You might have noticed that I have not posted a blog in a month or so. I felt that in the new situation we are in with COVID19, the discussion of “world class safety” should be paused for a while. That left, though, a void of what I would discuss. I gave it a month to see how life would change with the new wellness protocols that are in place. The situation put me in a unique position that I now feel is worth discussing.
I currently work for an e-commerce company. With so many people being at home, e-commerce is booming. The company is in an interesting situation in which we need to hire many people across the entirety of the USA all while keeping them safe and well. In the new abnormal of COVID19, there was a needed amount of creativity of how to bring people into the company, meet regulations, and do it on a national scale.
Part of the creativity was the creation of a virtual new hire orientation [VNHO]. From a safety standpoint, it had to be facilitated to allow interaction, questions, and feedback live as part creating a compliant and effective learning experience. Around this same time, I was moved into a new role as a safety liaison for learning, communications, and projects. This began my journey of teaching 12 VNHO classes per week.
When it first began, dedicating 36+ hours a week to repeating the same presentation over and over became disheartening. Over 15 years ago when I first started my journey in safety, annual and new hire safety training was one of my primary items. Since that time, most safety training was delegated or performed by someone else. I was not the primary person for safety-focused training. I was thinking “why me?”. “How is it that after all these years, I am back to where I began. Repeating the same message over and over.”
One morning, I woke to do more training and began the same lament of “why me.” I am still not sure why or how [I have my theories], but my thought changed to “why not me”. That was my breakthrough moment! Who else should be welcoming all these new hires to the organization and prepping them with the knowledge and tools to work safely? I am the one that spent years of my life studying how to make lecture training meaningful to employees. This is exactly where I need to be. It is time to put all that knowledge to work. It is time to use all those theories to make something useful. It is time to do my very best to give these new team members the best learning experience I can provide. Who else would be better equipped with the title, knowledge, and experience other than me? The answer was clear, it was time to put my money where my mouth was, to put the rubber to the road, to pull out all the stops. . . to do my job the best way I know how.
In these strange and trying times, I was fortunate to learn this lesson. It is not “why me”. It is about “why not me”
In this journey to better understand world-class safety, I feel there has to be some talk of metrics. Being perfectly honest, I have an extreme love-hate relationship with safety data. I am never in between. I either love what they are showing me or I hate the entire idea of tracking it at all. Hopefully, I can explain why my relationship with safety data is full of turmoil
First thing first, though. I am going to use the lean term “process indicator” as a synonym of safety metrics. Safety metrics are only an indication of how well your culture, systems, and processes are working to protect your team. As we explore how metrics are integrated into a world-class safety system, this is a key definition.
1) Reactive safety data is pretty much worthless.
Incident rates, lost time rates, days away and restricted rates, first aid rates all are measuring something that really should not be measured. Yes, we have to for OSHA. But even in the inception of the recordkeeping standard, this was not meant as a good/bad indicator. These numbers and measures were not meant to be how a company benchmarks itself. Any number, even zero, is not world-class (more on that later). The intention of recordkeeping was to help companies identify problem areas and find solutions. Each metrics that we measure reactively is a person who is changed for the worse because of their involvement at the workplace. As with previous entries, we are seeking to prevent harm. We are not seeking an arbitrary number based on others’ experiences.
2) We are not driving to zero
Reaching a number is a goal. A safety culture is not a destination. It is a journey of continuous improvement. Unfortunately, some companies reach zero, assume they are done, and then have a catastrophic event. They assumed they reached the goal, won the race, and wiped their hands clean of safety. This is not to mention how many companies play the numbers game to avoid or simply not report injuries. These numbers are practically fiction. So, having leadership that shouts and demands that they want zero injuries without investment, energy, and strategy are simply enjoying the sound of their own voice.
3) Culture is not an overnight journey
Here is where I love safety metrics. We have to collect the data anyway, how do we make it work for us rather than against us. My career has taken me around to various startups and turnarounds. Going into these situations, there are tons of opportunities for driving improvement. Using proper statistics, I have been able to show year-over-year improvement and correlate those improvements to the programs. The data helps to see the path. Data shows where the systems are working and what needs to be adjusted. It is a process indicator. If we are looking for hazards to correct and the numbers are dropping is that because we are better or because a system is broken. We had an increase in near-miss reports and a decline in safety work orders, why? The data is simply showing us where we should invest time to better understand where we can improve. We must not lose sight that improvement means we are lessening human harm. Not everyone is a data person and that is okay. There is probably someone in your organization that loves data. Give them a chat and see what correlations they can help you find. Always remember, though, correlation is not causation. You still will need to verify the truth in the data
4) Get appropriately lean
Yes, I am one of those that loves lean and six sigma. I am admittedly a novice and have much to learn. I still love it. Just like any tool, it has to be used in the right situation. There are those that have taken all the lean tools and made everyone use them all the time without understanding if that is the tool for the job. Andons everywhere. Gemba walks hourly. Fishbone analysis. On and on. The approach I have used that works best is the simple one. Review the data, Gemba (go to the place) where the data leads, observe the people doing the work, see if it matches the expected standard, adjust accordingly. Sometimes these walks are to solve a problem. Sometimes they are to see a best practice. Sometimes they are to verify if the data is correlating correctly. Each of these situations lead to adjustments and create improvement all with the goal of protecting our team.
TL;DR: If you data is not helping prevent harm to your team, it is worthless.
This year, I am dedicating my blog posts to exploring what is world-class in safety. As I we closed 2019, the discussion was about how some organizations like to throw the term “world-class” around when it comes to safety. They use the term as a part of marketing safety without really thinking about what it means to be best in class for protecting their people. For some, it means compliance with the law. For others, it might mean having lunches when there are no injuries for a month. When it really gets down to the real meaning of world-class, it begins with having a world-class attitude toward safety.
There is much debate about world-class safety. Does it exist? Is it measurable? Are there metrics? How is it performed? Can we compare it to other companies? Honestly, those are good questions. Honestly, I am not sure there is a right answer. I do think that there are principles that an organization can develop to create a world-class safety attitude. Before any of the metrics or processes can really be evaluated, there first has to be the right mindset. There has to be the overall compass directing the efforts and organization to the path of world-class. So, here are my five principles of world-class safety.
1. It means we care enough to focus on reducing and eliminating harm
Measuring all the injury and first aid rates does not compare to actually looking at your team as people and realizing that their pain is bad for business. There are too many stories of the zero injury companies that have a large incident. We are not chasing a zero incident rate. We are driving for solutions that prevent people from hurting for doing their job. Yes, seeking no harm will affect an incident rate. But it is not the incident rate that is the goal. We have to learn from every incident, adapt based on near misses, and improve through observation.
2. It means there are no boundaries for protecting our team
A 1987 speech from Paul O’Neill as he took the helm of Alcoa summarizes this best (Full Story Link)
“I want to talk to you about worker safety. Every year, numerous Alcoa workers are injured so badly that they miss a day of work. Our safety record is better than the general workforce, especially considering that our employees work with metals that are 1500 degrees and we have machines that can rip a man’s arm off. But it’s not good enough. I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America. I intend to go for zero injuries”.
A shareholder asks about inventories in the aerospace division. Another asks about the company’s capital ratios.
“I’m not certain you heard me. If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures. If we bring our injury rates down, it won’t be because of cheerleading or the nonsense you sometimes hear from other CEOs. It will be because the individuals at this company have agreed to become part of something important: They’ve devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be an indicator that we’re making progress in changing our habits across the entire institution. That’s how we should be judged”
If there is a solution to prevent harm to our team, we must drive relentlessly to complete it.
3. It means our people are our most valuable asset and resource
Too many companies have trouble believing that if you really care and protect your people, they will protect the company. It is a lean mentality idea. Use a good process, give it time to work, use the results to course correct the path. A good process will yield a good result. We too wrapped up in seeing immediate impacts and results. These short-term, micro-managing, profit first processes get in the way of world-class in more ways than just safety.
4. It means we will communicate openly about safety
This loosely ties to the first principle. We cannot shut down communication because we reached the goal of zero. We cannot quit driving to find other hazards to eliminate, listening to the team concerns, or seeking improvement because it has been a year since the last lost-time injury. The organization must be open and available for dynamic and honest two-way communication. If there is a hazard, it needs to be communicated and fixed. If there is a better way or new technology, it should be evaluated to see if or how it might work. If someone claims that having too many Pepsi machines and not enough Coke is a safety issue, we need to be able to say no. It is about sharing the message and keeping the team going the right direction.
5. It means the safety culture is indistinguishable from the company culture
This is where world-class begins
One of the more interesting conversations that a safety profesional enters into from time-to-time is that of world class safety. This statement is used as part of an interview where the company is attempting to attract a better than average safety person or as part of a generic statement that makes the company sound marketable to the masses. It seems that the term world-class is thrown out a lot in many different aspects and scopes.
What I find most amusing is the idea that when someone outside of the safety profession says they want a world class safety program, it usually means they want one that meets basic OSHA compliance. Given the condition of many companies’ stance to safety that might be a very true statement. World class may be just simply meeting basic compliance. I once knew of a manager who stated that OSHA was the Cadillac of safety programs. He was looking for more of a Toyota. *heavy sigh*
I tend to believe that world class is more than OSHA compliance. A company should not use that term unless they really plan to put the money, time, and energy into that process. There are a few statistics that define world class. A couple of really large scale safety consulting firms have created the metrics and have the data to help support what drives the top 5% of all safety performing organizations. The data gives some strong indicators but I am still a skeptic at heart. I know that the methods of evaluating injuries goes back to the OSHA 300 log and the OSHA incident rate. This is a metric that can be deceiving and deceived.
What I do believe is that world class is based on a simple principle, is the company really looking out for the best interests of their workers? The data definitely shows the truth in this principle. Case studies about safety progress and turn-arounds show the same. It really is about caring about the team. A company that is really striving for world class is looking beyond compliance. They are looking for ways they can better protect and adapt to their employees’ needs
One of the first principles of world class is a functional safety committee. I have read many articles and attended various conferences that talk about what makes a great safety committee. A safety committee can lead many positive activities for a company. It is the voice of the employee, an advocate for projects, a sounding board for ideas, a public relations group, and so much more. One of the first items most companies talk about when they approach their idea of world class is starting a safety committee. My response is always, “Great! What is the committee’s capital and expense budget?” *wide eyed, mouth open, astonishment* “Budget?” They say, “we were not wanting to spend anything.”
So the not so long journey to world class begins and ends
As we enter the year, my plan is to continue this look at world class. What it is and what it is not. How do we begin the journey? What are some of the basic ideas of focusing on our employees and that real long-term, never-ending process that leads to real world class safety programs.