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Safety and Health Practitioner (SHP) is first for independent health and safety news.
June 22, 2009

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Shifting sands

In the February 2006 issue of SHP, Percy Smyth gave his take on what he feels are some of the myths and legends that have grown up around safety management. Here, he takes the debate further, challenging more concepts that he believes are built on foundations of sand.

“Perseverance is a great element of success. If you knock long enough and loud enough at the gate, you are sure to wake up somebody.” So said the American poet and educator, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in the 19th century, but he could just as easily have been talking about the tactical and strategic application of safety management today.

When it comes to safety systems there would appear to be an easy acceptance that what has gone before is statistically accurate enough, and completed with sufficient rigour, to be accepted as a universal ‘truth’. In fact, many of those systems are a product of radical counter cultures at the time of their inception but unfortunately, they have now become the framework of a generally accepted ideology.

Further to my previous article on this subject,  I intend to question four more of the primary tenets of accident causation, outcomes and controls that I have come to believe offer a false framework on which many safety management structures are built.

Myth no.1: the goal of zero lost-time accidents is realistic and achievable
The ultimate goal of zero lost-time accidents is often stated in training sessions and at health and safety meetings with the board, but it is, quite simply, nonsense. Nevertheless, some safety professionals cling to this belief. They indoctrinate senior management to this point of view to such an extent that it becomes ridiculous dogma.

The workforce — non-safety professionals — has always known instinctively that zero accidents is an unrealistic goal. So has management, when they haven’t been coerced into regarding it as a pipe dream.

So, how has this become the norm, and why has it become acceptable to select this concept as a mainstay of safety management targets? It is useful, here, to consider some of accidents that can never be fully controlled.

Life risks are those that all of us face everyday of our lives: walking along the pavement, crossing the road, driving the family car, using household equipment for cooking, cleaning or washing, and any number of other activities. If we transfer any of these things from the domestic situation to the workplace environment then they become, under the HSWA 1974, a work risk that has to be controlled.

For many of these things, this is not a problem — for instance, ensuring that the equipment in the mess room is fit for purpose, electrically safe and in general good order is, quite legitimately, a work-safety requirement. But what happens when a certain set of variables combine, despite our best efforts, and cause an accident through circumstances beyond anyone’s control.

The HSE is often at pains to point out that companies are not required to reduce the risks on sites to less than the normal “life risks” we all face on a daily basis. But how do we decide what classes as ‘normal’ life risk? Unfortunately, this is always going to be a subjective decision. Many incidents that happen on site — slipping in the snow on the way into work on a winter’s morning, for example — could happen anywhere, so they are not work-specific.

Installing preventive measures for these types of risks would effectively be trying to control things that are beyond our control. And while this might make us look like we are reacting effectively to events, I would argue that it actually offers the false reassurance that we have ‘done something about it’.

Life risks will exist despite our best efforts, and they will continue to exist despite any number of controls we might install. We have to accept that our task, within the safety community, is not to eliminate all risk but to ensure our workers are at no greater risk while about their daily tasks than they would be in the outside world.

Myth no.2: All accidents are the responsibility of management
This argument is often trotted out in order to frighten the horses, in the form of senior managers. Using the argument that any accident, whatever its cause, can ultimately be laid at the door of management makes it possible to blame management for every, and all, diverse causal pathways and initiating events. This works, of course, by removing responsibility from everyone else.

Not only is the above statement not true, it is also easily disproved. If it were indeed the situation then court proceedings would result in many more managers being convicted after serious accidents than is currently the case.

This particular myth is perpetrated mainly by the media, and maintained by sections of the safety training community, in order to over-emphasise the levels of responsibility held by the directing minds of organisations.

As the HSE has emphasised in its recent new strategy, everyone in the workforce must act together to ensure safety — it is not down to one or the other. The strategic management of a company’s safety system cannot be fully engaged with its tactical implementation if those who carry out the one are unaware of how the other is performed.

Myth no.3: If you have lots of minor accidents you are more likely to suffer a major one
It is actually a perfectly valid argument that having a number of minor accidents is perfectly healthy, and not an indication that a major accident event is on the horizon. Indeed, a safety system that sees a number of minor, random, and sporadic accidents can be considered to be in good shape and resilient.

Just as it is not possible to eliminate all accidents it should be normal to expect that there will be a low number of minor accidents. This should be seen as an indication of success, because serious accidents are being avoided, and each should be investigated in the same rigorous way as any other outcome.

Our colleagues in the USA don’t actually include minor accidents in their statistical analysis. For instance, accidents that occur in works car parks are discounted, as are accidents in the works restaurant, or those that happen during rest periods. They may happen on plant property but they are only counted as work accidents if the injured person is actually at work when they happen.

If this were the case in the UK our national statistics would see a dramatic improvement.

Myth no.4: What gets measured gets done
There is an old adage that “weighing the pig does not make it any fatter” and constant inappropriate measurement of performance, far from being useful, can be unhelpful and misleading. For example, an insistence on detailed measurement of behavioural safety becomes not only difficult to carry out but it can also devalue the recording system, while at the same time encouraging employees to cut corners.

A good example of this might be the peer observation techniques espoused by many behavioural-safety specialists. These rely on cards being filled out by employees as they observe their colleagues going about their business. Often, the number of completed observation cards becomes a measure, then a graph, then a KPI. In this way safety performance improvement is being judged on a measurement of a measure, and the KPI becomes a measurement of the measurement of a measure! Any failure to reach the KPI is then viewed as a failure of safety management rather than just the failure to collect enough measurements, which is actually what it would be.

Sometimes what gets measured just gets measured more often, and nothing tangible gets done.

It is clear that many pillars of modern safety management are flawed, or, at the very least, suspect. Life risks are what they are, and although at our workplaces we should do as much as we reasonably can to prevent them, we should not over-react if one causes a minor accident.

Zero lost-time accidents is an aspiration, not a practical goal. To talk of it as such is to delude ourselves and our senior managers. Not all accidents are the fault of management; individuals must take responsibility for their own contribution to accidents. Having a few minor accidents but no serious ones is a good thing. There is no reason to believe that the number of serious accidents is ‘built’ on the number of minor ones.

As safety practitioners, we sometimes feel that because we have been told things so many times, they must be true. This is not to criticise practitioners: many advertising campaigns rely on this learning by rote, as much as primary schools do in teaching young children to read.

But we do not have to believe everything we read; in fact, we do not have to believe any of it. Why should we? As safety practitioners we can use our subjective judgement to decide what is best in our individual management circumstances.  Many safety management ideas and approaches are open to criticism through logical argument, and thereby lies the road to improvement.

Perhaps the only universal truth is that safety management boils down to the subjective judgement of competent people. This demands that we should create our own innovative solutions to preventing injury in the workplace. Surely, that’s the answer?

Percy Smith MSc is the health and safety coordinator for the Generation & Renewables Division of RWE npower

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