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Shift in senior leadership mindset needed to improve workplace safety

Shift in senior leadership mindset needed to improve workplace safety

SAN ANTONIO — Senior leaders must change their mindset away from blaming workers for workplace injuries, stop being addicted to lagging indicators that do not provide valuable insight into workplace safety incidents and understand that a safe workplace is good for business, according to safety experts.

When Paul O’Neill became CEO of Pittsburgh-based aluminum manufacturer Alcoa Corp. in 1987, he zealously pushed to achieve zero fatal and serious injuries and argued that “safety should never be a priority — safety should be like breathing.” Mr. O’Neill proved that safety and business profitability can go hand in hand as Alcoa’s lost workday rate dropped to .20 lost workdays per 100 workers from the previous 1.86 rate while its market value jumped from $3 billion to $27.5 billion.

“It creates a great business, not a safe business, a great business of which safety is one of the elements,” Al Johnson, vice president of environmental, health and safety for Cargill Inc. in Minneapolis, told attendees at the American Society of Safety Professionals annual conference in San Antonio on Tuesday.

Mr. O’Neill “drove safety not because he wanted safety. He drove safety because he wanted a great business.”

“But for him, safety was a value,” said Scott Geller, a safety consultant and director of the Center for Applied Behavior Systems in the Department of Psychology at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. “And he shared that. And he talked like that. It was a value to him, not a priority.”

“Having that value is critical,” said Laurie Shelby, vice president of environmental, health and safety at Tesla Inc. in Fremont, California, and a former director and vice president of environmental, health and safety at Alcoa. “It’s truly that ability to accept the controls … and as a leader, they’re the ones who can provide all those controls.” 

Ellis Jones, senior director for global environmental, health and safety and sustainability for the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in Akron, Ohio, said, “it didn’t take me long to realize that when I get safety right, everything else comes with it. My production, my quality, my costs — everything became better. And it made my job much easier. Your business becomes a very good business when you get safety right.”

Encouraging senior leaders to shift their focus from so-called lagging indicators — data collected after injuries and fatalities occur — to leading indicators is a critical part of that equation, even though these metrics may be more difficult to quantify, safety experts said.

“We have to wean our leaders off of lagging metrics, outcome-based metrics,” Mr. Johnson said. “We are addicted to them as organizations and then we want to work on them when there’s absolutely nothing to do. The leading metrics, which measure the health of the systems intended to be in place to prevent the outcomes … we have to become addicted to those. We have to understand how the leading metrics drive the behavior, drive the culture, drive the performance of the organization. And those are hard.”

“Senior leaders need to understand that the lagging indicators are not going to drive fatal and serious injury prevention and that message doesn’t reach our senior leaders enough because we are not fundamentally changing our strategy on how we define fatal and serious injury prevention,” Ms. Shelby said.

Defining employee engagement is “is probably the hardest thing,” but it “should be the metric of choice,” she added.

A core element of this necessary shift is for senior leaders to stop blaming employees for workplace injuries.

“You have to teach (senior leaders) how to unlearn the bad behaviors of blaming the person,” Mr. Jones said. “It’s understanding the system, understanding their role in the system and how they influence the system.”

“We need to help leaders understand that there’s this (fundamental) error … they blame people for problems caused by the system,” Mr. Geller said.

Senior leaders may be concerned that shifting blame away from employees to systems does not allow them to hold employees accountable, the experts noted.

“If you do a proper investigation and you understand the root causes, there are times, a small percentage of the time, maybe 10% of the time, where the actual individual made a self-optimizing choice for which they were ultimately accountable,” Mr. Johnson said. “The majority of the time you will find that there is systematic failure somewhere in that chain and it could be all the way up to the CEO of the company. It could be the health and safety leaders. It could be any of us and you have to be open to that feedback. Sometimes you have to look in the mirror. Shifting accountability from the front line often means it goes somewhere else. And if the culture of our company is that we fire those accountable, that means maybe it’s me out and that’s maybe where it ought to be. But it’s a culturally hard one to do.”

However, such shifts in safety belief systems are possible, the experts said, noting that their own belief systems had changed in significant ways.

“I used to believe that everything was about the risk and high-risk work used to scare me to death,” said Todd Conklin, senior adviser to the associate director at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “High-risk work with mature controls is not very scary. What scares me now is not the presence of risk, it’s the absence of safeguards.”

“I believed that human error was predictable thus preventable,” Ms. Shelby said. “I based a lot of our training on that. And it is predictable, but I don’t focus as much on human error anymore as I do on the fail-safe piece. Errors will happen. Humans are going to make mistakes. I’m not going to be able to predict and prevent everything, but you can put those controls in place.”












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