Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Evolution of Safety: What’s Next?

The modern safety movement began in 1911, following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Basic building codes and fire codes were improved and enforced. Labor laws were written to protect children, workers’ compensation laws were developed and employee safety training began to evolve. It was definitely a start.

In 1931, H.W. Heinrich introduced the 300-29-1 injury pyramid with which every SH&E professional is familiar. In 1969, Frank Bird expanded the pyramid to the 600-30-10-1 model—theorizing that for every 600 incidents, 30 resulted in property damage, 10 in serious injuries and 1 in a fatality. In 2003, a ConocoPhillips Marine study demonstrated a large difference in the ratio of serious accidents and near misses—this study found that for every fatality there are at least 300,000 at-risk behaviors. These studies led to and reinforced the practice of behavior-based safety, which focused safety efforts on front-line employees and supervisors.

In 1970, U.S. President Richard Nixon signed the OSH Act, and prescriptive standards entered the mix. We now deal with many national and international standards, some voluntary, some mandatory. Yet, most safety programs still focus on changing employee and supervisor behavior.

The safety by design concept has been gaining much traction lately, but it actually was promoted before the Triangle fire. In her 1910 book, Work Accidents and the Law, Crystal Eastman wrote about how changing automatic coupling pins on railroad cars reduced the death rate among rail workers.

Process safety management entered the picture after the Union Carbide chemical release in Bhopal, India, in 1984. System safety soon followed, placing attention on the interaction between departments and phases of development, production and the delivery of production. And, thanks to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, safety also has factored into enterprise risk management.

Safety has made great strides since 1911, with death and injury rates down in many countries. Yet, according to preliminary BLS data, fatal occupational injuries declined only slightly in 2010 compared with 2009. Transportation-related fatalities continue to be the leading cause of on-the-job deaths followed by assaults and violent acts, contact with objects and equipment, falls, and exposure to harmful substances or environments. The number of serious injuries has increased as well.

Our efforts have stalled, largely because although it is difficult to change behavior, we continue to rely on ill-trained supervisors to do just that. Have we learned nothing from the past?

So what is next step for safety? We must establish a prevention culture. Such a culture is not a single system or philosophy; it is a culture that permeates an entire organization based on applying currently available tools and taking action to:

change management processes;

adopt enterprise risk management thinking;

change attitudes throughout the organization so that everyone recognizes that safety is not a program or something only applied at work—and then only when convenient;

protect brand recognition and corporate reputation;

address sustainability.

To instill a prevention culture, everyone must embrace safety in every aspect of their lives—they must consider the consequences of their decisions as well as their actions. It starts with managers and how they manage the business. It requires a change in what they value and in their understanding that safety is not an extra cost, but a strategic goal. And management must show that it values human lives and the environment, and it must demonstrate those values in its decisions. Prevention is not focused on the employee and supervisor. It encompasses the entire organization, from the C-suite to the entry-level employee.

As SH&E professionals, we have collected the fruit on the ground and gathered the low-hanging fruit. We made rapid improvement when we embraced engineering changes, improved warnings and implemented a system approach to safety. But our progress has slowed.

To move forward, we must strive to instill a prevention culture that engages the entire organization. It is up to each of us to establish a culture of prevention in our organizations, in our own lives and in our communities. The future is in our hands. It's time to pursue excellence in prevention.

“The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into
the impossible.”
Arthur C. Clarke

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