Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Driving Continuous Improvement in Safety

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Driving Continuous Improvement in Safety

Article excerpt

Identifying the driving mechanism for continuous improvement in safety the proper use of statistics and behavioral science coupled with employee involvement - is easy. Establishing this mechanism is another story.

Management is faced with a daunting challenge: How can it maintain in an organization the focus of effort that is required for continuous improvement? Change of all kinds is stressful to people, even change that brings improvement. This hard fact of life is true in every management field, but is more emphatic in fields that do not have very well established basic structures that support the improvement effort: measurement, feedback, continuous training, cultural values, systems and mechanisms.

Until recently, safety was a prime example of a field handicapped by a lack of adequate structure. By contrast, think of production. In a market economy, it is not difficult to maintain a focus on production. The culture in any manufacturing plant supports this focus. Managers and supervisors at all levels support it. Measurement systems are in place to provide frequent, often daily, feedback on small variations in production performance. Everyone understands the priority of production. On the other hand, safety is a performance area where it is much more difficult to maintain a focus because in most companies the cultural and systems support is lacking.

Because of this lack of support, managers have traditionally attributed variations in safety performance to variations in "awareness." That's not to overlook the fact that engineering, facilities and maintenance have received attention and have provided some safety improvement over the years.

But any supervisor or team leader knows that incidents come primarily from the "human element." When work-force safety responsiveness is high, accidents are lower. We see this in the risk level of workers who are neither "rookies" nor "old hands."

Both new and seasoned employees are at-risk for injuries because both are low in responsiveness to safety challenges - the novice through lack of job experience, and the old hand through familiarity and complacency.

The workers least at-risk for injury are those who are familiar with critical task-related behaviors, but who have not yet become set in their ways. This optimal training phase of adaptive readiness to safety is very much a human element, but merely identifying it is not enough.

The management challenge is to maximize this level of readiness for the workforce as a whole. This is another form of the question about how to minimize variability of performance. Lack of effective answers to these questions has led to the variable performance of the Accident/Safety Cycle.

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Performance Variability

In business, the concept of variability first became a subject for management in relation to the quality of goods and services. With the advent of the quality movement, a new field has been sketched. The field aims to understand and manage variation by involving employees in teams that problem-solve for continuous improvement.

The science and statistics at the core of Total Quality Management (TQM) are solid and dependable, but implementation itself has met with varied success. The reason is that the cultural and feedback mechanisms for quality are not securely in place. In the last analysis, the success or failure of quality initiatives does not depend on the brilliance or truth of the insights of Deming, Juran and others. Whether in safety or in quality, the ultimate success of these methods rests with managers.

The critical test in industry now is how well managers are able to engage and sustain employee involvement in this new kind of applied science. Such ongoing engagement by the work force is the driving mechanism of continuous improvement.

Continuous Improvement

The driving mechanism for continuous improvement in safety is the proper use of statistics and behavioral science coupled with employee involvement. …

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