What is Safety?
The word safety is powerful, persuasive, and always on everyone’s mind. We all make decisions based on our idea of safety every day. It’s safer to lock my house at night. It’s safer to use my blinker when merging. The safe bet is to buy tickets for an event in advance. If I were to ask ten people to define safety, I’d likely get ten answers.
If you’re a city service worker, you might say safety is “no accident.” If you’re the VP of safety at a corporation, you might say “safety is compliance.” If you’re a bank teller, you’d probably say safety has to do with security. Some of these definitions are confusing or too vague, like “no accident,” while others are incomplete; compliance? Is that really all you think of safety?
Safety vs. Risk
For the average person, these definitions are fine. They all include a piece to safety and thus, to a certain degree, will keep you safe. It’s a different story, though, for someone charged with making a high-risk job safer for the sake of the company, its employees, and the citizens it effects. Want to cut down on worker injuries? Want to lower your insurance premiums? Do you lack a safety culture? It’s crucial, then, to understand the relationship between safety and risk.
Safety is defined as freedom from risk. Thus, we’re never 100% safe because we’re never 100% free from risk. If you’re behind the wheel of a car, no matter how carefully you drive, there’s always the risk that someone else’s mistake may cause an accident. You might think, what’s the point of caring about safety then? The point is, safety is related to risk. The less risks we take, the safer we are. Companies in high-risk fields need to build a comprehensive safety strategy focused on lowering risk in order to impact safety. All effective safety strategies have three main parts: foundation, safety initiatives, and processes and programs.
What is a Safety Strategy?
The foundation is made up of senior level support, values, cultural norms, and policies and procedures. They work hand-in-hand to keep any safety strategy together. The foundation of the safety strategy is its life blood. It’s what makes the employees buy-in to the safety strategy. Above all, people are motivated by social norms. We care about what is normal behavior in our group. When the senior employees or leadership understand and clearly care about safety, safety becomes the norm. Thus, employees who take unnecessary risks may feel like outsiders and will likely change their behavior.
All effective safety strategies include specific safety initiatives. These are the tools with which an organization manages its employees and stops risky behaviors. Training courses, safety meetings, and monthly safety awareness campaigns will give employees the knowledge and skills needed to be safer while performing their job. Knowledge and skills are the most pliable traits of employees, so it is crucial to focus on influencing them through education and training.
Rubber Meets the Road.
The last part of any efficient safety strategy is made up of the processes and programs put in place. Safety processes and programs fall into three categories: data-drive, strategic-driven, or process-driven. Data-driven means that the leadership uses the process or program to notice employee behavior. Think internal safety audits as an example. Strategic-driven processes or programs are the plans used to either ensure safety in the work place or pinpoint unsafe conditions. An electric department may pick a handful employees to join a safety committee tasked with investigating workplace accidents. Lastly, the process-driven aspects of a safety strategy deal with compliance and employee conformity to rules. These are probably in place at any large organization, like drug testing or Personal Protective Equipment training.
Consequently, there are jobs so dangerous that they frequently lead to the deaths of workers or citizens. In 2015, 33 solid waste industry workers died on the job. In the same year, 3,852 people died in tractor trailer crashes. Clearly, calling safety “no accident” or compliance didn’t save those lives. The only way to drastically improve an organization’s safety is by building a safety strategy.