What constitutes a world-class safety program? Is it attainable by employers of all sizes and across multiple industry sectors, or is it reserved for only a handful of top companies in industries with long-established safety incentives?
Over the years, leading employers have identified several practices for safe workplaces, which can be consolidated to 10 elements that comprise world-class safety. Although they require an organization-wide commitment, the good news is that they apply universally to organizations in any industry, geography, and size.
All levels of management support and endorse safety.
Across the organization, safe work practices not only are the norm for all managers and supervisors, but a core organizational value that takes precedence over other priorities. There’s really no room for ambiguity here.
So, while efficiency gains and the ability to meet challenging production schedules during peak times are important, they never should be allowed to trump safety. Indeed, in world-class organizations, leadership and management understand that safety does not need to compete with other organizational demands.
Employees are fully engaged.
Management must empower employees to make meaningful contributions to the safety process. When employees are fully engaged, their safe behaviors are reinforced, unsafe behaviors are coached and corrected, and they see the results of their personal involvement in safety.
Examples include: effective employee-driven safety committees; direct employee involvement in risk assessments; team-based approaches to incident investigation; employees consistently look out for each other’s safety; and employees open to receiving feedback about their own safety.
Engagement also means each employee has personal responsibility for safety and safe work initiatives. Engaged employees believe their efforts to improve safety will be effective and are worthwhile.
Leading indicators are used to manage safe work practices.
In safety, leading indicators are defined as measurable items that predict the outcomes of injuries, accidents and incidents. Often under the direct control of the individual, leading indicators essentially are process-oriented. For example, behavior-based safety (BBS) observations that measure the safety percentages of key activities are under the employees’ control. In effect, these measurements consequently are validated as precise and accurate leading indicators.
Leading indicators also can foster continuous improvement. For instance, they might encompass behaviors of employees, near-miss events identified, safety climate survey scores, etc., which can be improved incrementally on an ongoing basis. Continual improvements to leading indicators form a pathway to safety excellence.
A safety process is most effective when it examines individual events through the lenses of the systems of the workplace. By looking at the workplace in its entirety, it becomes much easier to understand how disparate activities have an impact on one another. In this context, the workplace is viewed as a total of all its constituent parts, and the relationships that exist between the various parts are understood and appreciated.
When uncovered, variances, such as risks and unsafe behaviors, are viewed as symptoms of an imperfect system, rather than the failings of an individual. So, when an issue arises, the result needs to be traced beyond the incident to specific breakdowns in the system. This holistic view of safety ensures that improvements to the process are sustained and that safety efforts complement other operational activities.
Preventable injuries are controlled.
This is fundamental for any organization working to achieve safety excellence, but one that comes with real-world challenges. Reporting all incidents is crucial, so such events can be prevented in the future. When some employers establish safety programs and provide rewards for accident-free operations and begin posting signage of consecutive days without accidents, they may actually create a disincentive to reporting. Even when bonuses and monetary incentives aren’t provided for such apparent safety achievements, there can be significant resistance for employees to report accidents.
Organizations that effectively control preventable injuries thoroughly investigate all accidents, injuries and incidents. Countermeasures are developed by cross-functional teams and corrective actions are tracked until validated as effective. The countermeasures are revisited periodically to ensure they effectively reduce risk and enhance safety.
Safety culture is routinely and rigorously evaluated.
Organizational culture is strong driver of safe behaviors by the employees. In order for a company to work towards high levels of safety performance, the safety culture must be empirically evaluated, benchmarked and include established plans to move the culture forward.
Further, when properly quantified, safety culture levels can serve as a powerful leading indicator. Numerous studies show that when organizations have strong safety cultures that are evaluated through valid surveys, they also exhibit strong safety performance.
Employee safe behaviors are positively reinforced.
An effective form of positive reinforcement is feedback. When employees work safely and regularly hear that their behavior is appreciated, both the culture and behavior are strengthened.
Additionally, specific achievements by safety teams and individuals can be reported in employee publications and recounted by senior managers in employee town halls and informal discussions with employees. Even a letter from a senior executive complimenting an employee or work team on a specific safety breakthrough at a facility goes a long way to building and strengthening an organization-wide emphasis on safety.
Use a risk-based approach.
Achieving system-wide organizational safety is an ongoing effort that should include routine risk assessments of all operations by a cross-functional team of employees. Any risks identified should be quantified, analyzed and addressed on a priority basis.
Using risk-based approaches ensures safety efforts will focus on activities that are upstream. Risk is quantifiable and a baseline can be set as a leading indicator. As strategies to reduce risk are implemented and results are measured, an effective process of continuous safety improvement is in place.
Create a blame-free environment.
Whenever an incident occurs, those involved in the investigation should engage in fact finding rather than fault finding. Managers at all levels should not use accountability as the default setting and the organization should focus on collaborating to develop solutions and avoid recurrence of the incident.
This approach also calls for coaching employees on how to avoid accidents in the future, including reminding them not only of their shared responsibilities for identifying and reporting potentially unsafe conditions or situations, but of management’s role in making sure corrective actions are taken promptly to address any issues reported to them.
Practice safety with integrity.
Getting back to the first point, organizations need to make the distinction that safety is not merely a priority, but rather a core value that needs to be embraced by each and every employee. Priorities can change, but values are constant.
At all levels of the organization, it’s critical to maintain the credibility of the safety message at all times. Thus, it’s imperative that words spoken by leadership and management are supported by actions to foster, facilitate, promote and improve safety.
Further, leadership and the firm’s safety, risk management and human resources professionals need to make sure that safety activities are adequately funded and supported. In this way, the organization will be certain that its safety programs are not only effective, but are sustainable as well.
Adopting these 10 measures takes time and initial results may be incremental. In that regard, keep in mind that safety is a journey and not a destination.