Putting a solid safety management process in place, in any organization—much less sustaining it—can be difficult to wrap your arms around. One thing I think we can all agree on, however, is that you must start with a desire and commitment to having one.
A case in point: not long ago, a prospective client (that subsequently became a client), reached out to me for help. He expressed concern that his organization had a recordable injury rate significantly higher than the industry average. He wanted to know what we might be able to do to address their safety management process, so their metrics would improve.
As we became engaged with their team, I met initially with company leaders to get their perspective on the problem. A number of them came forth with a similar conclusion – something to the effect of, “I can’t convince employees to get engaged with any of our continuous improvement programs, so I really don’t know how I would get them to engage on safety.” It turns out that this client had recently spent some considerable funds on an ‘effectiveness and efficiencies’ consulting firm to improve business metrics. They had turned their attention to metrics from quality to waste and from productivity to reliability, yet never considered safety as an integral, or even any, part of that process and analysis. By the conclusion of our organizational safety assessment with the client, I had to ask some frank, even tough questions to these same leaders:
- Why would you expect meaningful engagement from employees on business improvement processes when you haven’t yet engaged them in any meaningful way that protects and keeps them safe?
- Why would employees care about management’s business targets if the employees don’t believe management demonstrates their care for the health and safety of their own employees?
- How does a focus on business targets, at the expense of safety, influence employees’ decisions about how or whether to follow safety procedures?
Every organization has the option to take on the critical task of safety management, and by so doing make an effort to earn the trust of their employees. In this case, the management had chosen to simply “press on” as they pursued a singular focus on continuous improvement programs – which only caused a further deterioration in their safety metrics. In other words, management did these programs to employees rather than with them, and there were serious consequences for policies implemented without employee engagement.
Insight 1 from our book, 7 Insights into Safety Leadership, speaks to this organizational situation. Nearly all leaders I’ve worked with quickly nod their heads when asked, “Are good safety results good for overall business results?”. But for all their consensus on the face of it, I’m not sure all of them really get this point. In my experience working with dozens of organizations, an organization can’t get their best result on any other business metric without getting safety right first. Safety is not just a bonus or an extra, but fundamentally interwoven with the rest of the business. The basis of a solid and credible safety management process is built when the leaders of an organization:
- Create strong relationships between management and employees, where employees conclude and trust that their immediate supervisors and management (the organization) cares for and values them
- Demonstrate ‘safety is a value’ in all their behaviors, including their actions, their decision-making, and their internal and external communication
- Build safety explicitly into all organizational systems to ensure proper influence on each employee’s approach to work
- Create an atmosphere where employees freely speak up about challenges, concerns and risks, and where management shows genuine appreciation by following up appropriately through corrective action and communication back to the person raising the issue
- Learn from mistakes, incidents, and exposures; and there is commensurate effort put forth to curtail exposure based on potential severity of the risk
These are some of the elements necessary when you look to implement a workable safety management system. Leaders who understand and act on these elements build a workplace and a culture where employees are motivated to actively take ownership in the ongoing identification and mitigation of exposure for themselves—and those working around them. Ultimately, this discretionary effort will also be used to help the business improve all other business metrics.
Back to the client I mentioned at the start of this post: After additional safety leadership development work with the client, they did come to recognize these issues, make necessary changes, and today their recordable injury rate is well below the industry average. Productivity has significantly improved adding almost $5MM of EBIT to the bottom line and they have seen a 20% improvement in quality. Morale is the best it’s ever been. Real commitment to a properly designed and implemented safety management process does work, and it works for the whole of the organization.