Set any safety target you like – the hard fact is that it tells you nothing about what you, your leadership team or the wider organisation needs to do next.
The good news is that a key group of people are already hard at work to make your organisation a safe place to work, they operate from an authentic personal commitment to safety, know what needs to get done and they would love your partnership - meet the front line.
Through 2013 we interacted with Front Line Supervisors from 23 different companies across 14 time zones. We spent 2 whole days with each group and not a single one of them referred to any safety target when discussing safety behaviours, incidents and opportunities to improve safety at their work sites. In fact, they were outright cynical when talking about management chasing their safety numbers, as they questioned their true motivation.
Every one of them held a deeply personal commitment to safety. They wanted to get back home the same way they left for work and they wanted all of their colleagues to get home the same way too. They didn’t need to refer to a safety target – they simply wanted to make sure no one got hurt.
So - how come, despite leadership’s and front line’s genuine commitment to safety, people still got hurt? A dis-connect had been created by two parties trying to do their best, but acted from two divergent views on what current reality looked like and what was needed to create a safe place of work.
Leadership’s view on their world was informed by ‘experts’ - experts that develop and roll out safety initiatives based on their extensive experience, but often without sufficient appreciation of what current reality is actually like on the ground. These will at best deal with the most obvious compliance issues, get in place some good practices that lower incident levels and highlight safety as a key business issue.
Viewed from the ground, the structured expert view often feels patronising. They live in a world where unforeseen risks regularly occur, plans and circumstances unexpectedly change, frustration causes lapses in concentration, administrative tasks distract, disagreements flare up, etc. Being safe in these circumstances requires on-going dialogue and partnership with a leadership that are willing to respond to circumstances and help them act effectively on their personal commitment to safety.
Creating partnership when the front line has doubts about leadership’s motivation wasn’t straight forward. It took a carefully designed dialogue that demonstrated that it is safe to be straight with each other and that candid exchanges are the only way to deal with the gritty issues facing the front line. The leadership had to be seen as genuine listeners and the front line had to feel honoured and empowered to act. Some key elements of this carefully designed dialogue were:
- Participants felt they could safely reveal the gritty details of the reality they were confronted with everyday at their work site
- Everyone were free to bring out their frustrations and issues that got in the way of acting consistent with their commitment to safety
- The front line staff were engaged as partners in a conversation about how to enable them to become effective safety agents at their work sites
- Supervisors and workers co-created action plans with management to shift their safety culture
- All parties gave each other permission to be held accountable against their commitment to safety and the action plans they had created
Only by investing the time to engage the front line staff in this co-creation of a safety culture will the real issues emerge and give the people who are most often in harm’s way the opportunity to rekindle their personal commitment to safety and act consistently with it through tough and changing circumstances.
The mere act of involving the people who are most at risk in this conversation is a powerful testament to the leadership’s collective commitment to safety. It gets noticed and it empowers the participants to be true safety champions. However, it needs aligned leadership, careful design and expert execution to have the full effect.