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Managing safety: finding the balance of procedures, people

During my long career in the construction materials industry, I have been responsible for managing safety programs across a wide range of operations from small sites to very large diverse business units employing several hundred direct employees and contractors.

My initial responsibilities in managing safety were as a site supervisor in an era when there was very little support in terms of professional safety or human resources staff and there was almost a total lack of safety systems, procedures or training. The training that did occur was very much based on learning from experienced employees to try and stay out of trouble!

Despite the lack of formal documented safety systems and procedures it was not unusual for sites that would be considered to be very high risk in terms of today’s safety standards to achieve outstanding safety performance, often achieving many years work free of Lost Time Injuries.

In making this statement I would accept that many employees carried on working with a range of injuries from those considered as minor (eg sprains and strains) to more significant injuries, due to the implied pressure not to let other employees down or possibly losing their jobs. Clearly injury reporting requirements are far more rigorous than in the past.

Human factor

I have long held the belief that good safety performance is not entirely dependent on the implementation of more complex systems and procedures involving increased quantities of manuals and paperwork but is also very dependent on human factors.

In recent times we have seen the development of safety legislation and regulation to a point where no matter the size of the operation there is a mandated requirement to implement a wide range of safety systems and procedures that need to be fully documented, implemented and regularly updated, imposing greatly increased responsibility and work load on all managers, supervisors and employees.

The importance of the “paper trail” cannot be over-estimated when things go wrong in today’s highly regulated and punitive business environment.

There is a plethora of ever increasing complex systems and procedures covering requirements from selection, induction, initial job skills training/competency assessment, tool box meetings, pre-start checks, site and equipment audits, safety meetings, risk assessments, safe work procedures, job safety assessments, emergency procedures, incident and accident investigation, employee health assessments, fitness for work (fatigue, drugs and alcohol) and injury management/rehabilitation. No doubt many other requirements could be added to this list.

These requirements have led to the employment of increasing numbers of professional OHS, human resources, training and auditing staff to support site management and employees in the quest for improved safety outcomes.

Obviously the use of comprehensive safety systems and procedures are required in terms of regulatory compliance and demonstrated improved safety performance but there is another key factor, which is the positive ongoing engagement of all employees. This includes senior management, site management and employees in what can be called the “human factor”.

It is my belief that getting the balance between safety systems and procedures, with the “human factor” is vitally important in promoting positive engagement of employees and a safe work place. Unfortunately in recent times this balance has become skewed. I believe the increased dependence on systems and procedures has often been at the expense of leadership and employee engagement.

A number of years ago I had the opportunity to attend a presentation made by the eminent safety expert Professor James Reason (PhD, Manchester University, UK). The basis of Professor Reason’s presentation was after investigating a number of major accidents, particularly in the high risk nuclear, aviation, oil and gas industry (such as the North Sea, Piper Alpha oil rig disaster), the “human or people factor” needs to be considered carefully when it comes to good safety performance.

Reason put forward the view that many accidents are a result of organisational influences, including unsafe supervision and human error which can contribute to breakdowns in complex, well managed systems and procedures. He put forward the view that no system is ever perfect and the “human hazard” is always present.

Error wisdom

{{image2-a:r-w:200}}Another way of describing Reason’s thinking about this issue is to consider the safety culture of an organisation and those who make up the organisation. Often the difference in an accident occurring or not is the ability of a well engaged person to make the right decision at the right time to break a chain of events that will lead to an accident. This type of timely intervention “to save the day” often involves skill, experience and an element of luck.

Many safety professionals will say there is no such thing as good luck in avoiding an accident but my experience has certainly led me to believe that intangible factors such as intuition or good luck are more often involved than not.

An intuitive action at the right time, or the last minute decision often by a front line person can break the chain of events that would otherwise lead to an accident. Reason describes these phenomena as “error wisdom”.

So how do front line employees gain error wisdom and more importantly have the positive mindset and confidence to do the right thing at the right time?

It is my belief that it comes down to what is often called the culture of the organisation and the positive engagement of its employees. Simply put, it is about winning the “hearts and minds” in a way that truly engages all employees to do everything possible to look after themselves and their fellow workmates and others (customers, general public, etc).

The consequences of not taking action at the right time can be catastrophic.

Take the example of a quarry employee not removing a piece of metal from a worn chute patch that finds its way into an aggregate stockpile. The aggregate (and piece of metal) then ends up in a concrete mix that is delivered to a high pressure concrete pump at a city building site. The piece of metal causes a blockage in the pump leading to a rupture causing extensive damage, downtime and injury to the customer’s employees and general public.

So what can be done to create a safe working culture and build in error wisdom?

Safety systems and procedures need to be practical and effective. Far too often these are developed by well meaning people external to the work site in a manner that makes them too complex and unworkable. We have all seen the book shelves full of dust covered weighty manuals.

Obviously leadership is very important with the onus on senior management and site management to encourage an environment where employees learn from mistakes and near misses. In addition, employees need to be encouraged to have the confidence to take action when required, regardless of management involvement. Often timely action can save the day.

Another important factor is skill and experience. Clearly training and competence are important. These can be achieved through formal training programs and the sharing of on-the-job experience through “buddy programs” with more experienced employees.

In addition, open and honest safety discussions during normal conversations, toolbox and safety meetings help build engagement and knowledge.

Supporting safety culture

It is important that management at all levels, supports the safety culture by providing personal leadership involvement and resources (including financial) to address safety issues in a timely and effective manner.

Employees will only be engaged and confident to take action in the pursuit of improved safety performance if they feel the work place is honest and they are respected as individuals for the contribution they make.

Clearly there are many things that need to come together to achieve good safety outcomes. There is a need for a comprehensive safety system and procedures but there is also a need to consider the “human factor” carefully.

It is only by having the proactive engagement of confident and skilled employees in balance with appropriate systems and procedures that a truly strong safety culture can be established and we can hope to build sustainable safety outcomes.

John Malempre is a Past President and Honorary Fellow of the IQA, and the proprietor of consultancy Conmats Consulting. Email:

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