Guest content by Chris Lingard, director of risk and safety at HeartLand, LLC
With 20+ years in health and safety, this profession still fascinates me because there is no easy button or step model for success. Although safety is often seen as auditing, behavioral correction, common sense, and discipline, it is truly about people, their values, genuine care, and investing in their potential. It is an opportunity to amplify the voices of employees working amongst the hazards. At its core, it is an ethical responsibility and a service we provide to those doing risky work.
Quite a few years ago, my frustration, along with many of my health and safety colleagues from various industries, began to build. The organizations we worked for had world-class recordable rates in very high-hazard industries, yet people were still getting seriously injured and, in some instances, killed.
This frustration quickly turned into exploration. My colleagues and I started researching options, challenging the status quo and our long-held assumptions. It did not take us long to understand traditional safety processes and programs that got us to a successful place, were not going to get us to where we wanted to go, and we needed to start asking better questions. Safety as we knew it needed reinvention. We needed to start doing safety differently.
Safety largely has been about compliance and rules with a heavy focus on negative outcomes. Traditional safety often works something like this:
- An incident or injury occurs
- Blame and disciplinary action follows
- Leadership consternation over recordability transpires
- New controls to constrain the worker are put in place, often in the form of written procedures, without input from those that do the work or the injured worker
- Safety creates a new audit to ensure the new rules are being followed
- With this new “safety clutter” management feels safer
- Disbelief ensues after a similar incident reoccurs and someone gets hurt
Traditional safety emphasizes identifying and eliminating or reducing negatives — accidents, risks, hazards, “human error”, and “unsafe acts”andsafety has long been measured by injury rates.
However, many modern studies show your organization can have zero recordable incidents and still be dangerous. Those same studies have found a correlation between low injury rates and high fatality rates. In high-hazard or variable work, true safety is always a severity issue, not a frequency issue (CSRA 2020).
Safety as a Capacity
In early automobile design little was engineered to protect us from our own mistakes. No seatbelts, no airbags, no auto-braking technology, and as the speed of vehicles increased so did fatalities. Somewhere along the way, automobile manufacturers realized this was a bad business model. After all, it is difficult to have repeat customers if they are not around to drive your product. Today, cars are designed assuming mistakes will be made, and the vehicle will be crashed.
This thinking has led to advances in technology that have increased the ability of the driver to fail safely, despite the increase in speed, more miles driven, and the increasing number of cars on the road. In this way, safety is not an outcome to manage, but a capacity. The more risk in a job the more capacity we need. The faster we drive the more controls we need in place to absorb mistakes. Another prime example is fall protection. Fall protection is generally used when no other controls exist to keep someone from falling. It is designed with the assumption a worker will fall.
Defining safety as a capacity is a vastly different approach than traditional safety. Whereas other approaches often seek to limit the negative aspects of people or perhaps even to eliminate people from the system altogether, approaches based on capacity seek to work with the potential of people and their amazing adaptability. This, of course, does not mean that people are perfect. Instead, human fallibility is recognized and assumed. If we create more capacity within work, not only are mistakes limited, but more success is duplicated.
Focus on Lowering Severity
Due to the misinterpretation of the Heinrich and Bird pyramids, it has long been the belief in safety that events with different severity levels have a common cause, and near miss and lower severity events are demonstrated to be significant predictors of future injuries.
Therefore, efforts that reduce these near misses and lower severity events should be expected to reduce the probability of future serious injuries or fatalities regardless of whether a common cause is shared or not. These assumptions are almost entirely false and drive us to focus on low-hanging fruit. A sole focus on negatives has consequences. It leads to a misunderstanding of what takes for work to be successful and what causes failure.
I have had the unfortunate experience of being part of life-altering serious injury and fatality investigations, all occurring simultaneously with record low incident rates. Without hesitation, I would, trade every low severity recordable incident in my entire career to have those people back whole.
As a result of a string of serious incidents in many different industries, my colleagues and I decided to focus on high or potentially high-severity events. We created proactive metrics for measurement and talked exclusively about critical risk, everything we did was geared around hazards that will kill people. We fully expected an increase in recordable injuries. Except a strange thing happened. Our injury rates didn’t increase at all, they improved. Dramatically.
What we found was an unintentional byproduct that occurred during our efforts. Trust from the workforce was built. Honest, genuine care was felt and a massive change in organizational culture was created. Safety became not a silo built to burden and make work difficult, but a teammate in the field.
Safety Is Not a Journey, It Is an Exploration
What has proven to bring about success is a fundamental change in how we approach safety, and how we view safety. By its nature, this view recognizes organizations’ complexity and uniqueness and the problems they face. Successfully moving down this new path starts with learning.
Learning about what is currently working and holding on to it, embracing new methods, and new measures of success beyond incident rates, and learning from those that accomplish hazardous work within and outside our organizations.
What is the biggest change you can make right now? Change how safety is defined in your organization:
- No longer define safety as the absence of accidents and keeping things from going wrong but as the capacity to fail without people getting hurt and ensuring things go right
- While investigating incidents, look beyond blame, and look at human error as a consequence and not as causal.
- Workers who were once the problem to solve are the problem solvers. Utilize your workforce for solutions.
- Explore ways to make learning deliberate. Don’t just focus on negative outcomes and events. Purposefully and proactively explore ways to improve the way work is done.
- Focus on what will seriously injure your workers and partner with them to implement controls
- Use the power of storytelling – take opportunities to connect, share & learn, and engage in humble inquiry.
In the landscape industry, studies suggest the same challenges facing other industries exist. A NIOSH study published in August of 2021 found that while overall injuries are on the way down, the industry has experienced a rise in serious injuries and fatalities for multiple years in a row (NIOSH 2021). In fact, according to OSHA, when compared to all industries, the landscape industry is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States, with higher-than-average rates of both fatal and serious nonfatal injuries.
Success in safety is often viewed through the lens of a “days since the last injury” sign or a dashboard of metrics on a dashboard, but one life-altering event and all that goes away. Safety is not a target but an enabling objective within our organizations. If our single goal was safety, we simply wouldn’t work.
Safety is often called a journey; it is closer to an exploration. A journey is most often defined as traveling from one place to another. Safety is not that. Safety is exploratory in nature. It is the constant activity of searching and finding something new. Not some new gimmick or program forced into an organization but a new way to view safety, with an understanding that no aspect of human life, with all our fallibility, can be guaranteed to produce any outcome, desired or not.