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Achieving a robust safety management system that supports ? not impedes ? productivity isn?t expensive or all that complicated, and yet relatively few organizations are able to achieve a satisfactory worker safety program. Phil La Duke of OE Learning asks why.

Posted: May 1, 2010


It’s important to recognize that when it comes to worker safety, one-size does not fit all, and any template I present will need to be tweaked for your specific industry, size, and in some cases geographic location. Having said that, I’ve worked in automotive, aerospace, health care, parts distribution, batch manufacturing and other operations across the world and there are far more similarities than differences.

While the specifics of World-Class Safety Systems are different, they all share some key characteristics:
Emphasis on prevention
Zero Tolerance for Injuries
Data Driven
Process Improvement Focused
Safety is a Strategic Business Element
Safety is Owned by Operations
Risk Mitigation
Supports – not impedes – the core business

As with quality, customer service, or virtually any problem in production, it’s far cheaper easier, and more effective to prevent safety problems than it is to spend time in panicked reaction. While we are required by OSHA (or the Labour Ministry in Canada, or similar federal programs in many parts of the world) to count and report injuries, past performance is a poor predictor of future outcomes. Instead, Safety Management Systems that emphasize prevention use leading indicators and risk factors to identify the process breakdowns that can injure workers.

Far too often safety systems rely on hunches instead of carefully collected and analyzed data. Whatever shape your safety system takes, you should take pains to ensure that you have adequate data for sound decision making. I should caution you against making your own database: many of the low-end database software applications are inexpensive now, but frequently have severe growing pains.

(Behavioral Elements Are Downplayed)
There is a growing realization in safety that, because so much of human behavior is non-cognitive, building a process that is heavily dependent upon managing behavior is costly and less effective than a process-based approach. In a process-based approach, injuries are viewed as failures in the process and are corrected in much the same was as quality defects.

A key business element is an area that – if not managed carefully and effectively – can jeopardize the continued survival of the company. A good safety management system addresses the costs associated with injuries in much the same way it manages cost, quality, and delivery issues.

Many people believe Operations ownership refers to the department in which the safety function resides, but it is far more than that. Operations runs the business, and it is of paramount importance that the business be managed such that all process variation is actively sought out and eliminated wherever possible, including injuries.

Operations within the world’s safest companies do more than police safety . . . they truly internalize it. Safety has ceased to be someone’s job and instead has been hardwired into everyone’s job. The safety professional is no longer responsible for keeping the workplace safe; rather, supervisors and team leaders are tasked with identifying and removing hazards. Teams of operations personnel replace the safety committees where supervisors and area managers present the results of their incident investigation. And Operations works relentlessly to ferret out and correct conditions that could result in worker injuries.

I once made the statement to an audience, “the absence of injuries does not denote the presence of safety.” One person responded that, without question, safety, by definition, was the absence of injuries. I asked him if he lived in a “safe” neighborhood, and he said that he did. I asked him if he knew of any neighborhoods that he considered unsafe, and he admitted that there were. I told him that I assumed that he had been attacked, robbed, or harmed in some way, and those events caused him to believe the neighborhood was unsafe. He told me that he had never come to any harm in that neighborhood, but that the RISK of being harmed was much higher than the risk of being harmed in his home neighborhood.

These characteristics reflect the values of organizations with world-class safety values. World-class safety starts with values; real values – beliefs so deeply held that they are hard-wired into your decision making process, you don’t need to hang them on the wall. These beliefs are central to the organization and are so entrenched as to define the characteristics of the organization itself.

These values form the foundation of any world-class safety system, but they are only a foundation. The values should guide your approach to the basic elements that constitute a world-class safety system:
Safety Assessments
Incident Prediction and Analysis
Hazard Correction
Safety Strategy
Continuous Improvement Efforts Focused on Safety

A safety assessment is a brief walk-through of the work area intended to identify the conditions likely to injury a worker. If you’re like most companies you are already doing something similar. But what separates most companies from world-class companies lies not in what they do, but in how they do it. In most companies, these walk-throughs are done by the safety professional and are probably conducted once a month or even less frequently. In a world-class safety system, the first-line supervisor inspects his or her work area at least once a week.

Most industries – from manufacturing to health care – rely on predictive tools to anticipate issues that could impede their successes. Whether that be a Process FMEA to identify a bottleneck, or a simple project plan, these tools can greatly improve the efficiency of your business and are invaluable in predicting and preventing injuries.

Operations needs to identify, contain, and correct all hazards that might cause injuries. Unless operations drives the correction of these issues there is a high likelihood that the hazards will linger far longer than they should.

A good safety strategy should be simple, concise and simple to understand. Pareto charting injury types and developing a strategy to eliminate the most frequent injury types, or a simple bar chart that identifies the three most costly injury types, are excellent places to start when developing a safety strategy.

Companies with poor quality tend to have poor safety. The process failures that hurt your quality can just as easily hurt your quality, delivery, or productivity. Any continuous improvement initiative should seek out hazards and eliminate them as sources of process waste. Creating a world-class safety system need not be complicated or expensive – in fact, your goal in reducing injuries should be, at least in part, improving profitability. But it should have the basic elements described here and each of these elements should be designed in accordance with the values of the world?s safest companies. Whatever system you develop, remember: reducing hazards reduces risk; reduced risk means less probability of injuries; the lower the risk of injury, the greater the workplace safety.

  • Yashpal Singh wrote:

    Good Evening Phil,

    Thank you for such an interesting column. I am also in Health and Safety. Do you have any templates in Word or Excel for reporting purposes regarding world class safety features? Will you share them with me?

    Thanks and best regards,

  • Kym wrote:

    Hello Phil
    A great succinct summary. I agree with Yashpal and also request do you have any templates as they would be greatly accepted. I look forward to other interesting articles.

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