It was 1993 and Paul O’Neill was attending his first board meeting as a Director at one of the largest companies in the world. Just as the meeting was coming to a close, O’Neill asked, “Where is the safety report?” As the story goes, no safety report was planned but the question had profound effects. It set the company on the path to creating safety excellence and embedding safety as a cultural value. Board member influence can do that — uniquely — and it saves lives while creating business value.
Here are three powerful questions board members should ask about Serious Injury and Fatality (SIF) prevention in order to have similar effects:
- How do we know we are making progress preventing serious injuries and fatalities?
A good answer is this: we have analyzed our serious and fatal injury rate over the past 5 years, and we can see statistically significant improvement. We don’t report this trend because we don’t want to reduce a person’s death or life-changing injury to a statistic, but we do the analysis because it can tell us if we are getting better.
- If we are improving, what are we doing that causes the improvement?
A good answer is this: we don’t know for sure because it is difficult to establish this kind of causal relationship. However, we have hypotheses and are testing them. We think the primary mechanism is employee engagement combined with leadership decision making. Our experience has been that when this mechanism is healthy, our organizational culture improves and exposure to serious and fatal events shrinks. This unleashes discretionary effort among our people and that leads to better business results.
If we are not improving, how are we approaching the challenge?
A good answer is this: We recognize that the fact that we are not improving tells us there are things we don’t fully understand. Even though small injuries are trending in the right direction, our potential for serious injuries and fatalities has not improved. Ironically, reduction in small injuries has created a false sense of competency, which is itself a barrier. Our leaders are not arrogant, but they suffer from over-confidence bias, a natural outcome of perceived success. BP leaders were surprised after Deepwater Horizon, as were NASA’s leaders after Columbia, and Boeing after the 737 MAX fiasco. They thought they were better at managing catastrophic risk than they actually were. We are making a serious effort to learn where we can do better. We have identified several mechanisms that are associated with serious injury and fatality prevention and are assessing each business unit in relation to them. Strategies have already emerged and are being tested. Some business units are demonstrating progress.
- How do we know senior leaders are serious about serious injury and fatality prevention?
A good answer is this: No one would say fatality prevention doesn’t matter, but we know there is variation in capability. Some of our senior leaders are exemplary and have results to show it. Others are living in a different age and are actively doing things that downgrade the culture and damage the prevention effort. We have decided that all senior leaders will assess their capability to lead safety and develop individual improvement plans. Our CEO has taken this on herself and required that her direct reports do the same. This is not a long and arduous process, but it is an essential first step.
The response you receive tells you about management’s capability to lead improvement in serious injury and fatality prevention. The ‘good answers’ above reflect the kind of evidence you want to see:
- A good handle on leading and lagging metrics.
Expect your management team to be using statistical analyses of trends and correlations to tell them whether or not their improvement strategy is working. Their metrics should be valid leading and lagging indicators of serious injury and fatality improvement. Their metrics should draw from safety databases, employee data like turnover and absenteeism, and operational data like productivity and quality.
- Knowledge of evidence-based mechanisms that drive improvement.
Listen for mechanisms that engage employees in risk identification and problem-solving. Listen for effective use of data to prioritize improvement efforts. Listen for utilization of subject matter experts.
- Safety leadership in the moment.
You will recognize safety leadership in both the content and style of senior leader communications. Listen for a working knowledge of safety, and a ‘systems view’ of injury causation. Look for respectful interactions, especially when challenging or when someone is injured. Listen for a compelling vision with an active role in strategic safety improvement initiatives. Look for safety leadership to play a prominent role in people selection decisions.
The enormous effect of O’Neill’s simple question, “Where is the safety report?”, suggests that which question you ask may be less important than the signal you send by asking it. In a split-second, O’Neill signaled his eagerness to invest the organization’s time and effort toward safety and his belief that shareholder value is maximized when an organization fosters a culture that protects people from harm. What signal will you send about serious injury and fatality prevention?