Every evening television providers use fabulous graphics to tell us about the weather we’ve just had, their expectations for the next 24 hours, and forecasts for the following five days. A fleet of meteorologists around the world study and predict storms, wind, sunshine and temperatures, and these are faithfully presented to an eager audience. The accuracy of weather predictions are frequently linked to the language used. For example “A 60% chance of rain” provides pretty good betting odds, and is a discussion catalyst for the rest of the day.
So why isn’t more effort made to predict safety? It seems to me that our collective ‘mental models’ still see accidents and fatalities at work as unpredictable, and unfortunate events that suddenly just loom up over the horizon.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Traditionally safety is recorded as past events such as LTIFR, TRIFR or some other type of historical injury data which is supposed (hoped) to be an indicator of H&S effectiveness, despite the debate about what is included in the data, and potential incentives to fudge it. In crude terms this is a bit like saying “Our definition of ‘sunny’ is the correct one, and because it was sunny yesterday it is likely to be so tomorrow” This approach would put a lot of meteorologists and weather presenters out of business, but because it’s the norm for health and safety, forecasting accidents and fatalities is a science yet to be made mainstream.
The lack of any widespread and sophisticated H&S forecasting is indicative of historical workplace attitudes when able workers were dispensable because they could be quickly replaced by the next job seeker, at little cost. Fortunately, many countries have moved on, but businesses in many others are still entrenched in a profit before people attitude. (A survey in 2103 identified over 70 countries with at least 10 – 25 times the Fatal Injury Rate of the UK).
In an effort to compensate for this lack of H&S forecasting, management has proceeded down a pathway signposted with: ‘If we stop workers doing dumb or irresponsible acts we’ll have zero harm (or near enough). And the way to achieve this is to make employees comply with our comprehensive policies and systems’. This pathway is a dead-end. Even when they don’t want to, human beings will still make mistakes, make poor decisions, and do dumb stuff, so it would be useful to be able to forecast if those human errors are likely to be converted into tragedy. Just like the potential for a low pressure weather system to cause widespread damage, or not.
Five warning signs and three common fibs can help to forecast dire future H&S events:
A focus on the numbers: The Board, or Executive Team, judges the quality of H&S by the direction of injury rates, near-miss reports, investigation close-out rates, number of safety training courses or tool box meetings etc. Little is done to go, look, question, or understand what is going on in their business, and erroneous assumptions are made about what ought to be going on. Incentivized under-reporting and KPIs are linked to keeping the numbers down.
The following comment from an employee is typical of hundreds we’ve heard that corrupt the numbers: “I want to be taken seriously when reporting an accident or a near-miss, not just fobbed-off by my manager, or worse, the situation made a joke of in the lunch-room in front of other co-workers.”
Cheap talk: Management espouses the importance of H&S, but demonstrates by their actions (or lack of them) that it’s not a strategic priority. They don’t role model an effective safety culture, and do unsafe things that they think no one notices or will be too afraid to challenge.
Blame culture: Rather than being part of the learning process employees duck for cover when there is an accident or near-miss. Investigations focus on ‘who’ was the problem rather than ‘what’ was the problem. An approach which is more about finding answers than asking good questions. Typically little thought is given to existing pre-conditions (pressure of work, tiredness, unfamiliarity with task, cramped working conditions etc); little thought given to the quality of supervision or management; and little thought given to the effectiveness of leadership, the quality of the H&S culture, and the rationale and effect of H&S budget constraints.
Smugness: We’ve always done it like this and we don’t have accidents. Optimistic claims that the quality of health and safety culture is known, and understood, without ever measuring it. (No professional manager would dare claim to know the financial state of their business without measures in place.) No need to go into the workplace and look for latent hazards, or have meaningful conversations with those on the floor.
Complacency: A hopeful belief that that the Board has the experience and knowledge needed to understand the risks and obtain the information they need about H&S from management. A belief by the Executive that management and supervisors throughout the business already have the skills needed to lead health and safety effectively.
(Tens of thousands of our survey responses clearly show that the positive perceptions of senior managers about health and safety are contradicted by the perceptions of virtually all other employees.)
Three common Fibs:
- Many Executives say H&S is a strategic priority, but this is a fib because they refuse to get personally involved in engaging workers on H&S.
- Boards say the well-being and safety of their people are more important than profit, but this is a fib because their Annual Reports include little more than a few sentences to prove it.
- Management says it sets a H&S budget to ensure the well-being and safety of their employees, but this is a fib because an identified hazard has to wait until the next financial year before it is fixed.
Weather forecasting is described as the application of science and technology to predict the state of the atmosphere in a given location, billions are spent on doing so every year, and mankind has been trying to get it right since 300 BC. With today’s advances in science and technology I think it’s about time we modernized health and safety and started to predict the atmosphere and risk profile in a given organisation. It might help potential investors, customers and employees make some useful decisions about whether or not to engage, and may even save one or more lives.