Mind-Shifting Into Safety Excellence

Jan. 1, 2009
Want to develop the mindset of a safety excellence organization? Shift your thinking.

In his book, First Break All the Rules, Gallop Organization Lead Consultant Marcus Buckingham summarizes the group's research on peak performance with this key finding: “Excellence isn't the opposite of mediocrity.

This finding suggests that average (mediocre) performance can't be elevated to excellence by doing more of the same faster, harder, longer or higher; new strategies are needed. This advice, however, has been largely ignored in safety. Businesses remain complacent in doing the S.O.S.S. — “Same Old Safety S----“ (Stuff), and are paying a high price for the lackluster results produced by traditional approaches.

Safety excellence organizations aren't just “luckier” than most other organizations; they differ from their peers in two very distinct ways. First, they achieve significantly different (better) results, and second, they do significantly different (best practice) things. Most importantly, they recognize that the two are linked! Excellence companies have insights on excellence that are very different from most.

Based on numerous occasions I've worked with safety excellence organizations (and hundreds more that are not safety excellence organizations), I've been able to look inside the mindset of excellence. The following six organizational mind shifts are common to the best — and separate them from the rest.


This is a shift from measuring safety by incident rates to valuing safety in hard dollars.

Let me share an opinion with you: “The biggest impediment to safety excellence is the use of incident rates as the driving measure of performance.” — Dan Zahlis

Now, let me tell you why this is true. I'll start with a career question for all safety professionals: “What do your CEO and CFO value most — reduction in rates or reduction in costs?” I'll bet most of you picked costs, and I agree. Why then do so many companies emphasize incident rates as the driving metric of safety performance?

Dan's answer (without hesitation): “Because incident rates are easy to manipulate, and they make management look good.” I agree.

Here's another question: Would you like to know how to significantly improve your safety performance without investing any additional time, money or resources? My answer: Start lying; no joke. Safety & Health magazine recently asked its readership: “Do you believe occupational injuries in the United States are underreported?” A resounding 86.3 percent of respondents answered “yes.”

Need more convincing? ORC, a prominent EHS consulting firm, convened a task team of over 50 of their clients to assess the effectiveness of safety measurement in today's practice. They conclude that incident rates are not an accurate safety and health measure, and that the more pressure we put on them, the less accurate they become.

At a seminar I presented a while ago, the issue of safety measurement prompted quite a lively discussion. A safety engineer from the petroleum refining industry commented that her facility had just achieved an incident rate of .50, the lowest rate ever achieved in the history of that facility. Another attendee blurted out: “Heck, we'd kill for a rate like that.” Little did any one of us know at that time that just weeks later, that refinery in Texas City, Texas, would be the site of one of this nation's greatest catastrophic events resulting in multiple fatalities and over 100 serious injuries. But, but, but … the incident rate!

Dan Zahlis, founder of the Active Agenda project, formerly was regional risk manager for the Häagen-Dazs Co. When he took that position, his most immediate challenge was to reduce high workers' comp costs generated by the California facility. He discovered that corporate-imposed incident rate measurements had frustrated supervisors because they were held accountable for something over which they had little control, had created employee cynicism because workers knew that numbers were suspect and had driven real problems and near-miss events underground until they ultimately surfaced as costly injuries. Dan's solution was to buck the corporate IR measurement and implement what he calls the ultimate safety metric — an average loss cost calculated by the following formula:

Average Loss Cost = Total cost of all incidents/Total number of all incidents

By “incidents,” Dan meant them all: near misses, first aid, medical only, restricted duty and disabling. His goal was to build trust and remove cynicism by removing the negative consequences associated with reporting, which in turn would expose real problems and foster real safety progress.

The genius of this metric is that the only two ways it can be improved is by increasing the number of incidents reported (exposing hidden problems), or by reducing total costs (forcing better management of employee claims). Dan actually imposed a “pay for reports” incentive program to increase the number of incidents reported. While at the plant for a contractor issue, an OSHA inspector asked to see the company's OSHA log. Once Dan shared the strategy with him, the inspector smiled and passed Dan his card with home telephone number, and said, “Call me. Let's have coffee some time.”

By the end of the first year, the plant reported 33 percent more claims, but produced a 30 percent reduction in claim costs. And, of course, Dan was fired for bucking corporate policy … dumb bastard! The story has a happy ending: Dan went on to a Dole Foods Division where he applied the same approach and reduced loss costs from $385,000 to $30,000 in the first year.


A shift in belief from people are the problem to the recognition that process is the solution.

In his article, “Serious Injuries & Fatalities: A Call for a New Focus on Their Prevention” (Professional Safety, December 2008), Fred Manuele describes the difficulty safety professionals have in identifying causes and predictors of severe injury events. He concludes that incident reports seldom reveal the core causal factors of the incidents, and observed, after analyzing over 1,200 incident investigation reports: “The quality of the incident investigation reports reviewed was, on average, abysmal. A large percentage of the investigations stopped when human error — the so-called unsafe act — was identified and corrective action focused on modifying worker behavior. The investigations seldom proceeded upward into the decision-making that may have influenced what the worker did.”

Safety excellence organizations reject the myth-conception that accidents are caused by what people do, or P.D.D.T. (People Doing Dumb Things). They believe that accident causes are embedded in why people do what they do. They seek to discover and remedy the real reasons for poor performance, including leadership values, organizational processes, organizational structure and management practices


This is a shift from safety as reactive (after-the-fact activities) to safety as preemptive — a strategically planned business improvement process.

David Black wrote What to Do When the Shit Hits the Fan, an excellent book on loss recovery. Unfortunately, this concept has been embraced by many organizations as a mantra for safety activities. In underperforming organizations, safety emphasis is placed on reactive activities, such as:

  • Physical safeguards (poorly designed so they'll be removed) as an alternative to eliminating hazards.
  • PPE to limit the amount of “it” that sticks to employees.
  • Shinola — All those games, contests, blind drawings and corny slogans (Safety First!) that create cynicism and defer claims reporting until all prizes have been awarded.

Leaders in peak performing organizations, meanwhile, understand the risk management strategy continuum:

Level I — Retroactive strategies that focus on loss/cost — Mitigating the size of loss and finding creative ways to finance loss costs out into the future via contractual agreements or insurance mechanisms.

Level II — Reactive strategies that focus on controlling risk — Meeting minimum standards, retrofitting safeguards, encouraging employees to work safely (around exposures), providing PPE, inspecting out hazards, observing out unsafe behaviors and employing gimmicks to motivate employees with bad safety attitudes.

Level III — Preemptive strategies that focus on operational excellence — Forging a strong culture by building strong values, planning safe processes, building collaborative relationships and employing managerial practices that instill trust and reinforce safe behaviors on the shop floor.


This is a shift from forced compliance with rules by some to shared ownership of values by all.

It's almost uncanny and predictable: I'm sitting in a safety committee meeting to observe effectiveness, and the secretary reads accident descriptions so causes and corrective actions can be discussed. At some point in this process, one attendee says, “We ought to have a rule concerning that,” to which all other members agree, and the rulebook (that few read) grows in girth.

All organizations have two safety processes: the safety program, which is the written rules that define what is desired, and the organizational culture, which is the unwritten rules that determine what actually gets done.

Note that I did not say safety culture, as that's the current great hoax being sold to the profession. What used to be behavioral safety now is safety culture. What used to be incentives now is safety culture. What used to be safety motivation now is safety culture. Beware of those selling quick fixes and safety culture elixirs! There is no such thing as a separate safety culture; there only is only organizational culture.

Culture is complex, deceptive and all-powerful, and it influences all organizational outcomes including safe vs. unsafe. To affect change in safe outcomes, an organization must assess and address its basic beliefs and values concerning safety and the impact these have on shareholders and stakeholders.

Tom Peters spent a decade searching for the secrets of performance excellence, culminating in his book, In Search of Excellence. When asked to sum up all these findings into one critical lesson learned, he simply answered: “Figure out your values system.”

Managers in safety excellence organizations work with employees to develop shared values to guide their actions when there are no rules. Excellence organizations lead by values, more than they manage by rules.


This is a shift in understanding that if repetitive unsafe behavior is a problem, more training most likely is not the answer.

In seminars, I often ask: “What one area consumes most time, energy and budgeted funds?” By far, the most common answer is employee safety training. Training in safe practice is important, the first or second time around. But if unsafe behaviors continue after good training has been provided, then you can bet good money that more training, re-training and finally remedial training are not the answer.

In the science of performance management (PM), training is an antecedent, an activity done in advance of behavior for the purpose of directing that behavior. The PM literature is clear that antecedents alone are relatively weak shapers of behavior, influencing it only about 20 to 30 percent. Yet, when repetitive at risk behaviors persist, the common cry is more training!

A number of years back, results of a study done by the U.S. Postal Service were published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The Postal Service undertook an extensive safe lifting/handling training program to address back and soft tissue injuries. The program was comprehensive and involved physicians, nurses, safety professionals, physical therapists and ergonomic specialists. After implementation, results showed that it did not reduce the number of injuries, the lost time associated with those injuries or the average cost of the injuries. What it did produce were better-educated injured workers.

Was the training flawed? No. There were other factors — cultural, organizational and managerial in nature — countering those good efforts.

In organizations with repetitive unsafe practices, a lack of consequences from line managers often is the problem. A consequence is any action taken after a behavior and has the purpose of shaping the future of that behavior. Consequences can and should be both positive and negative.

Consequences are strong shapers of future behavior, with an estimated impact at 70 to 80 percent. At-risk behavior thrives in organizations that have good safety programs but weak consequence delivery by supervisors. Safety excellence organizations understand that effective consequence delivery controls work performance and emphasize reinforcement over whack-a-mole disciplinary practices.


This is a shift in safety from a problem orientation to a solution orientation.

It's Saturday afternoon and you're on the golf course with your best buddy. The score is tied as you approach the 17th hole, a 170-yard par three, of which the first 140 yards are over water.

Your buddy has honors, and tees up his ball. As he takes his warm-up swings, what do you say? “Don't hit it in the water!” ('cuz you're a buddy). And sure enough, what happens? Kerplunk. Splash. What we think about, we bring about. Our mental state plays a major role in determining our performance.

In their book, Enlightened Leadership, Ed Oakley and Doug Krug identify a concept called the net forward energy ratio. They define this as the relationship between the positive mental energy pushing us towards our goals and the negative mental energy pulling us away from them. This force is calculated by the following equation:

Net forward energy ratio = Productive mental energy (can do) divided by non-productive mental energy (can't do).

An organization with a negative net forward energy ratio focuses on obstacles and is:

  • Focused on what's wrong
  • Resistant to change
  • Argumentative
  • Defensive
  • Blame oriented
  • Divisive (them vs. us)
  • Energy sapping
  • Quick to make excuses
  • Stressful

An organization with a positive net forward energy ratio focuses on the goal, and is characterized by:

  • Can-do speak
  • Emphasizing what works
  • Openness
  • High trust
  • Enthusiasm
  • Free-flowing communication
  • Being fact oriented
  • Creativity
  • Focusing on what feels good

Let's assume an organization is highly negative (say 80 percent negative) in its orientation about some safety issue. Entering this into the net forward energy ratio equation (80n/20p) produces a 4-to-1 negative ratio, which is a strong force pulling the organization away from a goal of safety excellence.

Now, let's assume that with some concerted effort we can change some key organizational factors for the better, such as better communication, employee involvement, positive reinforcement and quicker response to suggestions. These changes improve organizational mindset by 30 percent. Look what we've achieved. This additional 30p percent creates a net forward energy ratio of (50/50) or a 1 to 1 ratio. Now, we've got a fighting chance at success. And, if we can just shift it another 10 percent positive (60p/40n) we've now created a 1.5 to 1 positive ratio. Odds are now in our favor!

Safety excellence organizations focus on “can do.” Managers believe that all accidents are preventable and that being 100 percent safe is an attainable vision.

Larry L. Hansen, CSP, ARM, is principal of L2H Speaking of Safety Inc. and author of The Architecture of Safety Excellence, ROC Your Organization: 52 Ways to Instigate Radical Organizational Change for Safety and A Universal Model for Safety ‘X’-cellence. He can be reached at (315) 383-3801, [email protected] or http://www.L2HSOS.com.

Insight on Excellence

Insight on Excellence — “The problem is so many managers are tied to accident numbers because OSHA requires them to be. It's a lousy measure. You're measuring stuff over which you have damn little control. Much of what OSHA requires flies in the face of what really improves a safety system.” — Dan Petersen

Question of Excellence No. 1 — What metric are you using to measure the success of your safety efforts, and why?

Insight on Excellence — “An organization can never improve its process if it believes people are the problem.” — Fred Manuele

Question of Excellence No. 2 — What do managers in your organization believe to be the primary cause of accidents?

Hint: To get an honest answer, summarize the causes cited on your accident investigation reports for the last 6 months. If you're average, you'll most likely find some derivation of unsafe act, carelessness or, as one human resource director (battling high workers' compensation losses) put it: “Employees doing dumb, stupid, human idiot tricks.” Hey, that would make an interesting acronym!

Insight on Excellence — “Understand that what we believe precedes policy, procedure and practice.” (I'd also add performance) — Max DePree, past CEO of Herman Miller Co. and author, Leadership is an Art

Question of Excellence No. 3 — Where on the risk management strategy continuum does your organization currently focus the majority of its time, energy and resources?

Insight on Excellence — Without solid core values to guide our actions in times of stress and question, we end up victims to the preponderance of rules, regulations and standards imposed by the rules trolls.” — Mark Sanborn, author of Teambuilt

Question of Excellence No. 4 — Does your organization invest more time generating rules and disciplinary standards, or working with employees to forge shared self-policing values?

Insight on Excellence — “Training is only the beginning, the first 30 percent of learning. The other 70 percent comes from the environment, actions, interactions and consequence systems of the organization.” — BLS Report

Question of Excellence No. 5 — What are the predominant consequences being used to manage safe behavior in your organization?

Hint: Compare the number of write-ups vs. atta-boys on file, and if that ratio is predominantly punitive, changes may be in order.

Insight on Excellence — “I'll see it when I believe it” — Joel Barker, futurist

Question of Excellence No. 6 — What is the energy ratio concerning safety in your organization?

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