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Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: What leaders need to know about ‘potential’

March 1, 2013

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Editor’s Note: Creating a dialogue, keeping the focus, asking the right questions – achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. Throughout 2013, experts from Ojai, CA-based consulting firm BST will share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to achieve world-class safety performance.

For many organizations, the full picture of exposure doesn’t become apparent until the potential becomes reality. Many incident investigation systems are designed to look at what has happened, not what outcome could reasonably happen. Yet it’s precisely this ability to detect, categorize and respond to potential that is crucial for great safety performance. One of the best ways leaders can improve safety decision-making is to develop an appreciation of potential – and learning from the circumstances that lead to significant exposures.

The power of potential

Potential refers to the field of outcomes that can result from any one exposure, and can range from “nothing bad happens” to a fatality. The probability of every potential outcome is not the same. Some exposures have a much higher probability for a life-altering injury, fatality or other serious outcome. Learning to distinguish between high and low potential situations is crucial to allocating resources and oversight effectively. Leaders make four chief mistakes with respect to potential.

  1. Judging an exposure’s potential by the severity of the injury. A sledgehammer falls from a height of 20 feet, resulting in a near hit. Does that mean this exposure has low severity potential? When we look at safety in terms of outcomes (e.g., rates went up or down, an injury was serious or “minor”), we can mistake the result for the extent of potential. In this example, the exposure just as easily could have resulted in a major injury as a glancing blow or a near miss. Results may change with single events, but the outcome potential each time is exactly the same.
  2. Assuming lagging indicators reveal all exposures. Lagging indicators are helpful for telling us what has happened with regard to personal safety, but data shows they are poor predictors of future catastrophic injuries or events. The most common lagging indicators provide very little insight into process safety. Effective leaders drive the development of leading indicators of exposures (e.g., safety contacts, verification audits, physical hazard inspections, EHS audit results, etc.) and control metrics (e.g., inspections planned versus completed, management of change audits) to supplement existing lagging indicators.
  3. Believing all exposures have the same potential to be serious or fatal. An employee stumbles while walking across a parking lot and breaks her wrist. Separately, an employee removes his hand from an auger, which then moves unexpectedly. If the stumble on a flat surface were to happen 100 times, it’s unlikely to result in a more serious outcome than a fractured wrist. If the unexpected auger movement were to happen 100 times, however, there’s a good chance there would be loss of limb or life. In other words, outcome does not indicate potential. Leaders need to develop mechanisms to understand what exposures reflect the highest potential, and investigate and apply resources accordingly.
  4. Devoting resources disproportionately to low versus high potential exposures. Outcome-based measurement systems tend to trigger investigations based on the severity of an event rather than its potential. This approach leads to spending significant time and resources on activities that may not impact actual exposure to serious injury. Some level of investigation for every incident is important, but leaders must carefully weigh the scope and depth of the investigation so resources are applied effectively.

Making better decisions

Regardless of good intentions, our understanding of exposure defines how we lead safety. It’s up to leaders to develop sensitivity to exposure potential so they can better allocate resources where they’re needed, develop more effective metrics and build employee confidence that leaders’ commitment to safety means serious incidents are less likely to occur.

Donald R. Groover is a senior vice president with BST. Certified in safety and industrial hygiene, Groover helps organizations create high-performing cultures and align systems with the organization’s value for safety. He is co-author of “The Manager’s Guide to Workplace Safety” (Ojai, CA: Safety in Action Press: 2012).

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