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The Conceptual Toolbox: 6 Ideas For Addressing Workplace Safety Issues

Oct 28, 2022
Hands reaching inside a toolbox drawer in an auto shop

Having the right tools makes any job easier — even if they’re conceptual rather than physical.

Safety professionals Joe Story, M.S., M.B.A.; John Zey, Ed.D, CIH, FAIHA; Miaozong Wu, Ph.D., CSP, ARM; James Junkin, CSP, SMS, ASP; Cameron Sumlin, M.B.A.; and Justin Story recently put their heads together to create a toolbox that equips safety professionals with a set of ideas not commonly found in workplace safety training programs.

The toolbox, originally published in Professional Safety’s May 2022 issue, contains six conceptual tools that can help address challenges common to the safety profession, including:

  • A lack of understanding of or regard for causal relationships and interdependencies
  • Safety issues that are misaligned with workplace hazards or organizational circumstances
  • Unspoken/mixed messages given to the workforce
  • Leadership challenges on the executive and safety team levels
  • Institutionalization of bad and nonsensical practices

Dive into the six tools and learn how to implement them at your workplace.

Conceptual Tool 1: Systems Thinking and Theory

“Systems thinking is a powerful tool for analyzing and resolving many occupational safety and health issues,” the authors write. This diagnostic process involves viewing problems by extending their boundaries so you can identify interrelationships and interdependencies within systems.

How to Use It

Systems thinking and theory can be especially useful in solving problems that occur because causal relationships and interdependencies have been disregarded or misunderstood.

The authors use an example in which a worker experiences an eye injury because he was not wearing safety glasses. A safety professional who does not use systems thinking may conclude that the worker failed to understand the importance of safety and recommend he receive more training.

However, a safety professional who uses systems thinking would dig deeper and ask why the worker chose not to wear the safety glasses. She might then discover that the glasses frequently fog up and that the PPE supply cabinet is located in an area that is not easily accessible, causing productivity losses to those who retrieve new ones or use antifog. Systems thinking allows safety professionals to fix the root problem.

Conceptual Tool 2: Contingency Theory

Contingency theory asserts that there is no universal way to do anything, and that good decisions are contingent upon the circumstances. The authors contend that many safety programs fail to achieve their performance objectives because they are misaligned with the actual hazards found in the workplace or the circumstances the organization faces.

How to Use It

By using contingency theory, safety professionals can adjust misaligned safety programs. These programs often:

  • Are developed with the use of third-party verification systems
  • Are created with a boilerplate safety program obtained from the internet
  • Fail to recognize the organization as either mechanistic (rigid hierarchy and bureaucracy) or organic (informal and adaptable)

As safety professionals frequently remind workers: Always select the right tool for the job and never modify a tool to do a job for which it’s not designed. The same goes for safety programs, the authors write.

Conceptual Tool 3: Signaling Theory

Signaling theory involves sending a message to someone without specifically saying anything.

How to Use It

Sometimes, workers and safety professionals receive unspoken or mixed messages that diminish the effectiveness of a safety program.

“Organizations and safety professionals must be cognizant of the signals they send, as these signals can have implications for workplace safety,” the authors write. For example, consider a supervisor allowing, but not directly telling, workers to temporarily remove machine guarding during a production crunch to momentarily increase production so goals can be met on time.

This signals to workers that ignoring safety practices is OK if the situation warrants it and may cause some to conclude that safety policies are there to reduce liability or pacify regulators — not to protect workers.

Conceptual Tool 4: Agency Theory

Agency theory describes the issues that can happen anytime there is a separation of ownership and control. When this happens, the individuals with control, such as the managers, may behave in ways that conflict with the interests of the owners. To control for this, many organizations implement corporate governance mechanisms to align the interests of executives with those of the owners.

How to Use It

It’s important to examine how individuals in leadership roles can impact workplace safety. Consider the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 workers and injured 170 others. An investigation determined that BP executives ignored numerous leading indicators and declined to make necessary capital investments in process safety, only making significant investments when it came to matters of compliance. Unit leaders at the plant also had short tenures, making them more interested in short-term financial performance than long-term process safety investments.

Organizational controls to circumvent agency could have played a role in causing the disaster. BP’s corporate governance mechanisms, such as the short terms of managers, were designed to give executives a “bottom line” mentality that disincentivized them from making long-term safety investments and incentivized them to focus on profits.

Conceptual Tool 5: Upper Echelons Theory

Upper echelons theory suggests that organizations are largely a reflection of their leadership and that organizational outcomes can be predicted by leaders’ observable traits such as age, education level and experience.

How to Use It

The upper echelons perspective can be a useful tool for safety professionals in two primary ways, according to the authors.

  • It can be applied to understand why executives are less likely to prioritize safety and allocate capital to safety. Younger executives who “have something to prove” may be more focused on making money and bolstering stock prices than investing in safety. Functional tracks also make a difference: Those who ascend to leadership from production tend to be more aware of safety issues than those who don’t.
  • The perspective can also help safety practitioners identify safety team conflicts and better understand why performance is sometimes less than desirable. Consider a construction organization that appoints a former craft worker with no formal education as its corporate safety director and has safety technicians in the field who have safety degrees, but no construction experience. The experiential mismatch can lead to conflict. It’s important for senior safety professionals working on safety teams to understand that not everyone in the safety profession has the same background or will approach problems in the same way.

Conceptual Tool 6: Institutional Theory

Something becomes institutionalized when repetition causes it to become “rule-like” and persistent in the absence of efforts to continue it or when institutions or professions have created a collective norm, the authors write. It’s essentially the idea that we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way.

How To Use It

When seeing the institutionalization of bad and nonsensical practices in an organization, this theory is particularly helpful. Generally, institutionalization occurs at the industry level. In the construction industry, many companies require applicants to earn the OSHA 500 credential to be considered for a construction safety job. (The OSHA 500 course is designed to equip experienced people to teach the OSHA 10- and 30-hour outreach course and issue completion cards.) This has led to the rejection of qualified construction safety professionals and hiring of under-qualified professionals, according to the authors, negatively affecting performance.

By keeping these six tools in mind, you may be better able to identify common issues that hinder workplace safety and find fixes that create better conditions for everyone.


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