The story of Chicken Little is one that many are familiar with (here’s a basic version if you’re not). Essentially, the story tells of a little chicken named Chicken Little who comes to believe that the sky is falling. She convinces others around her that the sky is falling and they run about trying to tell others. In their zeal to warn others about the hazard from above them they miss the real threat in front of them – from a sneaky fox, who tricks them into his den, where they never come out from again.
Stories like this that we tell to children are not merely for the sake of entertainment, but as a teaching tool. In this case, the goal is to not get so caught up in something that they miss the real problems in front of them and to think critically about the issues they think are so important. Chicken Little was looking up, when she should have been looking at what we right in front of her. Sometimes in life we blind ourselves and we should think critically and take steps to avoid this.
The safety profession can learn a lot from Chicken Little.
Where does the safety profession spend most of its time? Looking up. By this we mean looking to fulfill the (often bureaucratic) requirements of those to whom we are accountable. Most of our work is designed to meet some sort of regulatory requirement, some external standard, some corporate initiative. How much of your time is spent preparing for external audits or regulator inspections? Looking to meet the latest regulatory requirement? Filling out paperwork to document things, just in case we have to prove that we are safe (because if it’s not written down, it doesn’t happen)? How much of your safety training budget for your employees is spent on training that has no regulatory requirement for it? How many safety conferences have regulators speaking at them (almost all of them) and how many have line workers speaking at them (almost none of them)?
This is done regardless of whether we think this is the right thing or not, and often, if given leeway, we would do something else. For example, many in the safety profession readily admit that measuring safety using accident rates is bad. They are poor measures in so many ways. Why do we keep doing it? Because that’s what expected of us by the regulator, the industry organizations we belong to, and/or by our boss. They want to see our safety success as measured by the number of injuries we’ve had. So we spend a lot of time trying to provide that information to whoever wants it.
Now we aren’t saying that all of this is bad. Regulations and policies from those above us have a role to play in our safety programs. But, as Sidney Dekker says, safety has become a bureaucratic accountability to those above us. The overwhelming majority of what we do is determined by some external standard, by those above us.
When we become so fixated on what a regulator is thinking that we stop caring about work it serves to separate us from those whom we are meant to serve – the workers. We stop seeing the complexity of the work environment, the imperfections that workers must deal with and overcome everyday and all we see is non-compliance. Workers create problems for us with their creativity and innovation. We’d rather they just shut up and do their jobs, because that allows us to get the numbers we need to make our bosses happy and will help keep the inspectors away.
But risk that is ignored does not disappear. When we are so fixated on the falling sky, we stop seeing the conniving foxes in our jobsites. Unfortunately, it is our workers that must deal with these risks on a daily basis. They bear the burden of risk management while we focus on making sure our paperwork is in order. What a shame.
It’s time we stop treating safety as a bureaucratic accountability up and start seeing it as an ethical responsibility down to our workers. Our job is to serve our workers by helping to make their jobs easier. Sure this is complicated by the fact that those bureaucratic accountabilities don’t go away just because we turn away from them. But if we have to choose which goes ignored more often, compliance or your workers, we think the choice is clear. And, in our conversations with regulators this is often what they would hope you would choose as well.
So how do we choose to make safety an ethical responsibility down in our organizations? First, we need to take steps to learn about the everyday issues that workers must overcome to get work done. This includes the normal hazards and risks, but also those things that may not be caught in a hazard hunt, but may influence safety and risk nonetheless. Look at resources, tools, communication, scheduling, goal conflicts, etc. You’ll need to really dig deep by talking to workers and spending time in the workplace, but, trust us, it’s worth it. Not only will you begin to understand those things that make work and safety difficult for your workers (so you can help your workers overcome them), but you’ll also start to build trust between you and your workers. With that trust you’ll be able to tap into the innate motivation, creativity, intelligence and innovation of your workers to help deal with problems you didn’t even know existed, making a more sustainable safety program. All this because you stopped looking up for the falling sky and started looking around for fox dens.