Management: Back to Basics

April 9, 2003
Companies in search of the next new thing may find their time better spent on reinforcing the basics of safety and health success. Here's why.

There is a societal tendency these days to be on the lookout for the "next new thing." No matter what we have or how well it's working, we seek out the latest and greatest the gadget or process that is bigger, better, quicker, better-looking or longer-lasting.

Often, perhaps too often, safety people are on the hunt for "what's next," sometimes even abandoning the steps they've taken that have been yielding successful results. This "flavor of the month" approach leaves nearly everybody with a bad taste.

Following my presentation at a recent safety conference, a number of people approached me to ask, "What do you think is next on the horizon for improving performance?"

I spent some time thinking about this question, because it bears a thoughtful response. I've discussed the issue with trainers and consultants from within our organization, as well as editors, consultants, clients and others involved in culture change and SH&E improvement. My conclusion is that there is no new "new thing." And that's not necessarily bad.

It may not be the new "new thing" but I believe the most important "thing" these days is relearning and re-emphasizing the basics. For me, that means ensuring that the values and beliefs that will result in safe behaviors are embodied in the culture of an organization and embraced at all levels. When this occurs, the result is inevitably that all employees are trained, equipped and protected at the highest levels possible. They possess the attitudes and beliefs that will impact their decision-making related to safety, health and the environment every day, at work and at home. This applies not only to those at work in line positions, but equally to corporate and site management, line/labor leaders and the rank and file.

Brave, New World

Why an insistence on returning to the basics, over the idea of advancing toward something bigger, better or more promising? It's simple. In the subdued business climate since 9/11, it makes intuitive sense (and business and safety sense as well) to hold tight to what we know to be essential and successful rather than hunting for innovations that may or may not succeed.

A stumbling economy, a fast-changing world politic, upsizing, downsizing and re-organizing have combined with personal fear, stress and various preoccupations to create a bubbling cauldron of factors that are making life unstable, and even scary for many. Companies are cutting back, with those left forced to work harder and longer to pick up the slack.

At the same time, corporate and shareholder pressure for greater production and profits contributes to an environment ripe for possible accidents and injuries. In many instances, budgetary constraints have led to compromises that result in decreased awareness, training and even the availability of PPE. Such conditions can create high degrees of distraction and can encourage employees to take short cuts as co-workers and supervisors turn their heads, all in the name of production.

With many businesses in a significant downturn, some companies are failing to invest needed resources to ensure workplace hazards are identified and eliminated, and proper safeguards are implemented, understood and used consistently. In some companies, safety manager positions have been cut back or even eliminated, leaving HR managers and safety committees to meet the need.

Now, more than ever, it is essential that all levels of employees, not just line workers, receive training in hazard identification and proper procedures, and that they be encouraged to develop the attitudes, beliefs and thinking that lead to safe behaviors both on and off the job. Similarly, company leaders (line/labor and management) need training in order to effectively communicate, coach and provide constructive correction to insure that proper attitudes and behaviors are in place and are not at risk of being undermined by other priorities and pressures.

In an environment of corporate and market insecurity, the value of leaders demonstrating their concern is especially significant.

Integration: It's Basic

To our way of thinking, there is nothing more basic than a holistic, integrated approach to insuring incident prevention. Such an approach improves attitudes and behaviors, increases trust, opens communication and fosters personal responsibility and participation at all levels. This is especially important today, as businesses undergo reductions in force at all levels.

Employees must be responsible for their own safety, health and well-being, and that of their co-workers. At the same time, corporate and site management must do all they can to insure a safe workplace regardless of the state of their business. Personal responsibility must exist at all levels. The idea is not to blame, but to encourage employees to accept that each person is fundamentally responsible for his or her own safety, and must work to improve the safety of the work environment. That means following established procedures and informing those responsible if they observe hazardous equipment or conditions.

Yet, even with this, not all employees have the knowledge and experience to recognize all the dangers that exist, or how to make necessary improvements. So the leadership's responsibility is to bring in experts that are trained and skilled to recognize what is unsafe and have the expertise to correct it. The costs associated with taking these corrective actions may be far less than the costs associated with inaction. (Even if the upfront costs are greater, how can we put a dollar amount on an incident, especially if it results in a disability, fatality or health/environmental hazard?) Adequate resources must be provided for the necessary improvements and safeguards.

Holistic, Integrated Approach

Establishing the basics will depend on what stage of EHS evolution an organization has achieved. The culture can be identified and evaluated in order to determine the existing values, attitudes and beliefs that support unsafe or safe behaviors. All employees should be trained and involved in the improvement process. All can and will reap the benefits. A safety, health and environmental culture can be created where individuals care about themselves and each other. The values that make this a priority must be established or reinforced.

The reason for selecting a holistic, integrated approach incorporating a variety of behavioral theories and methods is that we are holistic as human beings. We do not operate solely on an observable physical level, but on physical, mental, emotional and spiritual levels that are intimately integrated and affect how we think and act. No one behavioral methodology will address all these levels and work for every person in every situation. The approach we've found most successful is a systematic blend of techniques derived from the schools of cognitive, affective, reality-based and behavior-based learning.

In order to prevent accidents and injuries caused by a lapse in awareness and a loss of focus related to boredom, inattention, distractions and stress, we need to address both the emotional and intellectual aspects of paying attention. Many employees are injured even when wearing required PPE, because they have become dangerously distracted and lost focus on what they were doing.

Here are the core ingredients of the change process that is basic to our method.

  • Survey the current work culture (Regardless of what you've done in the past, this is a new time!) to determine prevailing attitudes, beliefs and behaviors related to safety, health and the environment. Confidential questionnaires, interviews and focus group meetings can be used.
  • Train employees on what causes people to become distracted, to take risks or to act unsafely. Address the underlying "human mechanisms" that cause people to place themselves at risk. Assist employees in developing self-observation and self-management skills to address their own attitudes, thinking and behaviors, and the interpersonal skills to work as a team and assist others in the same. As noted, leaders must know how to lead for EHS plus serve as role models and agents for change.
  • Engage employees. Teamwork, acceptance, participation, positive buy-in and ongoing problem-solving are the desired results.
  • Provide ongoing training for all employees to reinforce key concepts.
  • Make the transition from safety cops to safety coaches. If the improvement process veers off course, then bring it back in line in a constructive, supportive manner.
  • Encourage hourly employees, supervisors and managers to work together to develop meaningful processes for feedback, support and empowerment, as well as activity measures.

Assess Your 'Basics Baseline'

As you assess your own safety and health program, you may discover that our definition of "basics" contains steps and processes you may or may not have implemented or even considered. We know there are numerous successful approaches. This is the one we've found to work over years and over all types of internal and external changes. Because you may have done something similar does not mean you need something new, but you may need to reinforce what you've done!

Whatever your definition of "the basics," consider holding up your program against that definition. Emphasize and re-affirm the components and approaches that have brought you the greatest success. The next "new, new thing" can, and probably should, wait.

About the author: Contributing Editor Michael Topf, MA, is president of the Topf Organization, a company providing leading-edge awareness and behavioral improvement processes for safety, health and environmental incident prevention. The Topf Organization can be reached at (888) 41-SAFOR or on the Web at

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