APPROACHING SAFETY HOLISTICALLY

After a process is stable and compliant, safety should focus on worker and process capability by diverging into worker skills and equipment maintenance. Phil La Duke of Rockford Greene reveals why there is no need to spend lots of time trying to improve workplace safety through worker training and total productive maintenance when there are many other low-cost actions that can be quickly deployed.

After a process is stable and compliant, safety should focus on worker and process capability by diverging into worker skills and equipment maintenance. No need to spend lots of time trying to improve workplace safety through worker training and total productive maintenance when there are many other low-cost actions that can be quickly deployed.

In the past thirty years a variety of approaches to improving the safety of the workplace has evolved. Far from creating a unified methodology for lowering the risk of worker injuries, the theorists have squabbled and argued without coming close to reaching consensus. But even the staunchest advocate must admit that there is no magic bullet for making the workplace safer and will begrudgingly grant that a blended approach to worker safety is likely necessary.

Despite the variety of approaches, operations leadership doesn’t really care what approach is deployed. Instead, the leadership in most organizations cares about results and is likely to pursue any course of action with the highest likelihood of success with the least effort required. This leaves most safety professionals left to puzzle out which safety tools best serve their organizations.

It’s unfortunate that the safety community has spent so much time arguing the merits of one approach over another instead of focusing on the most appropriate safety process based on the organization’s maturity, industry, and processes. The key to worker safety is knowing the hierarchy of the safety management tactics. The first step toward a safer workplace is ensuring compliance with local, regional (state or provincial), and federal laws and regulation. Compliance most certainly does not guarantee that an organization can prevent injuries it establishes a disciplined approach on which all the other methods are built.

After the organization can be reasonably certain that its process is stable and compliant, it should focus on worker and process capability. At this point, safety diverges into two key areas: worker skills and equipment maintenance. One need not spend a lot of time pouring over safety theory to improve the safety of the workplace through worker training and total productive maintenance. In fact, there are many low-cost actions that safety professionals can quickly deploy.

The first is to team with the organization’s human resources or training function to ensure that the training that workers receive completely prepares them for the work they are expected to perform. This is perhaps a bit more complicated than it seems, since the work is not confined to training courses and will likely extend to the development of Job Safety Analysis and the development of Standard Work and its associated instructions. And as these efforts mature and evolve, they may also include pre-employment screening and changes in how candidates are qualified and hired.

Running parallel to these efforts to hire and train more suitable employees are attempts to make equipment more reliable and predictable through Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) efforts. Robust TPM efforts will dramatically lower the risk of injuries associated with machine failures, including risks associated with slip, trip, and falls resulting from fluid leaks, exposure to hazardous materials used in the process, and many other factors that either pose a direct risk or heighten the probability or severity of injuries by creating catalysts for injuries.

How resources are deployed between efforts to improve worker capability and process capability depend in large measure on an organization’s process. Organizations involved in batch manufacturing, for example, are likely better served deploying resources to improve process capability than training workers, whereas organizations involved in agriculture may be better served focusing on the workers’ skills. In all cases focusing improvement efforts on your process and training will have tremendous payoffs outside worker safety and, as the workplace becomes more stable and efficient, it also becomes easier to focus on larger, more complex issues such as unsafe behaviors or continuous improvement.

Eventually, organizations will have picked all of the “low hanging fruit” and safety professionals will have to shift tactics from the more rudimentary safety controls to more complex and difficult tactics.

For these organizations, it will be necessary to implement a blended approach that focuses less on tactics and more on proactively addressing trends and developing a safety strategy. These safety management processes need to first establish an infrastructure for gathering complete and accurate data, appropriately analyzing this data, and establishing appropriate actions based on the analysis. Safety professionals must be able to balance both leading and lagging indicators and understand what the data is telling them. It is important that the organization understands the relationship between these two types of data and adjusts its strategies accordingly.

Here too, there needs to be supporting disciplines and efforts to respond to the issues that the research uncovers.  It is at this point that the organization may need to develop infrastructure to address ergonomic issues, near-miss reporting, industrial hygiene, or other industry-specific programs. It is also important to note that, in many cases, the organization may be tempted to invest in a permanent infrastructure when a consultant or temporary ad hoc solution might be more appropriate. Conversely, many companies are duped into hiring consultants to implement solutions when a small, tightly controlled infrastructure might be more cost effective.

As with other initiatives, the right solution will be heavily dependent on the organization’s industry, size, and processes. In fact, enlisting outside help solely to determine the best course of action can be an extremely wise investment.

At this point the safety professional may be tempted to adopt a complex safety management system. Organizations should be very wary of companies that make tens of millions of dollars selling safety solutions – when one sells hammers one sees the whole world as a nail. The giants of the safety industries that sell “magic bullets” will make compelling arguments relative to the benefits of their “one-size-fits-all” approaches. These approaches are valuable to some companies, but nowhere near as many as they would have us believe.

The ultimate goal of any safety management system is to foster an environment where safety is seen as non-negotiable criteria for the successful completion of a task. Safety becomes an attribute, not a separate function external from the work. Call this environment what you will – safety culture, just culture, Lean, or whatever – it all amounts to a workplace where safety is not described as a lack of injuries, but rather as the probability that workers will return home in the same condition in which they reported to work. Development of these cultures are major initiatives and scarce few of the vendors promising miracle quick fixes are qualified to deliver the services they shill.

A good safety management process will evolve over time as the organization matures and its processes change. For most of us, the most effective safety system will be a dynamic process that proactively changes in response to trends. The key, if one can accurately be said to exist, is to keep things simple and appropriate to your organization.

Phil La Duke

Phil La Duke is a partner in the Performance Assurance Practice at ERM: Environmental Resources Management, 3352 128th Avenue, Holland, MI 49424, 313-244-2525, www.erm.com. You can also follow Phil and reach him on his blogs at www.philladuke.wordpress.com.

3 Comments



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  • Andrew wrote:

    Finally some common sense. I have worked for several companies who think a system will fix everything. Their “systems” are the holy grail. If we could just get companies and workers to think like this, I would be doing a lot less investigations and injury management.

    Keep up the good work.

    Andrew Worthington
    Senior Enviroment Health Safety & Training Coordinator, Barminco, Ltd.
    Hazelmere, Western Australia, Australia

  • Phil La Duke wrote:

    Thanks for the comment Andrew. They called it common sense when sense was common. But try not to judge those companies too harshly, when you sell hammers it’s easy to see the whole world as a nail.

  • Dale Eley wrote:

    Just thumbing through your archives and found this to be another good work of yours. We must take what is in front of us and try to coach that to the goal we are trying to reach. How we coach will make the difference on whether the attitudes of those we are addressing are open to acting and promoting a safe environment. Thanks for sharing.