Recently an organization that we know about underwent what many organizations are and will continue to go through – a time of financial turmoil. They needed to cut costs and do it fast. The solution? Layoffs. So word came down and at one of their local plants a large portion of the engineering staff was cut.
Unfortunately this was a few short weeks before a major plant shutdown. The rest of the plant staff, dealing with the sting of seeing friends leave and not a little bit worried about their own jobs, banded together to share the load of project and contractor management left by the layoffs. They held meetings with employees at all levels to identify ways to accommodate the reduced staff without sacrificing safety and reliability of the plant. Corporate had created a gap and the workers had no choice but to fill it.
The irony of all of this is that, at least for this plant, the staff cutbacks will likely appear successful. The plant will operate at reduced costs without any significant reductions in safety and reliability. Those responsible will receive pats on the back, but almost no one will wonder why they were successful. Likely they would be shocked and perhaps offended to hear that the success they celebrate may, at least in part, be not because of their efforts, but in spite of them.
If you’re like the majority of the population, you probably think you’re above average at your job (and you probably are, it’s just those other idiots who are fooling themselves!). We like to think that we add value to our organizations and that, as safety professionals, we are doing our part to help our workers create safety day-in and day-out.
What if, though, we were like those corporate decision-makers? What if we are not as effective as we’d like to think we are? What if the success we see is simply because our workers are making us look good by finding a way to fill the gaps we created?
Before you protest that these sorts of things happen to others, not to yourself, ask yourself, how would you know? The significant disadvantage we have in the safety profession is that we often are terrible at measuring our own success. If we measure success by reductions in injuries we are subject to all sorts of statistical rules that merely muddy the water. For example, one organization saw a spike in injuries after a period of decline. They responded quickly, implementing many measures designed to build a safety culture and have employees “work safely”. The result? A reduction in injuries! Huzzah! Everyone is pleased with the response and the subsequent result, blissfully unaware of the concept regression toward the mean which would predict that had they done nothing they likely would have gotten the same result.
Or take for example the client that mandated a permit to work system, despite the adamant protests of some of the workers and managers. They reasoned though that the complaints that this will make work more difficult were just complaints and that, over time, people would get used to the permits. Sure enough, the protests died down after a while, and the safety staff declared success. They were right that the workers got used to the system, by finding ways to highlight the useful aspects of the permit and ways around the parts that were least useful. They made it work without the help of the safety staff, and the safety staff got the credit for a job well done.
Unfortunately this is a common story, especially in organizations where there is a persistent belief that safety is something we have to force workers to do. In the first organization it is a little ironic that they are just about to roll out a behavior-based safety program that focuses on getting individual workers to “work safely”. Many organizations and most safety initiatives such as this are based around the idea that workers are a problem that we must control.
Our workers though are living, breathing, thinking human beings. If we do something that affects them they are not passive observers. Rather, they will find ways that they believe will help them achieve success and avoid failure. Put another way, they will find a way to get the job done safely enough. Frankly, they are very good at this. But we will never see it because we are blinded by our belief that they can’t be trusted. We only see our problems go away and we assume that this is because of our efforts. In fact though, this is often despite our efforts. Our workers are experts at snatching victory from the jaws of defeat and failure that we regularly give them.
How can we move past this? The first step is to look inward. Do you see your workers as a problem to control or a solution to harness? What do your actions say you believe? Look at your accident investigation reports – what do the corrective actions you’ve identified say you think the problem is? We need to move past this idea that accidents happen because people are untrustworthy. Success happens because of your employees, not in spite of them. Trust them.
The next step is to look outward. Get out and learn from your employees. Go figure out how work works. What are the difficulties that your employees face? What challenges do your employees have to overcome to get the job done? What realities do they simply have to live with? These are sources of risk that get missed in your typical hazard hunt inspections. It’s a bit of a paradigm shift, but if you start to focus on how to improve work outcomes you will find that you will improve safety outcomes at the same time.
Finally, be collaborative. If you have a problem you think needs solving get your employees involved in the process. Not only will your employees help you identify better ways to solve the problem, they may even point out that the problem you were trying to solve isn’t even really the problem at all. As Daniel Hummerdal points out, your employees have a capacity greater than their job description. That’s a resource in your organization that you are already paying for that you’re not using. In a world of tight budgets and stretched resources, how can we afford to not harness our people’s unique talents to make our organizations better?