Over my years acting as a safety consultant, I have several times been brought in because of the unfortunate (yet common) occurrence of otherwise successful companies failing to achieve even the least ambitious safety goals, having spent disproportionate amounts of time and money pursuing fruitless (even counterproductive) safety management initiatives. From my experience, I have concluded that there are four common mistakes that lead to these disappointing and damaging results.
Misstep #1 – Safety as a foreign concept.
I have been asked why safety goals and objectives are so onerous to create and maintain. My response typically conveys the idea that managing any aspect of a business has inherent difficulties. Safety management is not uniquely challenging and should therefore not be set apart as something entirely different. Management strategies used to successfully handle scheduling or production will work just as well for safety. In a 2007 interview, the oft-quoted safety management consultant, Dan Petersen, responded to a prompt to name his favorite “safety management” book by recommending several texts on general management. His position was clear: the same “plan, do, check, act” approach that business leaders utilize every day to implement programs will apply just as well to safety management. After all, the successful management of any program comes down to the people involved.
Misstep #2 – Safety means compliance.
Many organizations have safety policies that focus on environmental safety and behavioral compliance, without much emphasis on safe work performance. As OSHA regulations require both these aspects of safety management, building an entire program on them is not really “going the extra mile” and can be quite limiting. This is because compliance goals are generally minimum standards, not a holistically applied safety system that addresses an organization’s specific concerns. Merely complying with legal requirements does not equate to an excellent (or even adequate) safety program and culture. Additionally, a pervasive mentality of control from management to make sure workers are “checking the box” usually depletes any desire for employee participation. When the desire is not there, safety will become an increasingly frustrating set of rules. When those rules are inevitably broken, companies will end up spending more money on formulating overly complicated practices that slow productivity and do even more to deter engagement. When legalities take center stage (as opposed to compliance being a natural byproduct of a “safe work” oriented environment), the result is typically not a successful safety program. Having goal-focused strategies, instead of stressing obedience and numbers, allows workers to proactively contribute to their well-being and the well-being of their peers.
Misstep #3 – Safety as a “fix.”
When an incident occurs, the first question should not be “Who’s to blame?” but “How did this happen?.” Many managers see workers as “the problem,” leading to the mentality that if they would just follow the rules, all would be well. The real issue in this scenario is distrust, which takes more than a conversation to resolve, but a starting point is recognizing that safety is not a “fix” for “bad employees.” Safe practices will be useful as long as they are:
Only one of those elements has solely to do with workers operating in a certain way. When managers are focused only on that final detail, they are not getting the full picture when safety efforts are not successful. This mindset usually goes hand-in-hand with stern disciplinary action and punishments following any incidents, concluding in more negative impacts on safety programs than positive. A system is never going to work well when people are viewed as a problem that could be solved if only they would “get in line.” When assessing organizations with this kind of toxic atmosphere, I tend to discover that the safety procedures are complex and, in many instances, not relevant. When there is no involvement from workers in developing safety procedures, there will be a wider gap between how work “should” be done and how it is done as misunderstandings or unworkable operations lead workers to create shortcuts for bypassing the impractical safety requirements. Additionally, harsh reprimands, “zero tolerance” policies, and the threat of termination when incidents inevitably happen will typically translate into a workplace atmosphere where mistakes are concealed, leaving hazards unaddressed.
Misstep #4 – Safety is separate.
Safety management should not be viewed as a separate part of business operations. Unfortunately, it is commonly treated by organizations as an “add-on,” to be handled solely by safety professionals and not under the purview of line management (a trend that leads to safety silos and other dysfunctional safety efforts). In an ideal safety management scenario, safety efforts are understood and “owned” by all employees, from the CEO to the janitor. Safety professionals are one part within the picture of a healthy organization. The role of a safety officer should be to provide guidance and safety expertise, not assume responsibility for an organization’s entire safety culture. After all, the individuals who possess the authority to drive workplace cultural change are the line managers. They have the power to influence how work is performed, for better or worse, and should treat safety as another essential part of their position.
The misconceptions in this article have been around for many years and have therefore taken a firm root in safety management practices, but they are not inevitable. With the changes that we have seen to the safety industry (and to business in general) over the past couple of years, it is more possible than ever to reverse these trends. Management must assume that safety belongs alongside every other aspect of business and should proactively put effort into building a work culture where safe work is understood and participated in by all parties. Successful safety management is just as attainable as any other type of management and following best practices when implementing any new process dictates that we view people as an important part of the equation. Therefore, workers are assets to enhance a safety system, not problems to be corrected or liabilities waiting to happen. Keeping all these points in mind will improve (or maintain) any safety management system.
Mr. Loud’s over 40 years of safety experience includes 15 years with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) where he served as the supervisor of Safety and Loss Control for a large commercial nuclear facility and later as manager of the corporate nuclear safety oversight body for all three of TVA’s nuclear sites. At Los Alamos National Laboratory he headed the independent assessment organization responsible for safety, health, environmental protection, and security oversight of all laboratory operations.
Mr. Loud is a regular presenter at national and international safety conferences. He is the author of numerous papers and articles. Mr. Loud is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP), and a retired Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM). He holds a BBA from the University of Memphis, an MS in Environmental Science from the University of Oklahoma, and an MPH in Occupational Health and Safety from the University of Tennessee.