Beyond hard hats and high-vis: The challenge of keeping people safe at work

Simon WiIlliams

By Simon Williams, Ashley Harshak, Katie Carrier

Each year, approximately 340 million people suffer work-related accidents around the world, with 2.3 million of those incidents being fatal. This translates to more than 6,000 people dying each day as a result of unsafe conditions in the workplace.

Researchers have found that human error is the root cause in over 80 percent of workplace accidents. While younger workers are more likely to experience a workplace accident, older workers are more likely to suffer serious injury or death when they do occur.

In many high hazard organisations there will always be risk; it is inherent in the nature of the work they do. PA recently hosted a roundtable event with senior leaders from a range of industries facing high-risk conditions. They discussed the methods and approaches they’ve found to be successful, as well as sharing observations from the course of their careers. The resulting conversations illuminated several critical points.

A culture of individual accountability will improve safety

At the individual level, workers in high-risk environments need to understand that no safety-related job is beneath them. “You see it, you own it,” was a mantra that resonated strongly with everyone present. The message is simple: everyone is accountable for what they see. If any member of the team notices unsafe conditions, it’s up to them to act on it. If a worker isn’t qualified to handle the situation, they should alert a manager or someone else who can.

Leaders can “make it real” for employees by describing personal experiences that have shaped their own views on safety. When people see first-hand where complacency can lead, this not only heightens awareness, it builds an emotional connection to the importance of safety.

“I’ve had members of my team involved in serious accidents and had to speak with their families afterward,” said a Head of Engineering and Maintenance. “It’s made me very passionate about making sure everyone gets home safely to their families.”

A culture of care is central to safety

While safety is always important, it becomes more of a priority when workers understand what a lapse in judgement can mean for others. When employees see something wrong, simply understanding the possible consequences is not enough, they must feel empowered to speak up when they come across unsafe practices.

“It’s not about getting people into trouble, it’s about keeping people safe,” said a Health, Safety & Environment Director.

Creating a psychologically safe environment where people feel that they are being looked out for, that they can speak up and that they can hold each other to account will go a long way to supporting safer work and performance.  Attendees referenced the power of positive role modelling within teams, usually by individuals outside the direct chain of command as having a beneficial impact not only on safety outcomes, but also performance. 

A culture of challenge will create safer environments

Multiple roundtable participants observed that a lack of diversity within team can create an environment of “self-referencing,” in which its difficult to see when things are wrong. One attendee referenced the Nut Island effect, whereby a high performing team started to make up their own rules and put up barriers to challenge scrutiny, which ultimately contributed to a disaster.  Different perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences allow teams to identify issues and come up with new ways of solving them.

“You need to have different experiences and dynamics to have the widest perception of risk,” said a Safety Assurance Director in the transport industry. “With a diverse team construct you’re making sure there’s healthy challenge to keep risk perception high.”

Leaders should regularly take stock of the make-up of their teams and consider ways to attract members from different backgrounds, rotate individuals and ultimately keep team composition fresh.  

Helping people make better, safer choices

All attendees recognized the multi-faceted and complex nature of safety and its relation to prevailing organisational culture. Attendees shared the following best practises.

  1. Build “muscle memory.” An attendee from the Oil & Gas industry spoke about the importance of “regular exercising and simulation” to both reduce complacency and build safety challenges into day-to-day operation, such that when an event does happen people are better prepared.
  2. Deploy tools which nudge behaviour towards safety. Think about the “choice architecture” that is used at work. For example, can the physical design of a workspace not only guide people to work more safely, but also stop them taking shortcuts? Another attendee discussed the use of well-designed checklists, citing the example of Captain “Sully” Sullenberger’s historic “Miracle on the Hudson,” emergency landing where checklists helped save lives.
  3. Keep learning, keep looking. A surgeon at the roundtable spoke about the importance of after-action reviews or debriefs following an operation to uncover learning opportunities. Another attendee spoke of the importance of taking “no bad news” as a cue to go and look at what was happening in the field and make sure everything is being reported.

These examples, along with numerous other personal anecdotes, highlight the positive impacts of planning for safety. While individuals are responsible for following best practices, leaders and organisations can take steps to set employees up for success. Ultimately, a safe workplace is everyone’s responsibility.

About the authors

Simon WiIlliams
Simon Williams PA people and talent expert
Ashley Harshak PA culture and leadership expert Ashley has over 24 years’ experience of advising senior leaders on their strategic people topics, working with organisations on their strategic leadership issues, ranging from board effectiveness, leadership team dynamics, executive succession planning, leadership coaching and development.
Katie Carrier PA people and talent expert

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