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We Have to Care About the Safety Numbers

Why should we care about the safety numbers? When we talk about the fallacies of tracking injuries or frequency rates, what are we saying? We have to care about the safety numbers because they tell us who has been hurt and in worst-case scenarios killed.

You never know where or how you will find insight. Today Ray Dalio sparked a thought about an area I’ve been struggling with.

Process integrity only trumps outcome achievement. This means that outcome achievement is still an important part of the game; it is a high- ranking card in the deck…You can’t have a place where people can “flourish” or “evolve,” if there isn’t a flow of revenue to pay people’s salaries and the electrical bill. But, which will be the master? Ray Dalio, Bridgewater Associates ($170B hedge fund chairman)

I had just facilitated a session with an HSE team where they described desired outcomes:

  • Leaders that value relationships, which result in trust and mutual respect
  • Clear, common purpose that is embraced by all workforce through conversation
  • Empowered capable workforce

Question from operations, “How are we going to measure whether or not this approach is going to improve safety? We don’t want to rely on our injury rates.”

Answer, “Well, we just talked about building relationships through conversations. Why don’t we measure the number of conversations?”

Question, “Any other ideas? Last time we tried that people faked the numbers. ”

Answer, “What about the employee engagement survey?”

Question, “How are we going to get enough people to respond to it? If we start hounding people we’ll get skewed results.”

Have we lost our way? Are we so focused on measurement that we’ve lost sight of the goal? Recording injury rates isn’t the problem. Letting them blind you to the truth is. Looking back on a year of zero fatalities, may cause us to think we’ve achieved our goals. Thinking like that can lead to tragedy because we can confuse reaching a safety number with rigorously following a process.

But, what should that process look like? We know there are laws of physics that must be taught and understood concerning potential dangers in the workplace. There are also human elements that people need to be aware of such as cognitive bias/blindness, stress, and psychological safety. These are generally dealt with through safety procedures and training.

If you have a mature safety program and you sense your process is falling short, doing more of these things will not help. Neither will benchmarking and installing someone else’s process, unless you can match their culture and leadership. In the last 30 years the successful “safety programs” I’ve observed are the result of visionary, supportive, empowering local leadership. In the famous case of Paul O’Neill (Alcoa CEO 1987-2000), the support was high enough to affect multiple sites.

Ray Dalio’s insight struck a chord with me. He describes his process as always striving for the truth even if it turns out to be painful. He tells about the time his team told him that it was difficult to give him feedback. He was too domineering. They had an honest conversation where he agreed to listen more and ask questions, but they had to step up and speak their truth regardless of his mannerisms. According to Dalio this was the rise to his success where he is currently overseeing $170B in investments. It helped them make money in 2008 when everyone else lost it because they were able to bring in perspectives that went against the prevailing messages.

We need this urgently in safety if we are going to avoid Fukushimas or other deep sea drilling disasters. There are weak signals sending out warnings, but we don’t see or hear them till we do the post mortem investigation. Like Dalio we need a process that includes strengthening people’s ability to speak up, and creates an environment that rewards it even if it turns out to be wrong. Blaming and shaming, threats of exclusion, even if unspoken are the enemies of this process.

In conclusion, let me translate what Dalio said for those of us concerned with improving safety performance: We are not living in a world of certainties and 100% probabilities. Even staying true to our process we may make mistakes and have injuries, but if we block out reality by silencing our people, we have, without any doubt, made a mistake—whether or not we achieve the safety numbers.


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