The ABC's of Safety
It’s as Easy as ABC
From attitude to behaviour and commitment, the successful implementation of any type of management system is determined by the characteristics of an organisation and its staff. NCSI's Ian Ackland discusses the ABCs of safety, quality and environmental management systems, and examines the potential risk of focusing solely on compliance, rather than culture.
Safety management systems should be as easy as ABC
In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Ironically, this explosion took place just seven hours after a group of BP and Transocean VIPs arrived for a routine management walk-around, with a focus on checking safety systems.
Ian Ackland, senior safety auditor with NCS International, believes this is just one example of a man-made disaster that could have been averted. For a safety management system to be effective, an organisation needs to achieve a state of ‘safety mindfulness’, where safety culture is much more than just a checklist or an afterthought in the boardroom.
“So often, the message about safety gets over-complicated,” he explains. “But if you keep it simple, it all comes together from top to bottom in an organisation.”
Unified Management System Theory
After many years’ conducting safety audits, and working in safety management in the public and private sector, Ian has developed his own ‘Unified Management System Theory’. Like the Unified Field Theory, it brings all interactions together in a single framework. It’s as simple as A, B and C, and it applies to all management systems, including quality, environmental and safety.
An individual employee’s attitude towards safety, the environment or customers will determine what they will or won’t do. They need to accept the conditions and constraints of their job or task, even if it seems to them it will take more time.
Then, the actions employees take depends on their awareness of what is required, and how it aligns with the overall organisational system.
Workplace behaviours are black and white; they are either safe or unsafe, they meet customer needs or they don’t. Belief systems underpin our behaviour, which is influenced by our ‘worldview’ of the organisation, and ethical and moral considerations.
Behaviour is a significant factor in determining a business culture. The way employee behaviour is manifested towards customers could well determine whether your business retains those customers.
Many organisations are now moving away from compliance for legislative requirements and towards a safety culture. But what does that really mean? It requires a commitment from senior executive management, and effective communication across the company. Co-operation, collaboration and communication all play a vital role in developing an authentic safety culture.
The same applies to quality culture, where organisations focus on their customers, and an environmental culture, where we broaden our definition of a ‘stakeholder’ to include the environment.
These A, B and C fundamentals are common to all management systems, as any system is not simply about documents or processes; it relies on the people involved.
Ian believes a critical part of the journey towards creating this culture is to think beyond customers, and think about how systems apply to stakeholders as a whole. That includes staff, suppliers, and the community at large. By applying management systems to any individual or business that is part of its eco-system, the organisation makes a powerful statement about its culture.
“These principles are relevant to any system and organisation, so it’s important to think about them first.”
How do you certify a culture?
Ian is starting to see a shift in attitudes when it comes to auditing safety management systems. “We’re working with a major client who wants to assess behaviour as part of the certification audits, so they can improve safety and environmental outcomes.” He sees this as a positive step in moving away from just ticking off what needs to be done for compliance.
“If clients are doing behavioural surveys, it shows a real maturity in the organisation. It focuses the systems on a belief within the whole company, and they do it because they think it’s right, not because they have to.”
NCSI has also recently conducted an internal survey, the Mettle Culture Survey, for an independent perspective on how its own culture affects behaviour in the organisation.
The impact of safety mindfulness on behaviour
Looking again at the case of the Deepwater Horizon rig, a focus on checking behaviour rather than conditions could have made all the difference.
In a working paper for the National Research Centre for OHS regulation, Professor Andrew Hopkins of ANU explains that the VIPs focused their informal audit on checking conditions were as they should be, rather than checking on behaviours. This is not unusual: conditions are relatively unchanging and easier to audit. When behaviour is intermittent, only occurring sporadically, it can be missed. The visitors also did not want to disrupt activities, and limited their time on the floor of the drilling rig.
“A safe system is easily spoilt by the unsafe behaviour of people working within it,” says Ian. “Likewise, quality is simply a perception of customer satisfaction. Upset customers can quickly wreck a business, and it is employee behaviour that will upset them, not the systems that are in place.”
This is where a safety culture comes into play. “Safety needs to be taken on as an integral and critical part of the business at al levels, rather than being an afterthought in the boardrooms or at organisational management level.”
Ian has seen many examples of this. “As an auditor, the first thing I look for is whether the company is still committed to running its system. If they aren’t even doing the basics, there’s trouble ahead.”
“I’ve seen clients with no evidence of management commitment, and there’s simply no point in continuing with certification, because they’re not putting it into practice in the workplace.” Individual attitudes and beliefs may be aligned to safety, but without top-level commitment the system will fail.
Conversely, he’s also seen examples where the CEO says ‘safety is our first priority’ - yet on the tracks or factory floor that’s not evident. “If the processes that should be in place are not actually happening, it’s just lip service at senior level.” And that’s a clear case of communication breakdown.
To properly audit behaviour, which is more subjective in nature, Ian advocates using a Behavioural Audit Checklist. “The auditor would need to look at perceptions, observing how people act or react in a given situation, how they respond to a scenario put forward to them,” he explains. “This is not just about workplace health and safety – it applies to all management systems. So the auditor would also need to observe how they behave in relation to customers and other stakeholders, as well as the environment.”
Ian’s principles of management systems may sound simple. “It’s self-evident really,” he concludes. “And it’s all there in AS 4801, ISO 9001 or ISO 14001 – but it needs to be made less complex for people and organisations to realise how easy it can be to get it right.”
Disasters such as that in the Gulf of Mexico also remind us how important it is for organisations to truly understand their safety management obligations. An effective management system needs to invoke safety mindfulness, and actively encourage a positive safety culture.