Several years ago, when I was speaking to a group of young safety professionals, one individual asked me to comment on what I felt the key responsibilities for the role were in terms of achieving desired safety results. My immediate response was: "Our job as safety leaders is to force employees to make the right decisions by removing variables that drive people to make the wrong decisions." The result was immediate silence from everyone in the room. For many, using the word "force" in conjunction with work objectives felt both inappropriate and wrong. Thinking back, that day may have been as much my personal introduction to political correctness as to how organizationally sensitive we had become.
In a decade of forward-thinking process improvement strategies, controlling process variation is not a new concept. Many successful safety programs have been built around the simple concept that reducing variables and stabilizing the production process will support the objective of producing world-class quality. In terms of Occupational Safety and Health, and quite aggressively over the last two decades, safety professionals, statisticians and psychologists have studied a similar issue–what one might refer to as Safety System Control. In a literal sense, this simply means the ability to identify, evaluate and eliminate those variables that pose the greatest risks—to the process, the product stream and ultimately, to the people who are doing the work. Forty years ago, the job of a safety professional was primarily focused on controlling the physical environment — brought on by the regulatory outcomes of the 1970 OSHA Act. Over the past two decades, we've experienced a shift toward improving worker behavior through better decision making. More recent and, one might say, innovative approaches to safety training and skills development have dominated work plans as we determined that both knowledge and skills are equally valuable components of an effective safety strategy. What is not widely understood is that while some organizations are gaining ground, others are still driving thematic safety plans that lack process balance. In quality circles, this points to uncontrolled variability within the work system.
Philip Leather, in his book "Safety and Accidents in the Construction Industry," researched construction safety from a work-design perspective. His research suggests that a multi-factor approach to analysis is necessary to understand safety-system failure. He states, "The study of construction safety revealed a complex array of diverse, yet often closely interrelated, factors and relationships." He also writes, "a recurring obstacle to developing effective strategies for improving the industry's safety record has been its overriding acceptance of single-variable analysis, in particular, its preoccupation with the concept of carelessness as a unifactorial and unqualified explanation of accidents." Leather goes on to say, "What is needed is understanding and explanation, which emphasizes the multiplicity and complexity of accident causation, especially the interrelation of individual, organizational and job variables." What Leather is sayinghere is that there are certainly more factors to consider in determining why loss occurs in the workplace.