EHS leaders who incorporate elements of sustainability into their long-term strategy are better positioned to have more successful safety programs. Those of us in the greater safety community typically agree with this, but not all of us know what needs to be incorporated into an EHS program to position for success. My goal with this article is to calibrate your thinking such that you will be able to understand and evaluate your program to determine both successes and areas for improvement.
Simply put, sustainability, as it relates to safety, is making positive changes and preventing the team and processes from reverting back to the old ways. In my experience, there are seven primary areas of focus that I believe will help you on your journey.
1. The acronym VSP stands for Vision, Strategy, Plan. In my view, this is the first and most important step to ensure that you are focusing in the right direction. This can be as simple as one or two sentences that clarify the direction of change or the end goal. This is something that’s not solely put together by the safety department, but rather an overall discussion with key stakeholders of the organization. The individual strategies that are identified will help you achieve your vision and the plans created will spell out how you intend to execute each of your strategies.
2. The second point of focus is effective performance evaluation. The old saying “What gets tracked gets done” applies here so as a leader, you really need to be measuring performance and preferably, it’s something other than “zero goals” and injury and experience modification rates. Examples include compliance with your VSP, participation in an inspection program, compliance with an observation strategy, or verified successful resolution of open issues. There are many things to measure; the question is, what’s important to your organization? Find out what those things are and start measuring to gauge the areas of required effort.
3. Moving to the third item, I like to reference the support of continuous improvement. When we think of the tasks we do or the initiatives we have, are we planning them out, evaluating performance while doing them, studying the findings of the evaluation and making appropriate course corrections? If we’re not, we’re missing a key opportunity to ensure things are being done correctly and good practices are being kept in the forefront.
4. The fourth area of focus is training, and I say this with extreme caution. There are so many organizations out there that don’t preemptively train on what they need to, but punish and use training as a solution for everything that goes wrong. Training is effective when there is a demonstrated skill deficiency and we shouldn’t confuse carelessness, disregard for established safe working procedures or horseplay with questionable competency. Somewhere in this process is the concept of coaching to improve. This is normally coupled with your inspection program which provides an opportunity to catch unsafe behaviors or practices before they result in a situation going bad. Apply training where your causal findings process has identified a skill deficiency.
5. Rounding out the fifth position is the ever-important topic of communication. Whether you’re referencing an inspection program, conducting job safety analyses or maintaining performance metrics, it’s critical that you communicate the findings. As a few points of clarification, if you ask people to participate in an inspection program and you never provide an overview of the findings, they will stop participating or the quality will decrease. If you create key performance indicators and don’t present them in an easy-to-understand format, they will be ineffective. If you conduct a job safety analysis and don’t maintain an open dialogue about the tasks, hazards and steps to mitigate, information will be missed and the program effectiveness will be greatly reduced. How you communicate something is as important as what you communicate. Picking up the phone and demanding an answer as to why open issues are still unresolved will likely result in closure; however, is the issue really resolved?
6. Risk is an important term in understanding how to gauge priorities. This establishes the sixth area of focus and without it, unsafe conditions and behaviors become another face in the crowd so to speak. Here’s something to consider: If you and I do an inspection and look at 100 items, my score is 90% safe and your score is 98% safe, who has the “better score”? I often ask this question in educational field sessions and it’s met with varying responses. Some gauge it by number and say “98%” and others stay quiet. There are also others who understand where I’m going and realize that there’s really not enough information to correctly answer the question. You need to know what was looked at and determine the actual severity.
In the 98% that you scored, you could have had one exposure to a trench collapse hazard and an employee working unprotected on a 4160v line. In my case, at 90%, I might have captured 10 observations on housekeeping and PPE issues which are important, but not nearly as important as the consequences associated with yours. When gauging risk, think about how frequently the task is done, what the likelihood that an incident might occur is and if it were to occur, how bad would the situation be?
7. The seventh and final point of focus circumnavigates around leaders. Are they engaged to the level that they should be? Are they leading by example? Are they asking about more things than just revenue-based production when they visit the work area? Are they coaching and being accessible when needed? Are they actually approachable? Leaders from the lowest level to the highest level need to lead and they carry a huge responsibility for the successful execution of the safety program.
In summary, I have provided seven areas of focus which, if followed will position your safety program, promote sustainability and engage varying levels of leadership throughout your organization. Of course, not everything can be done at once and I would suggest that these concepts be modularized such that you can plan them out like an initiative. Each one will likely take on a life of its own and require a concerted effort to have a lasting impact. With good planning, tracking of your initiatives and a committed team, this can make your organization’s improvements more sustainable and you a more successful professional.
Scott Falkowitz, OHST, CHST is a manager, client services, process improvement leader at Predictive Solutions, an Industrial Scientific Company, with nearly 20 years of experience building, maintaining and evaluating sustainable safety programs.