US report is aimed at the wrong workplace safety target

A media release from Utah in the United States has been circulating through the internet overnight that claims:

“A new study released today by VitalSmarts found that five threats to workers’ safety are commonly left undiscussed and lead to avoidable injury or fatalities.” [link added]

The release lists those five threats as:

  • “Get It Done. Unsafe practices that are justified by tight deadlines.
  • Undiscussable (sic) Incompetence. Unsafe practices that stem from skill deficits that can’t be discussed.
  • Just this Once. Unsafe practices that are justified as exceptions to the rule.
  • This Is Overboard. Unsafe practices that bypass precautions considered excessive.
  • Are You a Team Player? Unsafe practices that are justified for the good of the team, company, or customer.”

It is important to read the full report so that one doesn’t jump from the bullet points above to silly conclusions.  It is likely that the report will get wide circulation because it is compatible with the current trend in corporate speak on issues such as culture, norms, leadership, but there are nuggets of useful information.

The report says

“Our research shows that the missing ingredient for a safety culture is candor.”

“Candor” is a term that is not in current parlance.  Usually we speak of transparency, consultation, openness….  The Macquarie Dictionary includes other definitions such as “freedom for bias; fairness; impartiality” with obsolete terms of “kindliness” and “purity”.  Candour seems a fairly appropriate term for managing safety.

As the report explains candour, it sound very much like the concept of “consultation” that is being pushed and legislated in Australian OHS laws.  It certainly fits the Australian political message of “fairness” that is permeating OHS and industrial relations law.

But looking at the five threats listed above, the report has some frightening statistics on workers taking shortcuts but there is no discussion about the imposition of “tight deadlines” which it says “justifies” the shortcuts.  This may be a unique American perspective but it is contrary to safety management principles that look at the broader system of work, and investigation aims that seek for a cause or causes of an incident.  The survey focuses on conversation but researches this bullet point superficially and sensationally rather than getting the corporate executives questioning their our priorities.

On the second point, 65% see coworkers perform unsafe acts because they are incompetent but only 26% will speak up about what they observe.  Leaving aside the determination of “incompetence”, this indicates that there is a culture of non-reporting that requires considerably more research.  Is it individual companies that reward silence?  Instead of consultation, would speaking up be seen as “whistleblowing”?  Does the legislative structure in the State or country deter such conversation or at least not encourage safety discussions?

“Just this once” concerns workers not talking to each other about unsafe practices.  Seems consultation needs to be promoted in these workplaces.

The next bullet point in the report is very poorly explained but form the example provided, the need to change safety procedures is not being explained to workers.  If they do not know why a change is to be introduced they are unlikely to apply the change and may actively undermine the change.

The team player point is not about teams.  The data shows a dysfunctional safety management.  The core statistic quoted in this section of the report is

“The data reveals 63 percent of respondents see their coworkers violate safety precautions “for the good of the team, company, or customer.””

The example provided is where a worker choses to undertake a dangerous task fully aware of the danger but

“It’s my job to get the power on and that’s what I’ll do. I’m not gonna wimp out.””

The report concludes with a sales pitch for Vitalsmarts services but if we ignore this the company recommends three issues for consideration:

  • “Establish a baseline and a target for improvement.
  • Teach your employees world-class skills.
  • target six areas of influence.”

SafetyAtWorkBlog would add a fourth

  • Examine the performance of the executives who have allowed such an unsafe, uncommunicative and toxic workplace to develop in the first place and have them consider their future with the company

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

2 thoughts on “US report is aimed at the wrong workplace safety target”

  1. Laurie

    Comments are always welcome, so thanks for taking the time.

    There is a marked distance between \”management speak\” and reality in lots of areas, not only OHS. But as that is the field we inhabit, our perceptions are understandable.

    In many ways, managers are not hypocritical on safety, as others claim. Mostly they are inadequately informed on OHS or just out of touch. A quick sample of this can be seen at most OHS conferences where the same jargon is spun to the same audience and the same ears each year. OHS Conference speakers should take for granted that the audience is full of safety professionals and that allows a high benchmark for the presentation. The audience knows about Bird\’s Pyramid and icebergs of risk and Swiss-cheese models. They want to hear about the next step, and in most conferences, this doesn\’t happen.

    Stay active ion OHS. Don\’t let the failures or the blockages wear you down for if you do your workplace will be less safe.

  2. Kevin

    I am supprised that I am the first person to respond to you audio clip of the presentation, I guess that that is also reflective of the comments of the presentation, – limited feedback to positive or negative.

    The issues that have been identified are also very common in Australian industries and there are certain companies find that it is too hard to change culture and those that do have issues with getting effective senior to executive management support to do so.

    The other main issue is that safety behaviour is addressed incorrectly and becomes \” flavour of the month\” because they do not have a real understanding of what safety behaviour or safety culture is about or too afraid to address the issues because it is easier to talk about it and not do anything with it due to ingrained \”Pee poor culture\” from the Executive above generally from \”Traditional Management Styles\” and not from leadership type management which every organisation claims to be but is purely lip service or workin \”Silos\” and manifest lack of trust and credibility which is obvious to the exposed employees or contractors.

    I am a believer of the safety behaviours to safety culture and being real with it and am also a fan of Andrew Hopkins and James Reason and the use of the Charlie Morcraft -DVD \”Remember Charlie\” has been used on many training sessions

    Laurie Beer

    OH&S Manager

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