September 13, 2022

How Safety Improvement Works Part 2

Continuous Improvement Through Meaningful Safety Conversations and Strategic Risk Reduction

In the first article of this series, we explained the importance of safety leadership to initiate and drive safety improvement. This approach not only prevents fatalities but also creates the kind of culture that lifts business performance. In our experience, starting at the top is the best and fastest way to build and develop the desired culture.

On this journey, there are two continuous improvement mechanisms that leaders should establish and get involved in themselves: Meaningful Safety Conversations surface information about risk, while Strategic Risk Reduction invokes collaborative problem solving to address difficult problems.

Serious Injuries and Fatalities (SIF)

Before we get into discussing safety improvement mechanisms that leaders need, let´s reflect on the desired outcomes. Many leaders want to reduce or eliminate recordable injuries. Although this is both admirable and achievable, it is also problematic.

The problem is Serious Injuries and Fatalities (SIFs) do not necessarily decline in proportion to improvements in LTIs and recordables. In a 2010 study led by Dr. Thomas Krause with several international companies, it surfaced that only 21% of recordable injuries had the potential to be life-altering or fatal. Moreover, the circumstances leading to SIFs were different from those leading to less severe injuries. The implication is that an improvement strategy aimed at reducing injuries at the bottom of Heinrich’s famous triangle may not correspond to reduction in SIFs. Unfortunately, most safety management systems were designed and implemented under the assumption that a focus on minor injury prevention would be sufficient to prevent SIFs.

Consequently, we advise clients to engage their organizations on prevention of SIFs, and to understand the precursors that lead to SIFs and systematically mitigate risk. This does not mean ignoring situations without SIF potential; It means prioritizing the situations that have SIF potential.

Meaningful Safety Conversations

For many, meaningful safety conversations are linked to Behavior-Based Safety (BBS). These programs are usually implemented by training supervisors and managers to observe and address worker behavior. This approach has the risk of focusing only on worker´s behavior and not the whole organization. It may also lead to blaming colleagues for not following the rules and while the initial effect of implementing a BBS program will create traction, it may deteriorate over time and become a ‘tick-the-box’ exercise.

When we say leaders need to foster meaningful safety conversations in their organizations, we are not talking about BBS. In fact, we are not talking about any particular program at all. The success of any program(s) you have hinges on the extent to which they facilitate a constant and healthy flow of information for leaders about risk in their organization. This information can come from the workers – as they surface issues during work; leaders – as they encounter operational problems and need to change the way work gets done; various types of risk analyses; and industry experts.

The common thread to all of this is a whole open flow of communication up, down, across, and even extending outside the organization. Leaders are looking for it and working to understand it all.

The importance of this to SIF prevention cannot be overstated. A recent Krause Bell Group Study surfaced that of 2,700 organizational decisions that impacted serious and fatal injuries, 58% of the time decision makers were either not aware of the safety implications of their decision, and/or they did not understand the situation well enough to make a good decision. Both problems are ameliorated by meaningful safety conversations. We will publish a separate article on this important aspect and the insightful results of that study under the title Decision Making for SIF Prevention.

Do leaders in your organization have a good understanding of SIF exposure? If not, a good place to start would be to take them on a SIF Exposure Tour. As you walk around and encounter SIF exposures, keep track of what you see. Is the leader seeing issues for the first time? If not, that is good. You can then explore the depth of understanding and effectiveness of communications around them. A hallmark of an effective mechanism for understanding SIF exposure is that it will stimulate meaningful conversations about safety at every level of your company.

Strategic Risk Reduction

The second essential mechanism for driving safety improvement is all about risk reduction on a large scale. This means compiling information about exposure and using the aggregated, comprehensive data to make informed decisions about where to invest resources to improve. Many insights and improvements can be achieved if people at different levels and functions are involved in the problem-solving effort.

Strategic Risk Reduction is not easy. It requires a variety of talent, resources, and a true partnership between safety professionals and operational leaders. Do leaders in your organization spend too much time chasing single events, and not enough time on strategic risk reduction? If so, a good place to start could be to take a look at the reports they are receiving about SIF exposure. If leaders can see the best problems to solve, they are much more likely to engage in solving them.

Read our next article in this series: How Safety Improvement Works — Decision Making for SIF Prevention.