Better to be safe than sorry is a maxim that is often applied in the safety profession. We spend our careers designing and implementing preventative measures, so as to ensure that risk is eliminated or mitigated within the work place. Every year around the globe, there are thousands of new safety initiatives, commenced with millions of employees. Whilst these initiatives undoubtedly have well intentioned beginnings, I wonder how many safety professionals consider the possibility, that the end point could be negative for safety, for health and for the workplace culture.
In my work as a corporate Psychologist for IFAP (the Industrial Foundation for Accident Prevention) in Australia, I study aspects of organizational safety culture. I conduct surveys and focus groups, collecting both quantitative and qualitative data. Importantly, I get to speak candidly with the individual employees and the work teams who become the embodiment of an organization's safety system in their attitudes, beliefs and behaviours.
Characteristic of the organizations I work with is a strong drive towards international best practice in safety. In these organizations, there is ample time, money and resources for safety and health programs. Managers are educated and committed, employees are involved and "Safety first" is the catch cry. All of this energy and effort has lead to safety surrounding the employee, and barely a month goes by without industrious safety professionals churning out new procedures, training and information.
This approach may be familiar to many of us as safety professionals. Indeed, across the span of my career in safety, I have been somewhat conditioned to believe in the basic assumption that safety focused organizations create positive outcomes for the workforce. In other words, for me, more safety has been synonymous with more safe. Recently, I have been seeing cultures that challenge this supposition.
One such culture is that of a large, multinational organization operating in high risk environments. I was invited by the local safety committee to come and measure culture in one business division of their work place, as there was a curiosity about why the behaviour based safety system was experiencing poor support. On the surface, this company has some very impressive safety management initiatives. One example was their permit to work system. It appeared to be comprehensive and logical ensuring that each set of hazards were carefully dealt with from a hierarchy of hazard control perspective. Behaviour based safety was also available to round out the tools available for reducing risk.
In reality, I found that there were some significant problems. The safety culture was ailing badly. Amongst the work teams, perceptions of management commitment to safety were low, and avoidance of the permit to work rigour and reported risk taking behaviour were high. Commentary with regards to safety was tinged with bitterness and frustration.