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Clearview® Performance Systems brings you ... ® ... a Culture of Results & Engagement®

Here's the next in our series of weekly managerial TIPS (Techniques, Insights, and Practical Solutions)
to help you better engage your team in the activities that lead to higher performance.

CORE Bites Issue #88
(August 18, 2020)

Is Safety Being Jeopardized by a Conflict Between Zeros?

The work I do in behavioral psychology leads me into some pretty fascinating domains. One example is workplace Safety (spelled intentionally with a capital 'S'). My focus in this critically important area is not from the "above-the-line" elements that address the mechanics and operational side of safety, such as putting on PPE before entering a hazardous work area or performing the circle of safety before backing up a vehicle. Instead, my focus is on the "below-the-line" elements that deal with the habits and subconscious processes that account for approximately 95% of all human behavior—as well as the majority of safety incidents.

While it may be hard to believe—especially when you consider my typical safety audiences are the hardened individuals who work within utilities, construction companies, manufacturing plants, and medical environments—but one of the more powerful safety learning lessons I teach comes in the form of a song. Yes, a song.

When I play Saved by Zero (The Fixx, 1983) not only are most of the toes tapping in the room (I'm not kidding ... it's a catchy tune), but—and the real point of the exercise—no one misses the potent symbolism of "saved by zero." A couple of organizations have even adopted the song as their Safety Anthem. Saved by Zero is easy to find on YouTube, but here are the words in the meantime:

Maybe someday, saved by zero

I'll be more together

Stretched by fewer thoughts that leave me

Chasing after my dreams, disown me, loaded with danger

So maybe I'll win (saved by zero)

Maybe I'll win (saved by zero)

Holding onto words that teach me

I will conquer space around me

So maybe I'll win (saved by zero)

Maybe I'll win (saved by zero)

Maybe I'll win (saved by zero)

Maybe I'll win (saved by zero)

By now you're probably thinking that I'm a huge advocate for programs that set a goal of Zero Injuries ... but you would be wrong. "Huh? Neil, have you lost your mind?"

I've worked with hundreds of Safety Champions in diverse organizations and when I tell them they're chasing the wrong goal—that zero injuries shouldn't be their goal, I get a similar response to what you're probably thinking right now. But I'm completely serious. Zero injuries should not be the goal. Zero injuries is absolutely the OUTCOME you want ... but it shouldn't be your goal. Here's why ...

"Zero injuries" or "zero accidents" are both lagging indicators of safety. These metrics report results but NOT the process that produces the result. Statistically, these results are just as likely to come from excellent safety practices as they are by sheer luck and/or the normal variations in accident occurrence. The downside of setting a target of zero injuries is when this worthy vision turns into a statistical obsession—with punitive outcomes for anyone who dares derail the statistical purity of zero. This can create a culture that subliminally encourages non-reporting and even hiding incidents (what I refer to as the "bloody-hand-hiding-in-a-pocket" syndrome).

But my real concern with a goal of zero injuries comes from the fact that all you need is one injury—however minor—and now it's no longer possible to reach the goal. What happens then?

A dozen years ago I experienced this dilemma firsthand with an organization I had just started doing some consulting work for. Their safety goal of Zero Injuries for the year had been launched with much fanfare at the beginning of January. In the middle of January they experienced a lost-time-accident. Shortly after, the exact words spoken by the leader of this group were: "We need to now recalculate our goal because zero is no longer possible." In my opinion, their goal just turned into an uninspiring numbers game—a box that just needed to be checked.

The secret to extraordinary safety outcomes is to acknowledge that you can't manage safety—you can only manage risk. The better risk is managed, the better the safety performance. For the majority of my clients "zero injuries" does not equate with "zero risk." Zero risk is not possible. Everything we do in life has a degree of risk, and the challenge in both life and work is to minimize that risk.

So, is there a ZERO that works? Absolutely. Let me suggest a new goal: Zero At-Risk Behaviors. By focusing on at-risk behaviors, you address the primary risk drivers that ultimately lead to incidents and injuries. This focus fosters an organic (naturally-occurring) safety culture where unsafe and at-risk behaviors are eliminated in favor of the right ones. When the right behaviors are adopted and reinforced, risks are reduced, leading to improvements in safety performance—and, hopefully, the zero incidents outcome you're striving for.

High Value Activity (HVA) Action Steps

Learn to recognize risks—before there's an incident—by adopting a mindset where you ask "What might/could go wrong with this behavior/activity?" This week (starting today), include the HVAs listed below in your safety planning:

  • Adopt AWARE™: While I'm cognizant that we have a lot of acronyms going on in the workplace, I'm reminded every day that catchy and memorable acronyms can help. One I use consistently to help identify at-risk behaviors is the acronym AWARE: Always Watching; Always Recognizing; Everytime! I've worked with groups who have ended up with this acronym on coffee cups, on T-shirts, on posters, etc. Is there a place where this acronym could fit in your work environment (even while working remote) to help your people become better aware of at-risk behaviors?
  • The "4-Rights": Nurses in hospitals are trained to ask the "4-Rights" before administering any medication to a patient: 1) Is this the RIGHT patient? 2) Is this the RIGHT medicine? 3) Is this the RIGHT dosage? 4) Is this the RIGHT time? This simple four-step process is designed to ensure patient safety. In my safety work within organizations, we adopt a similar approach by creating the "4-Rights" for each specific environment. What I find interesting is, in almost every case, the various teams end up with a similar first RIGHT: "Do I have the RIGHT attitude/mindset before I start this task?" How about you? Do you have an opportunity to develop the 4-Rights for your specific area and with your specific team?

If you're interested in learning more about the "below-the-line" elements that deal with the habits and subconscious processes that impact safety, here's a link to an article I had published in Incident Prevention magazine. This is a fairly conservative magazine and my writing was somewhat 'edgy' so I was pleased with the positive response from their readership. I hope you enjoy it too.

I'd love to hear how these HVAs work for you!

Neil Dempster, PhD, MBA
RESULTant™ and Behavioral Engineer

Quote of the Week

"Working safely may get old, but so do those who practice it."

— Author Unknown —