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Copyright 2004, American Safety & Emergency Response
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Part I: Is Safety Really the No. 1 Priority?
The specific methods of accountability are important, but their success depends on the sincerity of the effort
by Keith A. Krout

It's time once again to consider how safety affects us, or, more precisely, how we affect it. The history of safety is littered with ideas and models on how to build a better mousetrap. Inspections, worker's compensation, OSHA regulations, machine guarding, behavior-based safety--all have tried to identify the magic bullet that will make our world simple and injury-free. We still have people injured every day. So, why have all our safety efforts failed? Have they failed? What's the magic bullet? What can we do?

As a safety professional of 13 years, working with and for hundreds of operations, I have never met a leader who wanted to have people hurt. In fact, I have never met a leader who did not genuinely want to have a safe environment. Everyone largely knows what to say, or at least what they think people want to hear. We have government regulation and citations, insurance programs that cost more when you have more losses, and still injuries occur. They occur frequently, and they are severe. Fatalities and significant disabilities occur daily. Can we ever prevent all of these accidents?

As we enter the new millennium (you had to see it coming!), we need to accept a few things as fact.

1. We have not been successful in eliminating injuries.
2. We have not yet fully integrated safety into our workplaces.
3. We have yet to find the magic bullet.

Additionally, it is time to shock all the safety folks who are reading this. Safety is not the number one priority. It never has been and never will be. If our desire were to be absolutely sure we would not get injured while working, we would not work. Our plants would close, our shops would close, and our ability to earn money and support our families would end. We work because we want or need to. We are willing to risk injury to achieve that end. We all accept risk. Many jobs even command increased salary because of the intrinsic hazards of the required tasks. We'll talk about amount of risk and undue risk later, but all of us accept risk as a priority over pure safety. The myth of safety being a number one priority needs to be dispelled for good, and let it begin here.

As we move forward and discuss integrating safety into our culture, it is important to dispel another myth. While we look for the magic bullet, our search is in vain. There is no magic bullet to reduce accidents, no easy way out. We look for the easy answer, the simple mathematical equation to resolve our problems, but that is our grail quest. While science rushes to turn ergonomics into a science and engineers try to build the injury-free machine, we learn again and again that these noble efforts will not eliminate injuries on their own. While they are a big piece of the puzzle, they remain just a piece.

What are we missing? Obviously, we lack some elements. Perhaps we lack the skills to manage effectively or the technical knowledge and understanding. Maybe we lack resources such as time or funding, or other critical business resources. Possibly the resource is available but not focused on safety because safety lacks a sense of urgency. Leaders are committed but never seem to get around to supporting safety and integrating it into the culture.

Should we abandon our efforts? No! It is time for us to regroup and reapproach from a little different angle. It is time we make safety P.A.R.T. of what we do, and I do not mean just safety professionals. Not just insurance people looking to save a buck. Not just bleeding hearts or academics. Not merely politicians, regulators, or anyone else. It is time we integrated safety into our culture. I'm not talking about holding hands and singing, I'm talking about a genuine win-win opportunity.

To be successful, we must use a comprehensive, common-sense approach. The elements of a safety success are discussed below and in the second half of this two-part column, to be published in this magazine next month. You will notice I did not use the word "program." Programs come and go in our world. Safety must be integrated in every way with our business. Simply put, it must be P.A.R.T. (Participation, Accountability, Reasonability, Training) of what we do.

Participation
For years, we have recognized the value of a participative approach. Experience has shown us the solutions to our challenges are walking around on our shop floor. The skilled system expertly taps this knowledge base and maximizes it. This is not the old suggestion box, but a dynamic, multi-level system. Certainly, a strong safety committee is fundamental, but task forces on specific issues also may be required. A high-level steering or oversight group facilitates top-level communication and secures buy-in. Supervisory panels serving as the "get it done" groups for the safety committee tie in this critical group.

Regardless of the methods, a few key items must be present to make sure the participation is effective. In fact, if these elements are not in place, the participation will actually work against your safety efforts and act to demoralize your employees.
The first element is probably the most important. If this is in place, the others usually follow naturally. Make sure the feedback and input are acted upon, and done so with a sense of urgency. Urgency is a powerful word; it is often the missing link between commitment and a strong safety culture. Certainly some projects take more time than others, but asking for input and then ignoring it sends a very bad message. Make sure the people who supplied the input get an answer, even if it is "no." A strong response that explains why the input cannot be used assures the individual that his ideas have been at least considered. Most people do not think they have all the answers; they just want to be heard.

Speaking of being heard, listening is a key element of a participative process. All of the elements of good listening apply. First, you have to stop talking. Then, you have to listen actively and explore thoughts. Ask probing questions and clarify the point. A suggestion I made once was returned as not feasible when the individual took my first 10 words and then made my suggestion what he wanted. It was nothing like what I had submitted!

Finally, we must be ready to act. We must not be afraid to do the right thing. In today's world everything must be justified, but once it is we must act upon it. Failure to carry out good ideas plagues our lives. People doing the right thing are greatly needed in our safety world, the business world, and the world in general. If we are leaders in a management group focused on maximizing participation, we will lay the foundation for safety success.

Accountability
We all know what gets measured gets reinforced, and most of the time it improves. This is a time-tested principle from a behavior modification standpoint. In our operations, we measure everything. We measure costs, efficiencies, accidents, losses, and countless others. We do this in hopes of improvement. We provide feedback and chart our progress, all in hopes of improving.

There is, however, one flaw in the typical methods we use to measure safety, the incidence rate. While I will not debate the validity or the need for a common benchmarking tool, we also use this to indicate to leadership how we are doing. The flaw is that most leaders have no concept of what it means to injure 4.3 people out of every 100. To be honest, that can easily suggest a 95.7 percent success rate, which will get you into almost any hall of fame.

As safety professionals figure this out, normally the first thing that happens is we report and measure cost. This is a measurement we all understand, but a $100,000 loss is more money than most of us deal with, and certainly insurance and most companies can withstand these. Finally, the evolution comes to measuring things that the business deals with. In the bottling business, we used cost per case. The trick is finding indicators in your business that can be tied into and utilized to effectively communicate the impact of safety. After all, a measurement is nothing more than a common ground for communication.

Accountability for safety must be spread through all levels of the operation. Hourly employees are typically held accountable through training and enforcement of established policies and rules. Supervisors and managers may have some minor element of safety in evaluations. Leaders may have bonuses contingent upon business results, where accident reduction can have significant impact.

The discussion of what are and should be key accountabilities is a topic unto itself, and we will not delve fully into it here. There are, however, a few key elements that merit discussion. They should include some result measures and some activity measures. This promotes participation and commitment, even when results are less than desirable. They should promote teamwork and still be as directly controllable as possible. Depending on the culture of your organization, they may best be determined by those being measured.

The specific methods of accountability are important, but their success depends on the sincerity of the effort. The measures used must be significant, and the results that flow from performance also must be significant. All of us have seen leadership give lip service to safety. It is as consistent as Old Faithful. The leadership must be sincere and tenacious.

Recently, I asked a friend for advice on how to get a relationship going with his counterpart in another operation. His advice was simple and clear: Use the same tenacity you used to get me started. That relentless, yet professional pursuit of genuine accountability will take your process a long way.

Keith A. Krout is President of The Center for Safety Development, Inc. (TheCenterSafety@aol.com), Matthews, N.C. He has six years of experience in manufacturing--meat processing and soft drink bottling--two years in consulting, and four years in the insurance industry, working in manufacturing and health care in loss prevention and branch management.