About 20 years ago I had a profound experience that changed the way I approach my work in safety. Prior to this I very much believed that if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist and that 90% of accidents are due to human error.
I was working with a group of employees and supervisors to uncover the root causes of a tragic fatality. They kept telling me that the root cause was lack of trust and open communication and I would tell them those are symptoms not causes.
Suddenly, maybe because of the pain in their faces, I stopped and really listened. One person said, “We kept trying to tell them there was a problem with the layout of the equipment, but management never listened.” In the throes of my new found insight I decided right then and there that all we needed to do to get things on the right track was to tell the managers how important it is to listen and respond to safety concerns because many times the information they need to prevent a fatality is being offered to them, and all they have to do is listen, investigate and respond.
After I delivered the message to the leadership team they thanked me and never invited me back for the dialogues that I had recommended. Instead they hired a very expensive work re-design consultant firm and instituted a behavior observation program. A couple of years later they had a second accident where a man lost his arm. Could it be that the underlying mistrust and lack of communication were never addressed?
I learned safety is not only about rules, compliance, and safety management systems – it is also about feelings and emotions. The challenge for improvement is therefore complex. We can no longer rely so heavily on root cause analysis, training, and top-down driven change. We need safety management innovations that get at the core of the challenge – a company’s relationships.
DuPont did a worldwide survey in 2013 where companies revealed that their top priority was creating a safety culture where employees held each other accountable and were willing to confront an unsafe act (Lin). Every major company wants this, but our traditional approaches to safety management aren’t going to help us create a culture where people watch each other’s back and are open to giving and receiving feedback. The CEO of a mining company called me because they had had three fatalities in 18 months. After each occurrence they did an investigation and applied best safety management practices, yet they were unable to prevent the next fatality. They were looking for the missing element not provided by their audits, dashboards, standard operating procedures, near miss reporting, or behavior observations.
What’s missing? What comes to mind is the grassroots wisdom those workers offered me long ago: trust and open communication are the foundation of safety. You can have the best systems and technology, but if there is no trust there is no communication and that means eventual failure. What would it look like if management took this message to heart, and what kind of practical actions could be taken to promote this desired work environment?
The principal action is for leaders to build relationships with each other and employees so that information may be exchanged accurately, at the right time, and in an atmosphere of mutual respect. I am suggesting that investing in the improvement of relationship and conversation in your organization will fertilize the ground for your safety improvement efforts so that you can get the results you are looking for. The importance of trust and open communication may not be new, but most organizations do a fairly poor job in this area.
People attend communications workshops to learn how to give and receive feedback that may be personally helpful but do not seem to take root in the workplace. I find that follow up and supporting structures are critical to maintaining the insights gained during a workshop or from an experience such as a fatality. Teaching people how to have effective conversations, give feedback etc. go to waste without an established routine where they can be practiced, evaluated and there is some certainty of follow through. However, the structure (procedure, policy, checklist) will not make it happen. What makes a program successful is leaders ensuring that the information that is gathered is used to make corrections and involves workers in conversations about the data. The meetings, reports or checklists have meaning because they generate results that are perceived as helpful by the people participating.
These kinds of open conversations tend to naturally take place between friends and members of well-established groups/teams. Consciously recreating these kinds of relationships in work groups is a challenge but it can be done when you establish the proper environment. You can put everyone through communications training but making it part of the culture will require leaders to set the example, consistent follow up and perseverance.
- Lin, M. (2013) The Effect of Interdependence on Safety Performance and Operating Dexterity. DuPont Internal Technical Report.