Safety management today: 5 key problems
Health and safety management has never been more front of mind globally than it is today. While public health concerns surrounding COVID-19 dominate community and organisational attention, workplace safety management over the last decade has evolved in a concerning way.
Shareholders, directors and senior executives continually increase their attention, ambition and resource allocation for safety. Yet despite this, serious injury and fatality rates globally are showing few signs of reducing — in fact, in some companies, countries and industries fatality rates have actually been increasing in recent years. This situation suggests that the increased complexity and risk in our modern organisations is not being equally matched by an increase in capability to manage safety.
5 key problems
There are five key problems with the way that many organisations are managing safety today:
1. Safety culture
The overriding focus on safety culture leads organisations to focus more on how much individual workers care about safety, rather than focusing organisational resources on understanding and improving the conditions surrounding the work to manage tangible risks. Safety is an emergent property of the system of work, such that to improve safety, we need to focus on systemically improving the core work activities — not the attitudes of individuals.
2. Safety performance measures
An exclusive focus on measuring the workplace injuries that occur, which are often minor compared with the serious risks that workers face, pushes resources towards reacting to minor problems rather than proactively focusing on material risk reduction. While the statistical invalidity of injury rates and the disconnect between these rates and fatality risks has been extensively proven and documented, organisations have not moved on from relying on dangerous assumptions about what this data means for the current state of safety.
3. Safety work
Investing in safety work activities, inspections, audits, investigations, training and risk assessments is often nothing more than a ‘tick and flick’ exercise that leads to safety clutter and disempowerment. At worst, it creates the illusion of safety management that makes organisations less safe. The irony with much of the safety work activity that occurs within organisations is that it’s not driven by regulations, does not materially contribute to the safety of work and in fact may make work less safe through introducing productivity pressure, disengagement, siloed communication and a skewed perception of safety.
4. Safety communication
Top-down, broadcast-style communication in organisations, including generic messages and platitudes, suppresses the flow of information from the frontline to the people in the organisation with decision-making authority. The people in the organisation with the knowledge on how to improve safety don’t have the power to do so, and the people with the power do not have the frontline knowledge of what is best to do.
5. Safety professionals
Safety managers and officers in organisations spend time on administrative tasks that make managers in the organisations feel safe, without having any impact on how safe frontline workers are. Safety professionals are rarely involved in the strategic and operational decisions that have the most impact on creating the conditions for safety or reducing incidents within the organisation.
There is a clear pathway for organisations to address these five problems with safety management today, although this requires a significant departure from the current thinking about safety. The following three-point plan provides a starting point for senior managers and safety professionals within organisations to review their safety management approach:
- Focus on how work is done, and not on the attitudes of workers or safety processes.
- Understand the serious injury risks and build the psychological safety to communicate about their status openly and continually.
- Redesign the role of safety professionals so they can proactively lead material risk reduction efforts.
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