Let’s bust some safety management myths

Mike Goddu's picture
Mike Goddu, Partner & Co-Founder, JMJ Associates
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“Give me a lever and a place to stand and I can move the world.” Archimedes

Most operating companies have seen improved safety performance, but safety improvement has stalled. In response, companies have invested heavily in safety management. They have added more systems, procedures and checks.

But these have become bureaucratic and costly. Without Safety Leadership – a place to stand – they are not gaining leverage; they have become a big, costly stick. We offer the following myths to provoke new thinking for safety.

1. Safety is the absence of harm

Organizations put their emphasis on preventing bad things from happening and mitigating when they do. This has worked to date, but is no longer yielding improvements. In dynamic operating conditions safety is not just the absence of harm, it is the presence of capability to recognize, adapt, prevent, respond and learn. This capability is at all levels: workers, supervisors, contractors and suppliers.

2. Human behavior is the cause of most incidents. Mistakes, not following procedures, and seemingly-thoughtless decisions are the most prevalent causes of most accidents.

Certainly humans are involved in most incidents. However, blaming the worker precludes learning. Much can be learned from viewing behavior as a “trigger” or an outcome rather than a cause.

It is a lot more useful to consider that accidents have organizational and cultural causes. Organizational leadership is responsible for culture, resource allocation, and the process by which work is done, not the worker. Studies have shown that people, whether in groups or individually, behave in perfect harmony with their surroundings.

3. It is possible to do it right, all the time.

100% compliance in a complicated workplace is simply not possible. Behavior cannot be reduced to six-sigma predictability. Similarly, credos such as “do it right or not at all” do not hold up in the face of real work situations and as such amount to little more than safety Stalinism.

4. Following procedures and holding people to account are the keys to safety.

Organizational rigor is critical to safe work execution. It is necessary, yet insufficient. Procedures are too often out-of-date, cumbersome and not readily implemented to the actual work process. In fact, adapting procedures is often necessary and safer.

In summary:

  1. People are not the safety problem to be controlled or solved; they are pathway to solutions.
  2. Behavior is not a cause of most incidents. Looking for and correcting errors will not improve safety.
  3. Safety is not the absence of harm, it is the presence and development of capability
  4. Safety is over-managed and under-led.
  5. Safety leadership: Fosters learning / Causes change / Actively questions underlying biases, goal conflicts, the status quo.
  6. Safety Leadership is a stand for: People. Genuine care for health, well-being, vitality of people at work / Continuous improvement: Safety is a journey / The success of the organization and operation. Not just safety. Safety in service of high quality operations.

How to reduce risk in gas operations? Leave your comments below.

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