At the National Safety Congress & Expo earlier this fall, I bumped into one of the wise old gents of safety. His family ties to worker safety go back generations. We chatted about the old days (what else?), and then he smiled wistfully. “You know,” he said, “sometimes I get so frustrated by safety. I see young people coming into the field and they get it, you know? Then something like BP in the Gulf happens. Something like BP in the Gulf always happens. And you wonder, will they ever get it?”

Not as long as workplace safety is undermanaged by top management. Which has been forever.

Underserved by the powers that be

According to research, the safety function is far from the only staff discipline to be undermanaged. So if there is any silver lining here, it is that safety, for once, is not being picked on, singled out. But it has been chronically underserved by those in power.

Since 1993, an outfit called RainmakerThinking, Inc. has conducted what it calls “research on the dynamics of supervisory relationships in the changing workplace.” According to the group, “Late in 2002, we began to focus our research on an alarming pattern: We found that a huge preponderance of those in leadership positions, at all levels, were severely ‘undermanaging’ their direct reports on a day to day basis. That is, a great many leaders, managers, and supervisors at all levels in organizations of all shapes and sizes in every industry were not providing employees with what could be considered ‘the basics of management.’”

According to this research, an embarrassing nine out of ten employees say they do not get the four basics of good management from their immediate boss on a regular basis (at least once a month):

  • Clearly spelled out and reasonable expectations, including specific guidelines and a concrete timetable.
  • The skills, tools and resources necessary to meet those expectations or else an acknowledgement that you are being asked to meet those expectations without them.
  • Accurate and honest feedback about your performance as well as course-correcting direction when necessary.
  • The fair quid pro quo - recognition and rewards

Short attention span

Let’s apply the basics specifically to the safety function. Certainly the minority of CEOs understand the issues of workplace safety well enough to clearly spell out expectations for the safety staff. Safety departments are poorly served by leaders whose only directions are: 1) Keep us out of trouble with OSHA, and 2) Beat last year’s injury numbers. That’s as far as most CEOs will think about safety - until something blows up or caves in.

How many safety departments are stocked with the skills, tools and resources necessary to meet those goals? Many departments are under-resourced, but if management is only interested in compliance and recordable injuries, you can understand how a CEO would figure safety does not need much of a budget. In our most recent White Paper survey, only 14 percent of readers say their EHS resource support will increase in 2011. Stress will increase for 50 percent. Work hours will go up for 44 percent.

Legal panic attacks

As for a CEO acknowledging that safety is being asked to do more with not enough, get serious. No exec will ever admit to underfunding his safety operation. His lawyers would have panic attacks

Shallow knowledge

Accurate and honest feedback on the company’s safety performance? CEOs in general do not spend enough time studying safety issues to know what to say. Handing out plaques and awards for days without accidents, not a problem. “Course-correcting direction”? It’s more like: “What the hell happened? Fix it.”

Cold reality

The old quid pro quo - recognition and reward for a job well done? Nowadays it’s more like: be thankful you have a job.

Paying the price

The consequences of undermanagement, according to these researchers, read like an all-too-typical list of safety horror stories:

  • Unnecessary problems occur. Er, like injuries, crashes, explosions, fatalities.
  • Small problems (that could have been solved easily) turn into big problems. Too many neglected close calls, too few leading indicators, eventually turn minor cuts into mangled arms. It’s the “broken windows” theory. If you don’t stay on top of replacing broken windows, you get more and more broken windows, glass on the sidewalk, a mess spreads, lights go dark, and other maintenance issues go unattended. And ultimately you have a work culture that reflects the management of its environment - messy, disorganized, uncaring.
  • Resources are squandered. No employee engagement. Meaningless safety meetings. Empty shell safety committees. Expensive incentives that hide injuries. Training DVDs shown by rote. Posters and signs that go ignored.
  • Employees perform tasks/responsibilities the wrong way for longer periods of time. When there is no safety coaching, safety contacts, job safety analyses, job hazard analyses, observation and feedback sessions or audits, what can you expect but wrongheaded, unsafe work habits?
  • Low performers hang around causing problems for everyone else (and collecting the same paycheck as everyone else, too). Substitute “at risk” performers for “low” performers. Or “accident repeaters.” Or safety rule-breakers. Or bad apples, bad attitudes. Yes, they definitely cause problems, and risks, for everyone.
  • High performers get frustrated, lose commitment, and think about leaving. Call it safety champion burnout. No more safety volunteers. The workforce retrenches. “What’s in it for me?”
  • Employees are not set up to perform at their best. This can take the form of poor quality PPE. Shoddy or no machine guarding. Lousy housekeeping. No pre-job safety checklists. No safety mentors. No toolbox talks. Cookie-cutter safety training.
  • Managers spend their management time in all the wrong ways. Only 38 percent of readers surveyed for the White Paper say safety issues are tackled by developing strategic initiatives. “Strategy” and “safety” are seldom heard in combination in boardrooms.

Forty-nine percent of readers say the majority of execs “think they get safety but in reality do not, yet nevertheless try to convey that they are among the converted.”

Sixty-eight percent say the “catch-all attribution of an incident to ‘human error’ or to ‘mechanical failure’ is inadequate, and indicates a lack of safety leadership by top management.”

Finally, 59 percent of readers say “most management executives delegate and dismiss safety to the people who report to them, rather than personally leading the charge to radical safety improvements.”

That’s a good definition of “undermanagement.” And a wake-up call for the corner office.

Note: This data from RainmakerThinking, Inc. comes from workplace research conducted since 1993, taken from selected participants in RainmakerThinking, Inc.’s seminars, focus groups, one-on-one interviews, email interviews, and on-line questionnaires, including, the organization says, “thousands of individuals from numerous different organizations in the private, public, and non-profit sectors.”