Tough Safety Challenges

“There is never a good time for tough decisions”

~Jairam Ramesh

For over two decades, as we’ve travelled the world teaching safety leadership practices, we begin every engagement by asking, “What are the toughest safety challenges you face as a leader – every day?” As you might imagine, it’s a terrific conversation starter. More to the point of managing safety performance, problem identification is the proper place to begin teaching “what to do” and “how to do it” to send everyone home, alive and well at the end of every day.

It’s all so obvious.  But in the years I was a part of management, whenever safety performance went into a tailspin and we’d gather around the big conference table in the front office, debating what to do to reverse the trend, never once did anyone suggest we pause and ask that simple question. In the rush to change the trend, we’d fixate on hand injuries or people not wearing PPE – or skip over the problem entirely, and jump straight to the solution.

That admission comes from the guy who decided the question needed to be asked. Looking back on my experience, had it – and were it answered honestly and thoughtfully – there would have been far fewer “solutions” that were really flavor of the month – or political water.

Surely you’re familiar with flavor of the month; political water might come as new news.  That’s a term of art I picked up from a fire-fighting colleague who served with distinction for two decades as our plant Fire Chief. He was the kind of leader every hose brigade member would willingly follow into the gates of Hell, if that’s where the fire was. 

As he explained it, “Sometimes there’s not a darn thing you can do to put out a fire. The building’s just going to burn to the ground. Thing is, if the TV camera crew shows up and films us drinking coffee while the building’s in flames, it’s not a good look. So, what we do is fix a hose stream on the fire. Looks great on the evening news, but doesn’t do a darn thing to put out the fire.” 

Political water. Seen that so-called solution a time or two. Suspect you have, too. 

Tough Safety Challenges

Circling back to the question about the tough safety challenges, exactly what are they? The question’s been put to as diverse array of industrial leaders as you could imagine: silver miners in Alaska, in the oil patch in Albania, at chemical plants in India, to manufacturing managers in China, even to chemical cargo ship captains on the high seas. No doubt you have your own.

As to what shows up on the list, this is a case where a comparison proves useful. On the point of similarities and differences, there are important things to be understood and appreciated, and it’s not just that somebody’s got it tougher than you. 

Consider this list of challenges, coming my way just days ago:

  • Inexperienced crews
  • Understaffed
  • Fatigue
  • Immense time pressure from schedule and delays
  • Juggling too many tasks
  • Financial pressure
  • Prioritizing cost over safety
  • Lack of investment in equipment during COVID
  • Maintenance not being done
  • Using faulty equipment
  • Rushed into the job without sufficient training
  • Training modules done on the computer
  • Training done outside work hours
  • Training not supplemented with on the ground training
  • Training doesn’t match what’s being done in the field
  • Trained by people who didn’t know what they were doing
  • Crew doesn’t understand terms used in safety briefings
  • Rapid promotion of new people into supervisory roles

Count them: eighteen challenges, none of which is easy – or unimportant. Training for example: knowledge is the single most important line of defense against getting hurt, and here’s a place where training is failing miserably.

You might be thinking, “That’s a very familiar list.” You might be skeptical, thinking nobody’s got it that bad. You might wonder if I made up the list to prove a point. I can assure you not a single one of those words came from me. 

But before I reveal my source, let me ask you: What kind of business do you think they’re in? Where in the world do you think they’re operating?

The Root Of All Challenges

I have yet to find any industrial operation anywhere on the planet immune from tough safety challenges similar, if not identical, to these. Yes, a mature business might not be dealing with the by-products of turnover, like inexperience, training, knowledge, and understanding.  Their challenges are more likely to come about by virtue of age and experience, like complacency and cumulative trauma. No matter. Safety challenges arise from this fundamental truth: the purpose of a business is to get things done, and that puts people in the presence of hazards.

Find a way to operate without any people, there would be no such thing as industrial safety. With people in the process, a predictable set of challenges is produced. Guaranteed.

So, which people and what business produced this set of tough safety challenges, you ask? 

Time to reveal my source. Every single word came straight from the Wall Street Journal, in an article on the safety performance of the those managing the movement of aircraft and handling baggage at airports. Benjamin Katz reported the injury rate for those working on the tarmac had gone up by 17% since 2019; worse, there have been two fatal injuries in the last several months.

By way of comparison, it’s been fourteen years since anyone died as a commercial airline passenger in the US. 

Management’s First Duty

Managing the safety of their followers is the first duty of every leader. I suspect there are some managers in this business who learned that lesson the hard way: having to explain to the family members of their followers what went wrong – on their watch. One of those fatally injured left behind three small children, presumably to be raised by their grandmother. 

In a nutshell, that’s the Case for Safety.

How well all the leaders carry out this duty shows up at the bottom line: who goes home alive and well, and who does not. There is no escaping the truth that the injury rate is the measure of the leaders’ collective performance and value added. 

For those buckled into a seat, air travel is very safe. For those working on the ground, work is not. 

Solving The Problem

The question for those managing the ground part of the aviation business is what to do to see to it that every single one of their followers goes home alive and well. Of course, that’s their problem, not yours or mine. Still, it’s instructive to consider the solution to their challenges, as you may well face many of the same yourself. 

The list of moving parts needing attention is daunting: equipment, schedule, staffing, training, qualifications, methods, procedures. One thing they have in common is they’re what we call Critical Safety Factors: key elements of the safety process that, when they fail, produce significant events. A second thing they have in common is every one of them is under the control of management.

In that sense, this problem begins and ends with management. Being honest about that is the first step in the solution, and goal zero.

The next step is to stake out what not to do. Please, no flavor of the month, no political water on the fire in the hope that the general public will lose interest. The collective we probably will, but what we think doesn’t matter.

Yes, this is tough stuff, but hardly mission impossible. 

Circling back to the list, the challenges rightfully fall to management to fix. Getting the priorities right?  Safety always comes first, period. Equipment not maintained up to standards?  Start fixing things. In the interim, don’t use equipment that is broken. Insufficient staff to get the work done safely? People not trained? Don’t know what they’re doing? Leaders not trained and capable of leading their followers to work safely?

You get the point: tough decisions must be made, so make them.

Of course, solutions cost money, time, attention, and run the risk of leaving the customer very unhappy. Passengers sitting on an inbound aircraft won’t be happy to hear the announcement, “Your baggage will be unloaded as soon as the ground crew finishes their safety training.”

Managing a business isn’t for the faint of heart. But consider the alternative, when the first duty – safety – isn’t met successfully.

Looking For Help

Changing performance like this starts at the top. But the executives can’t turn the situation around on their own. They need eyes and ears and followers to support the cause, and make it happen. Who’s in the best position to offer the kind of help that might really make a difference?

Seems rather obvious: their front-line leaders. 

On the long list of things to be done to turn the tide, getting front line leaders skilled up and leading well would do a world of good. It’s an easy decision to make, no matter what the time.

A useful lesson in managing safety, no matter what business you’re in.

Paul Balmert
August 2023

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