Safety and efficiency – a match made in heaven?

Are your safety processes implemented as intended? How do you monitor this and how do you make people care?

How confident are you that your safety processes are implemented as intended? Do you experience variation in results, or see evidence of non-compliance or misunderstanding of purpose, in audits? Have you heard colleagues whisper or talk about ‘too much safety’ or ‘that doesn’t apply to us’?

When many people hear the term ‘safety processes’ or see a headline about policies and procedures, they can easily switch off or turn away. It certainly can be a very dull subject. Devil’s advocates will ask, why do we need so many safety policies, procedures and rules in place at work? Surely experienced operators know where the risk really is (just ask them), so why is it necessary to have so much bureaucracy to protect them? It has also rightly been said ‘a piece of paper never saved anyone’s life…’, with the inference being, it is behavior not safety rules, that will keep people safe at work.

Let us dissect these arguments under the headings legal, moral and practical reasons for rules and processes – and also try to understand why colleagues can sometimes be turned off by what can be seen as ‘too much safety’.

Firstly, every company is legally obliged to meet certain acceptable work practices, which stand up to internal and external scrutiny, such as health checks and audits. This is sensible and required. Without putting policies, procedures and rules in place, we would be too reliant on people to use their own discretion about safe work, which is not desirable. Naturally, experienced operators closest to the risk, are typically confident that they can spot the exposure and take mitigating action. But what if they miss something? What about less experienced colleagues? Indeed, experience can count for a lot, but having access to all the information about potential hazards, or the ability to see all the risk with ‘two eyes’, is not always possible.

This brings us onto the moral argument for safe and efficient processes. As we discuss in other articles, most organizations today aspire to improve safety performance but above all, they want their colleagues to work in safe conditions and return home safe. When incidents do occur, managers want to satisfy themselves that they personally (and others) have done all they can, to protect their colleague from harm. They have a moral obligation, a duty of care, to make sure no colleagues are hurt. Indeed, if you ask people why safety is important to them, or why it is important to have safe working practices, most would respond ‘I don’t want myself or colleagues to get injured’ rather than ‘we are legally obliged to have rules…’ 

Which brings us to the third and final point about the need for rules and processes to be practical. It is hard to argue against the view that bureaucracy and paperwork can stifle safety or force people to switch off. It is essential then, to make rules and processes around safety as simple to understand as possible, as efficient as possible, but also to ensure that things are not left out, because of complexity just for the sake of trying to reduce paperwork. Concise rules and processes on safety, supported by clear communication, training and line managers reinforcing messages, will lead to better safety outcomes, with fewer people getting hurt and less equipment damage. However, we need to make sure that colleagues are provided with the right resources and tools to complete their jobs safely and effectively. Also, they need to be able to control the risk around them – their safe behavior needs to be enabled (within their control).

Over the past 17 years at iB&X, we have developed a suite of five core HSE processes comprising best practice approaches for Permit to Work, Lockout Tagout Tryout, Production Communication, Management of Change and Incident Management. These best practices together with their supporting system ensure work is done in the most efficient and safe way, based on experiences with plants of different nature and size. Every step in the process is clearly described. We believe the key to success lays in standardization, with some room for local customization. We rise to the challenge of ensuring processes are implemented as intended, by introducing clear roles and accountabilities agreed with managers, supervisors and operators (in production and maintenance). From the beginning of any project, we benchmark performance and measure results over time, to ensure there is a clear ROI in terms of safety, quality and efficiency.