Many companies struggle to advance in their safety performance. They have reached a plateau in their safety maturity growth journey, and they struggle to break through the barriers they experience. This article provides ideas, thoughts and even a concept on how to overcome the standstill, and relaunch the journey to world-class safety.
The article is composed of four key sections:
- The current safety approach is too focused on workforce behaviour
- Frontline workers: a rising safety maturity, though also signs of growing frustration and concern
- The corporate operational management context does not foster effective safety leadership
- The future: a well-balanced and company-wide behavioural safety approach
Despite lots of convincing messages, good intentions and a wealth of initiatives, companies struggle to further grow their safety maturity and to improve their safety performance. There appears to be a growing disconnect between the high safety ambitions communicated to the world and the actual impact of the actions and initiatives launched by Executives and their management teams in their efforts to guide their troops to a higher level of safety maturity and safety management effectiveness.
If we ask corporate and site managers how much quality time they personally invest in their people on the shop floor so that they can work in the most optimal and safe circumstances, the result is very often a moment of silence. Executives tend to struggle to answer that question and operational leaders look down at their feet knowing that the only correct answer is “not enough at all”. This is not a criticism, but rather an observation.
The current safety approach is too focused on workforce behaviour
The safety approach applied in most organisations is still very top-down, and focuses largely on the behaviour of the person or the team executing a task. The actual exposure to risks and the process to define and implement proper risk mitigation measures at the appropriate level of the organisation are very often only treated in the margin of the safety approach deployed.
However, managing safety is about managing risks, and about finding the smartest and most effective way to eliminate or reduce risk levels on the ground to an acceptable level. A very useful model is the hierarchy of controls model, which provides a set of alternatives for managing risks, ordered from highly effective to least effective. As per the hierarchy of controls model, the most effective way to manage risks is eliminating the risk. For example, when buying a new installation, risks can be eliminated by investing in equipment which has the latest and most effective safety features, that eliminates high-risk activities through automatization and that fully complies with the existing corporate safety standards (e.g. fully LOTO compliant).
Even today, I still see machines and installations being commissioned even though the design and/or the integration into the existing operational environment does not meet world-class standards or is substandard. When asked why the safest option was not selected, (short-term) cost savings is the number one reason given. The consequence is that risks are imported into the production environment, and that these risks will have to be mitigated for years, maybe even decades, by deploying less effective and much more expensive measures like re-engineering of the installation, administrative controls or the use of PPEs.
The same applies to maintenance. Safety standards of installations and machines can decline over time due to sub-standard maintenance practices, which again will have to be compensated by behavioural adaptation or other less effective measures at shop floor level.
With the raising focus on cost control, the impact of the procurement department in corporations is on the raise. I witness a growing number of cases where the principles of “management of change” are ignored by the procurement process, resulting in risks being imported into the operational environment.
The examples demonstrate how the pressure to ensure the task is ultimately performed safely will end up on the shop floor, where employees will be overwhelmed with messages to work safely as part of the Corporate ambition to be World-Class in safety.
The cases provided refer to three safety critical processes with a high, direct and long-term impact on the safety standard you will see ultimately at the shop floor. Unfortunately, these processes do not get the same level of attention and focus as the behaviour of other workers.
The same conclusion can be drawn when analysing the safety audit function. A substantial amount of time and energy is invested in auditing and addressing the behaviour of operational teams, though far less attention is given to the analysis and the optimization of the safety processes referred to earlier. This despite their potential to ensure that risks are properly mitigated in the most effective way, thereby significantly reducing the load of frontline workers.
Frontline workers: a rising safety maturity, though also signs of growing frustration and concern
Frontline workers are starting to see the picture described above, and their level of frustration is rising. In my work with operational teams, I am often impressed with their level of commitment, experience and awareness for safety. I meet operational teams who are, in their level of safety maturity, more advanced than the site safety systems and the perceived safety leadership of their management. The teams see the sub-standard safety imported with new installations, they notice the decline of safety standards due to maintenance interventions, and they notice that procurement changes buying decisions in a way that negatively impacts their safety all while feeling that they do not have the means to interfere.
That brings us to the next question: what impact do frontline workers have on the safety approach? We install processes to audit hem, we have open and two-way discussions on safety, our door is always open for them! But what is the real impact of these processes? Do we really listen to them, do we really give them a voice and the respect they should get? Do we as managers set up the processes to ensure that their message is heard and has a real impact on their working conditions? In part, we surely do, though we probably have to admit that we could and should do more.
The corporate operational management context does not foster effective safety leadership
The observations shared above are real and important, though they are not to be seen as criticism. I have to stress that the majority of the managers and leaders I meet are committed to safety, and they want to do everything possible to protect their people and to avoid accidents at all times. But the corporate context does not make it an easy task, and the pressure on them to focus on the management levels above them rather than on their workers is rising. They are pulled away from the shop floor and their workers by the corporate system and its demands.
We come full circle, to something we all know but which appears to be difficult to apply: safety starts with setting the right standards at the top of the corporation, and these standards have to be aligned with the company safety ambition.
Executives have to create a context that fosters real care for people, based on the principles of risk management, and they should do so for and with the shop floor. The operational management teams need to get the time and the resources to invest in their frontline teams, and in safety processes that are effective and efficient. They should be focusing on reducing risk levels on the ground, if possible even before the workers’ behaviour comes into play.
Obviously the workers’ behaviour is and will continue to remain important. This behaviour can be influenced by ensuring that workers are heard, and that their message has a real and felt impact. Needs and concerns need to be listened to and addressed, and knowledge and information needs to be transferred to the teams by their managers, on an almost permanent basis. That leads us to another safety critical process that we should review and reinforce: transfer of knowledge to operational teams.
The team needs to feel they are part of the solution, not the problem.
The future: a well-balanced and company-wide behavioural safety approach
We have developed a concept that addresses the challenges shared above. Our concept builds on the following elements:
- Safety is managed based on a continuous dialogue between the operational teams and their management
- Safety ownership for safety is allocated to the most appropriate level within the organisation, and by preference to the operational level. A context is created in which operational teams have the means and the resources to deal with this ownership in the most optimal circumstances. The initial focus is on:
- Working with safe installations
- Working in a safe working environment
- Having access to clear, task-based instructions referring to risks and risk mitigation measures
- Constructive and effective auditing, with a focus on behaviour (at all levels!) and safety processes
- The safety management processes that determine and/or influence the elements raised above
- In the longer run, all building blocks of the entire safety approach are integrated into the concept and they are treated in a balanced way, to ensure alignment and mutual reinforcement. The building blocks referred to are:
- Safety management system and safety management processes
- Safety culture and behaviour (also at managerial level!)
- Communication and impact
- Sharing and transferring of knowledge
- PDCA cycle elements
This concept works, because it is built on competence building, respect, trust and clear ownership, all deployed in a well-defined manner throughout the entire organisation.
When implementing this concept, we see that our main focus has to be on management which struggles to give up the traditional power-based leadership style and hesitates to make the transition to a leadership style that is built on communication, knowledge sharing, trust and empowerment. Once this hurdle is taken, plateaus are broken and new horizons come into view.
Hopefully the discussions in some boardrooms will shift in the direction of the two main questions to be answered when reviewing both the maturity and the overall organisational effectiveness in managing safety:
How much quality time do we (and our managers in general) personally invest in our people on the shop floor so that they can work in the most optimal and safe circumstances?
What is the level of impact our frontline workers have on our (safety) approach?
In case of questions on corporate or site safety maturity, the implementation of an effective safety culture, effective safety auditing or any other safety related topic, feel free to contact us at Siegfried.firstname.lastname@example.org or via www.executivesafetysolutions.com.