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Safety management prescriptions

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Oilfield Technology,

Alan D. Quilley is the author of 'The Emperor Has No Hard Hat – Achieving REAL Safety Results' and the President of Safety Results Ltd. a Sherwood Park Alberta OH&S Consulting Company. Here, he talks about the ‘diagnose and fix’ expectation in safety management, and why this is changing as we all gain access to a wealth of information (online and in-house) about OH&S requirements.

Doctor, what’s wrong with me?

Recently I was speaking to a senior citizen about their health and I found it most interesting that this person had very high expectations of their health care provider. It became pretty clear to me that this senior’s expectation of their doctor was that the physician would diagnose and treat whatever came into the office. All they needed to do was to follow the doctor’s directions.

The health care model of the past was that a patient would arrive at the doctor’s office to describe the symptoms. The doctor would then diagnose the ailment, and prescribe a treatment. Very little questioning of the expertise would ever happen and patients would most often accept the advice with little or no input or debate. Today a trip to a physician usually involves some pre-work on the patient’s part. Patients often bring their own research to discuss with their doctor. There is a good chance that they have done an internet search on their symptoms, possible diagnosis and what are the popular treatment options.

The information often includes what the latest research tells us about what medical science is trying. We have access to news on medical trials and can discuss medicine with some knowledge and detail from our exposure to information on the internet, television and radio.

This discussion about the old and new expectations of our health care systems started me thinking about how safety management has changed over the years. Safety problems used to be delivered into the safety expert or supervisor’s lap like a ball of smelly goo that no-one wanted to manage. It was up to the safety expert or supervisor to then ‘diagnose and fix’ the issue with little or no involvement from upper management or from the workers.

So what does this look like today? What will it look like in the near future? Let me make a few observations and perhaps take out my trusty crystal ball and gaze into what I believe is the most likely future. In some of the best companies it’s happening now.

The science of safety is on the internet

In safety management, as in most things, there are two major classes of components; the ‘whats’ and the ‘hows’. When solving any problem or issue first one needs to know what to do to be successful and secondly and usually as important is how to do what needs to be done. The best solution poorly delivered usually results in major failure. Whether it’s building a pipeline or baking a cake, the components are certainly important but how those components are operationalised is also critical. Safety management has some ultra-important ‘whats’ and ‘hows’ to focus on. One without the other will get you less than excellent results.

Let’s start with the science of safety management or the ‘whats’. For most companies, this is their OH&S Policy and Procedures Manual. This is where the plan is communicated. We usually outline the company’s statement of commitment and details of who will be doing the things we think are important.

The art of safety is just as important

No matter what ‘medicine’ one takes for what ails them, the dosage and course of treatment is as important as what medicine you are prescribed. Safety management is no different in this regard. The best, well written OH&S Policy Manual will not result is any kind of safety excellence without a concentrated effort to implement the desires through people. This is what I refer to as the art of safety management.

It is pretty easy to find out what one needs to do to work around construction equipment or to safely work in a trench. Your local OH&S requirements will be defined and communicated usually through the local enforcement agency and any safety association your company belongs to. This frankly is the easy part.

What is usually lacking is how to get people to do what needs to be done to be safe. We expect that everyone will do what needs to be done because it’s the ‘right thing to do.’ Just writing down a procedure to enter into a trench does not ensure that the humans who need to do this will follow the rules. To make matters worse, we can, through our misunderstanding of human behaviour, believe that threats and punishment will force our people to do the right thing.

Safety management systems are more about people than binders of procedures

It has been said that safety is a ‘people problem’ and I believe that statement is only partially true. Even the strongest proponents of behavioural safety will recognise that our environment is at least partially influencing our behaviours. Tools, equipment and work spaces need to be managed along with the human behaviour. If you give a human only broken tools or under rated equipment to use their behaviour is predictable: they will use them.

‘Safety to people’ never gets very good results. It is better than not doing anything but we have discovered that this somewhat historical approach that the few (usually the management team and supervisors) can inflict safety on their employees and contractors isn’t as efficient and effective as it may seem. A much better way is to ensure that the ownership of creating safety is at the ‘sharp edge of the saw’ where the work actually gets done. Workers can and do want to work safely. We can allow them greater ownership of the decisions on how to actually accomplish that goal. Working with the people who do the work to create processes that result in safe production is not only possible, it provides outstanding results.

This is not to say that safety becomes an ‘anything goes’ proposition. We must work within the legislated framework and meet the desired requirements. Safety is very much about how we accomplish those challenges and that is best left to the people who actually do the work. This requires some assistance and support from the management team and the experts in a variety of related fields but employees can and do in many companies produce far superior safety outcomes when given the accountability and responsibility to meet the safety challenges.

Today, employee access to an unlimited amount of information (ranging from well researched, scientifically tested/supported information to myths and ill supported opinions) has created new challenges for our solutions to OH&S related issues and opportunities. On one hand, our employees are far more prepared to be involved in conversations and participation related to their issues. On the other, misinformation and myths tend to distract from the real issues we face.

All in all, I would have it no other way. The outcomes are richer because of the high engagement of our employees and contractors in their own safety. Many working on a problem is usually better than only a few. Who knows what the future will hold but in this case the newer approach of higher employee and contractor involvement is safety creation is the best medicine.

Written by Alan D. Quilley. Edited by

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