What is the one change we should make tomorrow to improve our safety culture?

Q:

What is the one change we should make tomorrow to improve our safety culture?

A:

Whether or not your corporation believes in implementing a safety culture, it's important for all levels of an organization to be engaged in safety and work together to create a healthier and safer environment for the entire workforce (learn about Why Creating a Safety Culture is Better than Relying on Compliance). We all want to make injury, sickness, and death in the workplace a thing of the past.

Despite all these good intentions, we still have issues when it comes to safety.

There are a number of reasons for this. For starters, we chased the wrong thing for a long time. We focused on lagging indicators, keeping our eyes on the elusive goal of Zero Injuries (learn more in The Journey to Zero). It's like wanting a sports car, expecting that you will get it, but never putting much thought into how you will get the money to pay for it.

So, is it as simple as switching our focus from lagging indicators to leading indicators? Unfortunately, the answer is "no." Our love affair with lagging indicators has deeper roots in the idea of complete control. If we could just control everything in the workplace, the thinking goes, there would be no incidents and no injuries. Underlying this idea is the belief that perfection is achievable and, once achieved, can be sustained indefinitely. In other words, we think that the zero injury target and the culture that comes with it are projects (which are finite) when in reality they are programs (which are never-ending continuous endeavors).

So what is the one element we have to change to build a culture conducive to safety?

We have to change the way we look at failure. We have to accept that failure is normal and happens more often than we realize, and that everything needed for an accident to happen is always present in our operations, environment, and materials. We have to accept that we all make mistakes, that we are human and fallible. We have to accept that simply disciplining employees is not providing our organization any learning opportunities but only deflecting responsibility and seeding the ground for another failure.

The key to building a safety culture is not punishing (firing) your employees for failures, but ensuring they know you care more about how this accident happened than who did it. They need to know and feel that what you are looking for is improvement, not a scapegoat. When they know this they will be honest and cooperative and participate in your investigations, even when the results show that the employee was at fault (read about 5 Reasons You Struggle with Safety Buy-In and What to Do About It).

An effective safety culture is not about chasing that elusive zero; it's about continuous improvement, and the only way to get better is to work together. If you merely punish your employees for failures you will create an "us against them" mentality, you will never have the opportunity to learn how incidents happen and there will be no trust between employees and management.

To change our safety culture, we have to accept failure and learn from it. We have to encourage our employees to identify and disclose failure so we have an opportunity to fix our system (and not our people) before something goes wrong.

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Written by Karoly Ban Matei
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Karoly has worked at a senior level (both as an employee and a contractor) for organizations in the construction and manufacturing industries. He has a passion for developing and improving health and safety programs.

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