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Integrating safety into business: understanding the consequences of your decisions

At ARMSA Academy we know that safety is an emergent property of a business its culture, leadership and decisions. But what does this mean in practice for an organisation and its decision-makers in terms of minimising risk and maximising opportunities?  

How many times have you heard the phrase ‘safety is our number one priority’? It’s a common mantra, and a commendable one. Companies operating in the wind energy sector accept that good safety performance is part of their social license to operate, and they take it seriously.

But when it comes to looking at what this means for the business, many organisations are still misunderstanding the fundamental nature of safety performance. They too often see safety as an input, or a cost. Yet, in reality, safety is an output of the multitude of business choices they make every day.

If you want to understand safety capacity and improve performance, you shouldn’t be looking at the conventional safety agenda. Instead, look at your business:  the societal context within which it operates, its organisational culture, its strategy, and how work is planned on the ground.

Cause and effect

All business decisions create risks and opportunities, and safety is an integral part of this. But many organisations are still treating safety as something separate or different, focusing on various models promising to help them achieve repeatable safe outcomes. This could be anything from traditional safety management systems and risk assessment to newer thinking around Human and Organisational Performance (HOP), Resilience Engineering or even Safety II.

The latest systems do focus on wider business issues, such as operational decisions (how work is actually carried out, as opposed to how we imagine it will be done). But whichever tool you choose, the key is to understand cause and effect (or context). And at ARMSA Academy, we always look at safety as the effect and see business choices as the cause.

Most safety tools (conventional or new) continue to regard safety as an input factor into an organisation, even when, like HOP, they start to talk about safety as an emergent property. But we recognise that these approaches are, by their nature, limited because they are still addressing the issue from the wrong side. As a result, they will fail to factor in cultural restraints, strategic business decisions and key operational decisions. Yet, all these directly affect safety more than any of the other more conventional safety issues.

Culture is king

Once you recognise safety as an emergent property of the business decisions you make, this alters the levers you might choose to drive improvement. It may even challenge some of the core principles you have learned, as well as the assumptions you make.

For example, consultation, participation and encouraging workers to speak up are frequently the central tenets for a high performing culture of safety. And in most Western cultures this will hold. But where societies are more collective and hierarchical, it may break down.

To bring about real change, you need to work within – and use – the social constructs within which your organisation operates, and also take account of internal culture, strategic decisions and the way your business functions on the ground.

Culture, whether societal or organisational, is critical because it sets the context for business decisions and influences the likelihood of a successful outcome. Many organisations, for example, strive to create global harmonised management systems across their different geographical and cultural jurisdictions. But such an approach needs to recognise there are constraints, and then work out how to overcome, or even exploit, these.

Strategy and planning

The strategic choices made by a business also ultimately determine safety performance. Our experience shows that these choices are too often based on a perception of how a business operates, rather than reality. For example, if some board directors believe internal resources drive their organisation, while others think the business is contractor-driven, there is already confusion at the heart of the organisation. For our board alignment tool containing strategic options and choices, see our Linked In post.

Board alignment around the safety agenda is the easy bit. But how can safety be the number one priority if the board doesn’t share a consistent view of its wider business to start with? If you don’t believe your business works much with contractors, why focus on contractor management? But if the reality is different, the risk grows no matter what how many safety systems and processes underpin it.

The next stage to consider is on-site operations, specifically work planning. Success here depends on asking yourself whether you have the right number of people, with the right task skills, doing the right tasks, with the right tools, at the right place, at the right time.

But none of these are safety decisions. They are clearly decisions made by those in planning, operational, maintenance, HR, supply chain and contractor management. And if you get these six key decisions wrong at the outset, no amount of risk assessments, method statements, or safety training is going to be able to resolve this.

If you want a predictably safe outcome, you have to understand the role of work planning and job design, and the risks that arise from these.

Is integration the answer?

Safety professionals, their organisations and their boards frequently ask how they can ‘integrate’ safety into their business. This is a laudable goal. But when you accept safety as an output, is it even a valid question?

Is it really about integration, or more about rethinking the fundamental nature of the relationship between safety, the business culture, the strategies we pursue and the decisions we make at every level?

Perhaps the goal shouldn’t be integration at all. But instead focusing on understanding how we can make the right management and operational decisions, and appreciating the wider safety and other business consequences of those decisions. Our performance support will help you on this journey.

Integrating safety into business: understanding the consequences of your decisions © 2020 by Rakesh Maharaj – ARMSA is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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