Does Appearance-Based Safety Leave Room for Improvement?

Safety Leave Room

We live in a world that attaches numbers and metrics to virtually every facet of our lives. We are assessed and graded constantly and fear being on the “losing side.” Intrinsic to human nature is the desire to be viewed by others in the best possible light. However, are we able to grow and improve in a continual state of perceived success, especially when adversity is masked or hidden? I would argue that a journey marked by learning and improvement is the ultimate success, while the destination is just a marker on the side of the road.

Safety is all about the journey. There is no “final destination,” as every day brings new risks and challenges. Every individual’s journey is as unique to each one of us as it is for each company that we work for. Recognizing that every employee’s and company’s safety journeys are unique, we still collect numbers and compare them as a testament of a perceived measure of control, leading to what I call “appearance-based” safety.

Appearance-based safety is a safety program built solely on the act of collecting and sharing information so that the judgment from others is favorable. This usually entails reporting injury data and leading indicators such as observation and assessment metrics. One common example is “percent safe,” a ratio based on safe and unsafe (“at-risk”) observations. 

You’ve likely heard the commonly used and entirely accurate phrase, “To err is human.” Human error is inevitable. As such, human deviations occur daily when conducting safety assessments in a workplace. Yet observation patterns don’t often reflect the error-prevalent environment. Oftentimes, nothing is deemed “wrong” until an injury occurs, and the follow-up investigation uncovers that the task was being performed at-risk for months (or longer). Why was this situation not realized before the injury? Perhaps because of the desire to not alter the illusion of everything being under control.

People tend to personalize the results of safety information, leading to biases that focus on accentuating the positives and eliminating the negatives. Elimination can occur at the reporting level, irrespective of actual findings. Companies might “overlook” smaller occurrences to be able to submit multiple 100% safe assessments at once and establish confidence that everything is fine, even when it is not. 

We are, after all, human. There many are reasons for choosing to mask risk and dismiss problems, including:

  • To be viewed as competent.
  • To avoid negative attention, such as from a boss or manager, and the resultant confrontation.
  • To protect another’s reputation, such as a worker or supervisor.
  • For fear of information being used negatively against the observer or organization in the future (“the lawyer effect”).
  • The language for reports is confusing or perceived as damning.
  • The act of reporting itself is viewed as wasteful instead of as an opportunity to improve.
  • The data collected results in negative outcomes, detracting from the incentives offered to observed parties.

This leads me to my next question – what is the purpose of assessing an environment for safety concerns? Is it to “check the box” and show that the bare minimum was accomplished? Is it to point out the problems that exist and then move on without trending or monitoring for patterns to discover a solution? Is it to prevent injuries? If your answer is the latter, then let us examine the premise more fully.

Injury prevention is very similar to deterring adverse health problems. For example, if I am not feeling well, I would go to my doctor and ask for an exam. This entails collecting leading indicators–height, weight, blood pressure, heart rate, lab samples and, if necessary, X-rays, MRIs, and an EKG. The health professional would then assess the data and present it in a manner that highlighted any risks, enabling discussion of risk management techniques. Again, if injury or illness prevention is the purpose, it is important to be thorough and honest and focus on the problem, not the person. From there, the patient can manage the risk.

Consider the scenario above regarding an examination and diagnosis. What good would have come if the health professional presented a report that did not include finding any deficiencies or did, but significantly downplayed the severity? Would this be considered professional and ethical behavior? Would this alteration of the findings contribute to the patient’s health?

Each organization has some expectation of what it means for work to be conducted safely, as outlined in the health and safety plan. Assessments and observations are opportunities to discover differences between the established plan (what you want or expect to happen) and reality (what is happening). A perfect assessment is obviously the ideal, but contrary findings can serve as an open door to critical questions that may typically go unanswered, even after an injury occurs. This process of discovery can shed light on biases, cultural influences, psycho-social aspects, and decision-making processes, leading to more positive influence for needed change to deter injuries from ever happening.

If the intention is to learn and improve, then a paradigm shift is needed. That shift must alter the negative reception of findings that deviate from expectations and lead to the acceptance that deviations are a normal part of the process. These opportunities to improve must be celebrated. Reactions cannot include admonition for reporting the reality of what is happening. In this way, accountability can grow and affect positive outcomes before an injury occurs.



Cary comes to the SafetyStratus team as the Vice President of Operations with almost 30 years of experience in several different industries. He began his career in the United States Navy’s nuclear power program. From there he transitioned into the public sector as an Environmental, Health & Safety Manager in the utility industry. After almost thirteen years, he transitioned into the construction sector as a Safety Director at a large, international construction company. Most recently he held the position of Manager of Professional Services at a safety software company, overseeing the customer success, implementation, and process consulting aspects of the services team.

At SafetyStratus, he is focused on helping achieve the company’s vision of “Saving lives and the environment by successfully integrating knowledgeable people, sustainable processes, and unparalleled technology”.

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