Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Can you rewire your safety culture?

I was invited to deliver the keynote presentation at the “Make It Safe” conference a few days ago. The event was hosted by the FIOSA-MIOSA Safety Alliance of BC, the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters of BC, and WorkSafeBC.

The FIOSA — MIOSA Safety Alliance of BC, is a not-for-profit industry organization that seeks to address challenges and opportunities specific to food & beverage processing and manufacturing and to set industry standards for health and safety.

The industries represented in the room were ideal for my topic, “Rewiring your Safety Culture.” Most participants had great safety backgrounds, but my goal was to take their thinking about safety beyond the lagging indicators such as injury free days, injury counts, and reportable injury frequency rates. The manufacturing sector has made huge strides in improving safety and health but to take the industry to the next level of safety will mean rewiring the way we think about safety and how we measure our progress.

Manufacturing has been the focus of much research on safety culture. The rich research in this sector provided me with examples from oil refineries, commercial bakeries, electronics manufacturing, and metal fabrication to illustrate my point.

I also happen to like James Reason’s work on human factors because I find it connects with audiences. Briefly, his “Swiss Cheese” model is widely used and easy to visualize. Reason conceptualizes the barriers, safeguards and defences (like training, supervision, safe work procedures, and equipment design) that protect workers as being imperfect with holes of varying sizes and location representing active and latent gaps in the protection. Workers can only get hurt when the hazard in the work environment follows a trajectory through the holes to harm the worker.

Adding “Six Sigma” (an innovation born in the manufacturing sector) to Reason's model allowed the audience to visualize my argument for a rewired safety culture. They agreed that active defects in training, supervision, adherence to safe work procedures can be eliminated or reduced by applying the Six Sigma methodology.

Taking Reason’s model, I argued for a re-conceptualization of the holes as “defects” in the barriers, safeguards, and defences that would protect workers from harm. Six Sigma methodologies are all about reducing variation and improving processes to ensure defects fall below the 3.4 million per million level. Through improvements in training, supervision, and adherence to safe work procedures, we can reduce the number, and size, of defects in these defences and reduce the probability of harm to workers. As defects approach Six Sigma levels, injuries to workers will approach zero. Selecting leading indicators consistent with the approach completes a rewired approach to safety and safety culture.

In this competitive world, the one big question audiences ask about rewiring their thinking about safety and changing their safety culture, relates to costs. The good news is that most of this rewired thinking about safety is not expensive. Small investments and equipment can have a big effect. The big change is in mindset; the big benefit is in saved lives, lowered costs, and improved productivity.

Because my job for much of the last thirty years has involved environmental scanning, I collect stories and examples from other jurisdictions. One of my current favourites from the manufacturing world is for Simms Fishing Products. WorkSafeMT has highlighted this small manufacturing firm in a video available on YouTube that makes the point: it is possible — and worth it — to rewire your safety culture.

Take a look at the video and take the next step: start rewiring!

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