Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: Create safety accountability: Overcoming the ‘discipline dilemma’

Editor’s Note: Achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. Throughout 2014, 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 world-class safety performance.

Discipline is a critical component of high-functioning safety systems. Used in the right way, discipline establishes an organization’s commitment to safety by enforcing the rules and procedures designed to keep people safe. It encourages employees to always be vigilant about following safety protocols, especially when engaging in high-risk tasks such as working at height, in confined spaces and in lockout/tagout jobs. Discipline also protects leaders by ensuring follow-through on every rule violation.

Done the wrong way or at the wrong time, however, discipline can undermine both safety and culture. This is what we call the “discipline dilemma,” and it is most apparent when discipline is used punitively, focusing on failure rather than promoting success.

When it comes to promoting strong safety outcomes, the focus needs to be on making sure people have what they need to work safely. This means discipline should be used to build accountability around safety performance. Although some organizations equate accountability with punishment, we define it as an ongoing evaluation of performance relative to an established objective, target or standard, with feedback and other consequences based on that performance. While we often hear people say “everyone is responsible for safety,” in organizations that excel everyone is accountable for safety.

Leaders can draw on three principles to foster safety accountability in their organization: context, direction and tracking.

Context is about helping people understand their role in safety within the organization. Leadership’s role is to model desired behaviors and create an environment and culture in which employees are able to work safely. In such a culture, employees are committed to safety beyond the rules, pause a job if they are concerned about exposure and speak to co-workers about safety concerns. The role of supervisors and managers is to promote good safety practices by providing employees with feedback, supporting people who stop work when risk increases and rewarding individuals who don’t take shortcuts that undermine safety. Context also builds accountability by helping people understand how safety performance benefits them.

Direction is about helping people develop clear objectives that tie to the safety goals of the organization and enabling them (through resources and coaching) to achieve those objectives. Every manager, supervisor and executive needs to have clear and specific safety goals. Front-line employees should be expected to adhere to rules and procedures and participate in established safety programs.To build accountability, employee goals and responsibilities should focus on the systems and activities that drive safety outcomes, rather than on the outcomes themselves (e.g., injury rates). A sole focus on outcomes can lead to dysfunctional behaviors, such as when leaders discourage injury reporting or medical treatment. When individuals’ exclusive accountability for safety is the outcome measure, it becomes more likely that these dysfunctional behaviors will increase.

Tracking is about measuring performance against objectives through well-designed, simple and effective monitoring processes and supporting systems. Tracking requires leaders to ensure the effectiveness of the processes and systems and use the data collected to provide success and guidance feedback. It’s important to focus tracking on information rather than opinion. Metrics often play a role in this (e.g., the percentage of people who received required safety training this year), but information about the behaviors observed or reported also is important (e.g., when leaders walk through the plant, what do they see?).

With these three principles in place, leaders can promote health and safety accountability, tie discipline to transparent safety goals, and ensure people understand their role in reducing exposure and achieving the highest safety outcomes.

A vice president at BST, Michael Hajaistron helps leaders in mining and other high-risk industries develop organizational cultures that achieve safety, business and profit objectives.


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