Complacency kills. The history of tragic accidents in workplaces is fraught with examples of companies that thought they were safe because their Total Recordable Incident Rate (TRIR) was low and/or because they were devoting considerable time and money to various safety tactics. But pride comes before the fall. Disastrous events such as the Texas City Refinery explosion (15 killed), the Deepwater Horizon (11 killed), and LaPorte Texas (four killed) often come as a complete surprise to the companies involved. But low incident rates, lengthy procedures, “cardinal” safety rules, and an abundance of vendor-supplied safety tactics don’t mean you are truly safe – or immune to trouble. Avoiding such surprises requires meaningful action. Taking a deep and objective look at your safety system to identify problems, gaps, and “weak signals” that indicate the need for corrective action is an essential, ongoing campaign.
If any of the following symptoms look familiar to you, your safety system is likely due for a thorough checkup:
- Repeat findings and incidents are common or occur with increasing frequency.
- Employees lack a meaningful role in activities such as procedure development, inspections, incident investigations, corrective action management, or safety problem identification and resolution.
- Safety inspections, work observations, accident investigations, safety meetings, etc. are typically performed by safety staff (if they are performed at all).
- The safety supervisor/staff (rather than line management) is the designated leader of and is held solely responsible for the organizational safety effort.
- Most corrective actions are generated by the safety staff or via outside audits rather than by managers and workers.
- Other than periodic speeches and/or memos, upper management does not take an active part in the safety effort.
- Management is slow to act on corrective actions and those actions typically address localized conditions or worker behavior issues, rather than root causes and safety system deficiencies.
- Safety promotions such as contests, incentives, awareness programs, and behavior safety campaigns are initiated with gusto and much fanfare, then fail when the heavily anticipated long-term results are not sustainable (i.e., a “flavor-of-the-month” approach).
- Safety committees exist but add scant value, and committee meetings are often little more than gripe sessions.
While some of these symptoms are self-evident, others (e.g., percentage of safety inputs from the workforce, age of outstanding corrective actions, etc.) require feedback loops and leading indicator data. If your current safety management system cannot identify and measure these factors, opportunities will be lost to address potential trouble before serious incidents occur.
How to Fix a Failing Safety System
The simple answer: assess. If you can identify one or more of the above symptoms within your organization, you likely have trouble that deserves immediate attention in the form of a detailed analysis of what’s going wrong (and right) in your safety system. This solution requires a comprehensive assessment by trained and unbiased assessors. To ensure objective results, many companies (especially those engaged in high-consequence work) enlist outside assessment resources and/or in-house “independent” teams. These reviews can last from several weeks to over a month, depending on the size and complexity of the organization in question.
Collect and Use Better Data
Much of the data traditionally collected in the safety practice consists of lagging indicators and easily observable behaviors and conditions (such as PPE use and trip hazards.) While there is nothing technically wrong with this focus, such data does little to address the tasks, hazards, and systemic issues that are more likely to trigger serious incidents and fatalities, or SIFs. (Common SIFs include confined space entry, high voltage exposures, work at heights, etc.). To enforce utilization of better data, consider these four steps:
- Collect leading indicator data and classify this information by potential severity. In addition, classify injuries not only by the outcome, but outcome potential (e.g., SIF potential, or not). Doing so will allow all contributing factors (even first aid and near misses) to be grouped appropriately.
- Hold critiques of work performed successfully and capture feedback on what went right, as well as problems encountered and opportunities for improvement.
- Capture data from the performance of high consequence work (SIF potential). Don’t just assume this work is conducted as directed, review actions taken in real-time. Ask questions and listen to the responses. Look for gaps between expectations and reality. Focus on SIF potential to prevent SIFs.
- Encourage and anticipate routine input, so that both problems and opportunities for improvement can be identified within the workforce. If you aren’t getting most of your data from those closest to the work, you aren’t benefitting from your most valuable resource.
Every safety system should include routine feedback mechanisms combined with data collection and analysis to detect potential trouble areas before they create major accidents. Often the need for a closer look is exposed with the identification of multiple and/or recurrent problems. This analysis may require “independent” in-house assessment expertise and/or assistance from outside of the organization. Either way, due diligence requires that when safety trouble is diagnosed, analysis and correction are the responsible next steps.
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.