As an operations management consultant, I have come across countless companies that have implemented so many systems, rules and training regimens that they believe they are operating at peak safety performance and have a perceived state of contentment with the results they have achieved. But this false sense of security is deceiving.
In reality, they have reached a point where all the systems and rules they’ve implemented are hampering further improvements to safe operations. They need to move beyond the current plateau of safety performance they are experiencing and do even better.
I can understand why many companies may feel this way. In my more than 40 years working in the trucking industry and at DuPont Sustainable Solutions, I’ve seen a transformative evolution in the way companies promote safer and improved operations. As better-made Japanese vehicles began to enter the North American market in the 1980s, U.S. automakers saw the need to adopt management systems that would enable them to compete with the quality products of their Japanese competitors. As a result, by the 2000s, companies had implemented a number of different systems, including quality management systems, environmental management systems, safety management systems and operational excellence management systems, into their operations.
Many will tell you they achieved about 80 percent implementation of a particular management system, declared victory and moved on to implementing the next system or initiative. When they could no longer keep up with these partially implemented systems and performance suffered as a result, they then began integrating all of these various systems into one comprehensive operations management system that, if executed with rigor, was intended to improve performance on all fronts.
A comprehensive operations management system, in combination with improved regulations, has helped to reduce the frequency of workplace injuries, but this has led management and workplace safety committees to become complacent. Levels of supervision have been reduced, so leadership is spending less time on the shop floor identifying hazards with employees.
Employees operating equipment and machinery know where the hazards are, but they are not reporting and dealing with them in a systemic manner. Many safety hazards still are present, but there is a lack of effort to uncover them and improve safety performance even more. At this point, organizations become stuck in a safety performance rut with no visible or data-based signs of improvement.
Steps to Move Beyond the Plateau
There are ways that companies can move beyond this plateau and achieve improved safety performance. First, companies should take steps to increase risk awareness among workers, particularly younger workers. Millennials who are entering the workforce are among a generation that have less risk awareness than previous generations.
From a behavioral perspective, risk awareness can be situational and influenced by external factors. Younger workers, many of whom participated in organized activities such as competitive sports where risk is managed for them, or engaged in online games where there is no risk of physical harm, can enter a plant or walk onto the production floor with the incorrect assumption that the work environment will be just as safe.
Also, the demographics of the workforce are changing. As Baby Boomers retire, they are taking with them ingrained knowledge of unrecognized hazards that exist in operations. Complicating this is the existence of a large communications gap between Baby Boomers and Millennials, which can inhibit sharing of best practices that prevent exposure to injury from known but undocumented hazards. Once this institutional knowledge of hazards is gone, there is an increased likelihood of poor decision-making that can lead to serious injury.
To compensate for this, some organizations resort to developing a set of firm operational rules that employees are expected to follow, assuming these rules will apply to every hazard or risk that could emerge in the workplace. Not only does this provide management with a false sense of security, it quickly becomes in the minds of workers a mere checklist of things they must do just to keep their jobs. It does not improve safety performance. Risk awareness is an ever-evolving process that requires active participation by all employees to systemically identify all hazards and take measures day in and day out to avoid them.
In addition to increasing risk awareness to move beyond plateaued safety performance, companies can adopt a three-pronged approach that reinforces and rewards the organization for continuously reducing the level of risk throughout the operation.
1. There needs to be regular engagement with all levels of the organization to catalogue all hazards and then prioritize them to ensure those that are most serious get resolved. This process needs to be more comprehensive than what is identified through most workplace observation programs.
2. Recent research in cognitive psychology has determined that people make risky decisions using the emotional part of their brain. Companies need to develop safety messages that are affective and build an emotional link to risk. By engaging workers at an emotional, affective level, intuitive decision-making is influenced, which leads to greater risk awareness.
3. An organization’s approach to training and competency development needs to be tailored to Millennials. Increased use of videos, combined with more concise messages, is more effective in connecting with this generation. Microlearning, e-courses and videos that deliver bite-sized safety tips can help improve learning retention and close performance gaps. Microlearning offers employees “just in time, just in place and just enough” training to help elevate risk awareness and prevent incidents on the job.
It is easy for companies to develop a sense of complacency based on the many risk management systems and procedures they have in place, but leaders should be careful not to become content with a good safety record. Risk management is a constant pursuit requiring regular attention, and systems and checklists alone are not enough to move the safety needle. Understanding your workforce and how best to communicate risk awareness with them can help companies resume a downward trend in incidents and further improve safe operations.
About the author: Ward Metzler is a principal with DuPont Sustainable Solutions, where he provides North American clients with operations management counsel. DuPont Sustainable Solutions is a leading provider of world-class operations consulting services to help organizations transform and optimize their processes, technologies and capabilities.