Future safety professionDecember 9, 2015
There is a common acceptance these days that behavioral deviations are a major contributors of accidents. Few people however, realize the far-reaching consequences of this conclusion. Not only do we need to shift the topic of our discipline away from a technical to a social context, but we also need to adjust the way we manage our safety policy. That’s the subject of this article.
Since World War II major investments have been made in creating a safer world and a safer work environment. Initial efforts were focused on improving technical aspects of our work (machinery, equipment) and on regulating processes within organizations (rules, regulations and protocols). For the past 25 years the focus has been on creating a safety culture as a way of influencing human behavior in a positive way. All these efforts have had a positive impact on the safety performance of many companies.
More is needed
Unfortunately the current safety levels achieved are not as high as projected during the development and introduction of cultural programs like Hearts & Minds. We now realize that more or maybe different things are needed in order to achieve a zero harm work environment. The curve that once was created by Patrick Hudson and his colleagues (a cooperation of the universities of Leiden, Manchester and Aberdeen), needs at least one more swing to hit the bottom of the diagram. This raises the question of whether there are in fact other ways to promote safe behavior than via cultural programs. What else can be done to influence individual behavior?
Two ways of managing processes
The curve of Patrick Hudson e.a. suggests to some extent that there is a continuum in the approach which began with technology and then shifted via systems and culture to individual behavior. Many organizations try to manage a cultural change project as if it were a technical project. They measure a baseline level via a questionnaire, set a desired target and plan to reach that target with planned actions and within a fixed time frame. This approach seems logical especially to those who have a technical background, something which is not uncommon amongst QESH-officers and –managers. The point I would like to raise here is that the process of changing an organizational culture or individual behavior (sometimes referred to as the soft aspects) is of a different nature and character and is therefore subject to different laws compared to those appropriate for changing technology or regulations (the hard aspects).
Thus we can distinguish between two types of processes in safety management, which are mutually influential and can be regarded as complementary. On the right side of the diagram we see technology and systems. We would like to define the management of these topics as process management. On the left side we can distinguish culture and individual behavior. Managing these topics can be defined as social management.
The new paradigm is that the art of safety management is to create a harmony between these two complementary processes, which will cooperate when they are well balanced towards each other.
An example: LMRA
Lets take the Last Minute Risk Analysis as an example. This safety tool is intended to prepare the employee to the task and to strengthen his risk awareness. By organizing this before each irregular assignment, we create conditions by which we enhance safe behavior. As such, an LMRA belongs to the techniques of social management. Unfortunately many organizations try to manage the use of an LMRA via process management. A short form needs to be filled in during each LMRA, some prepared questions need to be answered, checkboxes need to be filled in and the results of open questions are gathered in an Excel file. A soft tool like an LMRA is treated in a hard way. The result is that employees no longer experience the real value of the tool, fill in the questions in an automated way and sometimes this even occurs before they have received their work permit. A beautiful safety tool is killed due to the inappropriate management.
What is social management?
Social management is about influencing human beings so that they will behave safer. One of the key elements of this management approach is that man naturally starts to behave safer if he has a clear perception of the risks involved. Therein lies the crux of the LMRA. For example, the mechanic who receives an assignment and the operator who explains this assignment, discuss together what the job entails and what the possible risks are. For larger assignments a first line supervisor can join this conversation. Another key element of social management is that the transfer of risk awareness is much stronger if there are emotions involved. We are much more sensitive to risks that are transferred via a personal encounter than via a risk description on paper.
Social management may sound difficult but it most definitely is not. This way of management has been embedded in the way we deal with each other for thousands of years. Our ancestors were masters of surviving in dangerous conditions. Those who took too many risks were kicked out of the gene pool and didn’t generate any offspring. Before they went hunting there was no requirement to fill in a predefined questionnaire, but they shared the dangers they might encounter and anticipated how to counter them as a group. They also coached each other constantly during the hunt and by doing so transferred knowledge from one to the other. These are all key elements of social management. Since then we haven’t changed much as humans while our society has undergone enormous technological developments. The dangers of these processes outweigh the previous ones, which make process management increasingly necessary these days. Unfortunately it seems as if we lose sight of the human dimension in safety management.
Brain Based Safety
Managing social processes within organizations is one of the topics covered and is well within the Brain Based Safety philosophy. In addition, the approach also tries to give an answer to two other crucial questions. The first one explains why people take risks, which generate small gains for the company but which also increase the possibility of a serious or even fatal accident. The second one is how one can influence the behavior of others within an organization. If you would like to know more about this approach, you can:
– click on other pages of this website
– read the book Human Behavior in Hazardous Situations, or
– invite me for a lecture / workshop on this topic.