Why Safety Programs Fail

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about safety in the time I’ve spent bobbing around on various oil drilling units, it’s that safety essentially consists of three fundamental tiers. If you and/or your company fails in any one of these three tiers, your safety program will fail.

There’s no one without the other, it’s a must to succeed in the three tiers. Most safety guys I know get happy when they see graphs and numbers, as much as we always say “It’s not a numbers game” we are acutely aware that you cannot improve on that which isn’t tracked somehow. We look for patterns in these graphs and numbers, it assists us in our decision making on what to focus on next, also commonly known as “Trends.”

Humans prefer patterns, it makes us feel comfortable. Take a look at the fast-food joint you go to for your burgers and chips (fries for my American friends). There’s a specific pattern to the layout of the premises. Now, take note of the layout of other fast food places, see the pattern? Yep, the layout is pretty much the same, something I am sure was researched in detail. Which brings me to a question, did you know that safety has a pattern?

It’s by no means as complex as the layout of a fast food joint or a supermarket. It consists of a three “tier” pattern.

  1. Emotional Safety – Tier 1
  2. Professional Safety – Tier 2
  3. Physical Safety – Tier 3

Safety Program Failures

When you really get into it, the main reason safety programs fail, and it could be the best one ever designed, is because there’s a failure in recognizing the pattern or three tiers of Safety.

Ignoring emotions and job security and expecting workers to be safe is similar to standing on the freeway and expect cars to just drive around you. Sure it will work for a while, eventually, though, someone will run you over, it’s the same with safety programs and the three tiers. It’ll work for a while, but eventually, something will give and your incident rate will start ticking up.

Humans will be tempted to take unnecessary risks if they feel their job and/or the pride is on the line. You can’t skip tiers 1 and 2 and expect tier 3 to stick and miraculously you have a safe workspace. As mentioned earlier, it might work for a little while but it will fail, eventually.

Tier 1 – Emotional Safety

The majority of humans will put themselves at risk when they feel they have to protect themselves emotionally. No-one enjoys explaining why they made a mistake, or why they didn’t meet a specific target.

So what does “emotional safety” have to with this? Easy, emotional safety means people feel valued, they don’t feel like they are “just a number”. They are treated with respect and as more than just another employee, they feel like they are part of “the family”.

When an employee feels like his and/or her manager values them, values their input and genuinely cares about their safety, the employee will start caring about his/or own safety. As much as people hate admitting this, our sense of self-worth depends on a fairly large extent on how we are perceived by others. If we feel management are a friend who cares for our well-being, then we know they also care for our physical well-being. Conversely, if they don’t care for our emotional well-being why would they care for our physical well-being?

Tier 2 – Professional Safety

The majority of people want to be respected for what we do; we want to be the “go-to guy/gal” when things need to get done. For the majority, our work is how we provide for our families, without it well, things would be pretty bleak. This means that we will start taking risks if we feel that our livelihood is threatened. Most people will start taking risks to get a job done than getting fired for what might be perceived as underperformance.

We may start using shortcuts, “It’s going to be quick, I won’t bother with the work permit” or “We need to get that casing down, the client is starting to complain”. Any of these sound familiar to you? Thing is, and I am sure I am preaching to the converted here but, safety almost always takes extra time and effort. Putting the harness on before working above 6 foot, getting someone to hold that 3-meter ladder while you work. So, when we feel performance and “getting it done” takes priority, we will not take the extra time or effort to make sure we are safe.

Employees need to feel secure and that they are part of the team. The moment someone starts feeling like they will lose their job or get demoted for making a mistake, they will start taking shortcuts and they will start placing themselves in harm’s way.

Many multi-national companies have shown great leadership in making sure their employees are aware that they are their number one asset. Toyota is a prime example of this, they’ve publically stated that they will never fire an employee for poor performance. Instead, they will look at the root cause for the poor performance. They feel that poor performance can be corrected by providing additional training and designing more efficient work procedures. In short, they want their employees to succeed because ultimately, when their employees succeed so does the company.

Tier 3 – Physical Safety

Only when a person feels like they are cared for emotionally and professionally will they start feeling like they are cared for physically. The first two tiers serve as an indication as to the loyalty of management towards the development and safety of employees. If an employee does not feel safe on the first two tiers, why then would he/she feel safe on the third? Why would an employee believe management when they say “We want you to be safe” or “Safety first”?

It is up to management to create a culture within the workplace where employees feel valued and protected on all three tiers. Without success on the first two tiers, reaching the third tier will remain a pipe dream and most likely never be achieved. When an employee feels valued and protected, physical safety becomes a given. Tier 3 becomes something that falls into place naturally, without having to talk about it. A person who feels valued and safe will automatically start taking care of their physical safety.

The Triangle

It is up to the management of companies to create this “safety triangle”. It is up to management to make employees feel like they are valued and protected on all three tiers. It is up to management to create a culture that makes an employee feel safe.

When a team of workers feel like they are protected and valued, they will automatically become safer employees and in most situations, it will lead to more engaged and loyal employees. Workplace injuries and/or accidents will decrease and the increase in profits will start showing this change in the culture of your company.

This article is the result of an e-mail I received recently discussing the success and/or failure of a Safety Program.


Add Your Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *