Recharging Safety for Organizational Health

Understanding how energy works helps leaders move to higher levels of performance.

Energy is critical to all growth and change, both in the human body and in all organizations. Without the needed energy to fuel metabolism and repair any "normal" deterioration or attack, people—and companies—will languish at best or eventually slide toward breakdown.

High-level organizational Safety also depends on energy to spark change—from considering and accepting new methods or equipment, calling on and putting into practice previously transferred Safety techniques, calling out Safety problems, actively participating to improve Safety investigations, generating better and safer ways to accomplish tasks, to supporting others' working safely in the company and at home—and more. And energy is needed just to maintain strong Safety performance so complacency doesn't erode actions and results.

Understanding how energy works helps leaders move to higher levels of performance. Consider, there are always many levels in any complex system. Cells are the most basic level of organization in the body; think of this as akin to individuals working in a company. Zoom out to increasingly higher functioning organs (brain, stomach, etc.)—like a department (or a specific site); the systems (circulatory, digestive, etc.)—think business unit; then to the overall organism (company).

Each level of functioning has different, integrated tasks: Cells maintain survival, next work together as organs to accomplish specific discrete functions, then these communicating and meshing to work in concert with other systems (e.g., accounting, manufacturing, distribution) to accomplish broader tasks for the organism's survival and growth.

And each level is essential to overall health. The organism will suffer even if every organ is in top shape but just one major system malfunctions. It doesn't matter if your lungs are in good condition if your heart is minimally functioning. Similarly, even if there's an available tool that might drastically cut accidents, this may not even be brought in (or only arrive well after damage is already done), if the Contracting organ blocks this (been there, seen that).

Energy fuels all functioning on each level. Like a car, organizations need fuel and the oxygen to access this. Yet Safety energy is frequently lacking in many companies, either because there's insufficient "fuel" or lack of "oxygen." In Safety, the fuel that get people moving, propelling them beyond their established ways, may include: dissatisfaction with past performance (or, sadly, even a recent series of accidents), presence of a newly released physical or training tool, pressure from a parent company, a series of "unfortunate events" that management can no longer set aside or ignore. At highest level, Safety fuels people to become interested, excited, focused on camaraderie, challenge, competition, and by the desire to be better.

Take oxygen. Though invisible, it's necessary for actually releasing the energy from fuel to make it usable. In Safety, "oxygen" is the often-hidden cultural surround; even though you can't see it, it's critical for life. Some companies' cultures are stifling, akin to an overload of carbon dioxide. For example, there might be significant and overlooked mixed messages about Safety. Or management's Safety presence and commitment are absent or negligible. Or where people are harshly criticized or disciplined for Safety "violations" that may or might not be due just to their own actions. All this sucks the oxygen out of the Safety room.

In the physical body, oxygen has to be delivered to cells; similarly, the oxygen of Safety commitment also has to circulate. Not enough oxygen, and healthy cells languish or are overcome. Did you know, for example, that cancer cells thrive where fuel (sugar) levels are high and where oxygen is low, so otherwise normal cells become weakened? Science Daily reported studies concluding, "Healthy cells reduce their growth when there is a lack of oxygen (hypoxia). This makes it even more surprising that hypoxia is a characteristic feature of malignant tumors." Similarly, in a "low oxygen" Safety environment (where workers don't personally "get" management's commitment or feel support for their personal Safety), the cancers of dissatisfaction, disinterest, distrust, and disengagement can erupt and metastasize.

Oxygenating Your Culture
Senior managers can oxygenate Safety culture by allocating tangible resources to effectively pilot new interventions, as well as scheduling small regular time periods to check in and get updated on leading returns, directing attention and displaying their interest and commitment to Safe planning and actions.

Don't allow your Safety system to run out of gas—or oxygen. A company's Safety fuel also can be measured just as vehicles have fuel gauges to let you know when you need to re-gas. Create your own custom leading indicators to ongoingly monitor the levels of Safety energy: Are people merely "barely compliant" at best? Going through the motions mostly to cover themselves? Daydream through Safety meetings? Roll their eyes up during Safety investigations? Show lack of interest in hearing about Safety? Avoid participating in Safety committees or other activities? Very importantly, check your Safety energy regularly, just as you do your gas gauge during a road trip.

Help Safety breathe and grow. Pump fuel and oxygen throughout the company. Make sure your fuel line isn't blocked. And fill up before you get too low—go beyond superficial motivational messages. Encourage enough readiness for change from the top, a level of willingness from mid-managers and supervisors, and a breath of fresh ideas from workers, contractors, others. Richard Branson contends, "Solutions can appear from the most surprising of places if you are curious and committed." Go well beyond just being receptive to ideas; actually solicit alternative Safety approaches from those doing tasks, from supervisors and occupational health nurses.

Safety culture is ever-changing, synthesized from ingredients throughout an organization, and it always requires focused energy. A hummingly energized Safety organism promotes overall company health and strength.

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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