A review of a European basic-materials manufacturer’s safety culture revealed that the company had a high tolerance for risk. Some operators said that 100 percent safety was impossible and that risk was part of the job. A maintenance operator explained that he sustained cuts and bruises on the job regularly but didn’t report them because he considered them normal.
In focus groups for new employees at another industrial company, workers said they were shocked at the wide gap between what they learned in orientation and what happened in the field. Other employees had come to accept this discrepancy, telling the new employees to “forget the safety stuff you learned in the classroom, or we’ll never get anything done out here.”
This learned tolerance to risk has to do with the pervasive belief that some risks can’t be mitigated. This mind-set is common—even in organizations where managers claim to have signed up for “zero safety incidents.” These managers often haven’t made the effort to understand the implications of aiming for zero. For example, a provider of operations services set everyone’s injury target to zero as part of its annual goal-setting process. But managers did not put enough effort into spreading the idea that the company could achieve such an ambitious goal. People therefore believed this goal was unachievable, so they gave up on it and focused their efforts elsewhere.
Through our fieldwork and research, we’ve found organizations that make progress in eliminating this limiting mind-set work to align leadership and employees on what it means to have a zero goal. In doing so, they collaboratively calibrate expectations to this aspiration. For example, a metals producer, having adopted a zero goal, set stretch but achievable targets for injury reduction and expanded the set of HSE metrics to include positive, leading indicators such as the number and quality of field interactions. With the right context established, people committed to the goals and generally exceeded them.