Are you frustrated with safety? You put in all this effort, you try initiative after initiative, training and more training and, still, someone gets hurt—or worse.

Safety is moving into the era of behavioral safety and it has been stumbling along for the last few years due to—believe it or not—human behavior. People are hooked on the old ways of doing things instead of understanding that this new era is designed to complement everything that has gone before it. It is not about questioning the policies, systems, and procedures as these are required; behavioral safety, when done correctly, is about who you are being when using all these systems.

In this article, I will endeavor to show you some of the mistakes well-intentioned people make when designing their safety programs and what steps you can take to avoid them in your company.

Common Safety Program Mistakes

Over the last 100 years, we have gone through a few very distinct eras with regards to safety: from having little or no awareness a century ago, to the management of safety, and on to the age of systems and processes. This accounts for some of the difficulty in properly implementing a safety program. As we enter the new era of behavioral safety, very few know what this entails or requires.

The first step for companies is to hire a specialist in this area, even if only on a part-time basis. Most Health and Safety professionals are still using what they learned in the systems and processes era. And they do an excellent job; however, when it comes to moving forward, they implement what they know and have experience with. So, they try to move forward by introducing yet more systems and processes. Doesn’t make sense, right? How can you break free from the old system by just adding more of the same to it? As the saying goes, “If you want to get a different result, then you have to do something different.” The problem is that people get this on an intellectual level but not on an emotional one, and people are moved by emotion (we’ll return to that point later).

It’s important to start at the beginning—or, rather, the end. You need to know what it is you want to achieve, and most people don’t. Again, this isn’t to criticize anyone—there are lots of people with very good intentions, doing the best with the information they have. For example, you’ll see a lot of safety slogans like “Safety First,” “Zero Harm,” and “Target Zero.” These all look good, but what they show is that the people promoting them are focusing on what they don’t want, not what they do want. On top of that, very few people truly buy into these lofty goals. A big part of leadership is being authentic, and if the person who talks about “Zero Harm” doesn’t think it’s possible, then no one else is going to buy into it.

Shifting to a Positive Safety Program

So, let’s treat safety the same way we treat progress, quality, and profit: let’s be very clear about what we want, right from the start. In my program, Creating a Positive Culture,™ that is what we look at. The results of this shift have been nothing short of amazing, and not just in the reduction in accidents—we get reports of increased morale, reduced sick days, less re-work, and higher profits.

You see, when you make this shift you start looking at all the other aspects differently, like training. Let’s return to the subject of emotions. Training methods in the past used to focus on screening videos that showed everything the employers didn’t want, like falls from heights and unsafe use of equipment. All good stuff and very well meaning, and, yes, it did shift people’s emotions, but only in the short term (and even then, the people who were moved still didn’t think those bad things would ever happen to them!)

We need to shift emotions in the direction we want to move. Let’s concentrate on what is possible, what we can achieve by working together, by looking out for each other, by celebrating the small wins, acknowledging the people working beside us, and making people feel better about themselves. Instead of sending people home the same as they came in, why can’t we send them home better? What if people went home at the end of the day knowing they made a difference, knowing they had been listened to, knowing their efforts had been appreciated—how would that feel? And yes, it’s all possible, and it’s possible anywhere in the world and in any culture.

Implementing a Positive Program

To do this, we all need to re-adjust our standards, and the first step is to stop comparing yourself with others, to stop working to national or international standards—you can’t lead by following others. People have a tendency to get locked into this comparison mode for the very simple reason that it allows them to justify their own position. It’s easy to just say, “We are meeting the national average,” or “We are doing better than the others.” Stop that, and start comparing yourself to your own results from yesterday. Instead of saying, “we’re doing alright” start asking how you can build on that, what can you do better today, how can you make a positive difference now. You'll discover that when you start asking better questions, you get better answers!

How do you sustain the changes? Well, this is where an external coach comes in, someone who can see the game being played but isn’t directly involved. Someone who knows what is needed. Most companies keep throwing more training at the problem and then wonder why things don’t change. Well, to start with, most training doesn’t deliver what is expected. How can you put someone in a classroom for four hours and expect change? That’s like putting someone in a gym for four hours and expecting them to come out fit—I mean, really! And most training today is done purely for compliance and not competence. Developing to competence takes time, and that’s the advantage of working with a coach: they know that training is just an introduction to everything that is possible, and that with consistent follow up, over time, massive change will occur. Consistent follow up doesn’t mean more training; it means boots on and meeting people in their working environments, understanding their daily challenges, and offering new ways to act or think about them.

If that sounds simple, it’s because it is. Life is very simple but we don’t believe it can be so we complicate it!

Leading the Way

And lastly, be the change you want to see. Lead the way. Too many people think others need to change—no! Look in the mirror and start there. Then people will respond to you differently. Go first, pay it forward, be the leader and people will follow. In fact, you’ll discover that people are waiting to follow competent leaders.