June 05 2023
By: Shawn M. Galloway
Workplaces have changed (some drastically) since 2020, making previous safety strategies obsolete. We must change our approach to meet these new realities; otherwise, we can expect broader organizational challenges in the days ahead.
Undesirable safety performance is often a symptom of larger issues in the broader workplace and organizational culture. When safety performance continues to trend poorly, we find deviations from expectations also occurring in quality, delivery, reliability, efficiency or cost. When this becomes the new reality, it is no longer a safety problem; it is an organizational problem requiring operational leadership to get involved and develop a new game plan to meet the new playing field.
When we are surprised by undesirable results, we are often either blind to the indicators or are not giving them their deserved attention. Following are the indicators (themes) I am observing in many workplaces that concern me and should concern you.
- Workplace shortages and decreased expertise. This is seen in attrition, increasing attendance issues and average knowledge levels and competencies reducing.
- Engagement scores decreasing. Engagement has reached the lowest levels since 2015, and active disengagement is increasing.1
- Oversight decreasing. This is observed with first and second-line supervision and safety professionals not in the field or on the floor as much as needed to observe work as it occurs, and proactively seeking out deviations to address influences before they result in an unwanted event. Additionally, in several organizations, the experience levels of these leadership groups are also decreasing. This results in less technical or operational knowledge of the standards by which the work should be performed safely.
- Less training and new training new. There is decreased time training new employees in their work, and new employees training new employees. This creates cultures of decreased understanding of hazards and risks associated with the work.
- Corrective actions are more paperwork and PPE. When comparing thousands of corrective actions taken after an injury against the hierarchy of controls, most of them fall into the category of additional administrative controls or PPE. With this theme added to the reality of newer people entering a company whom other new employees train, this creates additional error-like situations.
- Supply chain disruptions continue. This results in increasing stress with operational leaders who still need to meet production or productivity targets, leading to workers performing the work without necessary parts, equipment, chemicals, etc., and in several organizations, this is observed in work being performed out-of-scope or out-of-process.2
- Heightened anxiety, stress and mental health concerns. The suicide rate has increased over the past 10 years. If that isn't concerning enough, tensions are increasing in the workplace and the broader community, leading to concerns about unintentionally triggering someone, and many operational leaders privately voicing to me their hesitancy to stop a job or talk to an employee about unacceptable, unsafe or at-risk behavior. This can result in a culture losing its capacity to norm people to standards or desired behavior.
- Normalization of deviance. The previous seven themes contribute to many operational environments where it is becoming culturally normal to perform work incongruent with the standard or how the work was planned.
- Production or productivity targets remain. Despite the reality of the new workplaces, and the evidence of the previous eight themes, few organizations have reduced their production or productivity targets, creating additional opportunities for error-likely situations.
- Fatalities increasing. Despite the attention being placed on proactively identifying and mitigating potential serious injury or fatality (SIF) exposures, occupational fatality rates are increasing in North America.3
Please share these themes with the leaders of your organization. Then see if you can find evidence of their existence within operations. If you detect these issues early, you can respond before reacting to increasing injuries or worse. Many of the organizations I advise are taking substantive action in response to these themes, which prompted my two latest books, COACH: A Safety Leadership Fable and Bridge to Excellence: Building Capacity for Sustainable Performance.
With the right strategy, we can get ahead of this. In fact, we must. Our employees are worth it.
"The greatest failure of all is the failure to act when action is needed." — John Wooden
"Early detection, early response. It works." — Dr. Larry Brilliant
"There is some risk involved in action, there always is. But there is far more risk in failure to act." — Harry S. Truman
Reference 1: https://www.gallup.com/workplace/468233/employee-engagement-needs-rebound-2023.aspx
Reference 2: https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/consumers-should-brace-for-continued- supply-chain-disorder-in-2023-301736323.html
Reference 3: https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/cfoi.pdf
Shawn M. Galloway is CEO of the global consultancy ProAct Safety. He is a trusted advisor, professional keynote speaker, and author of several bestselling books on safety strategy, culture, leadership, and behavior-based safety. He is a monthly columnist for several magazines and one of the most prolific contributors in the industry, having also authored over 700 podcasts, 200 articles, and 100 videos. Shawn has received awards and recognition for his significant contributions from the American Society of Safety Professionals, National Safety Council's Top 40 Rising Stars and Top Ten Speakers, EHS Today Magazine's 50 People Who Most Influenced EHS, ISHN Magazine's POWER 101 - Leaders of the EHS World and their newest list: 50 Leaders for Today and Tomorrow, Pro-Sapien's list of The Top 11 Health and Safety Influencers and is an Avetta Distinguished Fellow.