Safety Leadership: We’re Focusing on the Wrong Things

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Courtesy of Intelex Technologies Inc.

After a presentation I gave recently a gentleman came up to ask some follow-up questions, which is pretty normal. But then something interesting happened. He hesitated, looking like there was something else on his mind. So I asked if there was anything else I could help with to which he responded with a story about how he’s working with this site’s safety committee to develop an incentive program to get people to work safely. But it doesn’t seem to be working. Workers aren’t really engaging with the program and the rewards don’t seem very interesting to them. He wanted to know if I had any ideas on how to make the program more successful.

Now, I certainly have some ideas on the subject, but I asked the first (probably rather obvious) question that came to my mind – have you asked the workers about it? After all, what I think is interesting or engaging is not really the point. What he was after is what they think. What’s more, as we continued the discussion, you could then begin to ask your workers what would help them work more safely. The proverbial light bulb went off in this gentleman’s head and he went away hopefully with more questions than answers (in a good way).

What was so interesting to me about this interaction is how classic it is to how safety leaders in organizations approach problems with workers:

  • We identify a problem in the organization
  • We observe workers working unsafely (which usually means violating some procedure or rule)
  • We create an intervention designed to alter the decision-making process of those workers, such as a stronger disciplinary policy or, in this case, an incentive program
  • Then when it doesn’t work, we ask for help from outside to come diagnose the problem

This is normal practice for a lot of organizations, but the problem is that we aren’t dealing with a broken piece of equipment here. We’re dealing with real live, thinking people.

Now this is not going to be just another one of those “get your workers involved” posts (that will come later). Obviously we would want to get workers involved, but there’s something more fundamental, more insidious underlying the above approach – it’s the idea that safety is merely about stopping people from doing unsafe things.

Think about it. The underlying theory that guides the approach to behavioral intervention that most organizations use is that our systems are basically safe, it’s just that people muck it up by doing the wrong things. If we could only get our workers to stop doing the wrong things (violating rules, making errors), then we would have no accidents. Safety is a people problem. People are the problem we have to control through safety interventions.

But wait, didn’t we say we were dealing with real living, breathing people here? Yes, and here’s why that matters – no one wants to get hurt. Let me say that again in a different way to make this very clear – every single person in your organization cares a lot about safety. There’s a nasty rumor going around that the key to excellent safety performance is to motivate workers to care more about safety. But your workers already are motivated to be safe! They have skin in the game, literally! If they did something, they did it because they thought it was safe to do.

Read that last statement again. People don’t intentionally do unsafe things. This means our attempts to convince them to be safe are misguided. They already think they are doing what is safe (or, at least, safe enough)! But obviously we can think of many cases where someone did something that was just far too risky and got hurt. So how do we manage this?

As the great human factors pioneer, Jens Rasmussen, points out:

If you don’t understand why it made sense for people to do what they did, it is not because they were behaving really strangely, bizarrely or erroneously. It is because your perspective is wrong.

Or, as Stephen Covey says – seek first to understand, then to be understood. Once we begin to change our perspective we start to see that rather than focusing on what people are doing wrong, the failures, we should instead be focusing on success. People are driven to achieve success, avoid failure, and adopt strategies designed to achieve their goals in context. Often this involves balancing competing goals or dealing with scarce, inadequate resources, not to mention varying work conditions. Most unsafe acts are by-products of the performance adjustments workers make to help achieve success. The people aren’t the problem, it’s the complexity and imperfection of your system. –Tweet This!

Therefore, safety leaders should be focusing less on merely stopping people from doing the wrong things and focusing more on helping people be more successful. This means identifying those things that get in the way of success. What do our workers have to overcome in order to get the job done? What makes success difficult? Focus your energy on that (and note that this is very different than searching for traditional hazards and risks). Create a path of least resistance toward the desired outcome (not process). Safety is the process that will emerge from this.

To get started with this, go out and start talking to your workers. Ask them some simple questions, like:

  • What’s something that makes this job/task difficult?
  • What’s something that you have to overcome or put up with in order to get this job done?
  • When was a time you had to take a shortcut to meet a production goal?

If you do this in an environment of trust and psychological safety you’ll be amazed at what you find out. Then, if you act on what you learn you’ll not only begin to make your workplace safer. You’ll likely increase productivity and trust in the bargain!

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