I know you’re probably thinking, why would I write this if I were a safety consultant. Well, occasionally I’ll get a call from an organization leader, usually an operations manager, who says that they want to change their “safety culture”. Then their next question is usually, “how much do we charge for that?” When the first question is about cost, right after they’ve proclaimed that they want a safety culture, this tells me a few things: First, there is little or no emotional commitment behind what’s driving this new effort, and second; the initiative is doomed to fail.
I read a great blog post recently regarding organizations that have bought into the notion that if they could just get their workers to care a little more about safety, that they would somehow have fewer accidents. My question is this: How can we as safety professionals force people to care more about safety – particularly among workers who are apathetic towards safety to begin with? I don’t believe we can, nor do I believe that that should be our role. For decades now, organizations have attempted to measure outcomes to worker perceptions and observations through surveys and other tracking and trending tools. Although these tools give us some insight into worker attitudes, they do little remedy what management perceives as poor safety “culture”.
I’ve come to believe that for executives and senior managers who truly want to see change, they must change how they perceive and talk about safety. They need to stop saying things like, “our goal is zero accidents”, and start talking about how well their organizations learn from unplanned events. Stop focusing on the things that go wrong, and start measuring things that go well. Leaders shouldn’t be thinking in terms of preventing human error, and start speaking about supporting operational learning and improving. Finally, management should include workers in HSE planning (work as done vs. work as imagined). Does management really understand risk at the sharp end of the stick well enough to manage work at the planning and leadership end? You cannot manage what you do not truly understand. And, workers need more direct involvement in safety process development if we’re going to expect them care more.
For “Safety II” or “The New View” (or whatever you want to call it) to work, it absolutely takes a village. This is not something a consultant can do alone. Safety professionals can communicate the message from management and encourage dialogue between line workers and decision makers. Safety professionals can facilitate the implementation of structures and systems that foster safety. However, if senior management is not open to being coached through a process, and not emotionally committed for the long haul, then true change not only will not occur, it cannot occur.
What do you think? We’d like to hear your comments.