7 Safety Practices that Waste Time and Money

By Roy Maurer Jan 31, 2013
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The elimination of ineffective practices is fundamental to business success. Safety is only one of the many business drivers that compete for management’s time and attention, so it’s critical that safety practices be high-impact. Unfortunately, too many companies use ineffective practices that merely waste time and money, a safety expert told SHRM Online.

Judy Agnew, senior vice president of safety solutions for Aubrey Daniels International, a management consultancy focused on performance management and behavior-based safety, argued that if you’re relying on conventional workplace-safety methods such as incident rates, incentive programs and safety signs, then you’re likely only “safe by accident.”

“At a time when recent workplace accidents have resulted in injury, death, and untold environmental and economic damage, we need to rethink our safety practices using science and proven systems, rather than questionable conventions,” said Agnew, a thought leader in the fields of behavioral safety and performance management.

Safety Practices That Don’t Work

Many organizations promote safety practices that not only are suboptimal but that actually work against safety, Agnew said. “This do-it-or-else style of managing safety leads to employees behaving safely because they have to, attending safety meetings because they have to, reporting near misses because they have to and barely meeting the safety goals. This is certainly not by design but because those in charge of these systems don’t have an in-depth understanding of behavioral consequences. They use techniques, processes and behaviors that unintentionally create a negatively reinforcing safety climate.” These practices include the following:

Focusing on lagging indicators. Most organizations have a history of using lagging indicators—that is, metrics focused on results—for everything, Agnew said. That reliance can be attributed to accustomed habit, the requirement to report data to regulatory bodies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the conundrum of not knowing what else to do, she said.

Companies focused on lagging indicators—such as incident rates, lost-time rates, and days away, restricted or transfer (DART) rates—tend to be reactive, she said. “This means that management is always dealing with how to fix problems, rather than preventing them in the first place.”

Leading indicators allow for more proactive management, Agnew explained. She recommended that businesses use an integrated approach involving a balanced scorecard that measures what workers at all levels are actually doing to prevent accidents, balanced with the required lagging indicators that monitor a company’s safety effectiveness over the long term. With such measures in place, immediate consequences can be incorporated to ensure those activities occur. For example, companies that have a behavior-based safety process have frontline and management-level scorecards that track daily and weekly behaviors aimed at improving both safe conditions and safe behaviors, Agnew said.

“Tracking management behaviors and tying consequences to them are key to improving safety,” she said.

Proactive activities that should accompany behavioral measures include tracking the percentage of corrective-action items coming out of audits that have been successfully completed, measuring the amount of time it takes to respond to reported hazards and measuring the fluency in performing safety tasks, instead of simply taking attendance at training sessions.

Injury-based incentive programs. Critics of injury-based incentive programs, including OSHA, point to the problems that incentives create: specifically, the underreporting of accidents. Agnew noted that there are three ways a business can get through a specified period without an accident: Employees are actually working safely, employees are engaging in some at-risk behaviors without an accident through chance, and employees are partaking in at-risk behaviors and not reporting them to avoid losing the incentive.

The alternative to incentive programs is reinforcement systems, through which workers are recognized for preventing accidents, Agnew said. A positive-reinforcement system could include:

  • Analyzing accident and near-miss data to identify what behaviors prevent a company’s most common injuries.
  • Engaging leadership as well as front-line personnel in identified safety behaviors. “While pinpointing behaviors at the hourly level is often more straightforward, it is critical to spend time identifying what staff, supervisors, managers and executives can do to prevent accidents,” she said.
  • Using social reinforcers to link behaviors to desired outcomes. This is a way of telling people how what they’re practicing keeps themselves and others safe on the job.

Traditional training. The problem with simply training employees on safety do’s and don’ts is that this strategy provides information without changing behaviors. The most common outcome of safety training is, at best, a temporary change in behavior, followed by a gradual return to old habits, Agnew observed.

She recommended that companies instead focus on fluency—i.e., employees’ ability to perform the safety task accurately and without hesitation. In traditional training sessions, staffers just passively listen, rather than actively perform the task. Effective training, on the other hand, includes getting employees to perform the task over and over until fluency is achieved, she explained. “There’s a lot of fabulous interactive computer-based instructional-design technology that can be used to get employees to the point of fluency much faster than most organizations realize,” she said.

Safety signage. Compliance safety signs are a necessary but insufficient element of any safety program, Agnew said. “How long is it before you don’t even see the sign anymore? Signs do not guarantee that employees will engage in the target behaviors.” Rather than post inspirational signs like “Think safety,” Agnew said, organizations should post graphs that show employees’ safety performance. “Graphic displays of data are much more likely to have a positive impact on safe behavior.”

Checklists. The use of checklists, for inspections or procedures, is similar to the use of signs in that they’re only a job aid, Agnew said. They can be a useful tool and are sometimes required by regulatory bodies, but they alone do not change behavior, according to Agnew. “For checklists to produce lasting change, they must be used in conjunction with consequences,” she said.

To make checklists maximally effective, Agnew advised that companies do the following:

  • Ensure that checks on the checklist represent behaviors or accomplishments that have been completed in the proper way.
  • Make sure that items on the checklist are observed apart from the checklist to ensure quality and safety.
  • Pair the checklist with positive reinforcement.

“Following a checklist requires behavior,” Agnew said. “Whether it’s done well, poorly or at all depends on the consequences.”

Punishing mistakes. Some companies tout zero-tolerance policies when it comes to accidents, incidents, near misses and at-risk behavior. Because multiple factors can contribute to these events, punishing a worker may not actually address the real issue that caused a problem, and may have several unintended side effects, including lower morale and a desire to retaliate, Agnew said. “The most problematic side effect of punishment is having the reporting of accidents and near misses suppressed out of fear of punishment.”

She recommended that businesses respond to incidents by following these steps:

  • Approach the incident as a failure of the system, not of the individual.
  • Conduct an accident investigation that identifies behavioral root causes.
  • Create an action plan to remediate root causes. Make the plan public, and develop an accountability system to complete action items.
  • Check that the root causes continue to be addressed.

Misunderstanding near misses. Often, organizations inadvertently discourage near-miss reporting by making the reporting process too complicated and time-consuming or by punishing workers for near misses, Agnew said. If near misses are punished, employees won’t report them.

“A near miss should be viewed as a failure of management, not the individual,” Agnew pointed out. “A careful analysis of the near-miss incident will identify changes that should be made in order to reduce future near misses and accidents.”

She recommended the following procedures:

  • Flagging the minutest variance in safety procedures or processes. “Even an unsafe behavior that doesn’t come near being an accident should be considered a near miss,” she said. All unsafe actions, regardless of how small, can provide valuable lessons that spur safe behavior and preclude errors, she added.
  • Developing a system to evaluate near misses. Agnew advised cataloging near misses to identify patterns in location, time of day, time of month, product, supervisors and front-line employees. “This will help identify causes and remedies that are not proximate to the near miss,” she said.
  • Correcting the near miss.

“Good intentions are not enough,” said Agnew. “Ineffective safety cultures can develop despite good intentions. Companies that fail to take a scientific approach to human behavior are gambling with their futures and putting the lives and livelihoods of their employees and communities at risk.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.​

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