Can Relationship-Centered Safety Decrease Fatalities?

Can Relationship-Centered Safety decrease fatalities? My answer is yes, but with the right framework and structure. Our linear, direct, bureaucratic controls have had a positive impact in reducing workplace injuries. Fatalities, however, seem to operate at a level of complexity that requires non-linear socio-technical approaches. The digital information age has opened a floodgate to technical information, but the social side remains woefully under resourced.

Group of electricians sense making data.

An international mining company had been employing a behavior observation process for many years. The majority of their sites had worked injury free in 2012, yet they also had 11 fatalities with a workforce of over 100,000 employees. Performance had improved over the last 10 years, but it was slowing down and looked like it was reaching a plateau.

This mining company called me because I had written an article questioning if behavior based safety and safety culture were sufficient to get us to the next step in performance. My article on Relationship Centered Safety (RCS) discussed the applications of the most recent research in neuroscience, complexity management and relational coordination. You may read the full article at the reference provided (Carrillo, 2012).

Basically, RCS recognizes the critical importance of safety management systems, but replaces behavior with relationship as the focus of safety improvement. If you are not communicating (asking questions and listening) you are not building relationships. If you are not building relationships, you have no influence. Furthermore, it is well documented that first line supervisors are the primary communicators and reinforcers for safety related priorities. They cannot fulfill this important role effectively if they don’t understand or believe in the importance of trust, conversation, and relationship. The research shows that employee loyalty lies not to the organization itself but with the work unit – especially the immediate supervisor building (Therkelsen, et. al. 2003, Brim 2009).

 Leveraging the power of the relationship between supervisor and employee takes investment. What would convince companies to invest in providing supervisors with the time and skills to build relationships to support safety goals? The first challenge is providing tangible proof on the importance of relationships and measuring progress. To do so we need to know what to look for. I explored the possibility of using the seven Relational Coordination (RC) dimensions for this purpose with a group of 60 HSE professionals.

I introduced the mining safety professionals to RC as a potential guide to discover 1) which relationships were most vulnerable to relationship breakdowns and 2) what was the most frequent cause. These dimensions were discovered while studying airline and healthcare systems (Gittell 2013). The high performing organizations provided better service and operate more profitably because they develop and support the collaboration of employees at all levels. These dimensions facilitate the transfer of knowledge as well as influence the decision-making process. More about the RC survey is found at www.rcrc.brandeis.edu.

The seven dimensions are:

  1. Shared goals
  2. Shared knowledge
  3. Mutual respect
  4. No blaming
  5. Frequency
  6. Accuracy
  7. Timeliness

Question posed to the group: 1) During the behavior observation process, which relationships were most vulnerable to relationship breakdowns and 2) what was the most frequent cause?

Participants discussed these questions in breakouts and came to consensus that the most frequent communication breakdowns occur between:

  1. Manager and supervisor,
  2. Supervisor and employee,
  3. Employee and employee

The most frequent cause of the breakdown using the RC dimensions were:

  1. Lack of shared knowledge
  2. Frequency
  3. Lack of mutual respect

Keeping in mind that we only had two 1.5-hour discussions, this is what we were able to uncover as the possible sources of communication breakdowns between managers and supervisors:

  • Lack of opportunity for interaction
  • Information sharing was inaccurate
  • There wasn’t shared knowledge about each other’s jobs
  • Mixed messages on goals
  • No buy in
  • Lack of trust
  • Forms of communication (email versus face to face)

A second discussion focused on the meaning of “lack of shared knowledge” as the most common cause of communication breakdown. Since they were looking at their observation process, one group said that the practice of sending observers into areas where they did not normally work automatically caused conflict because the employees being observed felt the observers were not qualified to give valid feedback since they were not familiar with the work. The quick reaction was to point out that the types of behaviors they were looking for did not require them to understand the work, and the value of having “fresh eyes” far outweighed any communication difficulties their presence might raise.

I asked the participants to look at the seven dimensions and try to find any connection between them and the communication breakdowns they were experiencing during the observation process. The biggest insight was that observers should not be sent out without adequate conversation that establishes shared goals and mutual respect between the observer and the person being observed. It didn’t take long for the insight to spill over into the recognition that these conditions were lacking wherever safety was failing.

Could a Relationship Centered Approach Decrease Fatalities?

Since this discussion the company piloted a form of Human and Organizational Performance that has successfully created an environment for people to recognize hazards and stop work. It starts with the assumption that human error is inevitable and that error is a symptom of problems within organizational systems. This approach eliminates blame fixing and other strategies that drive underreporting of incidents and near misses. It also includes the people who do the work in identifying safety solutions.

However, the approach does not include leadership development on relationship building. It has been my experience that when that is lacking you will have uneven implementation just as they did with behavioral observation. This is because the successful sites will have leaders who naturally create the social network required for success. What Dr. Gittell calls “relational coordination” is a combination of quality of information and relationship. We need both, and we need the right structures for the communication to take place.

This informal review of the seven RC dimensions produced insights that provided direction to improve safety communication in areas that other approaches have not investigated. If you are interested in learning more about the structures and leadership skills that impact success contact me at rosa@carrilloconsultants.com or via LinkedIn.

©2017 Rosa Antonia Carrillo

  1. Brim, Brian. 2009. “Driving engagement by focusing on strengths.” Gallup Management Journal. Downloaded 8/31/2013 http://businessjournal.gallup.com/content/124214/driving-engagement-focusing-strengths.aspx.
  2. Carrillo, Rosa Antonia. 2012 Dec. Relationship-based safety: Moving beyond culture and behavior. ASSE Professional Safety Journal, pp 35-45.Cooper, D. (2010) Safety leadership: application in construction site, Geiornale Italiano de Medicina del Lavoro ed Ergonomia. Vol 32, N. 1: A18-A23
  3. Gittell, H. Jody. 2017. www.rcrc.brandeis.edu
  4. Therkelsen, David J., Christina L. Fiebich, (2003) “The supervisor: The linchpin of employee relations”, Journal of Communication Management, Vol. 8 Iss: 2, pp.120 – 129.

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