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How Systems Thinking Can Improve Safety Management

Feb 11, 2021

Many elements are at work in an occupational health and safety management systemBusinessman looking at post it notes (OHSMS). One key to establishing an effective OHSMS is understanding how all these elements work together to improve safety and health. Applying systems thinking can help you understand how the elements must work together to achieve your objectives.  

“When we think about health and safety, as an example, systems have what we call emergent properties,” says Jim Howe of the ANSI/ASSP Z10 committee. “Safety is something that emerges from the interaction of our system, including leadership processes, culture, worker participation and evaluation metrics.” 

Recognizing Interdependency is Key 

Howe explains that OHSMS performance isn’t the sum of the parts of the system, but the product of their interaction. To improve your OHSMS, you have to concentrate on the underlying interactions and not just focus on symptoms.

“Think about a car. A car is a system, and it has parts that allow it to function and transport us from one place to another,” he explains. “We could bring a car into a warehouse and take it apart, even though we have all of the parts in the warehouse, we don't have a car.”

The same is true for your OHSMS. You may have different elements necessary for your system to operate, but without connecting the elements, you don’t necessarily have an effective system.  

“It’s not just dumping incident investigation, management of change, contractors, safety metrics, procurement, etc., into a bowl and stirring them up and assuming what emerges in an effective management system,” says Howe. “We have to connect these things and think about the interdependencies. We can’t think of them individually.” 

He adds that many organizations think about safety and health as pieces, functions and activities separate from the rest of the system. This may not only impede improvement, but it may also cause unintended consequences.

For example, you could put a control in place to fix a safety problem that ends up driving information underground. To combat this, Howe says you should examine what process or activities hinder the flow of information in your organization.  

“We need to have a good flow of accurate information that’s not censored throughout the organization from the top to the bottom. Leaders need to know what’s actually going on,” he explains. “We have to ask ourselves if we have processes or activities in place that discourage or undermine that?” This examination of current processes and activities is also a crucial element of change management as you adjust your OHSMS. Before making any changes, you have to assess the current state of your organization. 

“Knowing where you want to go is important, but it’s not sufficient,” Howe explains. “You need to understand where you are because if you’re going to function systemically in improving your organization's management system, you need tools to do that.” 

Howe adds that taking stock of your OHSMS not only helps you assess the effectiveness of the elements currently in place, but also what hurdles are blocking improvements.  

“Often when we think about change, we think about what we can add or what adjustments can we make,” he say. “One question we should be asking is what are some activities and processes we have in the organization that are nonsystemic and are unintentionally driving us in the wrong direction?” 

As you examine your OHSMS and how to improve it, Howe recommends you focus on answering three key questions to guide your decision-making:  

  1. What activities are you currently doing that you should stop or modify?
  2. What activities do you need to start that currently don’t exist to improve your OHSMS?
  3. What current activities are effective in helping you maintain your OHSMS? 

Answering these questions can help you apply systems thinking approach in a practical way that helps you improve your OHSMS.  

Listen to The Case for Safety Podcast episode featuring Jim Howe to learn more about systems thinking and health and safety management.  

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    Patrick Ryan

    An outstanding article that cohesively links core necessary components for achieving maximum OSH success in a single package.  Interconnection to ANSI/ASSP Z10 OHSMS is clearly illustrated.

    Patrick Ryan - CIH, CSP, CHMM


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