Misunderstanding Safety Commitment in Organisations: Insights from the Shop Floor

In the pursuit of creating safer workplaces, organisations often proclaim a strong commitment to safety. However, this commitment is frequently misunderstood, leading to unintended consequences such as blame culture and decreased overall safety. Renowned safety guru Sydney Dekker has explored these issues extensively, highlighting how traditional approaches to safety can paradoxically undermine the very goals they aim to achieve.

The Paradox of Safety Commitment

Organisations typically demonstrate their commitment to safety through rigorous policies, procedures, and training programs. While these measures are well-intentioned, they often create a paradox where the focus on compliance overshadows genuine safety improvement. Dekker argues that this compliance-based approach can lead to a superficial commitment to safety, where the appearance of safety becomes more important than actual safety.

Misunderstanding Commitment

The misunderstanding of safety commitment often stems from a belief that strict adherence to rules and regulations alone will prevent accidents. This mindset, however, overlooks the complex, dynamic nature of human behaviour and organisational systems. Dekker’s (and others) work emphasises that true commitment to safety requires understanding the realities of work on the ground, where variability and uncertainty are inherent.

The Role of Blame

When safety commitment is narrowly defined by compliance, deviations from established protocols are often met with blame. This blame culture can be detrimental for several reasons: Stifling Reporting: Employees may become reluctant to report near-misses or unsafe conditions for fear of being blamed, leading to missed opportunities for learning and improvement. Eroding Trust: A blame culture erodes trust between employees and management. Instead of fostering a collaborative environment where safety issues are openly discussed, blame creates adversarial relationships. Superficial Compliance: Employees might focus on appearing compliant rather than addressing underlying safety issues, resulting in a false sense of security.

Insights from the real world

“My own insights into safety culture points to the importance of moving beyond a blame-oriented approach to one that fosters learning and resilience. Concepts, such as the “Human Operational Performance (HOP)” which focuses on human error and ACN’s “Operating Without Harm,” advocate for a shift in how organisations perceive and manage safety.”

Understanding Human Error

Dekker challenges the traditional view of human error as a cause of accidents, suggesting instead that errors are symptoms of deeper systemic issues. By understanding the context in which errors occur, organisations can uncover the root causes of safety problems and address them more effectively.

Operating Without Harm

The “OWH” approach promotes the idea that safety is not just the absence of accidents but the presence of defences and capacities that allow organisations to anticipate and respond to unexpected challenges. This perspective shifts the focus from blaming individuals for failures to improving the system to enhance overall safety.

Learning from Incidents

OWH advocates for a learning-oriented approach to safety incidents. Rather than assigning blame, organisations should analyse incidents ‘integrally’ to understand how and why they occurred. This involves looking at systemic factors, such as organisational culture, work processes, and environmental conditions, that contribute to unsafe situations.

Implementing a True Commitment to Safety

To cultivate a genuine commitment to safety, organisations need to adopt practices that align with Dekker’s and ACN’s insights:

1. Promote a Fair and Just Culture

A just culture recognises that while individuals should be accountable for their actions, most errors result from systemic issues rather than personal failings. This approach encourages reporting and open discussion of safety concerns without fear of retribution.

2. Learn your way forward 

Create mechanisms for continuous learning from incidents, near-misses, and everyday work experiences. Encourage employees to share their insights and experiences to identify areas for improvement.

3. Support Safety Leaders at all levels 

Empower employees to take an active role in safety by involving them in the development and implementation of safety measures. This includes recognising and valuing their expertise and frontline knowledge.

4. Systemic Thinking

Adopt a systemic perspective that considers how various organisational elements interact to influence safety. This includes examining policies, procedures, communication channels, and organisational culture.

Final Thoughts

A genuine commitment to safety goes beyond compliance and the avoidance of accidents; it involves creating an environment where safety is integrated into the fabric of organisational culture. By embracing these practices and shifting from a blame-oriented mindset to one focused on learning and resilience, organisations can foster a safer, more collaborative workplace. Understanding and implementing a true commitment to safety requires a nuanced approach that appreciates the complexities of human behaviour and organisational systems. In doing so, organisations can not only enhance safety but also build trust, empower employees, and cultivate a culture of continuous improvement.

Stephen M Lang – CMCPID MAHRI

ACN Founder and promoter of Transformational Leadership 

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