As safety professionals and managers, how would you answer this question: are your employees working safely today? The default response is, “Yes, of course they are.” But how do you know? The most common response is, “Because no one has gotten hurt.” The absence of injury does not indicate the presence of safety. Just because no one has been injured does not mean that there is not potential for someone to get injured.
Looking at the definition of safety can also provide insight to this common misconception. Todd Conklin has a great definition of safety in Pre-Accident Investigations: An Introduction to Organizational Safety: “Safety is not the absence of events; safety is the presence of defenses.” Even ISO Guide 51: 1999E defines safety as “freedom from unacceptable risk.” These definitions reveal that safety is not measured by the lack of incidents or injuries.
In the event of an incident, it is easy to blame each party involved. You could blame the worker for using the wrong equipment, his or her supervisor for not ensuring the correct equipment was used, or the manager for failing to provide the correct equipment. Passing the blame can continue without anyone asking the right questions to solve the issue. The question is not “why,” but “how.” How did the organization let this incident happen? To be successful at preventing an incident, an entire organization must work collectively towards the common goal: keeping workers safe. Regardless of how one team member performs, victory can only be achieved if the mission is achieved. For example, if LeBron James records a triple-double with 30 points, 12 assists, and 11 rebounds, but the Cavs lose the game, then the team has not achieved the mission regardless of James’s execution. Incidents are rarely the result of an individual failure.
So how should your organization address this issue? Don’t blame each party involved. Seek to understand “how” instead of just “why.” Lastly, create an environment of learning. Employees must be involved in the health and safety management system because they often have an idea of where the next incident may occur. The goal is to identify potential incidents before they happen. Remember that constant communication and teamwork are required for true incident prevention.
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