Wednesday, November 26, 2014

“It’s Not The Rules That Make Us Safe, It’s The People” (So we should thank them…)

The part of the title that is in quotations is a direct quote from an electrical technician with 40 years experience at a small chemical plant that, essentially, manufactures acid. The facility is one with many, many serious risks (when you make acid, it sort of comes with the territory), yet at this plant they have recently celebrated over 20 years without a lost-time injury. Sure, that’s just a lagging indicator, but it’s an indicator they are pretty proud of, considering that the last major incident they had was a fatality.

Now, obviously at a site like that they have a lot of rules. There are plenty of regulations they have to follow (for those familiar with the system in the US, this site is in California, under the process safety management regulations, and in Contra Costa County), there are plenty policies and procedures from corporate that they are required to adhere to. Despite all of that, there’s a sense at the plant that all of that is just window dressing. At the end of the day it’s not the paperwork (rules, regulations, policies, and procedures) that keeps people safe. Sure those things can have a role in the process, but the employees also point to instances where employees have to find ways to create safety in spite of the paperwork.

Think about that for a second – sometimes our employees need to find ways to overcome the barriers we put into their way to get the job done, and get it done safely. Sure, it’s not always perfect and sometimes we might wince at what they do. But, at the end of the day, it’s the people that create safety.

This is a really important point, because sometimes safety professionals seem to have the air that they are providing safety for the employees. We say things like we are there to “make them safe” or to “ensure that things are safe”, like somehow the bodies would pile up if we weren’t there. After all, we’re there to protect employees from themselves, right?

Daniel Hummerdal, who manages the site, has another perspective though that we think is instructive – our chief role is to enable safety. This perspective is interesting and refreshing because it admits that deep down everyone wants to be safe, and most of the time they are really good at it. So rather than creating a management system designed more for children than adults (i.e. command and control), perhaps we need a system that facilitates and enhances the natural risk assessment and mitigation processes of our employees. Or, as Sidney Dekker says, instead of employees being a problem to control, perhaps employees are the solution to harness.

We digress though, because the point of this post is not to focus on ourselves. In the United States this week is Thanksgiving week (hence the turkey picture) and we think it’s a proper time to thank your employees for the great job they do. Thank them for working safely, in spite of imperfect conditions, confusing rules and procedures, competing goals and inadequate resources. If we’re honest, we should also thank them for making us safety professionals look good. After all, sometimes our employees are safe in spite of what we’re doing, not because of it.

And, no matter where you are, thank YOU for your devotion to the health and safety of others. Lets look forward to a great year of enabling safety next year!

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