Safety Only Matters 6% of the Time

Get out your pitchforks. This post is full of heresy…

Someone should totally write him up for violating good ergonomic practices…

Recently I taught a leadership class for supervisors. Knowing that most safety training is awful, or at the very least received poorly, I do my best to facilitate instead of talk. Some groups are harder to warm up than others, but people generally appreciate when you include them in the process. This class in particular is fun for me, because I get to teach leadership from a safety perspective. If you contrast that idea with the currently hip trend of teaching safety leadership (I’m not really sure what that even means), some pretty incredible conversations take place.

Years ago I designed a “safety leadership” course that I thought was provocative and engaging. It tanked. Spectacularly. No one participated and my material certainly didn’t elicit the paradigm changing discussions I just knew it would.

Fortunately I learned my lesson. My mistake was assuming I knew what the answers would be. So, my questions were all shaded with my opinions and point of view. I didn’t give anyone the opportunity to question or challenge or even add a new perspective. When you couple that with the fact that no one really wants to go to a mandatory safety training, it was a recipe for a torturous few hours (just as much for me as them).

What are we really after?

These days when I facilitate leadership training, it’s just that. Of course I speak from my experience as a safety and health professional, but leadership is leadership. There’s no reason to pull safety out of any process and make it something different or additional to the core of the business. With that thought in mind, the first thing I ask is this: What is the definition of safety?

Of course it is. But that’s how discourse happens. Inevitably someone in the group hurriedly answers: No injuries!

I mix things up now and again, but my response to that answer is always a challenge: “If I drive to work speeding, run two stop signs, and text the whole way, but I make it to work on time without getting in a wreck was I driving safe?”

It’s time we get real

The next thing I do in my leadership courses is show the following clip by the one and only Dr. Todd Conklin. Invest five minutes in it, you can thank me later:

In my most recent class, one supervisor was furiously writing notes throughout the clip. When it finished I asked what everyone thought. Almost everyone was silent, but I could see wheels turning.

“What are you thinking Leann?” I asked.

“I guess… I’m just having a hard time wrapping my head around what he said,” she replied. “Safety isn’t the absence of an accident.” It was more of a statement than a question.

“Right,” I said. “Real safety is about what we do, not what didn’t happen.” She thought for a minute before responding.

“So, are you saying that we shouldn’t do accident reviews?” she asked.

“Not as often as you do,” I grinned. I had done my homework on the organization and knew something no one else in the room did about their accidents. On average, without taking event severity into consideration, this particular facility experienced injuries about 6% of the days in a given year (averaged over several years). Despite that relatively low rate of occurence, the only “safety” communications that were ever shared were those accidents.

No one celebrated the little wins when a hazard was removed, no one advertised the big capital projects that improved safety conditions, no one had anything to say about safety unless it was in the negative light of an injury. Obviously those lessons needed to be learned, but excellence can never be achieved from 6%.

Investment requires guarantee on return

No investor would put their money down on a product that only guaranteed a 6% return. They would bet on the 94%. Why is it then, that we bank all of our safety on the smallest minority of what happens in our organizations? No one wants accidents or injuries, but waiting for them to happen and then trying to prevent all future occurrences is just plain lazy. It’s time we get out into the field, get dirty, and start finding places to invest that will actually move the dial in a positive direction. Don’t take my word for it though. If you don’t believe proactive investment in fixing weak systems is worth the time and effort, go spend a weekend in Vegas and bet your life savings on black. Let me know how that turns out for you.

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