This workplace safety article originally appeared as a Case In Point in BST’s The Zero Index.
Business systems might seem an odd place to focus safety execution. After all, what does a leader’s promotion, an employee recognition program, or staffing and budget decisions have to do with safety functioning? But if you look more closely at how safety outcomes occur, very often the root cause of an incident may trace back years to a decision made at a very high level. Organizational systems actually have everything to do with safety—precisely because they drive the business.
In aligning business processes with safety, organizations create sustaining systems. Sustaining systems refer to the organizational antecedents and consequences that support effective safety management systems, process safety leadership, and safety and health management performance. Fundamentally, organizational sustaining systems include all business processes that maintain and ensure the effectiveness of safety-enabling elements (policies, procedures, skills, and knowledge needed to work safely) across time.
Sustaining systems include, but are not limited to:
Although most organizations have these systems in some form, their quality varies substantially. In part, this is due to their apparent remoteness from safety. Many organizations simply don’t recognize the relationship of these systems to safety-enabling systems, to exposure, and to safety outcomes themselves. In addition, senior leaders often perceive the sustaining systems as “just people systems” and abdicate them to the human resources department. What both are missing is that an organization’s sustaining systems are among its most significant levers for changing the workplace safety culture.
They do this by:
Case 1: Rethinking Performance Management at One Organization
Knowing how to drive individual and group performance is one of the perennial challenges of management. Still, few consider the effects that performance management systems can have on safety in the workplace. That lesson was brought home for one U.S.-based organization we worked with when our OCDI culture assessment uncovered a low rate of injury reporting—a key indicator of safety performance.
Digging deeper, senior leaders discovered that one of the prime drivers of low safety incident reporting was the performance management system. Managers and supervisors were evaluated partly on the number of injuries that occurred within their workgroups during the year. This well-intended goal, which was designed to focus leadership on safety, was instead incentivizing managers and workgroups to either underreport injuries or to creatively classify those that were reported.
The CEO took the unusual step of immediately removing injuries as a measure of manager performance across the organization. A cross-functional team developed new performance measures focused on upstream safety metric indicators that were more realistically within the control of individual managers, for example safety-supporting behaviors, team participation in safety activities, and demonstrated reductions in exposures. Not long after, the number of injuries did begin to tick up—a sign that the organization was getting a truer picture of exposures and was establishing a healthier climate for raising and dealing with safety issues.
We have seen that organizations can run the range of the sustaining systems spectrum. When functioning optimally, we see systems that ensure integration of safety with the business and that support safety functioning with precision. At the extreme, organizational systems can be overtly hostile to, or in conflict with, safety goals, oftentimes because the organization has failed to recognize the profound impact these systems have on safety. It is the extreme cases that cause us to reflect upon what systems are not being considered when they should be.