Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Why Your Employees Don't Know How Important Safety Is

We’ve dealt with a lot of organizations at SCM, helping them get into compliance and build positive safety cultures and in this process we’ve talked with a lot of supervisors and managers. A consistent theme seems to come up in these conversations – why don’t employees know how important safety is to me? The specific comment or concern may vary, such as wondering why employees don’t report near-misses, or why employees do something “unsafe,” but the basic question is the same and the underlying assumption is that if only the employees knew how important safety was they would do the right thing. The question we often ask our clients in situations like this is how their employees could know that safety is important to the organization generally, and to the supervisor/manager specifically.

Think of someone you know who’s a big football fan. How do you know they like football? Likely because they talk about it a lot and have other pieces of evidence that you can point to that lead you to that conclusion. You can’t just look at someone and assume that they like football - you need evidence.

So where’s the evidence that safety matters to you? Sure safety should just implicitly matter to everyone, but your employees also have other concerns when they come to work, such as being efficient and doing a good job. Unfortunately sometimes the concerns of efficiency conflict with safety, and employees have to make a decision. One of the strategies they’ll use in making that decision is to make a conscious or unconscious (usually unconscious) assessment of how important efficiency and safety are to you and your organization based on how often each one is emphasized. If you talk a lot about productivity and quality, but not about safety, it won’t matter how important you feel safety is in that moment. Your employee will be very likely to put safety second.

So how can we avoid this? Its simple – if you want your employees to know how important safety is to you then you need to tell them…and then tell them again. And keep telling them every chance you get. In every planning meeting, ask them if they have identified relevant hazards and what they are doing to reduce the risks. At the end of the job ask them if they encountered any hazards that they didn’t foresee or if they had any near-misses. It doesn’t take that long but your employees will begin to notice. And when employees notice that their supervisors and managers really care for them based on real evidence that’s when you start to see changes in the culture, towards a strong safety culture. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Location, Location, Location: The Missing Link in Your Training Program

I noticed that one of our clients recently asked a question on Linkedin about how to develop effective training programs for a variety of health, safety, and environmental topics. First off, this is a great question, if for no other reason than its one most people don’t ask. To be an effective trainer requires two skill sets – that you’re a subject matter expert and that you’re a good trainer. Many people are one or the other, but few are both. So knowing what you want to teach is half of the issue. Knowing how to teach it effectively is the other half, and that’s why this is such a great question.

The topic of training is a big one and you definitely can’t become a great trainer simply by reading one blog. However, there’s one element I see many otherwise competent trainers and safety managers missing in their training programs – controlling the location. Most of the time when I show up at a client’s site to perform training there’s a room set up for me, usually a conference room. Why the conference room? Because that’s the room someone just decided was the best room to do training. This decision usually involves no more than figuring out if the room can hold as many people as are coming to the training and/or if the room as the appropriate audio/visual equipment to facilitate the normal training bells and whistles.

This is a bit of a mistake. The location you’re in when you’re learning something (or trying to recall the information later) is vital to the training process. There’s many reasons for this, but on a very basic level you can think of the training environment acting in two opposing ways – as a distractor or as an enabler. Most training occurs outside of the normal working environment and is therefore a novel environment to the trainee in some way. Novel environments are by definition distracting, especially when the environment is not well controlled or designed. Throwing some chairs up and plugging in a projector does not make a training room. Thought should be put into building an environment conducive to the type of training being conducted (e.g. knowledge/lecture based training versus demonstrational/skill based training). Things such as temperature and lighting conditions should be considered as well.

That stuff is all pretty basic, and anyone who takes a train the trainer class should get the basics of the previous paragraph. What most training programs miss though is how the training environment can enable effective training. Research shows that context is important in recalling information – i.e. you’re more likely to recall a piece of information if you’re in the same or similar environment as when you learned it. This is partly why it’s effective to retrace your steps when you lose your keys – partly because they are likely to be on or around the path you took, but also because retracing your steps puts you in the environment you were in when you last saw them, thus increasing the chance you’ll remember where you left them. Our minds, especially as adults, work best through association. We associate new information with previous information, therefore making it easier to remember both pieces of information when you remember one or the other.

What does this mean for training? Design the training environment to be the same or similar to the environment in which you want your students to use the information! If you want your students to follow lockout/tagout procedures do all or some of the class near the equipment they will be working on. If it’s about storing hazardous wastes – do the class in the waste storage area. Office ergonomics classes should be done in the office, not in the conference rooms! Getting people out into the environments where they work not only will make the classes more fun, it will make the training more effective.

So next time don’t just choose the training location that’s most convenient – go with the location that will enable the most effective training. Location, location, location!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The 60% Problem – Dealing With Confined Space Rescue Fatalities

We are currently conducting research for an article we’re writing on the topic of confined space rescue, and we thought we’d give you all a little sneak preview of our viewpoint on the topic.

A little background, a confined space is a space that is large enough to get in and do work, not designed for continuous human occupancy, and hard to get in and out of (difficult ingress and egress). Confined spaces are problematic, in my opinion, primarily because of the last part of the definition – hard to get in/out. If something is hard to get in and out of that means if an emergency happens you’re going to have a hard time evacuating and we’re going to have a hard time pulling you out. So any time sensitive emergency is made worse, simply because of the nature of the space. (See the OSHA regulations for more information about confined spaces, or go here for some confined space training).

So what’s the 60% problem? If you’ve taken a confined space training course, particularly if you’ve taken a confined space rescue course, you’ve heard an often thrown around statistic – that about 60% of the fatalities in confined spaces are would-be rescuers. If this statistic is true that means that more people are dying trying to be the rescuer than die actually doing the work!

There’s a number of reasons why this can be true, which are beyond the scope of this post. But, to give an example, one of our clients recently related an event that happened at one of their facilities where an employee was killed in a confined space. It turns out this employee was outside of a confined space when he noticed his co-worker was down (unconscious) in the space. So he went in to help…and then he went down. Luckily the fire department showed up and extracted them both. His co-worker lived. He didn’t.

Obviously this is a great tragedy, and we’re all left wondering why it happened. Unfortunately, like so many other “incident investigations” most people respond to stories like the above in a very simple way – more training! Employees just need to know that they shouldn’t do that! And this has been the response for the last 20 years - if we want employees to not be would-be rescuers then we need to just tell them not to during training.

Here’s the problem though – employees that are killed in confined space accidents like the one above are often trained. This means they were told to not do what they ended up doing! Why is that?

It turns out that a review of disaster and emergency psychology literature (which is summed up in another article that we wrote) tells us that the behavior of would-be rescuers is not only not strange, but it is completely predictable.

People are wired to help others in an emergency. This means that it’s not something we can easily train out of them! In an emergency your body is designed to react quickly. Your brain automatically resorts to default behaviors and does not allow for much in the way of rational thought. Therefore unless your training program is designed in such a way that you override the basic human instinct to help another its very likely to fail.

So what’s the solution? Prevention! We need to understand that confined spaces often have the potential for multiple injuries and fatalities because we have designed the system to include multiple workers (i.e. it’s illegal to enter a permit-required confined space with only one employee doing the job). This increases the severity potential of any confined space job, a potential that it’s unlikely we’ll be able to reduce without completely eliminating all hazards in the space. Attendants in confined spaces (often called “hole watches”) need to be reminded of their role in preventing confined space emergencies and the stakes if they don’t prevent an emergency. After all, the life they save may not just be the entrants, but their own!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

What is "Safety"?

The above sounds like a fundamental question. After all, how can we strive to achieve something that we don’t clearly define? But, in my experience, people often don’t consider what their definition of safety is when developing a safety program. This often leads to confused decision-making and hodge-podge safety management systems. We know that we need to meet regulatory requirements (such as OSHA in the US) and we know we want to prevent injuries and illnesses, but beyond that it’s a little fuzzy.

Now, the temptation is to say that the prevention of injuries and illnesses is safety. The problem with that is that if we define safety by what doesn’t happen it leads to some uncomfortable situations and predictable mistakes. For example, just because someone drove their vehicle from point A to point B, does that mean that they drove safely? Of course not! We’ve all seen people drive like idiots. Why? Because unsafe behaviors, unsafe conditions, unsafe systems don’t lead to incidents every time. If I drive without following the rules of the road, I won’t get into an accident all the time. I won’t even get into an accident most of the time, because people are actually pretty good at being safe (see last week’s blog).

The bottom line, is that you can’t define “safety” as the absence of accidents, incidents, injuries, illnesses, or anything like that. These negative events are certainly “caused” by things we control, but they are also “caused” by things we do not control (e.g. I can control how I drive but I cannot control how others drive).

So if we can’t measure safety by the absence of something, what can we measure it as? What is our ultimate goal? What is the definition of “safety”? A definition used by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) seems to make some sense to me: Safety is freedom from unacceptable risk. We all know that we can’t eliminate all risk in our lives. There’s a risk in nearly everything we do that some unforeseen negative thing will happen. Our job then is to determine if that risk is acceptable or not.

If we define safety as acceptable levels of risk we are no longer measuring what isn’t there, we are measuring what is there. This also implies that we are constantly assessing our risks due to changing circumstances and determining if the level is acceptable or not (“changing our risk model” as some safety professionals call it).

Now imagine if your organization, before implementing any new safety system determined what the acceptable level of risk for the organization is. What if people stopped asking what’s required by OSHA or some other agency and started looking for risks and determined whether they were acceptable or not, based on the organizational standard, and from there determined what controls were best to reduce the risk? On a strategic level, this brings cohesiveness to your programs and clarity to decision-making and job planning. All programs are aimed at the same goal – adequate risk reduction. Job planning is no longer about what has happened in the past (“we’ve done this job for years without an issue”), but about the level of risk today.

So, what’s your organization’s acceptable level of risk?