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Approaching Safety Holistically (Part Two): While safety training is important, Phil La Duke of Rockford Greene explains how the real payoff for investing in training comes from monies spent on imparting the most basic skills workers will need to do their jobs.

Posted: November 29, 2011


Approaching Safety Holistically (Part Two): While safety training is important, the real payoff for investing in training comes from monies spent on imparting the most basic skills workers will need to do their jobs.

All safety systems have their strengths and weaknesses. No individual methodology has a monopoly on answers. The right approach to worker safety will depend to some extent on an organization’s industry, maturity, and size. But even with the considerable business variability, one thing remains universally true:  organizations must develop a philosophy and processes flexible and robust enough to quickly adapt to a rapidly changing business environment.

It is said that the most dangerous thing an organism can do is misread its environment.That is as true in business as it is true in biology. Organizations who wish to nimbly respond to changes in the environment will need to adopt a blended training solution.

Deciding the specific mix of safety tools, techniques, and process that an organization needs to deploy isn’t easy. In many ways it’s like trying to hit a moving target, but it can be done with a little hard work and perseverance. As organizations move to a holistic approach they should make some basic changes in their views of their industries, their workforce and their values.

Blur the lines. Proponents of one school of thought about safety are generally zealots who are completely intolerant of other competing and seemingly contrary viewpoints. When one sells hammers one tends to see the whole world as a nail. Organizations need to blur the lines between these approaches and cherry pick the things of value to its specific needs as an organization.

Focus on the decisions people make . . . not on the outcomes of these decisions. In general industry tends to see safety in terms of intent and outcomes. The problem with such an approach is that it leads to excuse making in the former case and institutionalization of blame in the latter. As a boy I used to repeatedly try to excuse my reckless or careless behavior by telling my late father that I hadn’t done it on purpose. “If I thought you did it on purpose, I would kick your butt,” he would answer, irritated. In the case of intent and blame, organizations can get so wrapped up in playing “who shot John” that they have little time for anything more meaningful.

Blame is only useful for firing someone and replacing them with someone equally likely to make the same mistakes, because organizations in the business of blame seldom fix the system flaw that is the root cause. Blame tends to answer only one question: Who did this? And the conversation ends there. Blame obviates any need for conducting root cause analysis and, in many cases, encourages an environment where mistakes are driven underground, and mistakes + shame = criminality. Successful organizations will make “fix the problem, not the blame” their mantras.

By dealing with the reasons that drive people to make faulty decisions, organizations can bridge the gap between hazards created by poor processes and those created by unsafe behaviors and draw together a system focused on reducing risk.

Understand and Embrace the Great Truths of Safety:

  • Everyone makes mistakes. It is a biological imperative.
  • Nobody wants, or expects, to get hurt.
  • Risk endemic to life.
  • No one deserves to die because of a mistake or a bad decision.

Safety is not a value; it’s a criterion for success. As long as organizations view safety as a value, it can hide behind value conflicts, shifting priorities, and a forced hierarchy of values. Safety is the price of admission. Without it, nothing else matters.

Fear of lawsuits does not give organizations license to avoid doing the right thing. Far too often companies resist doing the smart business decision because it’s difficult. The business leaders, human resources, and lawyers in particular, frequently raise the specter of lawsuits and potential civil liability to frighten away those who would bring them more work. Not everything a lawyer says is stupid, but so too not everything a lawyer says is sterling. Creating a worker safety process that makes sense, protects workers and treats those who make mistakes justly should take precedence over averting the remote chance of a lawsuit.

An Engaged Workforce Is a Safety Workforce. In his seminal work, Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work: Build a Culture of Employee Engagement with the Principles of RESPECT, Dr. Paul Marcino outlines a process for truly engaging your workers instead of trying to motivate them. Read this book and embrace it as the guiding principle for your safety processes and philosophy.

When I first read this book over a year ago, I described it as the most important book on safety of the 21st century. I stand by that opinion now. Marcino’s model will help organizations to transform their workforce  and improve a host of workforce issues. This book was not intended to be applied to safety, but it serves on levels no “safety book” has yet to begin to explore.

Invest in Training. The single greatest investment focused on improving worker safety is in the construction of an instructionally sound and focused job-specific training program. Years ago a published study found that companies tended to see a 35:1 return on investment when they committed resources to improving the skills of their workers.

While safety training is important, the real payoff for investing in training comes from monies spent on imparting the most basic skills workers will need to do their jobs. If you are a welding operation, teach welding skills; but when you do, embed the safety information workers need to stay safe while doing their jobs.

The safety industry has grown to such an extent that it’s easy for business owners to see it as an insurmountable effort that is overkill. But safety need not be a waste of a company’s time and money. If properly managed, strategically planned, and artfully executed by engaged professionals, safety efforts can improve employee morale, boost productivity, and increase profits.

Ultimately, however, safety is not about not getting hurt. It’s about lowering our risk of injury to miniscule levels while at the same time recognizing that the risk of injury will never be zero and a perfect safety record is always realized to some extent by luck.

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