World-class organizations do not achieve sustained safety excellence without a process in place that identifies risk exposure well before an incident or injury occurs. Yet countless companies have established observation programs without measurable success. In the paragraphs that follow, my goal is twofold: to provide readers with a greater understanding of the importance of employing a proactive safety observation strategy in the workplace, and to offer a step-by-step guide to ensure its effectiveness.
To begin, I want to provide two examples of a topic that has significant influence on the human thought process and is a focal point of Malcolm Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point,” a must-read for those interested in changing safety culture.
In a March 1982 article published in “The Atlantic” (see www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1982/03/broken-windows/304465/), George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson introduced what has come to be known as the broken windows theory, which suggests that context plays a material role in how people act. Specifically, if a neighborhood is plagued by buildings with broken windows, people will conclude that no one in the area cares or is in charge, and more windows will be broken. These minor infractions will then lead to major crimes and a steady decline of the neighborhood. Conversely, an orderly neighborhood free of property damage and litter indicates an environment where such things are not tolerated.
The second example dates back to the mid-1980s, when crime was escalating in the New York City subway system. City leadership put the broken windows theory to the test; if a subway train was tagged with graffiti, the graffiti had to be removed within 24 hours. The rationale was that in order to win the battle against crime, the environment has to be changed, especially the environment that people can see. After the graffiti rule was implemented, New York City subway crime fell throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In his analysis of these events in his book, Gladwell stated that the city had reached a “tipping point” that caused crime trends to dramatically reverse.
These examples help to demonstrate that there is a powerful connection between context and behavior, and it is one that applies to all industries. In our work as safety consultants, my colleagues and I have found that when leaders proactively focus on the observable safety aspects of a work site, they will positively influence the decisions of individual workers and ultimately change the organization’s safety culture for the better.