Organizational safety and business performance. Many do not think of these as being closely linked. However, that disconnect is what can hinder improvements in safety performance and impact an organization’s overall health.
Safety performance is inextricably linked to business performance, and where safety issues exist, organizational and operational issues may follow. To integrate safety into every aspect of the organizational culture, safety professionals must demonstrate that safety is critical to overall business success.
In his Business Class series of articles in Professional Safety, Peter T. Susca, M.S., describes how safety professionals can transition safety to the core of what organizational leaders value and engage with leadership to integrate safety into the business.
“To drive safety forward in a sustainable manner, we can no longer treat it as an independent variable,” Susca says. “The reasons for safety success (or failure) are always related to the health of the organization as a whole.”
Susca considers integrating safety and business performance together tobe important for organizational health, as well as moving the occupational safety and health profession forward.
“I believe that the future of the safety profession requires it practitioners be respected for more than their subject-matter and safety discipline leadership expertise,” he says. “They need to be equally respected for their organizational savvy and ability to add value to the core of the organization.”
Fortunately for safety professionals, there are steps they can take to do just that. By examining organizational culture, demonstrating the value of safety and establishing a common safety language, Susca says that safety professionals can begin to shift their organizations toward better overall safety and business performance.
1. Examine the culture
For safety professionals to influence an organization’s culture in a positive way, they must first understand what that culture is. Many elements from both an operational and employee standpoint affect safety culture.
“Organizational culture has a tremendous influence of all elements of an organization, especially decision making,” explains Susca. “When cultural deficiencies exist, they create decisions that can blow a gaping hole through the best organizational systems and processes.”
Taking a comprehensive look at these elements of the culture allows safety professionals to gain an understanding of the safety systems currently in place, as well as assess the overall attitude toward safety from executives and employees. Safety professionals can examine four key elements of the culture to drive safety forward and improve business performance.
- Unwanted outcomes. When thinking about safety, leadership and safety professionals should ask themselves, “what outcomes do we want to prevent?” While some may seem obvious, several negative consequences can come from nonroutine tasks that may not be top-of-mind.
The occurrence of unwanted outcomes is a reflection of the overall safety culture, and different organizations will respond differently to those outcomes depending on their view of safety and their risk tolerance. Examining unwanted outcomes can help foster a conversation about the outcomes that the organization wants to avoid, so that hazards and risks can be identified, prioritized and addressed moving forward.
- Risk. To have a truly successful safety management program, you first have to understand and assess risks. Establishing a level of acceptable risk can help guide organizations in the safety decisions they make and the controls they put in place.
Focusing on risk also helps develop a culture where organizations take a more proactive approach to safety and implement controls to prevent incidents and near-hits, rather than reacting to them after the fact.
- Processes and programs. Once risks are assessed, safety professionals can establish programs and processes to manage those risks. The key to achieving sustained improvements in safety performance is having safety programs and processes that achieve what has been defined as an acceptable level of risk.
By examining processes and programs and whether they are achieving acceptable risk, safety professionals can then improve on what is currently in place, or work to institute new measures to reach that goal.
- Management systems. While all elements cited thus far are important in improving safety performance, the management system ties everything together. All processes and programs must be managed to assess their effectiveness in preventing illnesses, injuries and fatalities.
Safety professionals need to ensure that there is synergy and cohesiveness across the organization in terms of the management system. Having an effective management system in place is a major step toward continuous safety and business improvement.
2. Increase Your Organizational Value
“It is important to establish a strategy for OSH professionals at all levels to enhance their organizational influence beyond the realm of safety,” says Susca. “Even if you possess a great deal of business acumen, the organization’s perception of you and the safety function will significantly impact your ability to influence others.”
By demonstrating both safety and business acumen, safety professionals can show executives the value of having a person with those skills on their staff. Safety can have a huge impact on the bottom line. When executives understand that, they will more likely want to have a safety professional on their team.
“When working as an OSH professional in a business, it is imperative to understand how businesses and business people operate. Taking classes and educating yourself on the workings of the business should be part of the standard of care for the OSH profession,” Susca explains.
“Those who complete this fundamental requirement are better prepared to hit the ground running and are more likely to be welcomed by other business leaders.”
Here are seven steps that safety professionals can take to increase their organizational value and have an impact on the business.
- Assess their perception. For safety professionals to be successful in their role, they have to understand how they and the OSH department are perceived by management. Safety should be perceived as a core element of business success. If it’s not, safety professionals can take steps to change that by developing relationships with senior management.
- Share your value. When you have achieved successes, it’s important to share those outcomes with executives. When leadership sees those successes and their impact on the business, they will begin to recognize the role that safety plays in overall business performance.
- Create strategic alliances. It is always helpful to have others in your corner who share your commitment to safety, particularly if they are in a position of power and can influence decision-making. Aligning with such individuals can strengthen the view of safety at an organizational level and help change negative perceptions that some may have about the role of safety in business success.
- Be your own advocate. Take advantage of opportunities to speak with executives and decision-makers to share your current projects, your successes and what you are trying to achieve. By making yourself more visible and continuously advocating for safety, you can raise the profile of not only yourself, but also of the safety program as a whole.
- Develop a strategy and plan. To be successful in any endeavor, you need a plan for what you are trying to achieve and a strategy for accomplishing your goals. Organizational safety is no different. Safety professionals should develop a strategy and plan for safety improvements, but they should also develop an organizational influence strategy for how they will connect with the right people who can use their influence to raise the profile of safety and foster improved safety performance.
3. Create a common safety language
For any safety program to operate at maximum efficiency, everyone must speak the same language. Creating a common safety language helps develop a culture where every employee understands what behaviors and situations are safe
or safe enough
, as well as how to identify and communicate hazards
Having concrete definitions of these terms will aid everyone’s understanding of them so they can be consistently applied.
“OSH professionals need to respect that the language we use for safety is often foreign in the business world,” explains Susca. “To communicate effectively, the concept of safe and acceptable safety risk must be crystal clear to all.”
When employees have a clear understanding of safe, safe enough and unsafe, they can also begin to develop an understanding of their role as hazard gatekeeepers. These individuals are on the frontlines of the operation and their vigilance is key to sustained safety and business improvements. The true test of the safety program’s effectiveness will be reflected in the capacity of those employees at risk and their managers to identify, assess and manage the risks they face on a daily basis.
From there, safety professionals can divide the operation into subsets, processes, machines and activities, and ask employees what circumstances are required for the process, machine, etc., to be safe enough, while still allowing them to be productive. This will help safety professionals identify hazards and risks associated with the operation so that they can then work with executives and employees on making better decisions.
“Our role as OSH professionals requires that we coach the organization to make better business decisions with safety in mind, rather than just safety decisions,” Says Susca. “Just as PPE is our last choice in controls, making a safety decision without making a corresponding good-for-business decision should also be a last choice.”
When executives and decision-makers begin to look at hazards and risks from a business standpoint, they can see the impact that they have on performance, customer value and costs. They can then, in turn, see the impact that safety has on the bottom line. Although some may think of safety decisions as simply being good for safety, it is far more than that, they are also good for business.
This is the first in a series of blogs derived from Peter T. Susca’s Business Class articles in Professional Safety. The full versions of these articles can be found below.
“It’s Always Bigger Than Safety: The Relationship Between Organizational Culture & Unwanted Outcomes”
“Increasing Your Organizational Value”
“The Business Value of a Common Safety Language”
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