We recently completed a project conducting safety supervision at a maintenance shutdown (typically called a “turnaround”) at a chemical plant. These jobs are always interesting because it allows us to really interact with workers at the sharp end who are from various different contractor organizations and trades. These workers not only provide unique perspectives on how things are done in their own organizations, but the contractor employees can also share stories about how other plants operate, the good, the bad and the ugly.
In these interactions with workers though, a common, disturbing theme kept arising – a significant distrust, and often fear of safety staff. We aren’t sure if we were just paying more attention this time, or if perhaps there were more instances of this during this turnaround than in others, but it was very consistent. For many workers our interactions always had to begin with a period of suspicion. The workers saw us as potential threats, coming over to tell them what they were doing wrong and chastise them. Some workers never even gave us the chance, choosing to avoid us as much as possible.
Luckily, these were in the minority. We were able to spend time with many of the workers, building up trust, trying to show them that we weren’t a threat. Once trust was established, we starting asking about perceptions of safety people and where the lack of trust comes from. Some of the answers we heard were very disconcerting.
- Safety people are arrogant, thinking they are better than everyone else.
- Safety people are more interested in telling you what they know, which leads them to telling you how to do a job that you have many years of experience in, but they have no experience in.
- The only time safety people leave the desk is to tell you what you’re doing wrong.
- One contractor described working at a plant where safety professionals would be assigned areas to “police”.
- Safety people are around to enforce rules that only make it hard to do work.
If you’re a safety professional and you don’t read the above list with some amount of embarrassment, there is something wrong. If this is what workers think of us, we have a problem.
Now, there may be some who would argue that we aren’t in the safety business to make friends with the workers, but to help them be safe. There’s some truth in this. But if a trust gap exists between us and our workers the problem is not that we are failing a popularity contest, the problem is that significant risk may exist in that gap.
For example, when talking with one worker about how we’d like to know more about his job, he laughed and said no way. The less we know, the better, he said. Why? Because all we’d do is make doing his job impossible if we knew exactly what he was doing.
Think about that. Keep in mind that (a) this was a worker who we have a pretty good, respectful relationship with, and (b) he was very conscientious, not one to take unnecessary risks. But because he saw safety professionals as people who merely make his job harder he withheld information about his job from us. Our intense focus on rules, controls and constraints convinced him that he could find a way to protect himself. He did not need our help because he didn’t see us as a help to him at all.
How does us knowing less about how work is done make things any better, or safer?
The unfortunate reality we are finding as we interact with workers is that the safety profession’s intense focus on setting a standard and ruthlessly enforcing that standard is that we are losing touch with one of our most important resources in safety – our workers. In an environment of intense rule compliance we may risk losing things like trust, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and innovation. Not only is the loss of these things a potential loss to the organization, think about accident reports for major disasters and note how often issues such as communication come up as a contributing factor. By relentlessly focusing on compliance at the sharp end we may be working to prevent minor events, but making us more vulnerable to more severe events.
To combat this, we need to release the reigns a bit. Sure, rules, regulations, policies and procedures have a role to play here, but we have to keep our priorities straight. Our workers are our best resource. Our people are not a problem to control, they are a solution to harness. In our turnaround, once we were able to build trust with workers two things happened. First, we were able to more effectively learn about work processes, which allowed us to identify better ways to improve things. Not only were we able to find better solutions to compliance problems, but we were able to make work easier in many cases.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, by building trust with workers, we were able to tap into a vast source of knowledge, experience, creativity and innovation. We were able to ask workers what they would do to improve our turnarounds. The answers we got from workers at all levels of the organization were fantastic. We found ways to not only improve traditional safety processes (e.g., ways to improve fall protection and lockout/tagout processes), but also ways to enhance productivity, collaboration and planning amongst contractor organizations. As a result, not only did we have a successful turnaround by almost any measure, we also set the stage for future success through creating an environment of participation. Paradoxically, by taking the focus off of compliance, we increased accountability. People were taking responsibility for not only their immediate tasks, but in how their role played into the bigger picture of creating a safe and productive turnaround.
The time has come for the safety profession to look in the mirror and see how we are contributing to some of the problems we are seeing. Perhaps the reason we are seeing so many rule-violators is because we create systems where workers have no choice but to violate rules to get the job done. By seeing people as a problem to control and focusing only on safety as the absence of negative events put ourselves into a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies – we think people are a problem to control, so we implement processes that treat them that way, eroding trust, creating problems, which confirms our beliefs. If we step outside of this cycle and begin to see safety as a capacity to achieve success and our workers as a solution to harness in creating this capacity we just might begin to see success where before we only saw negatives.