True safety goes beyond compliance

June 27, 2023
Book makes the case for individual ownership of safety

Much has been said on safety. So much so that some phrases meant to rally the cause have become cliches.

How many times have we seen a sign saying, “Safety first?”

Does it serve as a real reminder, or, is it merely part of a paint color or background we pass every day?

Even with an outstanding environmental, health, and safety compliance culture, a company’s workers and techs still can be hurt.

Ken Chapman, an industrial psychologist, and Tony Orlowski, an engineer, are the authors of “Safety Beyond the Numbers” (SafePath Publishing, Knoxville, Tennessee). They maintain that to truly advance safety an organization must take the next step beyond compliance—individual ownership.

Nine out of 10 safety incidents occur when a manager isn’t around, so everyone must own their safety.

That’s the reason the arresting title of the first chapter is “The Night I Cut a Man in Half” and not “The Night a Man WAS Cut in Half.”

The chapter references Orlowski’s time as a leader at a manufacturing plant when one of his employees was slowly backed into by a truck and pinned down. The employee survived but had to have both legs amputated.

Read also: Onboard cameras elevate job site safety

Orlowski details a highly personal journey of grief, guilt, and re-commitment, first leading to a doubling down on compliance. On fail safes. On systems.

But he soon discovered regulations-driven compliance ignores the human element. The element of time saving, of shortcuts, of “It can’t happen to me,” or “The system in place will take care of me.”

They authors also tell the story of a lineman who was known industry-wide for his prowess, celebrated for winning lineman “rodeos” and possessing an impeccable safety record. One day, the lineman and his younger, less-experienced assistant were on their final job of the afternoon.

As the ace lineman went up in the bucket, the younger man reminded him to take the orange blankets customarily used to cover live wires. “Don’t worry, this will just take a minute,” the lineman said.

Those were his last words.

Even the best and brightest, the book says, can have a bad day.

Chapman and Orlowski stress that safety is a personal commitment on everyone’s part and lay out ways to create that culture and achieve the buy-in.

“Individual safety is a combination of atavistic instinct programmed into one's DNA from eons of Darwinian evolution, ‘survival of the fittest,’” says David Murray, safety and occupational health specialist, 652nd Regional Support Group, U.S. Army Reserve Command, Fort Harrison, Montana.

“[But this] is only a half measure and will avail us nothing in today's complex world. The other half of safety success is the self-initiative to learn, train, and practice safety and health principals gained through mentors, self-interest, and lessons learned,” Murray says.

The authors stress self-examination ("first look in the mirror") and provide many rock-solid nuggets of wisdom, backed by stories and examples that bring them to life. There is a scientific element, too, with charts and graphs managers can use to illustrate key points.

Safety as moral responsibility

Excellent compliance does not equal excellent safety outcomes, and following laws and regulations is only part of that accountability. Laws and regulations compel minimum standards—they are not standards of excellence.

A sole focus on compliance limits personal judgment, taking away the best defense a person has against injury. A compliance-only focus also discourages people from looking out for their teammates.

Safety is a moral obligation, according to Orlowski and Chapman.

When there is an incident, sympathy is not enough. Orlowski lived this with the truck accident as his plant. “As a leader, you are accountable for taking action to mitigate the loss of life, health, and human potential,” he says.

Read also: How to keep equipment shops safe

Improving safety outcomes is not magic, but it is work, the authors say. You must commit to it as you would any other important organizational goal.

Technological improvement, spurred by the value of human life, has been the biggest single driver of improved safety outcomes.

But technology used without personal responsibility can be detrimental. Rather, recognizing the value of the moral component and promoting personal ownership will do the most to improve safety outcomes in the future.

Four C's of safety leadership

Strong leaders practice the Four C’s: They are calm, connected, credible, and courageous, leading by example, Chapman and Orlowski say.

Everyone on the team has a need to be valued and matter. Successful organizations not only support this, but they also require it. Good decision making is the most important and difficult part of leading a good life. Hard work will not cure poor decisions, they warn.

Most who fail to make good decisions suffer from poor perspective. The authors contend that the company must show the value of doing the “next right thing.”

Ownership is a harder task than compliance, and it’s sometimes both hard to give and accept. But ownership is objective and measurable. It is not an opinion; you can measure it by what you accept and what you expect.

Finally, mistakes happen. When things do not go as wanted, a leader should first look in the mirror. Considerable time is devoted to this concept.

The leader has the greatest impact on what happens in an organization, and as the leader, you have complete control over your words and behaviors.

You are most influential when setting a good example. “A leader is always on stage,” the authors say. If someone demonstrates they are not well-intentioned or capable, treat them accordingly. Be responsible to them, not for them.

Mistakes should be viewed as indispensable vehicles for growth.

Own the mistake, correct it, learn from it, and move on. “When we own our mistakes, correct them, and truly learn from them, we have earned the right to move on. If we do not own them, we have earned only a consequence,” Orlowski says.

Leaders should not confuse admitting mistakes with truly owning them. Only when an individual truly changes should you expect them to respond differently the next time.

A leader’s responsibility is to provide the proper expectations, tools, training, and engagement. Then others are responsible for owning their actions.

About the Author

Frank Raczon

Raczon’s writing career spans nearly 25 years, including magazine publishing and public relations work with some of the industry’s major equipment manufacturers. He has won numerous awards in his career, including nods from the Construction Writers Association, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, and BtoB magazine. He is responsible for the magazine's Buying Files.