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The Leadership component of measuring safety

Last week media brought attention to a case here in Denmark of a large company, where a regional production site publicly celebrated 1000 days without an LTI.

The problem was, that this apparently was not the case after all. Journalists brought forward an earlier employee, who had broken a toe in a work-related accident at this particular site in early 2019. According to her account, she had subsequently been forced to use accumulated free time for a number of days, in order not to register the case as work-related absence. When this was still not sufficient, the rest of her leave was registered as influenza. When she returned to work after 14 days, she was fired immediately. As the concerned company would not comment on the case, the only account we have from the injured party is that the termination of the working relationship was solely based on this incident.

The name of the company is of little relevance here, as this basically just constitutes the latest case of a seemingly incessant flow of similar cases. These types of stories emerge in most settings and across industries and pretty much everyone working in HSE will be able to tell you about them. They constitute the dark side- or the ugly underbelly of contemporary safety performance management/monitoring and the forces that produce them are strong enough to have withstood decades of work with safety culture.

So, what are the drivers for this behavior? While unhealthy relationships especially in densely contracted environments may play a role, the core can probably be melted down to two influences:

1. Reactions to failure

2. Benchmarking & target setting

3. Forgetting the core commitment

Reactions to failure:

As it has been highlighted by Prof. Sidney Dekker: “In order to understand failure, we first have to understand our reactions to failure”. Failure is often associated with something blameworthy and shameful, rather than an opportunity for learning. Where these tendencies dominate, judgmental reactions rather than xxx responses are the predictable consequences. This reaction is often fuelled by unacknowledged Hindsight Bias, which positions the individuals related to the incident as somewhat stupid, with everyone else now knowing what should have been done instead. The countermeasures within this paradigm then usually consist of varying degrees of disciplinary sanctions including dismissals and calls for more vigilance and attention towards the entire workforce. Fear of such consequences may drive reporting partially underground, which in term may be misinterpreted as improved safety performance.

Benchmarking & target setting:

A similar phenomenon of underreporting alongside with attempts to “massaging the number” as Prof. Erik Hollnagel has called it, can be observed as a consequence of target setting. Especially when financial incentives have been attached to reach targets of Lost Time Injury Frequencies (LTIF) or similar metrics, these targets have a tendency to exert pressure on the workplace to provide the right numbers. After all, who would like to be responsible for the bosses lost bonus or the upcoming celebration of 1000 days without an LTI? Injuries that do get reported often undergo meticulous case management and especially the restricted work option gets stretched to the maximum in order to reach the set LTIF target. Worse examples are contractors that mysteriously get re-allocated and cannot be reached in order to verify their fitness for work or for some reason had the last day of their employment exactly in the day of the injury. At the end of the day – or year – the numbers look right and can be published and used for benchmarking exercises, some of which can be crucial to pass especially for contractors in bidding rounds. But something important is lost.

Forgetting the core commitment:

Alongside with the pressures outlined above the sheer disembodiment of data, that turns stories and injuries of people into numbers and statistical tabulations, seems to let us forget. Forget the core ethical and moral commitment that was supposed to drive the pursuit of safety improvement. Forget about the potential pain, fear and anguish the injured people may go through, forget to ask the right questions to promote healing and learning, forget the importance of knowing what is actually going on in order to inform the right managerial decisions.

So, what is the antidote to all of this?

The short answer for leadership is the following:

1. Rediscover your moral and ethical core

2. Exchange indignation with explanation in the wake of failure

3. Welcome the bad news.

I will expand more on this topic in an upcoming blog


Marcian Tessin

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