Disruptive Change in Safety Management Solutions

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I work in a technology company with high ambitions to change the way how work safety management, reporting and measurement are done. We have witnessed similar disruptions in other industries and organizational functions - totally new ways to get the job done. We have also heard of organizations being able to conduct their own or repeat other’s safety success stories with old fashioned ways. Unfortunately even more cases have been total or partial failures with high hopes but less achievements in real measurable safety performance. Personally, I have lived through both success stories and failures which have taught me a lot about safety theories on the field. To be honest the failures have been even more important lessons than the successes.

Safety management is more or less conservative and many times rely on ancient methods and solutions. I have learned the hard way and made the same mistakes like so many other safety managers and safety professionals probably have done in the past 50 years. Nevertheless, I believe we've finally come to a point in time where a profound change in safety management is a possible. This change will come through new technology innovations rather than only from us safety pros. Yet we have a significant role in the change, either we push it forward or try to slow it down. On the positive side I already see a new generation of safety managers pushing the changes forward and I know that new technology is already providing us many of the needed tools to make the difference.

But why did I begin to think that a change is indeed needed even if we already have many inspiring success stories and we already know how to reach a certain level in work safety? How did I change my views from trying to repeat other’s success stories into thinking that we need a complete change in how we do safety on the field? I need to open up my history and some of the biggest mistakes I’ve done during my years in work safety to explain these thoughts better.

Many of us working with safety agree that safety management is like any management activity. You need to have values to build on, challenging goals to chase and leadership to convey inspiring thoughts into actions. The management’s inspiration is a must and needs to be communicated in such a way that the whole organization is willing to act according to the plans. In safety we typically have some kind of a management system framework such as a standard to lean on. For example OHSAS 18001 is a good blueprint to start with. Having a written framework is essential but I have seen challenges related to such detailed way of management.

  1. The more exact procedures there are in place the more bureaucracy and documentation is needed. Better safety culture typically means more paperwork around compliance issues. Not less.
  2. How to get people engaged in safety management. Standards might give you a good way to manage issues but the flip side is even more important – how to lead people to act safely.
  3. How to communicate effectively even inside your own organization not to mention stakeholders such as partner companies, sub-contractors or outsourced personnel.

Only having a standardized safety management system won’t provide automatic answers to the challenges listed above. As we already know the first and easiest step usually is to get technical work environment right. In addition to technical improvements we need to ensure that safety itself is a shared value integrated in all the decisions people make. Unfortunately in reality, safety is often seen only as a brake for business or a mandatory unpleasant duty for both the management and the employees. This is the last thing we would like to see safety is experienced in our own organization, isn’t it? I’m going to describe how we have come to this and later on how to get over it.

Safety Solutions in the Past

In the past, safety management solutions were more or less about collecting past issues into statistics. Organizations wanted to learn from accidents and other unwanted incidents. Safety solutions helped collecting incidents into statistics which were manually analyzed afterwards. First safety software solutions were tailor made to solve this issue for the safety management and often also developed by the safety management itself. Organizations ended up having good statistics of past events. The reporting was mostly done with a pen and a pile of paper. Later on came the beloved excel sheets which of course required a lot of manual input and time. Please, comment below if you don’t recall the endless function errors, copies of the original sheet and searching of some lost data from the sheets.

Good examples of past solutions that still exists today are paper notebooks to write your reports or email boxes dedicated to safety observations. In order to report a safety observation one needs have a notebook and pen or remember a complex code that needs to be written on the email topic. Fantastic. Only teaching these codes to your employees will take hours even if they only want to report one single issue a year. Same goes with the paper notebooks – reporting takes more time than you probably would have guessed. More advanced organizations slowly started using integrated intranet solutions to collect reports. Even with intranet solutions the follow-ups typically were manual or nonexistent.

Years ago I personally did the same mistakes here. I started working in a metal industry company and wanted to get safety observations from the factory floor and introduced physical mail boxes and paper notebooks to report issues. Collecting and writing down hazards, risk assessments and all the other OHS issues to excel and drawing all statistics took so much time that I lost focus on even more important and larger issues. My time was more and more consumed by endless documentation and reporting. That led to even bigger problems. Even if the safety reporting was important I must argue that my number one problem was a failure to get the top management interested and committed to safety management itself. I tried hard to get people reporting so that I could show some figures to top management but failed to get management’s interest in the first place. Today I understand better that in the eyes of the top management safety documentation is crucial but it’s not making money for company or increasing the productivity.

The same goes with other safety tasks. If we introduce too many new procedures, regulations and methods without thinking ahead how to manage the data, we might end up being under constant time pressure ourselves. At the time in metal industry I couldn’t even dream of modern mobile applications to get incidents with pictures in real-time. The only good thing about excels was the possibility to alter the contents pretty easily compared to company wide ERP systems.

To conclude past solutions, I’d say that they were more or less in-house attempts to keep a record of past issues and the focus was to collect incidents and risks into company statistics and database. Main challenges in the past solutions were poor user experience and usability and lack of follow-ups, preventive tools or real-time monitoring. In addition, the time consumption of reporting and safety management itself was a big challenge. Bigger companies solved this issue by recruiting more safety professionals but many smaller organizations simply couldn’t handle all of the new requirements. At many times this is still the case – big companies demand the same level of reporting from their smaller contractors than what they can produce with much larger resources.

This work with old-school safety solutions also made big organizations being data rich but at the same time information poor. As I worked in a large insurance company I realized that even if we had the best statistics that wouldn’t help us if it’s difficult to analyze the data into valuable easy-to-understand information.

In the next post I’m going to open up the safety solutions today and how we could take the best out of new possibilities like mobile technology and getting useful information out of the collected safety data

Tags: blog, OHSAS 18001, safety management, safety solutions, work safety

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