June 1, 2019

What Is a Safety Improvement Strategy: Part 1

What Is a Safety Improvement Strategy and Why Do you Need One?

It always surprises me when I see leading organizations who value safety lacking a comprehensive strategy to attain their objectives.

The situation is usually something like this:

“We are doing a lot to improve safety performance. Our leaders are serious about preventing Serious Injuries and Fatalities, and (we think) we’ve done the things thought leaders have recommended. We’re doing a long list of things aimed at safety performance improvement in general, in fact, our people sometimes tell us they suffer from ‘initiative fatigue’. In spite of all this our leaders don’t think we have attained the ‘strong safety culture’ we need. Last year we had a fatality and when we investigated it we found cultural issues as primary in the causal chain. We’ve had consultants in and they want to do a long and complex, resource intensive assessment, then they’ll recommend something. Our leaders are suspicious that the ‘assessment’ will likely result in something off-the-shelf, not something tailored to our real needs.”

What is really needed here is an over-arching safety improvement strategy. Leaders in this organization are not short on good ideas. If they have been paying attention they already know the issues that would be uncovered in an assessment: the trust level is low, leaders are not good at safety leadership, new thinking has not penetrated the mind-set of leaders and been passed on to the point that leadership behaviors and decisions are influenced, incident investigations stop at behaviors, senior leaders still think (wrongly) that the employee is more the problem than the solution.

Variation in safety leadership capability across the organization is high. Some great safety leaders are out there, but they stand out from the rest, more the exception than the rule. We also have some ‘stone agers’ in high places who think about safety today the same way they did 30 years ago. But most of our leaders, from the first level supervision to the senior executive, are not great safety leaders.

We have Behavior Based Safety (BBS) of one kind or another in most of our facilities, but it has worn thin and been allowed to devolve into something altogether different than it was originally. We are looking at Human and Organizational Performance (HOP) concepts and some of our facilities are doing HOP stuff, which is promising. But after we have ‘done HOP’, what next? We know we need better data and we are looking at ways to get it. Predictive methods are attractive, but somehow the results don’t really lead us to action. Some of our leaders think we need a better tool to measure our safety culture, something that would be a solid indicator, better than the OSHA Recordable Rate.

When our leaders ask our safety professionals what it will take to really get there, the answers given are not compelling. If resources aren’t allocated the safety people think our leaders are not supportive. But our leaders don’t want to support things that take resources and may or may not have any measurable effect.

In the mean-time we are still having SIFs, which frustrates everyone and makes us wonder what we are doing wrong.

What is lacking from this scenario is a comprehensive Safety Improvement Strategy, one that pulls the key elements together and prioritizes action, is well understood by leaders, regularly reviewed in governance meetings, and energizes employees across the board with a high sense of efficacy, we can do this! If we do the things in this strategy we will accomplish our objectives. We can do this!

In Part 2 I’ll lay out the components of a Safety Improvement Strategy, and how to develop one.