of procedural details.

Most importantly, the strategy and plan must define, by role, the responsibilities within the process so that everyone understands the part they play in the program’s overall success.

Beyond the rally cry

The next step in the safety excellence journey involves understanding that safety excellence requires sustained effort. This can be a hard pill to swallow. Many organizations create a vision statement to rally behind and don’t go much further. But safety excellence requires activity – something tangible and real that is done to realize a result. Safety excellence cannot be achieved by doing nothing more than crafting a vision statement.

Measuring excellence

An additional step of achieving safety excellence is defining how it is to be measured. Use proactive or leading indicators. Injury rates or lagging indicators are necessary, but they do not measure work done safely – they simply measure the avoidance of injury. Unsafe work can (and often does) yield outcomes where no injury occurs. Lagging indicators should never solely be used to define safety excellence. Safety excellence cannot exist with high injury rates, but low injury rates alone do not equate to safety excellence.

Appearance-based safety

A collection of leading indicators is useful and proactive, but emphasis must be placed on the conversation and communication that it elicits. This is how learnings can be realized and shared. Companies who ignore this step often fall prey to the fallacy of appearance-based safety – the illusion that everything is perfect (or needs to always be perfect) when in reality, opportunities for improvement abound. When perfection is the goal – whether implied or confessed - managing the metric instead of improving the overall process is the outcome. 

As data is collected, safety excellence requires action on that data. Consider the task of weight loss. No matter how often weight is measured, nothing will change unless there is a strategy and plan that centers on weight loss efforts. Anyone who has tried to lose weight without a plan knows hope is not a strategy. Increasing measurement frequency is not a plan. Learning-based actions lead to positive and sustainable change.

Aligning safety & productivity

Can the organization align the pillars of productivity, cost, and schedule with what is often a conflicting pillar of safety? Will safety be a tenet that is built into the foundation or will it be seen as a competing initiative that can be circumvented or ignored in order to achieve business goals that are viewed as higher priorities?

If the answer to either of these questions is negative, then the safety excellence journey is no more than lip service, relegated to a flavor-of-the-day initiative that will be eclipsed by the next marketing gimmick proposed down the line. This is the most crucial step to build safety excellence. Unfortunately, it is often the least addressed when a safety excellence journey begins.

Here’s an outline that provides the pathway to safety excellence:

  • Define safety excellence
  • Develop a vision-strategy-plan to achieve safety excellence
  • Incorporate activities and actions to build and sustain safety excellence
  • Define how safety excellence is to be measured
  • Integrate methodology to study, assess, and act on data collected
  • Align all business functions to support the safety excellence effort
  • Develop a company culture that allows learning to take place and improvement to be promoted