Quick-fix safety: Whatever you do, don’t look down

Quick-fix safety: Whatever you do, don’t look down

As HSE professionals, we see much that is painful: injuries, sickness and spills that damage the environment. Worst of all are fatal accidents, where a loved one fails to return home one day, with families left feeling empty and possibly betrayed by the company. The safety professional will doubtless inspect the awful scenes, try to understand why someone did or said something, and spend possibly a lifetime wondering how to prevent its recurrence. But as order returns and business continues, there can be very different approaches to the way HSE – and safety in particular – is managed. We all like to pull in the same direction for the same reasons, but usually there are conflicts.

Workplace incidents usually result in punishment of some form: fines, suspension of operations, even prison sentences; the more serious the incident, the stronger the punishment. A series of incidents damages reputation and can bring punitive requirements from the firm’s lenders, investors, insurers and partners. Yet different personnel tend to see the external reactions from a personal perspective, so prioritise different types of intervention. The CFO focuses on those lenders and investors, the CEO may be most worried about business continuity and criminal proceedings, the COO looks at increased operations costs, while HR perhaps stresses union issues, procedures and staff morale. All worry about being convicted or sued, and consequently, lawyers are in abundance.
The louder the noise, the quieter it gets.

Much is made of the value of collaboration, particularly in HSE management, but the consequences of litigation create very real barriers to what can be disclosed. With most incidents, it is likely there will have been some supervisory or management failings or shortcomings, so there is rarely a rush to tell others much of the detail. Indeed, as litigation becomes easier, this reluctance will only increase. The need to learn from the minor incidents and the near-misses therefore becomes ever more critical, yet many companies fail to record these, let alone look at the causes. Nearly everyone knows Frank E. Bird’s ‘safety triangle’ but very few really tackle the bottom part of the triangle.

A further complication is that after serious incidents or a series of accidents, senior management can become angry and seek to punish. The view is that staff have been trained and told time and time again how to do things and so deserve to be punished: demotion, fines or even dismissal follows.  Yet there is little evidence to suggest that fear is a successful tool for improving safety performance. There is plenty of evidence, though, to show that fearful staff, contractors, suppliers and supervisors will protect themselves. This protection will results in facts and opinions being withheld or distorted. The opportunity to learn and prevent recurrence vanishes. Management through fear has never figured in MBA texts, and there’s a good reason for that.

So what does work? What can be done quickly to reverse poor safety performance trends? Of course, we all know there is no magic wand, but experience suggests some interventions can produce results.

Make people part of the solution, not part of the blame

No matter the cause or circumstances, bring those involved into the incident investigation. Those involved are often the most experienced and know the solutions. Rather than having everyone look to avoid blame, get them on board to create solutions, and use incentives to encourage participation.

Reward the reporting of near-misses

A few years ago, it was seen that business units at one company that had high levels of near-miss reporting also had far better HSE performance than business units that failed to identify near-misses. The belief is that people who are regularly looking and reporting near-misses are more attuned to hazards as they work.

Encourage everyone to ‘prevent an incident’

Require and reward the reporting of ‘incidents prevented’ to encourage staff to identify and discuss how an incident “didn’t happen” each day, week or month. Encourage ‘what-if’ thinking to simulate how activities could have gone wrong and use these at toolbox meetings.

Get rid of unnecessary warnings

If unnecessary warning and PPE signs are put up everywhere, people will ignore them and staff cannot tell what PPE is critical where. If you require workers to put on hard hats in an open agricultural field because it is a ‘workplace’ then they will soon ignore it and question the necessity of similar signs elsewhere. Some companies are now putting hazard and risk assessment information alongside signs so anyone can see the real risk and the real need for PPE.

Worry about the commonplace

Familiarity breeds contempt and this is so with safety issues. With familiarity comes a belief that the task is easy and so can be done with little thought. It is why most accidents happen either in the home where we feel safe doing things we do every day, or driving close to home where the streets are familiar.

Beware of the abnormal

Perhaps the opposite of the habitual, but also be especially careful of situations and operations that are unusual or non-standard. Examination of historical trends shows a much higher likelihood of serious incidents when personnel are tackling abnormal or non-routine situations – and this can even include conducting incident investigations in hazardous situations.

Be wary: you may be a complete idiot

In many working environments, especially in emerging markets, senior managers, especially if foreign, are treated with enormous deference and respect. Even if that manager or visitor is an idiot. Be careful not to pitch in to technical or operational discussions with ideas unless you are critically certain of your ground and knowledge in the specific context. People may unquestioningly believe you out of simple respect.
If you know about underground fall-of-ground prevention techniques or BOP operation, then by all means pitch in to those discussions. But if not, guide people towards those that do.

Ensure incentives pull in the same direction

Poorly structured financial and operational metrics can contribute to incidents. In one company, mining subcontractors were formerly paid simply by metres of tunnel excavated. It was a KPI developed by the contracting department. Then, one day when they ran out of props, they kept on digging to keep up their performance. The ceiling collapsed and people died.
Make sure the KPIs don’t encourage unsafe behaviour.

There’s no such thing as unskilled

Set aside any notion that you have semi-skilled or unskilled workers. Everyone must be skilled and competent, willing and able to do their work. Even the humblest of cleaners, the lowest of fence-post-hole-diggers, must be skilled, fully understanding their role, what they need to do and what they must not do.

Whatever you do, don’t look down. Look up.

Upwards in the chain of command is where action is most probably needed. Incident investigation tends to look downwards until someone suitably unimportant and unconnected is found upon whom to focus our wrath.
Look upwards, look outwards and very possibly, look in a mirror.

Measure thoughtfully

Measure activities and performance so everyone can see meaningful progress. But do it with great care. Adding an extra set of data points to an underground shaft mechanic because an SRI analyst in London wishes to see that information is not actually helping anyone. Keep it simple. Keep it easy. Keep it safe.
Focus managers, supervisors and staff on the hazards and risks, not the figures.

Don’t just count; analyse

We all collect staggering amounts of HSE data for some reason. Very, very few of us actually analyse that data using the wealth of statistical and methodological tools available.
Rather then drown in the numbers, make them work for you, as they may surprise you.

The management of every aspect of safety, occupational health and hygiene, environmental protection and community relations is ultimately about people making decisions based on their experience, their training, their competence and their ability to spot and cope with hazards and risks.

It is notable that some of the big leaders in HSE performance are stressing simple or golden rules as a replacement for volumes of procedures in the hearts and minds of operational staff particularly, and the back-to-basics approach is certainly in fashion. The twelve interventions listed above do not form a system or a process for managing safety, but they might provide guidance or inspiration for some people looking for a new approach to old problems.

There is, of course, no ‘quick-fix safety’ but neither is safety managed by over-indulgent focus on indicators, whether lagging or leading: it’s about people, it’s about hazards, it’s about decisions.