Overcoming the Illusion of Safety
There are striking similarities in how we respond to incidents, injuries and fatalities in our industry. Safety stand-downs are held. Utilities and contractors conduct incident investigations that are typically wrapped up with action items that need to be handled.
But consider this: Is everything we do in the wake of an incident truly effective in preventing future incidents? Let’s take it one step further. Are all the things we’re doing on a daily basis helping to ensure employee safety, or do we sometimes simply check a box, satisfy a requirement and tell ourselves we’re making the job safer for our workers?
My objective in writing this article is to take a hard look at some of the tactics we are currently using in the name of safety. I will occasionally use or allude to the phrase “imagined reality”; this is not intended to be flippant or sarcastic. The truth of our human existence is that we create our own reality and then build systems around it. Take religion, for example. There are different religions whose followers have different beliefs and worship in different buildings – yet we can put a rover on Mars when we all work together regardless of our differences.
In the utility industry, we sometimes create an imagined reality of safety by doing certain things that we believe will make our workforce safer – but do they actually work? And if they’re not working, what can we do as an industry to improve? Think about this: The continued occurrences of serious injuries and fatalities tell us something. Even with the best training and the latest new safety initiatives, we have been unable to outsmart human fallibility. The smartest people in safety with the highest degrees in the land have been unable to save the last lineworker who was killed on the job. So, if we want to continue progressing in terms of safety in our workplaces, we may need to try some new tactics.
In the remainder of this article, we’re going to look at four different items – the safety stand-down, the safety moment, the job briefing and leadership style – to gauge their effectiveness and discuss what we can do to make them more impactful for the workforce.
1. The Safety Stand-Down
I have been involved with many safety stand-downs as a lineman, manager and safety director. In my experience, the safety stand-down has become a standard action item when an incident or near-miss is serious enough to warrant a temporary job shutdown. During a stand-down, there are often speakers and a document that is presented to workers, with the event typically taking place in a classroom, at a show-up site or on the job site.
The information provided at the stand-down is usually relevant, timely and accurate. But what impact does it have on the workforce? If we model a narrative of talking to or at a group of workers and there is little to no interaction, it is unlikely that the information will be impactful or lasting for the workers. Of course, there’s no doubt that during some safety stand-downs, there is a skilled presenter who engages and involves the audience, prompting deep thought and contemplation of what could have been done to avoid the incident altogether. The reality is that a stand-down is only as good as its presenter.
When assessing the effectiveness of a safety stand-down, ask yourself, what will change tomorrow because of the stand-down today? When a stand-down is put together by management for their workers, the result is often a stand-down about what management thinks is necessary to present in order to prevent recurrence. But a stand-down should be negotiated with the crew that experienced the event, and their input – along with the input of other crews – is critically necessary if we want an impact to be made. Otherwise, the stand-down is a check-the-box event so that crews can eventually get back to work; it is a means to satisfy a requirement.
A stand-down presented only by management is also the kind of event that can potentially erode trust between workers and management. Education is supposed to be focused on students. Similarly, medicine should be patient centered. So, why does much of safety seem to be generated more by management than workers? When an initiative originates in management with no worker input, the worker is not a partner in the process. And if you are currently managing safety without partnering with your workforce on initiatives, there’s a good chance that what you are doing isn’t going to resonate with your workforce.
2. The Safety Moment
At one point in my career, I ran a small satellite garage for an electric utility. The company broadcasted a safety message at the same time every workday. Sometimes I would be in the middle of a task, such as establishing a clearance for an outage over the radio, and everything would have to stop so we could listen to the safety message.
One year, I did a small anecdotal study, visiting crews on their job site twice a week at noon. Each time I visited, I would ask the crew what the safety message had been for the day. Most often, nobody knew. This was another management initiative, one that gave them the illusion that they were helping to make the workplace safer. But truthfully, the safety moment as it was presented was mostly a distraction. A well-timed safety moment, however – such as before a meeting begins – has the potential to be an engaging event that connects everyone. There are still a few that remain in my consciousness all these years later.
To be effective, a safety moment must engage the audience in some way, and it shouldn’t interrupt workers when they are trying to safely complete their tasks. If you decide you must have a safety moment, pick a good time for it, and use it to foster interaction among workers. One good method to try is to offer a famous quote and ask workers how it might apply to the work ahead that day.
3. The Job Briefing
The job briefing is a requirement under OSHA 29 CFR 1910.269 and 1926 Subpart V. It’s something we must do in our line of work. Yet not all job briefings are presented the same way. If we have been modeling a narrative to our crews in our safety stand-downs, with little engagement or interaction, then it’s likely the same thing is happening during job briefings. But it’s conversations and interactions among workers that keep them connected, and those connections will help to keep the crews safe.
Please don’t get me wrong; I believe the information in the briefing is crucial, and the briefing is a legal requirement. Yet how we conduct a job briefing should encourage the interaction and engagement that need to continue among workers all day long. If you lead job briefings for your organization, the goal should be curious and interested engagement among crew members with the opportunity for anyone to ask questions or contribute their thoughts.
4. Leadership Style
Your leadership style will directly affect the types of interactions that occur on your watch. There are some great books written by U.S. Navy SEALs that cover leadership, planning and implementation. The SEALs have a test-and-learn philosophy. They are experts at being able to outsmart their opponents as a unit, not as individuals.
We can learn from them by how connected they are to each other in movement and communication. Just as with our work, bad things happen when they are not connected. Our focus should be on engagement and interaction, but our industry often models a narrative, which can create an illusion of safety.
We can also learn from the late renowned management consultant, educator and author Peter Drucker. When someone would say, “That was a great meeting,” Drucker would ask, “So, what will change Monday for the worker as a result of this great meeting?” It’s a valid question. What are we doing to move the needle for the worker? The answer to that question will be limited if we haven’t involved the worker in the process.
In the 1980s, Ski Magazine published an article titled, “Is the one-hour private ski lesson a fraud?” The premise was that flash-in-the-pan training for one hour has little lasting effect on current behaviors. The same could be said about hosting that expert trainer for a one-time session intended to introduce ideas to steer your company’s practices or culture. As a former ski instructor, I used to offer three to five one-hour lessons to help ensure a change occurred in the skier’s movement pattern. That was highly successful. I believe the same applies to training in the utility industry. As opposed to a 60-minute, one-time meeting, it is more effective to offer a tactic or strategy and then partner with a worker on their turf to apply the tactic. Setting aside a few minutes every couple of weeks to practice a tactic and have that tactic become part of the workday will identify if the tactic is of any value or not. The 60-minute, one-time expert meeting has proven to have low effects on behavioral change. We may like the content, but follow-up is crucial if you are looking to create change. If there is no follow-up to encourage and verify, there will be no change.
Some of what we do doesn’t necessarily make anything safer. Instead, it creates an illusion of safety that satisfies the status quo. I have written this article in hopes that we will realize that we must try new things and question rituals if we want to continue to improve worker safety. Every week, some workers head to their jobs and lose their lives for reasons that could have been prevented. That should be incentive enough to stop doing the same things over and over and expecting different results. Recognizing that checking a box and fulfilling a requirement is just an illusion of safety is merely one place to start. It requires effort to engage our workforce and involve them in solutions. Are you willing to try?
About the Author: Bill Martin, CUSP, NRP, RN, DIMM, is the president and CEO of Think Tank Project LLC (www.thinkprojectllc.com). He has held previous roles as a lineman, line supervisor and safety director.