Over the past two decades, many leading organizations have achieved consistent improvement in injury prevention. On average, US private companies reduced their injury rates by 62% between 1994 and 2014. But those dramatic reductions in injuries haven’t translated into reductions in workplace fatalities, which dropped by just 34% in the same period. For a mid-sized organization, this trend might be experienced as years of excellent safety performance followed by a devastating series of serious and fatal events. It has been more than a decade since we first reported that traditional efforts to prevent harm in the workplace have been less effective for fatalities than for less severe events, and there has been some progress, yet the problem persists.
Innovation is required
So how do we close the gap between overall safety performance and serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs)? The issue calls for new knowledge and new strategies related to organizational safety, leadership, and culture. Existing strategies have been effective, but something new is required to make a change to the next level. Innovation can consist of altogether new ideas and technologies or it can result from a reconfiguration of existing knowledge and technology. The time is right for a combination of these factors, understanding how to use the best of existing knowledge while making new discoveries which lead to new methods. Further, the mechanism for developing this new knowledge should in itself be innovative.
Collaboration is necessary
As a capitalist, I firmly believe the competition between organizations is healthy and necessary. And yet, a great deal is lost when people hold information, knowledge, and experience close to the chest. Innovation is slowed and resources must be invested to protect intellectual property. Normally, we accept this trade-off because the benefits of a free market society are worth it.
In the case of safety, it is not worth it. When lives are at stake, individuals and organizations with diverse knowledge and capability should pool their resources to solve problems as quickly as they can. This applies equally to industrial organizations as it does to consultants. We must find a way for industrial organizations to share more data and information related to serious injuries and fatality exposure, prevention, and lessons learned from incidents without negative repercussions: legal, economical, or otherwise. Consultants, too, must find a way to work together on behalf of their clients even when their organizations compete on a larger scale.
Bringing the past into the future
I am proud to have been a part of some extraordinary collaborations in safety, at BST, as an independent consultant, and now in partnership with Tom Krause. The very best projects connected academic knowledge with practical knowledge; technical expertise with human expertise; and visionary leadership with practical application. Behavior-based safety (BBS) is a prime example.
Forty years after BBS, can we achieve similar breakthroughs on an even larger scale? Tom Krause has been interviewing thought leaders in safety for his ASSE webinar series, 7 Insights into Safety Leadership. He brought together Scott Geller, Todd Conklin, Rob Fisher, Paul O’Neal, Sean O’Keefe, Steve Newell, and many others in a highly productive exchange of ideas and experience. I recently interviewed senior vice presidents who had led their organizations to unprecedented levels of safety. Can such extraordinary people as these put their heads together to accelerate our ability to prevent serious injuries and fatalities? I believe we can. I believe we must.
We as an industry can no longer use the lack of intellectual expertise as an excuse for the continuing stagnant progress with serious injuries and fatalities. We have the people, we have a multitude of methodologies, and we have exciting new technologies emerging every day. With the right recipe of innovation, collaboration, and expertise, we can solve this problem. Which could possibly mean that in the near future, someone’s son or daughter returns home from work at the end of a day that would have otherwise ended tragically. This should be our mission, collectively.