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10 Safety Management Myths

I was sitting at an airport watching my airplane pull into a gate recently. The ground crew hustled into position to ensure a safe arrival. The fueling truck was standing by at a safe distance. All tractors and conveyors were in their designated positions. Watching this scenario play out prompted me to reflect on my experience as a front line supervisor with safety as a collateral duty. I suppose it was because I worked at an airport for several years.

As a supervisor, I managed safety primarily with two (2) tools: a soapbox and disciplinary action. I liked using disciplinary action to correct an incident, not because I particularly liked punishing a team member, but because it shifted the blame off me and onto someone else. After all, I was the supervisor so it couldn’t be my fault, so it must be someone else’s fault.

Passengers from the arriving flight finished deplaning and my section was called to board. Passengers filed on board, stowed their luggage, sat down and except for a “Fly Eagles, Fly” fight song that broke out (it was the day after the Superbowl) among the Philadelphia Eagles faithful, it was completely uneventful. I almost immediately dozed off until I heard the “ding” as the airplane reached 10,000 feet. The first thought as I came to was how thankful I was that I eventually wizened up (through the intervention of some really good mentors) and realized disciplinary action doesn’t fix a broken system or any problem for that matter.

I have been in safety for over 20 years now and fortunately it didn’t take me 20 years to figure this one out. I picked up a few other lessons along the way. I compiled those lessons into a list of my top 10 Myths of Safety Management. Here they are in no particular order except as they came to mind:

  1. Safety must be managed differently. Would you manage your finances or hiring process by playing bingo? Of course not. Safety is managed like any other aspect of the business. Establish goals and metrics, set expectations, hold people accountable, etc.

  2. My operation is different, so traditional safety management just doesn’t work. Management styles vary and corporate cultures may dictate specific variations, but safety should be managed the same as any other business function.

  3. Safety is boring. It’s only boring if you make it boring. Talking about safety in terms of regulatory compliance, audits, investigations and disciplinary action will make it not only boring, but give safety a negative connotation. Safety is a service to others. How can that be boring?

  4. If we are in compliance with OSHA regulations we shouldn’t have any problems. OSHA regulations are a very good starting point when establishing a safety program, but they are minimum standards. Stopping here leaves a lot of room for improvement.

  5. Safety is a cost center. This is a common myth among senior leaders. An effective safety management program can reduce workers comp costs and insurance premiums. In some industries, safety can be a market differentiator when accurately positioned.

  6. Safety doesn’t contribute to company goals. There are many ways safety contributes to company goals. Unfortunately, safety leaders don’t always make that connection. For example; Human Resources may have a goal of improving employee engagement. Safety is an excellent platform for engaging employees through safety committees, recognition programs, etc. Simply by viewing employees as part of the solution rather than the problem we lay the foundation for their involvement in problem solving.

  7. You can’t have both; safety and production. Unfortunately, too often they are viewed as competing agendas. The reality is when we don’t get things right from a safety perspective, it impacts efficiency and drives costs up.

  8. Safety is just common sense, “if our people would just follow the rules…” There are lots of problems here besides the fact that common sense isn’t so common. Most managers, supervisors, etc. who use this language are looking for an excuse for not proactively managing safety.

  9. Disciplinary action fixes the problem. Disciplinary action is often viewed as synonymous with corrective actions. In reality, it only makes us feel better because we have someone to blame and did something about it. Successful safety cultures view an incident as an opportunity to make a correction and improve.

  10. Recognition programs cost a lot of money. Only if you want to spend the money. A simple “thank you” for _________ (fill in the blank with a specific action or behavior) shows gratitude and encourages the behaviors you want, not to mention it makes the receiver AND giver feel pretty good. A timely and specific “thank you” is high impact, low cost.

These are just a few that can to my mind. How many other myths about safety management or safety culture are accepted as fact? Share your thoughts or if you disagree with any of my myths share those as well.

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