Back to Basics, Safety Culture, Sustainability

Back to Basics: Sustainable Safety Programs

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine the steps that EHS professionals can take to make their safety programs more sustainable.

As initiatives like Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) and Total Worker Health® begin to take hold within the safety community, EHS professionals must start looking at different ways to make their organizations’ safety programs more sustainable. Carey Usrey, the Vice President of Operations at SafetyStratus, spoke in a session at the 2022 National Safety Council Congress and Expo called “Seven Steps to Safety Sustainability.”

In his session, Usrey stated that there are three things safety professionals know: more rules do not make people safer, EHS pros will never be able to imagine all the ways to fail, and EHS pros do not manage incidents, but they do manage controls. Here are the seven steps that EHS professionals can take to achieve sustainable safety.

1. VSP

According to Usrey, VSP stands for Vision, Strategy, and Planning. Leaders should build a vision for the safety program, developing a strategy, and putting that into a plan with the help of management. More specifically, under the vision portion, leaders need to first clarify the direction of change. Then, they need to communicate their intentions and motivate the team to act.

For strategy, EHS professionals should take logical, forward-thinking strides towards achieving the vision that they have laid out with their team. For the planning step, they should determine the individual, specific needs and components of the strategy, and design them to meet the organization’s needs.

2. Effective goal setting

Effective goal setting should be both quantitative and qualitative. Usrey gives the example of workers filling out cards in an inspection and observation program. Leaders must avoid just counting the filled-out cards, and find a way to make sure the data acquired through those cards is actually indicative of higher employee engagement.

Goal setting should also be purpose-driven, not compliance-driven, because compliance just involves checking boxes, and it does not mean that people are learning from it or engaging in safer behaviors. Usrey recommends stopping activities that add no value to a safety program, instead of continuing them for no reason.

The goals of the safety program should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely (S.M.A.R.T), and they should be aligned with business initiatives. It is important that leaders evaluate the goals consistently, and focus on why they are in place and what they are aiming to achieve.

3. Active engagement

In terms of getting more active employee engagement, Usrey recommended having inspection and observation programs where employees can spot hazards and report them back. He also pointed out that EHS does not “own safety,” meaning that the responsibility of safety should not fall under the EHS department exclusively. Safety is everyone’s job, and leaders need to help create a safe work environment.

Leaders should focus on “actively” supporting safety initiatives, following the rules, truly considering employee concerns, and giving free-flowing feedback. On a safety walkthrough, managers can ask employees the following few questions:

  • What work are you doing?
  • How can this work hurt you?
  • What controls do we have in place to prevent that, and are they enough to keep you safe?

Usrey said that those questions are a great way to get leadership involved because they are actively talking about safety, engaging with an employee, and listening. Management needs to show empathy and that they care, and they should respond to employee concerns in a supportive way.

Improving worker engagement also involves empowerment. Usrey emphasized that leaders need to create safety with employees, not to them. “Safety should be seen as part of the solution, and not part of the problem,” he said. Another method of increasing employee engagement is implementing learning teams, which are groups of workers with a facilitator who are pulled together to solve problems. As information comes in, from observation or data, there might be gaps or trends that are negative, and learning teams can help bridge those gaps.

4. Organizational learning

Organizational learning is the process by which an organization improves itself over time through gaining experience and using that experience to create knowledge. Then, that knowledge is transferred within the organization. This process involves documentation, review, learning, and sharing.

Usrey referenced a flowchart about organizational learning from Mary K. Winkler and Saunji D. Fyffe that contains three stages: compliance culture, transition, and learning culture. In a compliance culture, data is interpreted and used to meet basic rules and requirements. The data is collected and analyzed at prescribed intervals, and its function is siloed and rarely used in decision-making.

In the transition stage, planning and coordination must occur to create organizational change management strategies. Next comes implementation, assessment of the changes, and communication and feedback. Once a learning culture is reached, data is used for making informed operational and programmatic decisions and changes. The data should be collected and analyzed regularly, and used by all staff levels. Routine questions and inquiries are highly encouraged as well, which will help to clarify findings and make sure everybody is on the same page.

5. Understand risk

Risk assessment has a few different steps, the first being risk identification. The second step is risk analysis, which is done to define the probability of a hazard and the severity of the situation. The third is risk evaluation, which is when it is determined whether or not a risk is acceptable.

Next, leaders should develop and implement additional mitigating controls. This involves engineering controls, for which there will be a cost. Employers must monitor the effectiveness of the mitigating controls periodically to ensure that they are working properly or to point out where there are gaps.

6. Communication

Employers should develop a data use plan, which is an organized framework to determine how to drive improvement from the data being collected. The primary components to focus on are the data, the frequency of data, the target, and the actions being taken as a result of the data. The goal should be to address root causes and systemic issues, and Usrey recommended halting practices that yield bad data instead of continuing them, because they have no benefit.

In terms of interpersonal relationships, Usrey emphasized communicating, not just distributing the data. This means that the recipients of the data have a full understanding of what the data says and the expectations they need to meet within the necessary time frame. Employers can use the data in the reports to shape future decisions.

To improve communication, employers need to understand that the way they react to bad news matters. It is crucial to remember that human error is normal and that blame fixes nothing. Leaders must shift their attitudes from “who failed” to “what failed,” so that they can begin to address the root causes of incidents. Each incident should be looked at as an opportunity to address the hazard before injuries occur.

In safety, bad things are going to happen, and so employers must expect them, and ensure that controls are in place when something does happen. Speaking up and being transparent are two key aspects of creating a good environment for communication.

7. Continuous improvement

The final step is to ensure continuous improvement by planning, doing, studying, and acting. Leaders should ask themselves why they are doing what they are doing, what their goals are, and how exactly they will be accomplished. Employers must implement the plans, then measure the success, and evaluate the data collected to determine areas for improvement, looking for both gaps and trends.

Usrey also recommended doing focused inspections on things that are less obvious, and not focusing on things like personal protective equipment, since that is the easy thing to spot. Turn data into action, and to make changes to the process, people, and environment as necessary, he said.

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