Safety Professionals: Focused on the Wrong Things?

Jul 28th, 2014 | By | Category: Health and Safety


EHS Journal - Subway Station in Munich by Andreas Krappweis

Since the advent of the Safety function, safety professionals have been borrowing tools from other disciplines and building practices based on data gleaned from the earliest research in industrial psychology. For some, these most basic practices and methods are cherished and to suggest that any change to these is tantamount to heresy. For others, change may be possible, as long as we acknowledge that these practices are the cornerstone of the safety function and that they are necessary to some degree. While it’s true that in broad strokes we probably should retain some of our practices, the philosophy that drives everything that we do as safety professionals must change at a fundamental level.

The focus of safety for 100 years has been a centered around obsessions: obsession with eliminating injuries, changing worker behaviors, and identifying root causes of injuries. Simply put, this focus is wrong.


Obsessed With Preventing Injuries

Focusing on eliminating injuries is reactionary and treats symptoms. If we believe that our purpose as safety practitioners is to eliminate injuries, we will find ourselves forever playing catch up, and what’s more, even if we achieve zero injuries, most of us won’t really know whether this result is the product of hard work and sound safety practices or dumb luck.

Instead of focusing on injury reduction (an outcome) we need to focus on risk mitigation and severity reduction. In a discussion forum, someone asked the question “what is the behavior ‘safety’?” It’s a ridiculous question because safety isn’t a behavior; one does not “do” safety. Safety is an outcome and absolute safety, i.e. the absolute absence of risk of harm, is unachievable. Pursuing an unachievable goal is absolutely insane; you will merely frustrate your organization. But reducing the risk of harm to the lowest practicable level is achievable. We can, at least in many (perhaps most) workplaces lower the probability and severity of injuries below the threshold where injuries are no longer common and crippling but rare and minor. Our outcome (reduction of injuries) is the same but our strategies and tactics are focused not on the outcome but the causes (workplace risk factors).


Obsessed With Behaviors

Another object of fanatic obsession is “behaviors”; somewhere along the way, safety practitioners seized on the idea that the key to worker safety lie in modifying worker behaviors. Change the way the worker behaves, conventional thinking holds, and you can create a safe workplace. To be sure there are plenty of workers doing stupid things that get them hurt, but the obsession with behaviors assumes that worker behavior is a) a conscious and deliberate choice, b) something that can be changed through basic behavioral modification, and c) intrinsically safe or unsafe. We know that most behavior is not conscious, and is in fact subconscious habit, unintended behavioral drift, contextual, and difficult to change even when the individual desperately wants to behave differently. Additionally, far too many behavior-focused initiatives depend solely on psychology and ignore behavioral sciences that focus on behavior of populations (sociology, anthropology, and others) so focusing on individual behavior will force us to draw specious conclusions that feel right but that ultimately lead us far afield.

Instead of focusing on behaviors, we should focus on decision-making and problem solving. Instead of trying to change behaviors, we should focus on improving workers’ decision-making and problem-solving skills. If workers are able to make better decisions (which drive safer behaviors) and solve problems more accurately (instead of improvising when a problem prevents them from doing the job as designed) we are again able to reduce workplace risk and in turn reduce worker injuries.


Obsessed With Finding Root Causes

The third obsession of safety professionals is finding the root cause of injuries and near misses. This focus on finding a single “root” cause is also problematic. Few injuries are caused by a single “root” cause, but are instead caused by multiple, inter-related causes and effects that grew gradually over time. In basic problem solving methodology, the first step in solving a problem is to categorize it as either broad, specific, decision or planning. Most injuries are caused by broad problems while most quality defects are caused by specific problems. I can’t think of an injury that is caused by a planning or decision problem (that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but I am prepared to say they are exceedingly rare.)

Once a problem is categorized the next step is to identify its structure; is it gradual, sudden, start-up, recurring, or positive? In safety, we tend to see injuries as being caused by specific conditions with a sudden structure. In some cases this is true, typically in mass production environments and where the worker is engaged in standard work. But in far more cases, injuries are caused by a broad problem with a gradual structure. In these cases, the situation continues to worsen until a threshold is reached and some catalyst is present that sets off a chain reaction. People tend to look at these types of injuries as “freak accidents” that could never have been predicted, and they are right to some degree, because one cannot predict or prevent these incidents when one is using the wrong tools.

Traditional root cause analysis focuses on identifying the one cause of an injury and tends to minimize contributing factors. This singular approach tends to cause a problem with a recurring structure to manifest. The reason for this is simple: by removing only one of the multiple, inter-related factors that contributed to the injury one raises the threshold at which an injury will occur. The problem seems to disappear but is actually lurking just below the surface. To use a medical analogy it masks the symptoms instead of curing the disease. Sooner or later the situation will again reach the threshold and cause another, perhaps more serious injury or fatality.

We see this often in today’s workplace where organizations celebrate the achievement of zero-incidents, or extremely low incident rates only to later have a fatality (or multiple fatalities) catch them completely unaware. (Incidentally, if the organization would have approached the zero-injury, or acceptably low injury rate as a problem with a positive structure, and tried to understand the factors that caused this positive outcome, it could replicate the things that work in other locations and eliminate the things that its doing in the name of safety that are costing money but having no appreciable effect on safety.) This obsession with finding the root cause, before truly analyzing the situation and context of an injury seriously impedes our ability to create a workplace that has significantly less risk.



There’s no denying that safety in the workplace has come a long way over the last 100 years, but I contend that much of that has to do with the Hawthorn Effect and picking low-hanging fruit. If we are to take worker safety to the next level, we have to rethink our focus and start focusing on the things that will have the greatest impact on worker safety.


About the Author

Phil La Duke is a partner in the Performance & Assurance practice for Environmental Resources Management (ERM), a global environmental, safety, and sustainability services company. While Mr. La Duke has more than twenty years of training, performance improvement, and organizational change experience, he’s perhaps best known for his thought leadership in the world of worker safety. Phil La Duke is a safety strategist, business writer, speaker, and author of more than 50 published articles in print. Click here to access his blog.


Photograph: Subway Station in Munich by Andreas Krappweis, Neubiberg, Bavaria, Germany.


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6 Comments to “Safety Professionals: Focused on the Wrong Things?”

  1. Mark Weitner says:

    Very well articulated. We find that companies needing to make a step change, must evolve to a risk-based management model that supports the multiple processes and management information sources typically in use across most organizations.

  2. Vince Kranz says:

    Interesting article, but it use too much jargon without definition or reference. It seems to dismiss over 100 years of fairly well documented behavioral science research related to individuals and communities without reference to the theory and evidence that supports the new paradigm. I know it’s not a scientific article but a blog should also provide something other than the author opinion if it is intended to change people’s thinking on the subject.

  3. Sridharan says:

    I agree that certain professional follow practices followed by other professionals. No one should follow or consider following the practices followed the Financial auditors. Their tools are unique and centre around only financial mismanagement, etc. But other professional have to develop their own unique tool (which most of the professions have) which they have to take it to next level. It should be based on “extended impact analysis” and “preventive managements to be put in place. All the non financial auditors recommendations should be implemented even when the legal provisions do not adequately cover. Taking protection and cover on the old legislations should be done away with. Overall, wonderful piece to provoke a new thought process. Great presentation.

  4. Darrell Overton says:

    I always enjoy reading Mr. La Duke. I find it very engaging. I agree with the concept behind this article. However, the application of it in most every workplace with which I’ve been involved leaves me with issues.
    Leaving the ‘nuts and bolts’ of a safety program ( risk assessments, root cause analysis investigations, strict safety performance criteria, etc.) and embracing a ‘long-game’ approach to safety requires longevity of the workforce. It also requires a dedicated management that truly believes in safety as a very real part of the process. Rather have I encountered either, of late.
    Strong safety legislation, strict safety practices and procedures are not for the benefit of the employer ( although, recent legal repercussions have shown that employers truly benefit from a safety practitioner who understands legislative compliance). Fully spelled out safety procedures protect the worker by allowing him(her) to function under clearly understood guidelines. Casual employees and newly-hired personnel need clearly defined work procedures, complete with basic safety guidelines. The lack of those lead, inevitably to unnecessary risks and a rise in injuries. Workplace safety policies must be applicable to the lowest common denominator… the lest-experienced worker on the floor.
    That is the greatest challenge for the safety practitioner, today. And, where we are failing the most.
    I keep a plaque on my wall to remind me of my mission:
    I know I can’t eliminate all accidents. But, unless I try to eliminate them all, how will I ever know which ones I could have eliminated.

  5. Fred Rubel, M.S, QEP says:

    Mr. La Duke hits the target yet again! Nice job.

  6. Pranav Sinha says:

    A Very relevant piece for all safety practitioners. Lucid and immensely thought provoking.

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