A common complaint we hear from safety professionals is that they don’t get enough time in the field. They are stuck behind their desks filling out paperwork, working with spreadsheets, writing procedures, or getting presentations ready for their next big meeting. If only they could get out in the field more things would be better. A similar discussion is often had with managers and supervisors, if only we could get the managers and supervisors out in the field for the purposes of safety then we would see improvements.
But, why? What do we want all these people out in the field for?
Something interesting occurred to us recently – when safety people get out in the field (or when others get out for the purposes of safety) we aren’t really looking for safety. We are looking for unsafety. We are looking for uncorrected hazards, uncontrolled risks or deviations from our rules and procedures. We are searching for problems. If you think about it, anytime we do any searching or investigating (assessments, audits, observations, etc.) it is for the same reason – to find the unsafe things.
As with most of the things we do in the safety profession, there’s a surface logic here that makes some amount of sense. If we find all the things that are wrong (or unsafe) then we can find ways to eliminate those things. If we eliminate everything that is unsafe then we are only left with safety.
But how do we know what to look for?
It sounds like a dumb question at first (obviously we look for the unsafe things!) but how do we know what’s unsafe without also know what’s safe? The answer is we look at accidents that have happened, identify their causes and, voila!, we have found our unsafe things! From this we create our rules, regulations, policies, procedures, best practices, etc. Any deviations from these standards are then unsafe.
Could it be though that by only looking at accidents (or other things that could go wrong) we skew our perspective? We think so. For example, when you only look at accidents it is easy to think that most accidents are caused by human error. After all, in basically every accident that has ever happened in human history we can point to human actions (or inactions) where if they had done something else the accident would not have happened. Therefore, safety professionals infer that this is the cause of the accident and go out and look for the same things in other places (i.e., looking for unsafety).
However, if those same actions (or inactions) were present at times where there was no accident, doesn’t that mean that something else must be present for an accident to happen? For example, go out and watch a freeway for a while. Note how many unsafe driving techniques you observe and how many accidents you observe. Chances are you find a lot of people driving unsafe, but no accidents. Therefore, to say that unsafe driving causes accidents is questionable logic, since the relationship between the two is loose, at best.
Now, don’t get us wrong. We aren’t advocating going out and driving on your street like a NASCAR driver. Or are we saying that there isn’t a place in safety for investigating accidents and looking for unsafe things in general. What we are saying though is that perhaps the safety profession should actually be a bit more focused on finding safety.
What do we mean by this? We mean get out in the field more, but in a different way. Rather than going out to enforce a standard (which is what we normally want to do), lets go out and let the system teach us. Most of the time no accidents happen. Why is that? We’d like to assume that it’s because everyone is following procedures, but (you might want to sit down for this, because this could hurt) that is almost never the case. Often, if we are able to actually get out and observe work as it is really happening in the world we find that people often routinely violate rules, regulations, policies and procedures. Yet, most of the time no accident happens.
Just like with driving, workplace safety violations alone don’t cause accidents. If we can find out what’s keeping workers safe we have the opportunity to replicate that. We can avoid wasting time and money on interventions that have only minimal or no effectiveness. We can avoid blaming workers unnecessarily and begin to build trust in our organizations. We can perhaps find solutions to safety (and productivity) problems that our workers have developed on their own to challenges and risks that we had no idea of.
Now, getting started on looking for safety in the workplace will be challenging. We’ve become so used to only looking for negatives that we have a hard time seeing anything else. It’s also hard to find safety in general if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Start by talking to your workers. Find out how they do their jobs and what things they have to overcome in order to do the tasks. It may take some time to get the information out of them, but once your workers start to believe that you’re not there to always tell them what they are doing wrong, but to learn about what they are doing right they will start to be more open with you. Give it a try and let us know how it works out!