ISHN conducted an exclusive interview with Colin Duncan, CEO of Behavioral Science Technology and CEO of DEKRA Insight, the consulting arm of DEKRA S.E., representing BST and Chilworth. Colin presented a talk at ASSE Safety 2014 on “Making Safety Part of Your Corporate Strategy.”

ISHN: Why, 40+ years after OSHA came on the scene and the modern safety movement began, are there still too few discussions about safety at the highest levels of organizations? What’s preventing those discussions from occurring?

Colin Duncan: It’s interesting that you say the modern safety movement aligns with the advent of OSHA. I’m not sure that’s necessarily the line of demarcation. Clearly OSHA has had a powerful, positive effect. But OSHA tackles things that senior executives wouldn’t necessarily closely follow. OSHA is an extremely powerful platform for safety, but it doesn’t get to world class safety. The real world class players in safety would consider OSHA one constituent part, but not the whole story. For a lot of organizations in the U.S., the dialog at the senior level needs to be about how you wish to run your business safely.

The flip side is, what does get talked about regarding safety performance, the dialog at the board level is often anchored around OSHA numbers, injury and illness rates, and such. Organizations with a great legacy in safety understand the only way to have a success business is to operate safely.

Many companies have reached similar points of realization: safety has to be an integral part of the business or there will sooner or later be negative incidents. We all know the highly publicized events of recent years. The professionals in the safety world traditionally were safety engineers who understood the technical disciplines, but didn’t understand how to connect that to issues front and center with senior executives. That’s has been changing as professionals have broadened their skill set, it’s changing now, and undoubtedly will continue.

What can a mid-level safety manager, a typical ASSE member, do to help get safety on the agenda in the boardroom? Or is it out of his/her hands?

There are undoubtedly things they can do. First, educate themselves broadly on how every aspect of their operation functions. Then understand how to put safety in the context of the challenges and issues those senior executives face. How the disciplines of good safety apply to the disciplines of good operations.

One example is to understand how to have a dialog with operations around the issue of employee engagement. Engagement is a senior executive challenge that safety fits right into. A senior executive said to me, “I’ve spent 15 to 20 years in my career trying to figure out how to get people engaged. Safety is the Trojan Horse, isn’t it? Everyone agrees on it, no one opposes it.” Safety is a great way to get alignment in an organization, to get people engaged. If an organization does safety well, it will do other things well.

Safety is a great vehicle for embedding how you lead and drive the business; good safety correlates with good performance management, there absolutely are correlations.

What evidence do you have that safety has real effects on financial and operational performance?

Part of me asks, why is that question important? Why are we asking this question about evidence? Is safety important? Of course it’s important ethically and morally. That ought to be enough.

Still, on a case by case basis where we measure safety and operational  performance we see good correlation. The data is owned by our clients so it is not public. But we see correlations between safety and productivity, absenteeism, grievances, staff turnover, a lot of metrics about how people are engaging and participating. You could call these organizational citizenship type behaviors. People step up and engage in volunteer projects and such. You tend to see those behaviors follow through where you see good safety.

Why is safety’s positive impact on the bottom line still not well understood or accepted?

If we have people motivated and engaged and not sick, we tend to have more productive operations. Organizations that protect people and assets properly don’t have the kind of events that cause major financial exposure to the business. One barrier oftentimes is that folks don’t go looking for these relationships between safety and operations. Going and looking for the data is key.

This is where safety pros can bring a lot of value. They can inform the thinking in the organization through the data they present.

The second piece, the second barrier, is the construct by which executives run businesses. I realize when we run a business, we look for a positive relationship between a, b and c and see a positive outcome, whether it is in sales or marketing or whatever. The big challenge when talking about the safety of people or assets is that a good intervention is leading to a nil outcome. The orientation in the business world is not comfortable with working to a nil outcome. We need to calibrate the value of the zero outcome.

Numbers don’t inform us a great deal in safety. We have to get executives comfortable with idea that interventions in safety lead to nothing happening. This is quite different from what we do day-to-day in a business.

Once safety does get on the boardroom agenda, what should the discussion focus on? Lagging indicators, OSHA incidence rates, etc., are one of the few safety markers that make it up the organization chart many times, but they give a flawed reading of safety performance, correct?

It’s self-evident the dialog needs to start with the conceptual understanding of what world class safety looks like in an operating environment. Senior leaders should be educated on some of core concepts of the safety field. Often senior executives leading businesses don’t’ understand some of safety’s core constructs. They do understand core constructs of sales and marketing, production and so on, but the hierarchy of controls, or root cause analysis, is not well understood.

Second, we are going to have to get executives to think about risk in the terms of the time basis of risk, the severity basis of risk. Have a dialog that leads to executives seeking data that informs them of where those risks exists.

The third piece for me is giving executives the construct that allows them to lay out a strategy for safety for the organization that takes place over a number of years. Safety can be very programmatic and tactical. Short-term. A lot of organizations lack a framework for saying here’s what safety looks like in the next ten years in this organization.

It is absolutely essential to have a long-term view; to understand where safety performance is today, and understand that the safety processes are continually evolving and improving.  It is learning what’s working, and embedding what is working in a disciplined way. Oftentimes that collective know-how is lost in organizations over time. So you need a structure to support what has been learned, what is working, and the long-term view.