Six criteria for safety excellence

An event that will always stay with me is an evening at one of my many University of Alberta Certificate program courses. Dan was in town working with my employer on educating our senior and middle management team on Dan’s “Six Criteria for Safety Excellence”. I had asked Dan if he would address the evening class that I was instructing since the students were using his text and had seen his video series on the subject. I was thrilled that he kindly accepted, and so were the students.

Dan spent three hours discussing his experiences with corporations — both large and small — and spoke at length about the six criteria that he believed were the essentials to safety excellence.

As the class neared its close, and after answering students’ questions, he said his final closing remark: “Just remember that people pay me a lot of money to talk to their employees and then have me tell management what their employees said.” What a powerful statement and a wonderful observation from a superior health and safety consultant.

Dan’s Six Criteria for Safety Excellence are still as relevant today as they were some thirty years ago.

1. Forced supervisory performance
Supervisors get involved in safety creating tasks because it’s their responsibility, and they are held accountable. If supervisors are made responsible for safety but not accountable to do the tasks that create safe and healthy workplaces — such as inspections, meetings, investigations — these tasks simply won’t happen. In this context, Dan suggested that supervisory staff be held accountable through their performance appraisals.

2. Upper management support
Nothing in any corporation gets accomplished without the support of upper management allocating the time and money it takes to accomplish the work.

3. Active middle management involvement
Dan knew that without active middle management asking for resources from the senior management team, and demanding performance of safety tasks from their directly reporting supervisors, that nothing in safety management would be accomplished.

4. High level of employee involvement
Dan’s most surprising revelation (at least at the time) was that the key to measuring and predicting safety excellence in any corporation was not attained by passing one of the popular audits of the time. The real key was the level of employee involvement and their perception of the safety culture within the organization.

5. Program flexibility
Dan believed that although the fundamentals of safety management were somewhat universal, the details needed to be flexible so as to fit the culture of the organization and the level of risk. Forcing the same solutions on every corporation is not the way to achieve safety excellence. Every company culture is unique and should be celebrated. If a regimented inspection schedule works well in a paramilitary organization, that’s wonderful. If you are trying to help a company staffed by photographers to create safety, a less structured approach may work better. Inspecting a construction site several times a day during active construction makes perfect sense since things are constantly changing. Doing the same level of inspection activity in an office environment would be a large waste of time, since not much would be changing on an hourly basis.

6. Positive perception among employees
“Passing an audit doesn’t mean you are safe.” You see, Dan had been part of a large American Association of Railways study that found no correlation between passing a safety audit and low incident results. Sure, safe companies pass their audits — but so do some unsafe companies. The only true correlation the study found was that if a corporation’s employees had a positive perception of the safety management systems and activities of a company, it matched their positive outcome results. Just as importantly, if the employees have a negative perception of the safety management, then that corporation would match this poor perception with poor safety outcomes (high incident rates, compensation costs and uninsured additional costs).

Here we are almost three decades later and these criteria seem as valid today as they were then. Some of the “safest” companies in the world (based on their audit scores) are having terrible incidents and feeling the repercussions of both high costs and intense government intervention.

Here’s a very real example in Alberta:

During a six-week period in late 2010, Alberta occupational health and safety officers performed a planned inspection blitz that targeted commercial construction sites (high-rise buildings, schools, libraries, apartment buildings, retails outlets and multi-bay complexes). Of the 298 site safety inspections conducted, officers issued a total of 214 orders, including 39 stop work orders.

The real shocking fact is that almost all of these employers would have passed the Government-monitored certificate of recognition audit program that recognizes their safety management systems.

So after you have your basic safety process in place and can pass one of the popular safety management audits, it’s clear that there are many more opportunities to enhance your safety management efforts and the results.

One of the best ways I know is to engage your employees and contractors in real conversations about what needs to be done about their safety. The key then would be to listen carefully and to implement their suggestions. Who would know the best information on what’s happening on your worksite? Who would probably have great ideas on the solutions to your safety problems? Without a doubt, the people doing the work can give you the best knowledge about what takes place on the worksite, and have ideas about solutions to your safety problems. Just take the time to explore their ideas and opinions.

Feel free to send me an email and tell me what your employees told you about your safety management system. I’d be happy to write an article about what their feedback was. Until then — be safe!

For more information about employee perception surveys, read Dennis Ryan’s three part series, Are we putting the cart before the horse?