Safety Leadership: Chronic unease: A state of mind to manage safety risks
Editor’s Note: Achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. In this monthly column, experts from global consulting firm DEKRA share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to safety excellence.
The term “chronic unease” might sound like an undesirable medical diagnosis, but in reality it describes an attitude throughout an organization that’s linked to successful safety outcomes in high-hazard industries.
In fact, chronic unease is cited as a characteristic of high-reliability organizations, or those with long-standing records of safe operations. At its core, chronic unease is a mindset that gives rise to an especially effective approach to safety and risk management.
Chronic unease is part of being a vulnerable leader. It’s about shifting our mindset on catastrophic incident potential from, “It can’t happen here!” Instead, the questions we should be asking are: “How can it happen here?” What are we doing to prevent it from happening?” And, finally, “How effective are our efforts?”
Focus on anticipation
In my “Safety Leadership” column in the January 2021 issue of Safety+Health, I emphasized that the goal of high-reliability safety is to improve the identification and response to early warning signals. I did so in my review of the five aspects of organizational performance that are key to preventing catastrophic incidents and ensuring safe operations: anticipation, questioning, diligence, resilience and learning.
Chronic unease is a critical aspect of anticipation. It’s a state of unrelenting watchfulness, a persistent suspicion that all is not well, and that something could go horribly wrong at any moment. Anticipation is created by a culture that’s always seeking indicators of problems.
As a leader with chronic unease, you need to focus on:
- Asking questions during periods of low incident reporting to confirm that signals aren’t being missed.
- Recognizing that problems are always possible.
- Encouraging the reporting of “weak signals” or minor abnormalities.
- Thoroughly investigating variances and anomalies to improve learning and understanding.
When leaders awaken their anticipation skills, it improves their ability to identify potential risk and makes them wary, even when operations seem to function smoothly.
Use chronic unease to bolster a culture of safety
When an organization incorporates chronic unease effectively, leaders create an environment in which everyone develops a heightened sense of anticipation. This means that so-called “weak signals” no longer go unnoticed, but instead are understood as an indication that something needs attention. It also means that individuals aren’t afraid to speak up, even if their concerns may turn out to be unfounded.
Decision-making driven by chronic unease requires access to data and information. Successful organizations are active in seeking more information about risks and safety measures that can help optimize their safety performance. High-reliability organizations routinely discuss and review their risk registries, hazard assessments and hazard control systems.
Although some individuals naturally exhibit chronic unease as part of their personality, the behaviors associated with it can be taught, learned and even measured when an organization commits to a culture of high-reliability safety.
Avoid the downsides of chronic unease
Excessive chronic unease can morph into paralyzing anxiety. It’s important to note that chronic unease is inseparable from deliberative action. A state of mind preoccupied with potential failure is beneficial only when it drives action to reduce risk and prioritize safety. These behaviors may slow down operations to accommodate data collection and weigh various courses of action. However, considering the scope of potential harm to human life, the environment and property should an incident occur, the costs of a slowdown and reduced productivity are dwarfed by the enormous benefits of a culture of chronic unease.
Changing the view of “It can’t happen here!” to “How can it happen here?” through the exercise of chronic unease is the first step to becoming a high-reliability organization.
This article represents the views of the authors and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.
Mike Snyder is the vice president of operational risk management for DEKRA North America’s (dekra.us) process safety practice. He’s a passionate occupational and process safety leader with extensive chemical and municipal risk management sector experience who guides organizations in pragmatic and cost-effective risk management decision-making.
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