Over the past 24 years I've worked with many top managers who want safety to be a priority in their operations. They try everything. Issuing mission statements outlining their desire for a safe workplace. Giving pep talks about how safety is truly the number one priority. Yet I find very little evidence of their best intentions becoming reality.

At first I thought the reason for the gap between management's words and deeds was a lack of commitment. The more I work with organizations, the more I realize this really isn't the case. Given the fact that organizations do not always behave rationally, it's no surprise that top management's sentiments often fail to impact daily operations.

I believe the problem is this: Businesses have not developed operational definitions for safety management. An operational definition doesn't describe what you want to see happen, but what actually does happen. Operational definitions would help everyone in a company understand what management means when it says it wants employees to be "safe."

An operational definition gives meaning to adjectives such as round, hard, reliable or safe. It provides a common language so everyone can come to the same conclusion. It helps link what one person sees to what another person sees. Without an operational definition, specifications are meaningless. You need it to get the voice of the customer into the process. Operational definitions also provide a clear, concise and detailed definition of a measure.

The problem is, in my experience safety management makes little or no use of operational definitions.

We often have a failure to communicate when it comes to safety. When is a job "safe?" What is an "unsafe condition?" The answer to these questions varies depending on who is responding. What constitutes an "unsafe condition" to the regulator can be very different to the plant manager, the foreman, and the worker.

In a production environment, lack of operational definitions can really cause problems. Consider the following excerpt from a company safety policy statement:

"The company shall establish comprehensive and realistic policies based on past experience and current scientific research to prevent unreasonable health and safety risks."

What does "realistic policies" mean?

What are "unreasonable health and safety risks"?

Does this apply to actual work processes?

Realistic policies for whom? The plant manager? The foreman? The worker?

Almost every top manager I've worked with rarely sees what happens to safety when the job runs. They depend on expertise in the company to worry about whether or not the job is "safe." Consequently, what top management wants and gets are two very different things.

The definition of safe must meet the purpose of those involved in the process. An employee who is required to bend and twist her wrist 700 times a shift to perform her task needs to define when the job is "safe" for her purpose.

The foreman of this same employee might develop his own definition of when the job is "safe," based on his experience with past employees and regulators.

Neither definition would be wrong, but each might give you quite different results. The foreman and the employee must agree on when the job is "safe" to ensure there are no injuries. To do this they need an operational definition.

Here are the requirements to develop an operational definition:

First, what is the key characteristic you want to work on?

In the example above, a team's safety goal might be to reduce employee injuries in this woman's production area. They identified strains to the wrists as a possible cause of the injuries.

Second, select how you will measure the key characteristic.

Now you have to decide what is the appropriate measuring instrument for strains to the wrist. In this case, the appropriate measure would be feedback from the employee on when she feels pain as a result of straining her wrists to complete the job task.

Third, describe the test method you will use to take the measurement.

This procedure includes where and how you will take the measurement. In our example, the strains will be recorded by the employee at her workstation on a check sheet. She will mark the first onset of pain to her wrists resulting from straining to complete her job. Additional information might be the time into the shift and number of parts completed when pain is first felt.

Fourth, make a decision- yes or no- that you met the criterion (criteria).

Judgment criteria allow you to make a decision about the key characteristic. Yes or no, the problem does or does not exist. In our example, the check sheet tells you if indeed strains to the wrist do occur. The key word in this criterion would be "pain." The team knows that stretching your wrists doesn't always create pain. These types of distinctions are critical so the operational definition is clear and understandable.

Fifth, document the operational definition.

You should always document the new operational definition. This can help standardize training manuals and job procedures.

Operational definitions get the voice of the customer into the process. Workers are the main customer of safety. Management intends to satisfy its safety customers, but unless operational definitions are used, what is intended might never be achieved. Defining in detail what we're after in safety can eliminate communication problems, barriers to effective teamwork, and an enormous amount of waste resulting from accidents and injuries.