The Future of Safety: 2010 and Beyond

It is difficult for many people to think about the future, especially in today's economic climate. Putting one's feet up and pondering the future seems a tremendous luxury when so many tactical things are demanding our attention. Yet it is this ability to understand the future that constitutes true safety leadership. Without a sense of the context and trajectory of performance, it is impossible to know where to focus for long-term improvement. This article draws on more than 20 years of experience with organizations across industry to sketch the issues that will be key to shaping the future of safety performance.

Safety performance has come a long way in the past 40 years. When OSHA was established in 1971, industrial safety in the U.S. was intensely focused on the technical content of safety programs. At the close of the first decade of the 21st Century, the practice of safety has evolved into an endeavor involving multiple disciplines and roles. Determining where we go from here requires attention both to the state of safety functioning and to the wider demands of the changing business climate. In particular, the future of safety will be defined by how organizations respond to several key issues:

  • Globalization
  • Culture and performance
  • Prioritization of safety initiatives
  • Development of employee engagement
  • The relationship between organization and employee

Issue 1: The Globalization of Safety Standards

As the world gets smaller and information and innovations travel faster and farther, multinational companies are recognizing the obligation to apply the same standard of care for their employees and contractors, regardless of location. In the past, it may have been acceptable to assume that safety performance in different countries was representative of the local culture or that it predetermined future success (or lack thereof). These assumptions skew the facts and create a sense of helplessness that undermines the potential for high performance. Providing the same standard of care means safety leaders must develop a greater appreciation for culture as it is manifested in the workplace. For American safety professionals, it means avoiding a U.S.-centric approach to standardization. Just because something has worked in the United States doesn't mean it will apply elsewhere.

Without question, there are significant differences among national and regional cultures. For example, in some cultures there is great resistance to speaking negatively about a superior, while in other cultures people revel in the opportunity to do so. Organizations operate within layers of different cultures: national, regional, local, even subcultures within the same location. To excel in the future, safety leaders must understand these differences and their effect on safety performance. In essence, the "what" of safety is the same everywhere; it is the "how" that changes.

One particular example of how globalization will affect safety standards is in our understanding of best practices. The concept of identifying and applying a set of best practices makes the most sense in issues of equipment and engineering. (e.g., equipment design, predictive and preventive maintenance, or guarding). Universal approaches make less sense when it comes to training, employee engagement, awareness efforts, and motivation. The leader's job is to understand what needs to happen for safety performance and engage employees in that work. This is where a sensitivity to local culture comes in; organizations need to learn how to adapt the implementation of critical activities to the needs of the employee group, not to adapt the activities themselves.

Issue 2: Culture & Performance

Along with a change in how organizations think about achieving consistent performance across national and regional cultures, there will be shift s in how we think about organizational culture itself. In particular, the idea of safety culture as a separate and unique entity creates problems for organizations that wish to integrate safety with the wider business. Aside from dividing the attention of leaders among various performance areas (e.g., positing one culture each for safety, productivity, ethics, environment, etc.), this thinking ignores the considerable evidence showing that a single underlying culture, or "the way things are done," underlies all business outcomes.

Rather than trying to infl uence "safety culture" (or the like), forward-thinking organizations will increasingly emphasize a "culture of commitment" that spans the business as a whole. A culture of commitment can be defined as an environment in which employees at all levels will do what is right for themselves, their boss, and the organization, even when they would personally gain from non-compliance, because they are bought in and connected to the organization and leaders' vision.

Developing a culture of commitment will require that organizations pay attention to the development of leaders who engage and motivate workers. Organizational leaders vary in their abilities and skills, and doing the right things to infl uence behavior may vary widely from the senior leader to the manager and from the manager to the supervisor. Fundamentally, however, leaders must work on the relationships that exist across the organization. In a culture of commitment, four relationships are paramount: those between the employee and (1) his or her immediate supervisor; 2) the management team; 3) the organization he works for, and 4) his peers.

Issue 3: Prioritization of Safety Initiatives

A persistent challenge for many organizations today is the increasing load placed on leaders with respect to safety. The front-line supervisor is especially affected because nearly every safety program pivots around the supervisor, and the same is true for just about every other program invented and implemented by other departments. This trend is unsustainable. Ultimately, such increasing demands can lead to a culture of "optionality." Individual leaders will be forced to determine for themselves the most important activities and behaviors to focus on, or, in some cases, they may try to attend to all their demands but will achieve none of them very well.

In the future, forward-thinking organizations will begin to address this dilemma by reducing the overall number of safety programs and creating priorities for sitelevel leadership around those that remain. This prioritization will be based on two factors. The first will be clarification around what programs and systems absolutely must be maintained, such as those that prevent life-altering injuries, fatalities, and catastrophic explosions or releases. The second level of prioritization will be around the type of exposures that exist. Exposures will be classified as:

  • exposures that are totally within the control of the employee to eliminate or control;
  • exposures that can be controlled but require extra effort and employee commitment to achieve; and finally
  • exposures that are beyond the capability and resources of the employee to control.

Leaders will look at where they are spending their time and resources and will focus their attention on helping employees control those exposures that are hard or impossible for them to do.

Issue 4: Developing Employee Engagement

As organizations place more focus on a culture of commitment and as leadership demonstrates that safety is a core value, there will be a pull from workers to be more involved in safety. A focus on prioritization will demonstrate to leadership that exposures within the control of the employee (because the systems and the culture are aligned to eliminate them) can be managed by peers as effectively, if not more effectively, than by supervisors and managers. In this future organization, employee engagement will move away from gimmicks toward systems that are fundamentally sound and that add value. Those systems will focus on having employees measuring exposure and using this information to change individual attitudes and beliefs and to identifying system and cultural factors that challenge exposure reduction. This type of engagement further deepens the culture of commitment.

Issue 5: The Employee-Organization Relationship

Finally, organizations will begin to move away from incentives and short-term awareness programs. For years, safety has been hindered by a proliferation of gimmicky programs that drain off valuable resources and oft entimes lower management's credibility. Incentives and other short-term programs are based on the false assumption that you have to do something new every year to keep safety "fresh" and that employees are too slow-witted to sustain a focus on safety for more than a few weeks or months. In the future, leaders will be more selective in the programs and systems they elect to support. When leaders prioritize, are focused on a culture of commitment, and truly desire employee engagement, they will require evidence that a recommended system or program is sustainable and has a sound scientific basis.

Getting There from Here

As organizations move to advanced safety performance, they will necessarily integrate it more closely with the functioning of the business. This is perhaps the greatest development of all. Safety functions best when it is a core part of the business and when employees at all levels are motivated to improve safety and their energies are deployed efficiently. Realizing this future will take deliberate, strategic steps. Pursuing it consistently, however, leaders stand to improve not only their safety outcomes, but also the health and well-being of their organizations.

About the Author

Donald R. Groover, CIH, CSP, is vice president and executive relationship manager of BST, an international performance solutions company based in Ojai, Calif. He is an experienced consultant and executive coach who has helped hundreds of organizations improve safety performance. This article is the first part of a four-part series titled "The Attributes of an Injury-Free Culture," which will continue for the following three consecutive issues.

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