Our data is speaking. Are we listening?

I distinctly remember combing through near miss data one day and having an “a-ha” moment. I could see that trouble was on the horizon. I was for sure thinking that the site was choosing not to report safety issues that really mattered because they felt it was not getting fixed. I had the data to show this was occurring. I had safety committee minutes that seemed to also indicate the same. I had the opportunity to run with my theory and make some dramatic proclamations and changes.


Then I took a few deep breaths . . .


I asked a friend and co-worker his thoughts. Together, we decided that we would go out and ask a few simple safety questions to see if interviews had the same conclusion as the data. To my absolute surprise, there was not an issue. There was not a deeper underlying organizational issue. The employees were not angry or dissatisfied with level of attention to safety. Sure, there were things they wanted fixed. It was not, though, the level of safety climate failure that I was projecting. I was so close to making a very large leap of faith and being completely wrong. First, I thanked my co-worker for his input. Second, I learned to validate and verify my data.


We in the safety profession have a great luxury at our finger tips that we sometimes forget is there. The data we look at every day is living, breathing, people who we can interact and ask questions of on a daily basis. Data is good. It helps in finding opportunities and making recommendations. Validated data is better, and we have that ability at an instant.


Each day there is a real chance to better understand the aspect of our data. Building on the SQDC process of business metrics, safety is the only one that can actually talk and explain the real issues that occurring at that moment. Quality, Delivery, and Cost metrics do not tell a story every day nor do they have the ability to literally tell you what is creating their positive and negative experiences.


There are many times that I have to remind myself to stop, think, and go interact. I know that sounds terrible, but think of all the times in your safety career that you are asked for metrics. What’s our OSHA Rate? How many lost time injuries? What does the trends in the behavioral observations say? How many people are trained in that process? How must waste did we generate? My guess is that you are aggregating this data daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly. Along with any time there is an issue or problem solving event. It is easy to get lost in creating, communicating, revising, and managing numbers. The truth is that each number we crunch is a person that can help us understand it better.


Our safety data (aka our people) is talking to us almost constantly, are we really listening?

Safety: Behavior or Motivation

I was recently at my final residency. Part of this process was to complete my dissertation research plan. The discussion around my topic about safety was talking about the theory behind the process of safety psychology.

On a complete side note, I did learn that with a qualitative research plan the theory is really something that gets built into the process as the research is conducted and not as a basis like quantitative research.

Back on topic: One of the discussions in my group was if I was studying behavior or if I was studying motivation. This whole discussion turned my thoughts upside down. Since I first began in safety over twelve years ago, I have been told that changing people’s behaviors was the ultimate goal of the safety professional. What if for all this time, I really should have been seeking to create motivation not change behavior. Mind blown!

With this new way of looking at how safety should be integrated into a organizational culture, it begins with the most simple thought: why do people need motivation to be safe? The over simplified answer is that going home whole should be enough motivation for anyone. Yet national statistics show that there are still 4,500 people a year that never go home to their families at the end of the work day. There are still too many people needing medical attention just by going to work. The real answer is much more complicated and infinitely more varied.

When evaluating motivation for safety, I personally subscribe to the Mazlow’s Hierarchy model. I feel this explanation fits the Occam’s Razor approach of being the most simplified and easiest to understand. The hierarchy shows that safety is the second key motivator of people. The first motivation is physiological: food, shelter, warmth, etc. In modern society, this need is met by having a job and affording a place to live and food to eat. So, the motivation for someone to have a job to meet their physiological need is greater than their motivation for safety. In my experience, this holds to be generally true.

Looking deeper at the motivation of the workplace, the comparison of the major metrics of business is safety, quality, delivery, and cost. Employee’s get very different messages when it comes to these and how they are motivated among them.
For example:

The site is able to have zero quality defects for a day = A reason to celebrate and congratulate

The site is able to meet all production targets for a day = A reason to celebrate and congratulate

The site is able to meet all cost metrcs for a day = A reason to celebrate and congratulate

The site is able to have zero safety incidents for a day = An expectation of the job
Another Example:

An employee misses their quality target = They are disciplined which attacks the physiological need.

An employee misses their production target = They are disciplined which attacks the physiological need.

An employee misses their cost target = They are disciplined which attacks the physiological need.

An employee misses their safety target = Probably nothing happens. They have found a work around to potentially help compensate for quality, production, or cost. They are seeking the most primal motivation of the physiological need.

Additionally with safety, the unsafe action statistically will not lead to an immediate injury. Someone could perform an unsafe act multiple times that would not lead to a direct injury. The more the act is performed, the more the individual becomes accepting of the risk. Ultimately though, risk will create a hazard and potentially an injury.

All that said to simply summarize that this whole time I have been wanting to change behaviors when really I need to be seeking to create motivation. As a safety professional or as a supervisor or as a manager, what can we do to create the motivation for our team to go home injury free? There is no simple answer. There is no silver bullet approach. Even though it is not all about behavior, there are cultural components and norm setting that has to occur to create that motivation for the team.

So here is a closing thought exercise: Look at the way your team is motivated and the systems that are in place to motivate, what behaviors and culture is it creating?

Cognitive Dissonance in Safety: Part 3

Continuing the discussion on cognitive dissonance theory, this post will focus on the induced compliance paradigm.

The experiment that showed this in action goes like this: a group of kids are given a room full of toys. They are expressly forbidden to play with one toy in the room, though. One group is threatening with a mild punishment, while another group is threatened with a harsh punishment. Sometime later, the kids are told they can now play with the forbidden toy. The kids in the mild punishment group were less likely to play with the toy than the group with the harsh punishment. This demonstrated that the only reason the kids in the harsh punishment group had to not play with the toy was that they did not want to be punished. The mild punishment group created other internal reasons for not playing with the toy as they could not simply justify that the punishment was enough. They may have convinced themselves that the toy was not that fun anyway.

The cognitive dissonance is the act of creating a reason for not doing something because the other reasons that are presented do not seem reasonable enough.

This does speak some to motivational theory in that by having large punishments or by having large rewards a goal can be achieved. The behavior is changed, but it is only changed to meet the basic extent of the goal. For instance, a company has a large monetary goal for not having recordable injuries. The team meets that goal not by being safer but by not reporting injuries. Anyway . . . that’s a topic for another time.

I find that induced compliance actually applies more to the safety professional than it does for others. First, the goal is not manipulate people to think about safety. The goal is to create healthy behaviors. As a safety professional, there are conflicting ideas such as: letter of the law, spirit of the law, and risk reduction. A good example would be the confined space regulations that state that once any part of the body that crosses the plain the space has been entered. The spirit of the law is that the space hazards are mitigated, and the person can be rescued. The letter of law sets the standard very clear terms. Without a clear delineation, there could be opportunities to put people at risk. The risk of entering the space versus breaking the plain varies with the space itself. The letter of law is clear so as to create the safest potential environment.

I find that I have to create reasons why to absolutely comply with the letter of law (which is the intent). Many OSHA regulations make sense and can be liberally applied to keeping people safe. In this case of confined spaces, there are so many variations and application that sometimes the best reason is only that the law requires it. Instinctively, when explaining the situation, I want to find practical applications in which to show that the law has assisted in protecting people or reducing risk. I create in myself induced compliance to justify the idea of following the letter of the law.

Now, it is implicit that the letter of the law be followed. That is the intention of any safety professional. This was an example only. I used the example as a time where intuition, risk reduction, the spirit of the law, and the letter of the law may not always be in sync. In these situations in can be normal for someone in safety to create additional reasons to justify the process. Sometimes, the hardest job the safety professional has is to convince others that his services are needed. We take bureaucratic processes and help people realize how those processed keep them safe. Even the safety professional has to sometimes stretch to meet that internal need to explain and justify the existence of the law and the protections that come with it.

The Hierarchy of Safety Needs, Part 7

The final phase of the needs based process is when the social recognition needs of the team is met. The team becomes almost self-sufficient. They are able to problem solve on their own and find even more creative ways to assure the safety of the site. The teams in this phase are encouraged to take over entire safety based program from writing the policy to performing the training. The team is driving and self-sustaining the gains. The management’s job is to clear and roadblocks and to help assess the progress. The progress is sustained through assuring that the previous behavioral needs are met. As demonstrated earlier when a lower segment of the pyramid starts to erode, the behaviors will revert to attempt to fill the more fundamental and basic need. This process builds to a true system of continuous improvement in the safety system. The team is finding ways on its own to seek out and correct issues before they happen. The gains that the safety teams have made are well sustained and ingrained in the culture. There becomes a total sense of ownership in safety. This is a tough phase as it is about letting go of the programs and truly empowering the team to make safety about the team and culture. It is critical during this phase, that the lower needs are reviewed regularly to assure that they are being met. It gains will not be sustained if: The business itself cannot be sustained, the safety items fail to get fixed, or the teams are not given time and resources to do a proper job. Gained this level of the a team based safety approach is about investing the team and investing in the individuals. This is truly a phase where break-through behavioral growth is over, and the focus in more on continuous improvement and total system sustainment. The goal is to not assume that the journey is over. The journey is always continuing. The focus will shift to auditing the process and looking for ways that improvements can be created. It is the process that has to maintained. The process drives the strong results.

My Thoughts on the ASSE Interview with Paul H O’Neill

A week ago, the American Society of Safety Engineers hosted a Q&A session with Paul O’Neill. He is the former CEO of Alcoa and is recognized as a true safety leader. I would highly recommend seeing the interview if at all possible. It was quite a sobering experience of how easy he made safety leadership sound. There were a few items that really struck me as pertinent.

1) Before taking over as CEO, he asked himself, “what do you want to be remembered for?”

His answer was “safety.” I think of my own life and career and wonder what I will be remembered for. As a safety professional, I hope that people will see me as a strong advocate for worker safety. A few other attributes that come to mind are leadership, compassion, and fairness. I also look around at other managers and leaders and wonder what their answer would be to that same question. If we are truly being honest with ourselves, what would that answer be? What would others say we stand for? There are leaders whose answer would be leadership, profitability, innovation, or productivity. Are we really considering the human factor in these decisions and assuring that we protect the most valuable resource of any organization?

2) If you take care of the non-financial aspects of the business, the financial aspects will be there.

He was specifically talking about people. If you take care of the people in the organization, they will help the company take care of financials, quality, and productivity. This message highly resembles my postings on the Hierarchy of Safety Needs. Until the people of the organization feel their safety need has been fully realized. they will not progress to higher levels that drives true breakthrough skills that progresses the company. This philosophy also strongly resembles Toyota’s systems. As Toyota’s systems continue to be bench-marked, there is one clear idea that resounds: follow good processes, and the results will be achieved. Instead of driving the results, focus on the people and processes. They will help create organization success.

3) All safety issues will be corrected

He actually said that this statement scared his financial team. He stated that he could not expect people to believe in the message of safety if there were limitations to what they were willing to do to make the sites safe. This is definitely a lofty goal, and it did not happen overnight. There were processes and methods in place, but the issues were addressed and organization was transformed.

4) All incidents/injuries can be prevented

There is no such thing as an accident. There are measures that can always be taken to prevent injuries. I also found it interesting that he did not classify injuries as OSHA Recordables. He meant that near misses and first aid cases deserved swift, decisive, and focused attention. A first aid case is still someone who has been hurt on the job. It is not as severe, but it is still a person who has been hurt at work. His vision was not just an OSHA related goal, but one that was people and process focused.

Overall, I enjoyed the interview and found it to be very informative. His methods were not complex or difficult. They were focused on a few key principles that helped revolutionize his organization.