Strategic Safety Professionals Observe, Control, and Predict

Everything is easy when you’re not the one actually doing it, right? If fantasy could become reality, we would all have that easy button on our desks.

Problem? BAM! Button pushed, problems solved.

As safety professionals, we have one of the most difficult jobs in the world. We not only keep a workplace or jobsite safe, we keep employees safe. The easy part is controlling physical hazards. The hard part is controlling human beings. The even harder part is controlling human beings operating within those physical hazards. And the hardest part is controlling human beings operating in/around those physical hazards with machinery/equipment and production goals.

Bad things can happen, and happen very quickly. But not without warning. Good safety professionals with the right tools at their disposal can recognize these warning signs.

No Magic Bullet

So what makes a difference? Is it the right employee for the job? Is it an effective preventive maintenance program? Is it strong leadership? Is it a safety training program? Is it a strong leading indicators program?

The answer to all this? Yes! And, the list could go on. It’s never one thing. There is no magic bullet. It is a perfect balance of a lot of things.

There is a saying in the football world: “Defense Wins Championships”. But, if you think about it, can teams really be champions without a good balance of offense, defense, special teams and coaching?

You can have the most aware employee because of your impeccable training efforts, but if you don’t have a strong preventive maintenance program on your production machines, your employee could be the most safety conscious fatality ever killed by a malfunctioning machine.

On the flip side, you can have the best maintained production machines in your respective industry, but if someone operates it that lacks the training or knowledge, it will be the best looking, well maintained pile of junk in the scrap yard.

The False Comfort

I like to ask safety professionals how their efforts are working. I’ll often hear, “Great. We’ve experienced no injuries or losses.”

Knowing that is the answer I’ll get, my next question is: “Observations and near misses: what’s your system for reporting, and how does this incorporate with your safety efforts?”

Cue the crickets chirping.

As salty safety professionals, I’m confident that if we were in-tune with observations and near-misses, we would use that information to prevent injuries or other types of losses. That’s the problem though: good organizations have tools to be in-tune. We could have many more in the good category if they, too, had the tools.

Quite simply, if you don’t give employees the opportunity to report observations and near misses–from a safety program management standpoint–as an incident with loss, you don’t (and won’t) have a proactive and predictive safety and health program.

So, now, let me ask you one of my favorite questions. How does your organization report observations, and how does this factor into your safety efforts?

If you’re greeting this question with a blank stare, your organization has some work to do. Health and safety programs help save lives. And, front line employees are absolutely the most valuable resource a company has when it is developing and implementing these programs. Still, many companies struggle with where to begin and how to set the groundwork to establish a program to prevent injuries and illnesses.

  • Establish a foundation of information on the front lines. Your best resources for suggestions are the employees who perform the work. Ask employees to share their concerns about job sites and tasks in relation to their own safety and that of their colleagues, and address their concerns seriously. Employees should be commended for reporting observations and near misses, not penalized. Incidents, observations, and near misses should all be recorded in an incident management system.
  • Estimate the cost of any proposed changes to reduce or eliminate immediate and long-term risks. Ensure that your operating budget has a line item for safety-related improvements. While cost is a critical consideration, in the hierarchy of importance, protecting employees from harm should be higher.
  • Develop a realistic timeline for changes to be implemented. Prioritize risks by severity and work down the list. However, you should take time to help the employees understand the prioritization process and clearly explain why some changes take priority over the other. Remember, everyone believes that their particular suggestions or immediate needs should be top priority. It’s just human nature. Leadership will need to “sell” employees on the bigger picture and its larger, immediate and long-term impacts.
  • State your mission and accomplish it. Employee attitudes toward continuous improvement are greatly influenced by the actions of supervisors and senior management, whether positive or negative. If they see action, your workforce will remain engaged. They see even just ONE instance of inaction and they turn cynical.

Ultimately, no injury is less traumatic or less expensive than one that does not happen. It’s all about understanding and measuring risk and being proactive to reduce or eliminate as much risk as possible. A good safety system that incorporates leadership, learning, leading and lagging indicators, and appropriate follow-up can help bring a company from good to better and maybe even to best.