Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Safety Culture – What it is. What it isn’t.

Safety culture is the latest craze in occupational safety and health. It seems like everyone is talking about how to foster a safety culture in their organizations. There are books, blogs (including one we wrote), seminars, discussion boards, and even whole companies designed around the development of safety culture. The underlying implication is that safety culture is the Holy Grail of safety management – with an effective safety culture in place we’ll be on safety easy street. Our accidents will be few and far between, we’ll have everyone doing what they need to be doing to ensure success. Safety utopia at its finest.

A problem with safety culture though is that although everyone’s heard the term, and pretty much everyone has a similar idea of what we all mean when we say it, the specific definition of what safety culture is and why safety culture matters varies significantly from person-to-person (for example, read this article that explains some of the variations). For most the definition of safety culture has grown to pretty much encompass every aspect of the organization, including how the organization structures itself, organizational decision-making, and individual behavior.

A recent article we read points out an interesting problem – as the safety profession has taken the concept of culture from social sciences such as anthropology and sociology and made it our own, we have moved past the original definition of the term used in those fields (e.g. the system of beliefs, meanings, norms, and values) and have little or no understanding for how the concept is currently understood in those fields. In doing so we may have overstepped our bounds a little bit and we may be asking a bit more of culture than the concept can provide.

Take behavior for example. Certainly the system of beliefs, meanings, norms, and values within a given group will affect a person’s behavior, but is it the only influence? Consider research on individual personality and cognitive traits that have been found to be relatively stable over time and influence a person’s propensity to engage if pro-social safety behaviors. These are not directly affected by cultural values, but they do directly affect behavior.

Or consider other research in social psychology that showed that something as simple and subliminal as holding a warm cup of coffee or a cold cup of coffee can influence subjective judgments of how warm one perceives another person to be, which can influence such trivial decisions as whether to hire someone for a job. Again, this is not directly affected by culture, but these influencers do directly affect behavior.


Certainly we aren’t suggesting that you attempt to change people’s personalities or have all employees hold warm cups of coffee all day. But the idea is that if we really want to help create safety in our organizations culture is certainly a powerful influencer. If we can identify the beliefs, meanings, norms, and values and then influence those we may be able to make positive changes in the organization. But if we stop there we may not get the results we’re looking for. We need to actively identify how work is getting done in our organizations and help our workers achieve success on a daily basis. We need to tap into the amazing creative potential of our workers to create safety. We need to build resilience into our management systems. We need more a more systems-based understanding of how our organizations work. We need to build in safety-considerations at all phases of the lifecycle of equipment and projects including design, implementation, maintenance and operation, and disposal. We need to build Just Cultures where mistakes and violations are investigated not to find blame but to improve the systems we work in. And who knows, if we do these things we may just accidentally build a strong safety culture in the process.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Safety II – Re-defining Safety (and the way you look at it)

One of the big problems with the safety profession is how difficult it is to define what we’re trying to achieve. Numerous definitions of safety exist (we’ve even talked about a few here and here), but these definitions often seem to describe more about the worldview of the authors (e.g. those that describe safety as the absence of accidents versus those that describe it as an acceptable risk level, or some variation thereof) than give us guidance on what we, as a profession, are trying to achieve, much less how we achieve any goal.

Even still, one common theme exists amongst all such definitions – they are focused on a negative. Safety is almost always defined by the absence of something – absence of accidents, absence of risk, absence of hazards, absence of harm, etc. By defining safety in this way the implication is that our job is to remove, to constrain. Typically getting into the system, finding what’s broken, and either fixing it or replacing it is our way of achieving this. This process applies whether the broken component is a piece of equipment or a person (i.e. human error). The further implication here is that behavior of both people and parts is bi-modal – either it works or it doesn’t. And the things that cause the component (either the person or the part) to work are different than the things that cause the component to not work. Therefore, our job as safety professionals is to prevent the causes of the bad behavior and to constrain the good behavior to keep it from turning into bad behavior through procedures, training, work-rules, etc. This basic approach to safety management has been termed “Safety I” by safety researcher Professor Erik Hollnagel and others.

However, although this line of bimodal thinking applies to parts, it doesn’t work well with people. Consider the following points:
  • The underlying “causes” of either “safe” or “unsafe” human behavior are the same – human capacity for adaptation and innovation.
  • Adaptability and innovation are not inherently bad. They are at least partly (if not entirely) responsible for all of the advances in human civilization. But in some contexts they contribute to accidents.
  • Workers don’t usually come to work to get hurt or killed (although they sometimes do). So, deep down, everyone cares about safety.
  • Workers combine their innate capacity to innovate and adapt to balance often competing goals (production, safety, quality, etc.) in ways that are hard to predict, but are easy to see (assuming you are looking for it).

If this is all true, what if instead of trying to constrain behavior and get rid of all the “unsafe” behaviors and “human errors” we instead accepted that human performance will always have a variability to it and that this isn’t always bad. In fact, if you think about it, most of the time nothing goes wrong. Why is that? If we’re honest with ourselves we’ll admit that it’s because of the ability of the workers to create safety in spite of the imperfect systems that they operate in.

So if we use the Safety I line of thinking, trying to constrain behavior through the use of procedures, training, and bureaucracy, we may actually constrain the very thing that’s creating safety in our organizations.

What if, instead of using only the Safety I line of thinking, we complemented Safety I with a new paradigm that Hollnagel has termed Safety II? Safety II suggests that instead of defining safety as the absence of a negative, instead we should define safety by our ability to achieve success under varying conditions, or, safety should be defined not by the number of accidents, but by the number of successes. Think of it this way, if the roots of success and failure are similar, then only looking at the rare times that accidents happen only tells us a small part of the story.

Safety II is still a relatively new concept, so new that models and mechanisms for implementing Safety II concepts are rare. However, some immediate suggestions from Safety II are apparent:
  • Since workers are one of the primary sources of safety in the organization, make sure you open channels to learn and share experiences. Get out from behind your desk and go observe how work is getting done. Be careful to avoid the Safety I mindset while doing this, of looking for unsafe behaviors. Just observe the innovation and creativity and ask how you can enhance it to increase the likelihood of success.
  • Dedicate some of the investigation resources to investigation how and why things succeed. Sure we need to keep investigating incidents, but because success and failure spring from the same sources, there’s learning to be had from successful jobs. Get out there and find it!
  • While conducting incident investigations, don’t just focus on what went wrong. Instead, identify how things normally work and why that normally succeeds. Then determine why this time was different.


Safety II presents numerous other opportunities for the safety profession (including the potential to eliminate the conflict between safety and production). Let us know your thoughts on the opportunities and challenges of this new paradigm in safety.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Vital Step That Your Training Program Is Missing

Working for a training and consulting organization, we do a lot of training (and we do it quite well, if I do say so myself). Organizations of all types, sizes, industries, etc. call us and have one of our providers come out and train their folks on a variety of topics. Some clients have very specific needs and do a great job of ensuring that our training is customized to meet those needs. Other clients just want us to come out there and do the training (usually to meet some sort of regulatory requirement).

Sure, it’s fun getting to interact with folks and have discussions about safety, but one thing that we rarely get called out to do is to do something that is the first and most important step in training development.

Stop right there for a second and think about – what is the “first and most important step in training development”?

I’m sure any number of really good ideas came to mind, such as “know your audience” or “customize the material” or something along those lines. These are important, but they aren’t the most important. The first step and the most important step in a training development process can best be described using the verbiage of the ANSI/ASSE Z490.1-2009 standard Criteria for Accepted Practices in Safety, Health, and Environmental Training:

“A determination shall be made as to whether training is the correct response to a given organizational need.”

Put another way, the first step in training develop is to ask the question – do we even really need another training course? This is called a “training needs assessment” and it’s often the part of a training development process that is taken for granted. After all, isn’t the point of training development to develop training? If the training development process eliminates training that doesn’t make sense.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it takes for granted that training is always a good solution to the problem. To test whether that theory is true think about your own experience – how many times have you sat through a training course, even a very good one, and then a short time after the training you can’t remember what you were taught? So how effective was that training?

A training needs assessment forces us to take a hard look at what problems we’re trying to solve and to really think about the best way to solve that problem. To put this into terms similar to the Z490.1 standard above, we need to figure out what the “given organizational need” is that is driving the training.

This sounds like one of those dumb questions that make people roll their eyes, but think about it for a second – why do we train our employees? Often it’s because there’s some knowledge or behavior we want them to have or perform so that they can be safe (at least that’s the stated goal). A big mistake many make which leads them to skip doing a good training needs assessment is that they think that the “organizational need” in that statement above is that the employees need to have knowledge or behavior, which implies that there’s a problem that training is best to fix. There’re two flaws with this line of thinking:

1. Even if there is a knowledge or behavioral problem, training may not be the best solution. What if the behavior problem is that employees are skipping a step in a procedure because the procedure is poorly written? Training is unlikely to fix this problem. In fact, if your training doesn’t match reality then employees are less likely to take your training seriously.

2. The organizational need is not the knowledge or behavior issue, it’s the need for employees to be safe. What if instead of doing training we looked at the workplace and redesigned it to eliminate the hazard – would that be better than training? This can apply even in cases where training is required by law. OSHA only requires training when certain conditions apply. For example, you only need confined space training when going into a permit-required confined space. What if you can find a way to not go into the space and still get the job done, or you could reconfigure the space to make it no longer a permit-required confined space, through re-design?


Furthermore, the training needs assessment forces you to think about the problems you really want to solve, which can help you solve the problem of ineffective training. So instead of just throwing employees in a training class, you might identify that they need training and then follow-up by their supervisor in a few months, or they need training and a new, user-friendly checklist to remember the safety critical steps. The needs assessment forces you to think through the problem and come up with a system that can deal with the problem. This makes the training work for your system, rather than your management system accommodating the training.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Who Doesn’t Love More Paperwork? – Procedures, Checklists and Safety

Ok, so obviously the title was a little tongue-in-cheek. Let’s face it – most of the time procedures and checklists are seen as a necessary evil in our workplaces. We have significant risks we face every day and there’s clearly a right way and a wrong way to protect others and ourselves from those risks. After all, how else can we ensure that we control people’s behavior in a way that ensures they do the things they need to do to be safe?

Stop there for a second. How many faulty assumptions can we count in that first paragraph? We lost count, there was so many. Here’s just a few:
  • Procedures and checklists…are…a necessary evil.” Sure there sometimes we have to have a procedure or a checklist (sometimes called a “permit”) for the purposes of a regulation or a standard we have to meet, but often those piles of procedures we have in our workplaces are there because we chose to have them there – i.e. they are not required. If we are choosing to have procedures and checklists that means we can also choose to not have them.
  • There’s clearly a right way and a wrong way to protect others and ourselves…” Again, there may be times when this is true, but often it is not. Most of the time there are multiple “safe” ways to do a job. In fact, if we only provide people with one way to do the job they may be faced with a risk that wasn’t considered in the procedure and then be forced to make the decision between doing the job safely or following the “safe” procedure.
  • How else can we ensure that we control people’s behavior…” The assumption in this statement is that people don’t want to be safe and therefore we have to protect them from themselves. This is just flat out wrong. People have created safety throughout history long before the safety profession existed. Sure it wasn’t perfect, but the idea we’re getting at here is that there’s a foundation of motivation and creativity deep down in each person that we might be able to tap into.

Now, don’t get us wrong here – we’re not saying that we need to do away with all procedures and checklists. We’re just saying we need to rethink why we have them. Do they actually add value to employee safety or do we only have them to protect us from regulators – so we can say “I told you so” to the employees after something bad happened?

How can we make procedures and checklists value added rather than just more paperwork? Well, each situation is a little different, but here’s some ideas on when and how to develop and use procedures and checklists:
  1. Get Employees Involved. This is critical. Procedures and checklists done in isolation are often missing key information about how work is actually performed. This can lead to employees ignoring the procedure and being exposed to risks as a result. Employees are not the enemy of safety. They are often the best resource we have. It takes time and trust, but get them involved and you’ll be shocked at the results.
  2. Once you have a good understanding of what the work to be done is, are there job steps, tools, etc. that are (a) easily forgotten or missed, and (b) are either safety critical or critical for other purposes (e.g. quality, regulatory compliance, productivity, etc.). These are ripe for a procedure and/or checklist.
  3. Once you’ve developed the procedure or checklist, test it out with employees who actually do the work. Get their honest feedback about it and, if possible, observe them doing the job with the new procedure or checklist. If they report or you observe problems, go back to the drawing board. Don’t force your procedure or checklist on the employees if it doesn’t work. Sometimes nothing is better than a partial fix, because partial fixes can lead to a false sense of security. Use the momentum you have to get it right.
  4. Train all affected employees (including supervisors) on the new procedure or checklist. The training should be a discussion about the need for the change and how the change will help them achieve success better than older methods, not a one-sided lecture on how you know how to do their jobs better than they do.
  5. Follow-up. Take additional time in the months after roll-out to observe different crews with the new procedure and checklist to see how it’s working and to get their feedback. Make adjustments as necessary. If you observe violations your first instinct should be to investigate why, not to blame the employee.


Imagine a world where we no longer have to be the safety cop, chasing down and punishing every procedure or checklist violation. Imagine a world where employees actually want to use the procedures and checklists. Why? Because they came up with them and therefore they know how the checklist not only makes them safe, but how it works with the job they are trying to do. That integration of safety and getting the job done is the key and it’s all possible if we only change our perspective from workers as the problem that must be controlled, to one where the workers are a safety resource.