The Barriers To Safety Excellence

An analysis of what is standing in the way of companies achieving safety excellence, and six criteria for attaining it.

The National Safety Council has kept score in occupational safety and health for us since 1926. In the May 2000 issue of Safety & Health, it shows us our results from 1992 to 1998: Fatalities reduced from 6,217 to 6,026 and nonfatal injuries from 6,799,000 to 5,923,000.

For these years, we have reduced fatalities by 0.4 percent per year and nonfatal injuries by 1.8 percent per year. Submitting these results to statistical analysis, we can probably state the improvements have not been significant.

In the years before 1992, the National Safety Council has given us other statistics. From 1971 to 1992 (the first 20 OSHA years), they show no significant improvement in the OSHA incident rate, no significant improvements in the lost-time injury rate and significant deterioration in days lost.

There were years when we were making progress. From 1926 to 1961, the accident frequency rate under the old ANSI standard Z16.1 improved from 32 to 5.9 (lost-time injuries per million manhours worked). From 1961 to 1969, however, we deteriorated from 5.9 to about 15.

In other words, this is our history in occupational safety:

1911-1926 -- ?

1926-1961 -- great improvement

1961-1975 -- substantive deterioration

1975-1992 -- no change (a little worse)

1992-1998 -- no change.

As a safety professional, this suggests to me that we have a problem: We are not succeeding in our goal of preventing incidents on the job.

Consider also that from 1961 to 1998, there has been a substantial reduction in hazards that workers face. We have automated and use robotics. We have changed from primarily heavy industries, such as steel and automobile manufacturing, to primarily service industries that, theoretically, afford much less exposure. We have shipped most manual labor types of industries to other countries. We should have almost solved our accident problem from these factors alone.

Granted, we perhaps have better reporting today (an unproven assumption). Granted, we call more things injuries today due to OSHA's definitions. Granted, we have more (are inundated by) subjective injuries that are now counted. Yet, is it not the goal of a safety process to be able to control these changes?

What is preventing us from attaining better results in safety? Is it we do not know what to do to get results? This makes little sense because we have ample research, massive benchmarking studies and can observe companies that achieve step-change improvements.

If we know how to get results and still cannot get them, it must be because something stands in our way and prevents us from achieving what we know is possible. This article suggests some of the barriers to safety excellence that affect our companies.

Barriers to Safety Excellence

I'll mention a few; you can add more from your experience. First, since 1961, our last good year, we have seen changes in the world that have influenced us. Some of these changes could have helped us -- made us better -- but we could not see them, and they ended up hurting instead. Some of the changes did not have a chance of helping to make it better, as they were doomed from the start.

Let's start with one of the bigger barriers -- government.

1. New Regulations. Consider what has happened since our early years when we experienced some success. In 1968, Congress started talking about its need to help all organizations because congressmen thought we obviously were not able to handle our safety obligations. The first attempts at national occupational safety law failed. Undaunted, the "do-gooders" in Congress finally prevailed in 1970, with a law to take effect in August 1971.

Thomas Sowell, the brilliant economist from Stanford University and popular columnist, calls these do-gooders the "anointed," the people who know what is good for the rest of us. In an article in Professional Safety in December 1996, I described Sowell's description of the process used by the anointed:

Stage 1: the crisis. Some situation exists, and the anointed propose to eliminate it. The situation is characterized as a "crisis," even though no evidence shows the situation to be uniquely grave or about to intensify. Sometimes, the situation, in fact, has been improving.

Stage 2: the solution. The anointed advocate policies (legislation) to end the "crisis," saying that their implementation will produce positive result A. Critics argue that the policies will produce detrimental result Z. The anointed dismiss these claims as absurd (if not dishonest).

Stage 3: the results. Policies are instituted and produce detrimental result Z. Consider, for example, the war on poverty. In 1960, the number of people living below poverty level was half of that in 1950. Since the "war" began, however, the number is eight times higher. Consider recent trends in violence and safety as well.

Stage 4: the response. Those who attribute detrimental result Z to the policies instituted are dismissed as "simplistic." The anointed assert that such people are ignoring the complexities involved. "After all," they say, "many factors affected the outcome." Critics are forced to prove that these policies were the sole cause of the negative result. Yet, no burden of proof rests on those who championed the legislation. Their answer is to try harder, with more legislation and more standards.

So it happened. Congress passed the law and President Nixon signed it. In the hurry to get into business, ANSI standards and others were adopted as law, and industry-written "shoot for" standards became minimum standards overnight. The result: To the great companies, there was no problem because they were already there. To the good companies, they scrapped some good programs to "get back to the basics." To the mediocre companies, they panicked and hired younger guys out of school, or still in school, to "bring them into compliance," scrapping their safety programs and safety training. To the worst companies, they ignored it, knowing that it would take a long time to get to them (and it did).

OSHA started on physical conditions, fulfilling its charter to ensure that each company provide "a safe place to work." Then, due to different administrations and OSHA chiefs, the emphasis constantly changed -- from guarding, to housekeeping, to recordkeeping, to industrial hygiene, to hazardous materials and communication of them, to recordkeeping, to process management, to special programs (STAR, VPP, etc.) targeted to specific industries, to ergonomics, to recordkeeping, to lockout, to fall protection, to having a "standard safety program," etc.

What have the thrusts accomplished? What we now have in most organizations is what I call the "islands of safety." We have a "program" for each of the above dictates of OSHA and more. These programs are typically stand-alone programs not integrated into the management system. Safety professionals spend their time with line input in writing these programs, leaving little time (due to reduced staffs) for "real" safety professional activities as defined by ASSE in the 1960s.

Over time, this multitude of "programs" is perceived by the entire organization as being the safety program of the company. It's all in place because the "programs" are written and on the shelf. Executives, managers and supervisors are off the hook because "safety" is now taken care of.

The "islands of safety" are not real safety. A real safety process ensures daily performance at all line levels of an organization. Government-mandated programs are peripheral to the real safety action that takes place daily in the line organization from CEO to hourly worker.

The real safety professional's role is not to write manuals. The role consists of assessing the management system, suggesting to the line organization what needs to be done and constantly monitoring the system to ensure it is working.

And we wonder why safety has not improved after 30 years of OSHA's help.

This, of course, will only get worse. An ergonomics standard would require a great deal of time, effort and money. Who, in safety or the line, will have time to assess every job in every company in the country when they can't even get out of their office today due to the current workload. I doubt if organizations who are still downsizing will want to add a staff of ergonomists to do the work, so it will be added to somebody's full plate.

This standard is another beautiful example of the Sowell model in action. Is there really a problem with repetitive motion causing cumulative trauma disorders? The research is not definitive, but they assume it is so they can propose and install a solution,which will not work. Ten years from now, all will say it didn't work. They will say that we must try harder with stronger legislation. If only we could spend the same amount of time and energy on preventing serious accidents: fatalities, amputations, explosions and catastrophes.

Worse than the ergonomic standard is the standard for a safety program, based upon the concept that there is such a thing as a safety program that is good for all organizations. This has been proven to be false in a number of research studies (some funded by the same government that ignores the results). All of the research says there is no one right way, but there are criteria for safety excellence.

2. Management Trends (and Safety's Reaction).

Beginning in the 1950s, management in most organizations began to change. Many things triggered the changes, including computerization, Theory X-Y concepts and management by objective (MBO) theories. They started management down a path of changing their relationship with the work force -- involving them, asking them to be a part of the solution, etc. We have moved from the old classical management of Frederick W. Taylor (management decides -- workers work), through human relations management (make them happy and they'll work harder), to situational management (the one-minute manager), to cultural assessment and improvement (the culture dictates your results).

As a result of these concepts, many changes took place in organizations. Some went into total quality management (TQM), some to TQM with SPC, some bought Deming concepts, some 6 Sigma, etc.

All of these were excellent management concepts and were much needed. All worked, and superbly. Because management had not perceived safety to be an integral part of the management system, however, they installed these superb approaches into how they manage most things (mostly productivity and quality) and ignored safety because it was different -- it was a "program," not a part of management.

Just as management rejected safety as being a part of new approaches, safety was relieved it didn't have to change. We could keep our mythology, our JSAs (in lieu of flowcharts) and our accident investigation reports (in lieu of fishbones). We did not have to think about the relationship between our audits and results, which could be determined with scatter diagrams, and could keep our charts on accidents, never subjecting them to control charts.

Thus, as management was moving further in one direction, safety was stuck and moving further from being integrated into the management system.

3. Management's Decisions (and the Effect on Safety).

Not really connected to management trends just mentioned is a whole series of things that have occurred because of management decisions. We are talking about upper management's decisions on thing such as mergers, downsizing, outsourcing, use of temps, cross training and a raft of things that they decide that affect the daily lives of each employee in the organization.

This is different from management style, although it affects it deeply. Nothing has been as detrimental to safety as these decisions. Executives seem to be impervious to the effects their decisions have on employee safety and on morale.

Management decisions to downsize and change the organizational structure (fewer managers, go to teams, increase span of control, etc.) made sense at the start as many companies were in a survival mode. For some, this survival mode has lasted 20 years during what we have said is the best economy in years.

Does downsizing, outsourcing, hiring temps, cross training, removing clerks and cleanup people, etc., and forcing overtime to the point of physical and psychological fatigue affect the safety record?

Does removing a person's sense of security, removing the sense of "family," and destroying the confidence and trust between management and the worker affect the safety record?

I don't have the research on this, but it sounds like a no-brainer.

The problem of overtime has become a serious problem. At one company I worked with, an employee who was working 16 hours a day, seven days a week, fell asleep while driving home, hit a bridge abutment and was killed, resulting in a multimillion-dollar liability settlement against the company. At a high-tech company, I recall the incident of an employee who purposely stuck her arm into a chemical, resulting in sensitized dermatitis. It was the only way to get time off and transferred to a department with less forced overtime.

Every year, 30,000 Japanese workers die from "karoshi" -- they work themselves to death, according to Entrepreneur magazine. No such epidemic exists in the United States yet, but the medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine recently reported that 24 percent of workers surveyed suffered fatigue for periods longer than two weeks. Job stress was high on the list of causes for this fatigue. In fact, the United Nations' International Labour Organization indicates that 75 percent of American workers consider their jobs stressful.

Much of this stress results from global competition and hard economic conditions that have caused reductions in force nearly everywhere in American business, even in associations. Whether it's called downsizing, rightsizing, pancaking or organizational flattening, fewer people do what previously had been accomplished by larger staffs. Employees have to comply with greatly increased demands in terms of quantity and quality. The trend today is to hire an inadequate staff and work it to the max.

Stress isn't limited to any one level of employee. Line operations people now have more responsibilities and must produce more. Managers who used to supervise only eight or nine workers are managing two or three times that many. The resulting stress is causing burnout, the symptoms of which include apathy, lack of energy, irritability, errors, complaining, tardiness, absenteeism, illness, decreased motivation, more substance abuse and more claims. Today, on average, 40 percent of our claims are for subjective injuries -- a direct reflection of lower morale, not higher hazard.

4. The Introduction of Criminal Liability.

Does it help or hurt an organization when its executives or managers might end up in jail due to injuries in their company? I do not know the answer, but this is a trend that is here and will not go away. Starting years ago in Illinois and spreading to California and back across the country, there have been numerous indictments and convictions at federal, state and local levels. Los Angeles County formed an Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Unit to indict and convict managers, starting in the construction industry.

I visited a potato chip manufacturing plant the day following a serious injury. Within two hours, state police were investigating to determine who to indict. Several years ago, I saw the written goals of OSHA to turn more cases over to the Justice Department for prosecution. I've heard the Los Angeles District Attorney Department's head of the OSH Unit discussing her plans to travel the country to help other cities set up a unit.

What are the negative results? First is the obvious. Can you build a safety system based only on fear? Isn't it likely that such a system will most likely be a "command and control" system? In today's enlightened management, wanting involvement and participation, a command and control safety program will pull safety further away from the mainstream of management. How can we get real involvement and ownership when managers have to turn authority over to workers but retain accountability (in this case, the potential of criminal liability)? Many managers would rather not.

While this may get management's attention and arouse their interest in safety, will it really help enough to overcome negative results?

5. Behavior-Based Safety.

How can behavior-based safety (BBS) be a barrier to achieving excellence in safety?

This sounds ridiculous; yet, in many companies, it is happening. BBS is being implemented in some form in 31 percent of companies where Occupational Hazards' readers are employed. It is popular; it is discussed in every safety conference today. Most BBS programs are primarily programs of peer observation and intervention. Hourly workers are trained and become trainers. Trainers train hourly workers to be observers. Usually, there is little management involvement. In some cases, management cannot even see what the observers are finding. In short, it often is an employee-only program.

This, then, provides the perfect opportunity, because safety is taken care of, for management to abdicate their responsibility, as they already have more to do every day than they can possibly get to.

BBS has the great potential to be a huge barrier to safety excellence. I believe you cannot achieve safety excellence without management. In some cases, BBS has widened the gap between management and the work force.

In many, perhaps most, BBS programs, there is no statistically valid system of behavior sampling to determine if at-risk behaviors are being reduced. Instead, the number of cards (or interventions) are used as a measure, without knowing whether behaviors have changed.

6. The Education of Management.

Many executives reach their position through a career path, whether it be finance, sales, engineering or operations, where they have had little to do with safety. Typically, they have had an education that has not touched the subject of safety.

In 1976, we had a graduate safety management degree program at the University of Arizona that was fully funded by NIOSH. A new dean came in to head up the Department of Business and Public Administration. Thinking that "safety is just common sense," he canceled the program even though it was fully funded. There are no safety degree programs in business administration schools today. It is not taught in most MBA programs. Engineering schools typically have few or no courses in safety.

You can get a degree in safety, but line managers and executives probably know little or nothing about safety management. Thus, to them, it must not be important. This has always been a real barrier to safety, and we haven't dented the problem.

Thus, it is incumbent on the safety professional to teach and educate the CEO, COO, CFO, executive VP and most VPs on fundamentals and on their role. They also need to be provided with some mechanism to be able to know whether their system is under control.

Today in most organizations, executives are beginning to realize that safety must be a high priority, perhaps even a value. Many are stating safety as the top priority for the year and state they will do whatever is necessary to improve. Yet, it is the one aspect of their operation that they know almost nothing about. There is a tendency to manage and pay attention to what you know, then ignore the rest.

7. Our Measures.

Traditional measures do not drive performance in management nor behavior of workers. Using accident statistics at lower levels of the organization does not ensure supervisory performance. They almost always ensure nonperformance as even the newest supervisor recognizes they merely must stay lucky to shine. Using accident statistics to measure the effectiveness of our efforts at a unit, location or a higher level only tell us why we have improved or gotten worse.

Accident statistics allow us to do nothing to prevent injuries. Emphasis on numbers discourages reporting of injuries and sends a message to employees that numbers are more important than people. Utilization of accident statistics as the only measure at top levels of an organization encourages knee-jerk reactions that are often unwarranted.

8. What We Reward.

The classic article by Steven Kerr, "On the Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B," in Safe Behavior Reinforcement (Aloray, 1989) explains that much of what we do becomes our self-constructed barrier. Kerr cites several instances, including this university example:

Society hopes that teachers will not neglect their teaching responsibilities but rewards them almost entirely for research and publications. This is most true at large and prestigious universities. Cliches such as "good research and good teaching go together" not withstanding, professors often find that they must choose between teaching and research-oriented activities when allocating their time. Rewards for good teaching usually are limited to outstanding teacher awards, which are given to only a small percentage of good teachers and which usually bestow little money and fleeting prestige. Punishments for poor teaching are also rare.

Rewards for research and publications, on the other hand, and punishments for failure to accomplish these are commonly administered by universities at which teachers are employed. Furthermore, publication-oriented resumes usually will be well-received at other universities, whereas teaching credentials, harder to document and quantify, are much less transferable. Consequently, it is rational for university teachers to concentrate on research, even if to the detriment of teaching and at the expense of their students.

Kerr also cites this business example:

In business organizations, where rewards are dispensed for unit performance or for individual goals achieved, without regard for overall effectiveness, similar attitudes often are observed. Under most MBO systems, goals in areas where quantification is difficult often go unspecified. The organization, therefore, often is in a position where it hopes for employee effort in areas of team building, interpersonal relations or creativity, but it formally rewards none of these. In cases where promotions and raises are formally tied to MBO, the system contains a paradox in that it "asks employees to set challenging, risky goals, only to face smaller paychecks and possibly damaged careers if these goals are not accomplished."

In safety, we typically have high rewards for productivity (getting to keep our job and other good things) and low rewards for safety (a steak dinner or plaque). Couple this with crisp measures for production and invalid measures (accident rates) for safety, it becomes logical for any manager to let safety proaction drop through the cracks. Still, we "hope" for safety performance.

The Good News

The above barriers are the bad news, but they help explain why we are where we are and why we are not progressing. As suggested before, the good news is that if we simply do the right things, we can overcome these barriers and can be world class in safety. We do not have to be hamstrung by government dictates, frustrated by management changes every month, stressed out by the full plate we face each day, worried about going to jail, wondering what all of those peer observations are accomplishing and irritated that the CEO didn't understand things that you learned in Safety Management 101.

The good news is that we do not have to use accident statistics internally in our organizations to measure results or to drive performance. There are better measures available.

The good news is that we can see organizations that continue year after year to attain world-class results in spite of the same barriers everybody else faces. The good news is that we have some research to guide us: safety management research, management research, behavioral research.

The good news is that excellence in safety is doable, regardless of barriers. If you were to take all the research and boil it down, you would find that criteria for safety excellence are simply these six:

1. Does your safety system force supervisory performance (or team performance)?

2. Are your middle managers involved in their threefold role of:

  • Ensuring supervisory performance?
  • Ensuring the quality of that supervisory performance?
  • Doing something that shows commitment?

3. Do your top executives visibly demonstrate that safety is a value?

4. Is a system in place that asks for, and gets, employee involvement?

5. Is your safety system flexible in that units, managers and supervisors have some choice as to their defined activities?

6. Is your system perceived as positive by all?

These six criteria are not rocket science stuff. How we have gotten so complicated in safety is a tribute to bureaucracy, incompetence, arrogance, lawyers or all of the above.

These six criteria are relatively easy to achieve. Let's start with the first three, which are simply management performance -- the real guts of safety. Management performance is determined by the accountability system you have in place. The accountability system also is not rocket science. It simply spells out:

  • What the expectations are in terms of performance (activities to be performed) at each level in the organization;
  • Making sure each person has the competencies to fulfill the expectations;
  • Measuring to ensure that expectations, in fact, were fulfilled; and
  • Ensuring that there is a reward connected to the performance.
  • These four are simple, and they need to be done from the hourly worker to the CEO.

Once management's accountability system is in place, the rest is easy. Individual tasks and activities can change over time as perceived necessary. Some of the activities have to do with involvement over time, ergonomics, design, observations, etc.

Since Criterion No. 4 deals with involvement, at some point management accountabilities ought to deal with issues such as how many people are involved and what approaches are used to involve people.

The entire system deals with Criterion No. 5, flexibility, as each supervisor, manager, unit or location can input their special ideas and approaches. Meeting Criterion No. 6, perception of positiveness, is a result of the other five criteria.

We live in a complex world of safety. We must deal with everything from housekeeping to psychological stress and violence. Yet, our solutions do not have to be that complicated. Safety excellence not only can be achieved today, it can lead to excellence in all other aspects of the organization.

Dan Petersen, Ph.D., PE, CSP, is a consultant in safety management and organizational behavior. He is a past president of the National Safety Management Society and author of 17 books on safety management.

The Barriers To Safety Excellence

The National Safety Council has kept score in occupational safety and health for us since 1926. In the May 2000 issue of Safety & Health, it shows us our results from 1992 to 1998: Fatalities reduced from 6,217 to 6,026 and nonfatal injuries from 6,799,000 to 5,923,000.

For these years, we have reduced fatalities by 0.4 percent per year and nonfatal injuries by 1.8 percent per year. Submitting these results to statistical analysis, we can probably state the improvements have not been significant.

In the years before 1992, the National Safety Council has given us other statistics. From 1971 to 1992 (the first 20 OSHA years), they show no significant improvement in the OSHA incident rate, no significant improvements in the lost-time injury rate and significant deterioration in days lost.

There were years when we were making progress. From 1926 to 1961, the accident frequency rate under the old ANSI standard Z16.1 improved from 32 to 5.9 (lost-time injuries per million manhours worked). From 1961 to 1969, however, we deteriorated from 5.9 to about 15.

In other words, this is our history in occupational safety:

1911-1926 -- ?

1926-1961 -- great improvement

1961-1975 -- substantive deterioration

1975-1992 -- no change (a little worse)

1992-1998 -- no change.

As a safety professional, this suggests to me that we have a problem: We are not succeeding in our goal of preventing incidents on the job.

Consider also that from 1961 to 1998, there has been a substantial reduction in hazards that workers face. We have automated and use robotics. We have changed from primarily heavy industries, such as steel and automobile manufacturing, to primarily service industries that, theoretically, afford much less exposure. We have shipped most manual labor types of industries to other countries. We should have almost solved our accident problem from these factors alone.

Granted, we perhaps have better reporting today (an unproven assumption). Granted, we call more things injuries today due to OSHA's definitions. Granted, we have more (are inundated by) subjective injuries that are now counted. Yet, is it not the goal of a safety process to be able to control these changes?

What is preventing us from attaining better results in safety? Is it we do not know what to do to get results? This makes little sense because we have ample research, massive benchmarking studies and can observe companies that achieve step-change improvements.

If we know how to get results and still cannot get them, it must be because something stands in our way and prevents us from achieving what we know is possible. This article suggests some of the barriers to safety excellence that affect our companies.

Barriers to Safety Excellence

I'll mention a few; you can add more from your experience. First, since 1961, our last good year, we have seen changes in the world that have influenced us. Some of these changes could have helped us -- made us better -- but we could not see them, and they ended up hurting instead. Some of the changes did not have a chance of helping to make it better, as they were doomed from the start.

Let's start with one of the bigger barriers -- government.

1. New Regulations. Consider what has happened since our early years when we experienced some success. In 1968, Congress started talking about its need to help all organizations because congressmen thought we obviously were not able to handle our safety obligations. The first attempts at national occupational safety law failed. Undaunted, the "do-gooders" in Congress finally prevailed in 1970, with a law to take effect in August 1971.

Thomas Sowell, the brilliant economist from Stanford University and popular columnist, calls these do-gooders the "anointed," the people who know what is good for the rest of us. In an article in Professional Safety in December 1996, I described Sowell's description of the process used by the anointed:

Stage 1: the crisis. Some situation exists, and the anointed propose to elim

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