Major incidents such as the 2008 Imperial Sugar plant dust explosion, the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill or the 2013 West Fertilizer Co. explosion can call the future existence of a company into question. Even the most minor of incidents damages employee morale, exposes an organization to legal and financial liabilities and can result in negative press coverage, not to mention moral implications.
As a result, more and more leaders are recognizing the need to make it a top priority to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards. Your company's shareholders, customers, employees and even society in general no longer will tolerate safety incidents.
Companies that make safety a top priority often see immediate and significant improvement in recordable incident rates, lost-time incident rates and other safety metrics. However, after several years, as the safety metrics approach zero, something happens: Improvement stalls.
In fact, OSHA data across all industries demonstrates this same plateau.
So what is it that derails progress?
Shaming and Blaming
To answer that question, let's begin by examining the prevailing safety management approach in many companies today. We will refer to it as "blame, shame and train." Here is how it works:
Senior leaders set a goal of reducing injury rates. After all, that is how progress is measured. Often, incentives are tied to these safety metrics, because that is how we get things done.
If someone gets injured, the organization finds someone to blame. That individual is shamed, typically publicly, for causing the incident.
Then, everyone is trained not to do what that individual did.
Few leaders will admit that their safety management strategy is blame, shame and train. Who would want to? It sounds like a terrible strategy. But when you look at many companies' actual practices, that is what they do. Here are some signs that your company's strategy is blame, shame and train:
There are incentives for hitting target incident rates. If an individual or a team doesn't hit the target rate, they don't get a reward.
There is a heavy focus on incident investigation and root cause analysis. You must find THE root cause, and often, it's a person.
The corrective action for most incidents is more often than not – you guessed it – training!
The walls of your workplace are covered with posters exhorting people to "work safe" and "put safety first."
Because you have invested significant time, money and resources in creating JHAs, procedures and safe work practices, there is a belief that there is no way the system failed; it had to be human error.
When leaders hear about an incident, their immediate response is, "I know exactly what happened." That is how investigations end up being influenced (often subconsciously) to achieve the outcome company leaders anticipated.
Why Do Leaders Adopt this Strategy?
Corporate leaders adopt this strategy because it works, at least initially. In fact, this is a strategy that leaders frequently employ to manage many outcomes. They use it to manage attendance, overtime, spending, etc.
The problem is that while it is effective in stopping employees from engaging in most high-risk behaviors, the blame, shame and train strategy doesn't actually make the workplace safer. This is why companies see an initial drop in the number of incidents, but then reach a plateau they can't seem break through.
It's important to remember that there is a difference between a workplace that is safe and a workplace where no one gets hurt. A safe workplace is free from recognized hazards. A workplace where no one gets hurt may just be lucky.
By incenting people to achieve target incident rates, we are incenting people to avoid getting hurt, rather than to make the workplace safer. Furthermore, we are encouraging the use of blame, shame and train as a strategy.
Take a New Approach
Many corporate leaders – particularly at companies that have reached a plateau – are taking a different approach. Instead of focusing on reactive strategies like blame, shame and train, they are focusing on proactively improving their safety management system. To do this, they are:
- Creating a vision for a safe workplace that is free from recognized hazards, rather than a workplace where no one gets hurt.
- Creating a culture of operational discipline that goes beyond blind compliance. They are building workplaces where employees seek to understand the hazards around them, utilize a questioning attitude to identify unrecognized hazards and support their fellow co-workers.
- Implementing proactive risk management programs, and using root cause analysis to figure out why the proactive risk management program failed, rather than who is to blame.
- Providing incentives for participation in proactive safety processes, rather than decreased incident rates.
- Developing select groups of employees to be "specialists" in the area of hazard recognition.
We aren't saying that human beings don't make mistakes. Of course they do. However, human error often is an indicator that the system isn't robust enough to support the current state of operations.
The good news is that the blame, shame and train cycle can be broken. It takes discipline, and you need to resist the knee-jerk reaction of "I know exactly what happened" so that you can get to the true root cause(s) of an incident.
The future of our profession lies not in identifying whom to blame, but in identifying what we can do proactively to eliminate risk and make our workplaces truly safer.
Chris Seifert is a partner with Wilson Perumal & Co. and an advisor to senior executives on leadership, culture and execution. He focuses on operational excellence and operational excellence management systems.
Chris Bulls currently is a regional health and safety leader with Owens Corning. His primary focus is implementing management systems and developing EHS talent for the execution of those systems.