Managing Safety in the Workplace

We need a completely new approach to managing safety in the workplace. Whilst we still have a very high rate of workplace accidents and incidents it is clear that previous initiatives have been limited in their ability to introduce change. After examining a range of current practices it has become clear that our attempts to change workplace safety behaviour ignores the science of human behavior. The things that we are currently doing have proved that they will never work in their current form. Even a recent campaign by a government department suggested that we should, "Take care." What does this mean? Does it mean that we should be more careful? Specifically, what should we do or not do? "Take care" is largely meaningless.

"Take care," "work safely," "zero accidents" are all slogans that do not contribute in any way to a safer workplace. Exhorting people not to hurt themselves is counter-productive. We always seem to know more about what we don't want people to do than what we want them to do. We issue directives like: Don't make errors; Don't have accidents; Don't be late.

What we must keep in mind is that people are hired to do things. Active behavior gets things done If, for example, someone is making mistakes in data entry on an assembly procedure, telling the person to stop making errors will not solve your problem because one way of not making errors is to do nothing. Errors are a measure of something other than the behavior of interest, so you will not necessarily get what you want by stopping what you don't want.

If you tell people to stop making personal phone calls, for example, they may stop the calls, but talk to coworkers instead. Targeting behavior requires finding what people do, not what they don't do.

The importance of pinpointing active behaviors was made clear by Dr. Ogden Lindsley. He developed the "dead-man's test" which is: "If a dead man can do it, it isn't behavior, and you shouldn't waste your time trying to produce it."

Yet much of what we typically track in quality and safety violates the dead-man's test. "Zero defects" and "days without a lost-time accident" are prime examples of popular goals that violate the dead-man's test. Dead men never have accidents and they never produce defective parts.

If you examine typical businesses, you'll see numerous examples of management focusing on inactive behavior or behavior that leads to no accomplishment.

One day whilst inspecting an engineering workshop, I saw two staff members walk under a suspended load which would have weighed at least sixty tons.

Obviously this was something the two people had done many times before. It was certainly not safe behavior, but neither were injured and they ended the job with no lost-time accidents.

Using the criteria of the usual safety program, these two could easily qualify as participants at their employer's safety celebration, commemorating three months without a lost-time accident. As you can see, no "lost-time accidents" doesn't necessarily reflect the level of safe behaviors on the job; it just reflects a fortunate result. In the same way, zero defects does not equal careful quality-oriented behavior.

I have never met anyone who went to work to hurt themselves. However, I have met many people who hurt themselves working carefully.

Probably the most common way to try and bring about change in the workplace, is to use an outside influence such as punishment or reward. One method is to prescribe the desired change in behaviour and then set up a regime of compliance. This tends to develop a "catch 'em doing wrong" pattern of behaviour among managers and supervisors. This in turn creates winners and losers and normally fails to develop a safer workplace. If the staff perceive themselves as losers, they will get their revenge on the organisation in many varied and subtle ways.

The other way is the reward method. "If you don't hurt yourself, (or report accidents) you will receive a reward." Neither of them work because they are external influences when the desired situation is the development of self discipline.


Post a Comment