Attributes of an Injury-Free Culture: Ownership

Parsing the meaning and means of one of the EHS field's highest goals, we find senior leaders can overcome the cultural pessimism that impedes success.

COMPANIES serious about safety performance often talk about the injury-free culture. These three simple words carry a lot of weight and importance. Indeed, it is hard to know how an organization could espouse any different vision of safety. Yet, saying that you want to be "injury free" is not the same as actually moving to this level of performance. For one thing, what do we mean by injury free? Is such a thing even possible? Numbers cannot make up the whole picture; there are many examples of organizations with low injury rates that continue to have fatalities, recordkeeping violations, and so on. It is our experience that getting to an injury-free culture is less about the number of injuries or the injury frequency rate than it is about creating organizational functioning consistent with safety excellence.

This four-part series explores the meanings and measures of an injury-free culture. In this article, we lay the foundation with a look at the fundamental elements of such a culture: a common definition of "injury-free" and ownership among the organization's leaders for driving safety performance.

Creating Alignment for an Injury-Free Culture
Practically speaking, an injury-free culture doesn’t mean "zero injuries"; it means creating an environment where injuries are not acceptable and where we do everything possible to prevent them. The focus is not going forever injury free, which for most people is too hard a concept to support or stand behind. The focus is continuous, sustainable improvement. An injury-free culture is present whenever an organization is saying and doing things such that they go increasingly longer periods without an injury. For example, an organization going 45 days without an injury sets its next milestone to go past 45 days. In these cultures, leaders communicate a reasonable standard in which people can see the logic, and they generate alignment around these goals throughout the organization.

You can assess the level of alignment around the concept of "injury free" simply by speaking with people in the organization; is the idea just a set of words, or is there a true understanding of the concept? Is it being communicated and driven throughout the organization? Most importantly, do we even agree what we mean by injury at all?

It is okay for different organizations to have a different definition for "injury" in this context. If my organization is concerned with lost-time injuries, "injury free" would mean a focus on those events. If we have achieved sustained periods of lost-time injury-free performance, the next milestone would logically be going free of injuries that require medical treatment, and so on. What's important is that there is clarity within the organization about what is meant by the term "injury" and what our objective is with respect to improving organizational performance.

Ownership for Safety
Once alignment is achieved, an injury-free culture must then be led. The organization's leaders must drive the development of the injury-free culture and take ownership for safety outcomes and the systems, conditions, and processes that create those results. Leaders do not necessarily do everything; their job is to ensure the safety mechanism is working to its fullest extent.

In addition to traditional safety programs, ownership extends to driving the commitment down through other leaders in the organization and giving attention to how exposure is measured at the working interface. Leaders who "own" safety performance also place consistent focus on the factors that drive the safety climate and organizational culture. Collectively, these elements can be described as a blueprint for building an injury-free culture:

1. The Working Interface is the configuration of equipment, facilities, systems, and behaviors that defines the interaction of the worker with the technology. This configuration is where hazards exist, and safety excellence is directly related to how effective the organization is at controlling exposure here.

2. Safety Enabling Systems are the basic systems or programs that ensure adequate safety functioning. The safety leader needs to know what these systems are, how they are audited, and how effective they are. More importantly, leaders need to see that enabling systems are part of a larger whole and not rely on them solely for safety improvement.

3. Organizational Sustaining Systems are those processes that sustain enabling systems and assure their effectiveness. They include mechanisms such as selection and development, performance management, organizational structure, employee engagement, and other management systems. Effective leaders understand the relationship between the quality of their sustaining systems, their safety systems, and what occurs in the working interface. For instance, is the structure of the organization such that safety is given adequate emphasis? Does the performance management system meaningfully address safety leadership issues (not just through lagging indicators)?

4. Organizational Culture refers to the driving values of the organization, the "unwritten rules" of the company. Unlike climate, which refers to prevailing influences on a particular area of functioning and is quick to change, culture is deeply embedded and longer-lasting. Effective leaders look realistically at culture and identify issues that could undermine safety objectives. Cultural attributes such as low trust, poor communication, or mixed management credibility can neutralize even the best enabling and sustaining systems.

5. Leadership drives both the culture of an organization and the functioning of enabling and sustaining systems. In this configuration, leadership refers to seeing the right things to do to reach objectives and motivating the teams to accomplish them effectively. Safety leadership is exercised by decision-making, which is related to the beliefs of the leader and demonstrated by his or her behavior.

Overcoming the Helplessness Trap
Finally, culture is as much about what we hear as what we see. That's why at the outset of any effort to improve organizational functioning, it is helpful to listen to how people describe performance issues and problems. Employees at sites successful in moving toward the injury-free culture tend to express optimism about safety and their ability to influence it, even if they are not in charge. You seldom hear statements of helplessness, that is, expressions that things are "outside our control" or someone else's responsibility. These statements demonstrate a lack of ownership and represent a serious barrier to high performance.

Such statements could include:
• We have injuries because our people and our equipment are getting older.
• People are getting hurt because they do dumb things.
• Our supervisors are too focused on production.
• Our people are too busy these days to pay attention to safety like they used to.
• We have a safety department; the numbers are their job.
• You can't trust the benchmark numbers; we are the only ones who report everything.
• The worker's compensation system rewards people who are injured.

Helplessness statements can be most damaging when they are made by senior leaders or when they are made in the context of an effort to create an injury-free culture. The higher the level of the person using helplessness statements, the less likely he will be challenged--and the more likely everyone below that person will take that as an excuse to fail. If I hear my boss say we don't hit safety targets "because people do dumb things," you can bet that people "doing dumb things" will be my first finding in the next investigation.
Helplessness stems from a simplistic view of what creates outcomes (for instance, framing accident causation as "either/or" rather than the result of a complex system). It is outwardly focused and tends to encourage blame. Individuals caught in the helplessness trap seldom recognize it and rarely acknowledge their own role in unfavorable outcomes, for instance, their own lack of commitment or leadership.

In other words, helplessness is diametrically opposed to ownership. If it is persistent enough, helplessness--particularly among senior leaders--creates an atmosphere of pessimism. One senses in these organizations that people do not believe they can succeed and that the "world is working against them." Overcoming this inertia can be a significant challenge. By being aware of this trap, however, and consciously articulating messages that counter them, leaders can offset cultural pessimism and ensure the right conditions for working toward an injury-free culture.

Building on the Foundation
In this article we have highlighted two important factors that you will find in organizations with a culture that supports injury-free performance. First is clarity on what "injury free" really means and the definition of success. Next is unequivocal ownership at the most senior level of the organization. In future installments, we will explore other factors that build on this foundation: the move away from a focus on injury prevention to one on exposure reduction, the metrics and measures critical to injury-free performance, and, finally, the role of true employee engagement for sustainability.

This article originally appeared in the August 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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