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Disempowerment: “Safety is someone else’s job”

At an Asian chemicals manufacturer, hand injuries accounted for about 50 percent of all serious injuries. When the management team arranged for operators to wear protective gloves, the number of hand injuries declined only slightly. It turned out that many operators decided not to wear the gloves because they made it difficult to perform some tasks. When operators told their field managers the gloves made the work difficult, managers abdicated their responsibility to HSE specialists, who had made the rules. The managers said that these rules simply had to be followed.

In organizations that struggle to improve their safety performance, the lack of employee empowerment is often omnipresent. It’s apparent in leaders who say that if employees followed the rules, they wouldn’t get injured; in team members who claim that incident rates would decrease if management invested in new equipment; and in safety specialists who complain that no one listens to their advice.

To increase employee empowerment, organizations can take a “managed safety” (as opposed to “regulated safety”) approach. That is, management can trust employees to use their own judgment in instances when strict compliance with safety rules either wouldn’t be enough to ensure safety or could introduce risk. This approach is most important in environments with significant variations in operational conditions, which is often the case in industrial settings. To overcome disempowerment, it is also important for leaders to provide positive feedback to teams that take it upon themselves to improve safety.

But while root-cause investigations often reinforce the notion that safety is “in the hands of employees,” organizations must also consider management’s role in safety. In many organizations, these investigations end after leadership establishes that the employee made the wrong decision. Stopping short in this way allows management to feel there is little they could have done to prevent the incident, even though it is their job to ensure people are empowered to follow the rules. More thorough investigations consider potential factors behind the bad decision, such as fatigue or distraction. An even better approach takes a broader look at causes of injuries and incidents to identify structural levers that managers can use to make better decisions.

For example, an industrial company recently used advanced analytics to pull together data sources outside its HSE system, including data on production, human resources, and weather, to identify the primary factors that contribute to employee safety. Roughly 80 percent of the factors that were found to be statistically significant were neither measured nor accounted for in the company’s original investigation methodology. All factors were actually under the control of management—for example, shift duration and training frequency.