Ten Questions Focusing Towards Higher Level Safety

However, it’s not always clear that going beyond just “expressing” value for safety is expected on all levels. Here are some self-reflective questions you can ask yourself to keep your company in safety check.

Just recently, I was speaking with an experienced and capable EHS regional support manager of a dispersed company who loves her job but requested some direction on how to effect next level change (name withheld at her request). One of her missions is augmenting a strong “partnership between Operations leaders and EHS professionals.” While her CEO is hotly committed to HSE, his ardor for safety performance becomes cooled as reporting distance from him increases.

Not that long ago, only some managers were aboard the safety train, mostly glancing at the locomotive as they zoomed by in their productivity-bound cars as if they’re trying to beat the train to the crossing. Sure, there were some enthused and committed outliers, but these were often seen as misguided or off the deep end.

Fast forward a few years: the clear progression towards diesel train engines became apparent. Here, many executives and managers gladly spoke about the importance of safety, but this didn’t always consistently show in their actions. Their attention to safety rarely trickled down to front-line supervisors, who were often preoccupied with juggling increasing loads of direct reports while intent on getting the work out.

Now moving ahead another generation to Tesla-powered trains: many have instituted an array of initiatives they expect will make a difference—with better trailing results. However, it’s not always clear that going beyond just “expressing” value for safety is expected on all levels. Talk alone doesn’t create change. So, it’s no surprise that results are often still mixed, as performance on many levels (engagement? LTIR? observable unsafe acts?) seems to plateau out. Still, ardent safety proponents report being perplexed.

So, what to do? Arguably, a charged mission of safety leaders is helping turn good thoughts and intent into actual actions. And while there are many vehicles for driving this, one critical one is the top-down path, helping operations leaders actually ingrain safety into all planning and actions.

Of course, there’s a lot just to this. Here are ten suggested starter questions leaders should ongoingly (not just one and done) reflect on:

1. How clear is the balance between central versus local direction? Many companies seem to flex between these two approaches.

Each has its strengths and limitations (for example, HQ-driven safety is theoretically more consistent, saves time, offloads local operations that might have part-time or overwhelmed safety personnel, and enlists economy of scale—but is obviously removed from the realities and unique concerns of outlying sites. Plus, it doesn’t build in ongoing/growing support and buy in).

2. How are we integrating HSE into all operations? Ask yourself what steps you are taking to integrate HSE into everything, instead of just seeing and communicating safety as an add-on, or worse, as somewhat at odds with smooth and efficient overall performance.

3. To what degree does the safety approach shift from a driver-centered “Do it for me” to a more internalized, “Do it for yourself”, mindset? Where does safety motivation increasingly generate from within, and where do people learn to more effectively and readily monitor their own decisions and actions?

4. Are we simultaneously infusing culture AND injury reduction into all of our safety training/programs/messaging? Ask yourself if you are including culture and injury reduction into all programs rather than, for example, having separate approaches for “engagement” that don’t fully integrate with specific injury-reduction methods.

5. To what degree does our structure encourage or discourage building blocks to safer performance? Are safety investigations too punitive—or just pencil-whipping superficial? Do incident reports seem too complicated or arduous for those you’d wish would thoughtfully fill out? Are safety meetings mostly passive with little built-in involvement? In what ways does our system stymie personal safety responsibility and individual leadership?

6. Is there a process in place for validating/certifying steps up in safety performance for different sites and/or business units? Most people need to clearly understand what is expected, the path(s) forward to improvement and be applauded/reinforced for taking even small positive strides.

7. What is the level of consistent attention/support/follow-through on safety concerns and actions? Consistency demonstrates where leaders direct their attention. Tom Peters said that everything he’s learned in working with numerous companies could be summed up in five words: “Attention is all there is.” Consistency is one (significant) factor directly proportional to credibility—and to the belief that leaders actually value and expect higher level actions. Do we bite off more than we can chew much less swallow and say we’re “focusing” on 23 goals—which basically set us up for failure?

8. Are we running pilots aimed at addressing ongoing/tenacious safety problems? This fosters creative solutions and again demonstrates the resolve to actually make improvements, to get beyond doing “the same old things” or accepting safety obstacles as unsolvable. We often simultaneously guard against chasing a fad that promises instant turnaround for little effort or price, and our world has so many solutions that were not available 30 years ago (innovations in gas monitoring, lifesaving drones, smartphone safety apps, back up cameras, remote inspection cameras, fall protection, QR labeling, movement safety etc. For example, there are proven creative solutions to prevalent injuries such as strains/sprains and slips/trips/falls).

9. Do we showcase successes in safer actions, interventions, results? By showcases successes in safety, a company A) tangibly marks that change is not only possible for people within the company but is also practical/doable, B) spurs further ideas for going to next level up and C) gives deserving kudos/recognition that rewards and encourages ongoing developments.

10. How easy do leaders make it for everyone—from executives to operations managers to workers—to lead safety for themselves and others to make decisions and to act, reflexively, by default in safest ways? The easier it is to change, the more likely people will do so.

Each of us can continue to develop our ability to affect change by continually monitoring and asking the right questions—and for activating others to become stronger safety leaders throughout the organization though leading by example.

This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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