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A second look at safety

A new report outlines ways for manufacturers to create risk-competence programs rather than relying solely on a safety compliance culture.

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For most manufacturers, the working mantra is “safety first.” But what does that mean? For some, it’s about implementing safety devices and automation, like light curtains, emergency stop buttons and collaborative robots. But there’s a whole safety culture that needs to be developed and nurtured on the factory floor.

Turns out, there’s psychology behind safety. A safety culture needs to be embraced not just by the organization in general, but by the individuals working within the organization to the point that it impacts their behavior.

In a 2015 Automation World reader survey, respondents said that the number one reason safety guidelines are not followed in a factory is in order to keep production going. The number two reason is that safety procedures are too inconvenient. These fly in the face of the “safety first” song companies are singing. The majority of respondents of the survey noted that training is one of the most important factors in establishing a safety compliant culture, as well as defining safety responsibilities, enforcing accountability and leadership buy-in.

That’s a good start, but a new report from environmental and engineering consulting firm Haley & Aldrich says that communication is a critical component to safety and recommends that manufacturers shift their focus to risk-competence rather than a safety culture focused on compliance alone. The report emphasizes that employees must feel comfortable reporting potential safety problems. If employees notice that safety regulations go unchecked and they feel as if their jobs are at risk if they speak up about potential problems—disaster can happen.

“We’ve seen time and time again how some manufacturers are lulled into a false sense of security by complying with safety checklists instead of taking a good, hard look into their potential areas of risk,” said Danyle Hepler, associate scientist, at Haley & Aldrich. “For example, on the day that the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 people, ironically, executives were at the facility to celebrate the company’s seventh year without an incident. The company’s ‘incident-free’ track record created the false presumption of safety, which is often counterproductive to preventing future incidents.”

According to the report, there was a presumption of safety—and it ended in tragedy. Haley & Aldrich points to the third volume of the report released by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), within which it was revealed that the “incident-free workplace” culture at BP overshadowed the management of real safety risks. BP was not using its safety program to manage risks. Instead, the company used it only to show regulatory compliance.

Furthermore, asking an executive, line supervisor and front-line employee the same question, such as “what risks are acceptable?” will likely produce very different answers. Such breakdowns in communication define a company’s perception of safety, and without a synchronized risk picture at all levels, a company’s safety culture can look great on paper while operating standards continue to slip, and safety risks continue to rise.

To create risk-competence, Haley & Aldrich recommends organizations create an inclusive, interconnected culture – from the executive boardroom to the plant floor – that includes everyone in identifying, measuring and avoiding risk.

The following are five ways to create a risk-competent culture as outlined in the report:

  • Safety is everyone’s job, and everyone needs to understand risk. It’s important that everyone in the organization feels empowered and committed to creating a safe workplace. This involves creating an atmosphere where employees can feel comfortable reporting potential safety problems and the levels of risk they may be undertaking, and openly discussing near-miss incidents.
  • Safety is as important as performance. Too often employees feel pressured to cut corners to meet performance goals. In addition to the tremendous personal and property losses that incidents can cause, they also can severely impact a company’s reputation and bottom line. Top management should make it clear that safety is equally as important as production and quality, and that understanding and mitigating the risks associated with production are an expected part of everyone’s job.
  • Create a shared definition of risk. Since different people have different risk tolerances and perceptions of safe operations, each organization needs to define its own risk tolerance, and ensure that it is shared and understood organization-wide. This can be accomplished by bringing individuals across departments together to collaboratively develop this shared understanding.
  • Measure what is, not what should be. Instead of measuring risk based on standard work procedures, focus on actual day-to-day tasks, which may need to deviate from standard processes. Find the gaps in work as imagined vs. work as completed to identify hidden risks.
  • Use the data. Collect as much data as you can on what’s really going on in your organization, including identifying safety gaps and determining what you need to do to close them. Make sure you conduct in-depth analysis to get an accurate picture and also consider the severity of incidents. For example, while safety incidents and “recordables” may statistically be decreasing, the number of workplace fatalities grows each year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Management should determine how all the data will be measured to help further define the organization’s risk parameters and tolerance and more effectively prioritize those risks.
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