Why Do Safety Programs Fail?

When safety professionals evaluate the success or failure of their programs, they often turn to safety metrics such as frequency and severity rates of injuries, illnesses and incidents. But consultant Francis Sehn believes safety practitioners in search of success need to look deeper.

"Oftentimes, we look at failure through the numbers," Sehn said. "When you think about it, are we just talking about numbers? Aren't we talking about people here?"

Sehn, a risk management consultant and assistant vice president with Glen Allen, Va.-based insurance brokerage firm Hilb Rogal & Hobbs, presented some alternate definitions of failure in his presentation titled "Why Safety Programs Fail and a Model for Success" at the American Society of Safety Engineers' (ASSE) annual conference in New Orleans.

Sehn then offered a step-by-step approach for circumventing such failures.

Building on Dietrich Dorner's definition of failure in Dorner's book The Logic of Failure, Sehn suggested that the true meaning of failure is when a worker does not perform a task in a safe manner.

Sehn also pointed to Henry Petroski's definition of failure in Petroski's book To Engineer is Human: "'Failure appears to be inevitable in the wake of prolonged success, which encourages lower margins of safety.'" Petroski adds, "'failure in turn leads to greater safety margins and hence, new periods of success.'"

That analysis easily can be applied to safety failures in general industry and construction, Sehn asserted.

"When do we focus on safety? When we have problems, when our incidents are high," Sehn said, adding that such focus is only short-term. "We focus on it until things get better or appear to get better then we forget about it."

According to Sehn, some of the most common causes of failure in EHS efforts include:

  • Labeling safety efforts as "programs." Safety programs, like television programs, have a start and finish, and Sehn contends that the concept of a safety program has a "built-in failure mode." A better alternative is to think of safety as a process. "Processes evolve into new processes," Sehn said. "They continue to evolve and change. Programs will fatigue and ultimately die."
  • Looking to best practices, policies and procedures as the ultimate antidote to failure. Compliance with federal standards is important, according to Sehn, but it's not necessarily the answer. Sehn points to Lisa Cullen's remarks in her social commentary A Job to Die for: "OSHA is de-motivated, underfunded, understaffed and, in many cases, poorly trained." If this is even close to true, compliance alone might not be enough of an incentive for employers to maintain safe work environments, Sehn asserted.
  • The paradigm that safety professionals are managers, not leaders. Many safety professionals are viewed as firefighters or technocrats. However, safety practitioners need to be viewed as leaders and innovators; they need to shift from training, inspections and statistic-keeping to competency-based training, system audits/assessments and root-cause analysis, according to Sehn.

Drawing from two management books written by Harvard professor John Kotter, Sehn presented an eight-step model for transformation in organizations that Sehn believes easily can be adapted to EHS.

  1. Establish a sense of urgency. The EHS leader should analyze the current situation to determine what works and where there are apparent gaps and then present this assessment to top management.
  2. Create a guiding coalition. A team of key personnel needs to lead the safety change effort. All team members should have an area of responsibility and accountability. As a mechanism for providing guidance for the creation of the coalition, Sehn recommended management oversight committees instead of safety committees.
  3. Develop a goal with a corresponding strategy or plan that will provide direction for the change to take place. Sehn recommended leading indicator goals such as a target of 100-percent compliance with PPE over lagging indicator goals (such as a goal of reducing injuries by 15 percent). Remember that the overriding goal is protecting people, property and the environment.
  4. Communicate the goals. Use every vehicle possible including e-mail and the Internet to constantly communicate EHS goals and where the organization stands in relationship to the goals. Top management must be visible and involved in communications (e.g., leading each communication with a safety message, comment or statement). The coalition must model the expected behavior for all employees.
  5. Empower broad-based action. If there are obstacles to change whether physical or systems they must be removed. Employees must be encouraged to offer ideas that might be considered non-traditional or risk-taking in nature. Resources should be directed at safety engineering solutions vs. traditional approaches.
  6. Generate short-term wins. Create wins based on data improvement, audits and monitoring; communicate these results; recognize those responsible; and celebrate.
  7. Consolidate gains and produce more gains. Hire and promote change agents who provide the credibility to change the systems, structures and policies that do not fit together in the process and look for opportunities for continuous improvement.
  8. Integrate new approaches into the new safety culture. Create better performance through employee safe behaviors, and explain to employees the connection between behaviors and success. Develop a means to ensure leadership and succession.

Sehn concluded by telling the audience when people, property and the environment are concerned, failure is not an option.

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