Organizations often suffer a disconnect between safety professionals and other leaders. Operational leaders are paid to assess situations and make decisions aggressively. They work in cycles of what is wrong and what it will take to fix it, and they are good at what they do. However, this drive can prove counterproductive to safety performance improvement when it’s not grounded in a solid understanding of safety fundamentals.
It surprises safety professionals to learn how often core safety concepts are misunderstood or unknown to leaders at various levels throughout an organization, and indeed that knowledge gap generally expands as you go up. It is important for all parties to realize that safety is not necessarily intuitive.
The good news is that core safety concepts can be learned and taught. There are three, in particular, that all senior leaders should be familiar with:
- Variation is normal. It’s important for senior leaders to understand that any variation they observe in safety incident numbers is not inherently meaningful. In fact, it should be expected. A constant level of safety in a given workplace will always produce a variable number of safety incidents, because random variation is high in workplace safety. Some days the noise level and poorly written procedures can be compensated for. Other days they can’t. This may sound reasonable when you hear it, but in practice it proves easy to forget. In fact, the higher up we go in an organization, the more of an issue this becomes. Senior leaders want to look at outcomes, not processes and predictors. In safety, outcomes are numbers of incidents. This is fine if we understand the nature of the distribution of incidents and the inevitability of variation. But if leaders don’t understand this basic concept, they will inevitably make bad safety decisions.
- Focus on causes more than incidents. One of the biggest mistakes that leaders can make is to over-react to incidents without looking more deeply at the underlying causes. Chasing hazards can be an exercise in frustration without visible benefits. An incident tells us we need to fix something, then another something else, then something else again, and yet we continue to have incidents without seeing a significant downward trend. A tool that can provide leverage is longitudinal root cause analysis. It reveals systemic exposure. What I mean by systemic exposure is the exposure that is there all the time—the exposure responsible for the common-cause variation in your injury data. We want to understand it by longitudinal root cause analysis because looking at a group of root cause analyses together lets you identify the themes that run across the series. Those themes might take the form of failing to anticipate issues that will arise during work, or not responding to issues until after an incident occurs, or just low quality incident investigations. It is common for leaders to react before they have enough information. Their intentions are good, but bad analysis only makes things worse. You need to appreciate the complexity with which hazards may interact and know when to take the long view. Testing for statistical significance will start you in the right direction. Injury causation analysis directs those best of intentions to strategies where they can really do some good.
- Find the precursors to Serious Injuries and Fatalities (SIFs). In our research at Krause Bell Group, we have discovered that one of the most common assumptions in the world of safety turns out to be false: focusing on reducing smaller injuries will also lead to a reduction in SIFs. We have found that SIFs are categorically different from minor injuries and therefore require a completely different approach. What this means for injury causation is that senior leaders need information about the root causes and precursors to serious injuries and fatalities separately from that of other kinds of incidents. Longitudinal root-cause analyses should look for patterns in the entire group of incidents, and for patterns that are unique to SIFs. By developing a set of these leading indicators, leaders will be armed with a valuable tool for reducing their SIFs.
Safety leaders need to start having conversations about these core concepts and assure that they are understood at all levels of the organization. They are not understood widely at present, even in organizations that have good performance. A critical role of the safety professional is to facilitate this education.
This article is an excerpt from our new book, 7 Insights Into Safety Leadership