Safety as a Symptom, Not a Problem
Your throat hurts. Your knee throbs. You feel discomfort in your lower back. These are all small symptoms that alert you to a potential problem. That is the role of a symptom. It is an indicator. A telltale sign of the existence of a problem or undesirable situation. Organizations need to look at safety as an indicator of other malaise in the organization and not just a problem to solve.
Safety's value is widely accepted. There are rankings and scores for products to help consumers determine the safest car, car seat, neighborhoods, foods, and places to work. Yet roughly, 3 million nonfatal injuries and illnesses and 4,836 workplace fatalities were reported in 2015. It is imperative for companies to have subject matter experts to ensure the competencies and knowledge required to manage key functions is in place. Companies also need leaders that provide instruction when needed, highlight priorities, set the tone for the organization, and know how to identify and seize opportunities for discussion, teaching, and relationship building. Nevertheless, simply having safety leaders at a company is insufficient. Safety needs to be a core component of running the business.
The precursors to safety issues often appear in other functions; left unchecked, systemic organizational issues will boil up. They may appear at first to be a system safety issue. Before the Challenger's launch in 1986, engineers warned about issues with the shuttle's components. The company responsible for the design ignored warnings about its rocket boosters. Issues do not need to be as catastrophic as the Challenger's fateful launch. They can appear as a design issue that leads to bent pipe flying out from a machine, graffiti found in and around the workplace, or employees fearing a fellow co-worker. Each of these represents a challenge (design, engagement, and HR) where applying a "safety solution" does not address the root cause, which is unrelated to safety.
Consider a recent study that tested the relationship between workplace injuries and fatalities and meeting earnings expectations. The data used in the investigation, compiled by OSHA between 2002 and 2011, showed higher injury and illness rates for those companies that met or just beat analyst forecasts. The data further showed the injury and illness rates for those companies was significantly higher than that of companies that comfortably met or missed the mark. Thus, what at first blush seems like a safety statistic and safety issue is really an organizational issue. One where the safety message is being lost among competing priorities to produce. Moreover, as the authors of the study note, "disclosures about workplace safety could serve as signals to investors that managers are engaged in short-sighted activities to meet earnings targets. In other words, unusually high injury rates may signal that the firm is engaged in practices that resulted in a transitory boost to earnings that investors should not expect to persist."
It is time to upgrade the way companies think about safety. Safety professionals are well-versed in conducting root cause analysis. However, it is reactive and results from a lagging indicator (an accident). It is not a proactive measure. Companies and safety professionals need to move beyond the root cause analysis and consider causation as possibly multifactor and multifunction. Instead of looking for a "safety solution" that narrows the scope of the inquiry and the possibilities for solutions, leaders should seize the opportunity to step back and see the bigger picture and the multiple contributing factors that may need to be addressed.
Safety decisions are business decisions; sidelining safety from the business hamstrings the organization by failing to tap into the greater capacity of the organization to build its leadership, resilience, and brand. While safety and EHS leaders can and should provide the functional expertise a company needs, those same EHS and safety leaders should align with other "risk managers" and "risk mitigators" to help the overall organization run better and improve its overall health. In a preventative strategy, those EHS/safety leaders can be looped in before the hazard materializes to help identify potential issues.
Upgrading how organizations think and view safety requires going deeper and re-working relationships, building buy-in, and recalibrating expectations at all levels: the shop floor, management, senior leadership, and across siloes. It will force uncomfortable questions like, what does safety currently look like? What does it feel like? What do we want safety to look like? What messages are we sending as an organization that lead to these "safety" issues? But all of these changes will arm organizations with the ability to recognize the symptoms and holistically address the organizational concerns they indicate. Partnering with safety can prove to be a bellwether for the health (financial and otherwise) of your organization.