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Strategies for Achieving Safety and Performance Excellence in the Workplace

Updated: Dec 16, 2023


Organizations often set safety improvement goals without first assessing their current status and planning strategic changes to achieve those goals. Strategic planning involves discussing what needs to change to accomplish the improvement, while tactical planning focuses on how to improve. A sound improvement strategy establishes a framework that aligns everyone in the organization's decision-making process with the goal or goals. It clarifies and prioritizes the activities that will be most effective in achieving the desired changes.


We use a model with our client organizations to help them assess and strategically target areas of improvement. The model identifies three areas: Focus, Accountability, and Knowledge/Skills.


Focus, also known as "vision" or "mission," is the first area. Many safety efforts lack focus, or their focus is too broad. Success requires a clear understanding of what it looks like. Setting specific and memorable safety improvement targets can achieve higher levels of engagement, and quick wins in these targeted areas can motivate the effort.


The second area is Accountability, which involves the consistent reinforcement of expectations. Some workers underperform because they don't know what to do, while others underperform because there is no accountability. Many organizations connect accountability to safety lagging indicators, punishing workers for getting injured. However, such after-the-fact accountability is often ineffective and can discourage workers from reporting incidents. Accountability needs to be proactive, based on performance rather than results. Focusing on specific improvement targets allows for microcosmic accountability that can expand to overall safety improvement.


The third area is Knowledge/Skills, which refers to an organization's workers' safety IQ and talent. Without these qualities, there is no driving force for safety. Some workers underperform simply because they don't know what to do or how to do it safely. Few organizations have excellent onboarding or ongoing training programs to help workers achieve mastery in their crafts, including safety.


An ideal organization has these three areas almost or completely concentric. Such perfection is rare, and most need to examine each area for strengths and opportunities for further improvement. A significant lack in one or any of these areas suggests potential strategic improvement targets. They can be determined by interviewing employees or through customized perception surveys.


A lack of focus or insufficient focus will manifest itself in a lack of direction. Workers will give general and trite answers when asked what is most important in safety. Sufficiently focused workers will respond with specific improvement targets and their responses will be uniform across the organization. Focus creates alignment of effort, which can help achieve desired improvements. A lack of accountability will reveal itself through highly variable performance and a lack of enforcement. Enforcement is more than catching violators and punishing them. Positive reinforcement is a behavioral tool that can help with accountability and is often underused.


Accountability is best accomplished by setting unwavering levels of expectation for safety performance. This means exceptions to expected performance are never overlooked or ignored. Good accountability will be reflected in both compliance with required safety behaviors and discretionary behaviors. It will enable high levels of uniformity in performance and promote a close culture connected by the values that uniform accountability helps to create.


Insufficient knowledge and/or skills usually manifest themselves in poor productivity and quality, as well as poor safety performance. Deficits in knowledge or skill are opportunities for human error that can produce a range of undesired results. While poor performance can be prompted by process design, mechanical problems, or cultural influences, these three conditions can also result from inadequate knowledge or skills. Many organizations hire candidates who already have adequate ability to do their jobs and assume the minimal refresher training in safety and other required topics will be sufficient to maintain performance. However, there are three problems with this practice.


An ideal organization is one in which the circles of focus, accountability, and knowledge are almost or completely concentric. However, such perfection is rare, and most organizations need to assess each area for their strengths and opportunities for improvement. A significant lack in any of these three areas should suggest potential strategic improvement targets. This can be determined by interviewing employees or through customized perception surveys. A lack of focus or insufficient focus will result in a lack of direction. Workers, when asked about what is most important in safety, may give vague and unhelpful answers. They may refer to the goals of safety in generic ways such as "going home the same way you came to work (injury-free)," or simply "thinking before you act."


Therefore, it's essential to have a well-defined safety plan that focuses on specific improvement targets, establishes clear expectations, and provides training to improve knowledge and skills. This will help organizations achieve their safety improvement goals and create a culture of safety across the organization.


Insufficient knowledge and/or skills usually manifest themselves in poor productivity and quality and poor safety performance. Deficits in knowledge or skill are opportunities for human error that can produce various undesired results. While poor performance can be prompted by process design, mechanical problems, or cultural influences, these three conditions can potentially be the cumulative results of inadequate knowledge or skills.


Many organizations try to hire candidates who already have adequate ability to do their jobs and assume that minimal refresher training in safety and other required topics will be sufficient to maintain performance. However, there are three problems with this practice:

  1. These assumptions are not always true;

  2. Many jobs have escalating requirements rather than static ones; and

  3. The goal is to improve and not just maintain the status quo; so further knowledge and/or skills will almost certainly be needed to improve.


Adequate levels of knowledge and skills will almost certainly be reflected in production and quality, as well as safety. Workers who know how to do their jobs safely and well are the foundation of good safety performance.


Be careful not to assume that expertise is uniform across your organization. Often, there are pockets of workers who need more education or training due to being new on the job or changing job tasks.


A basic approach to safety improvement strategy is to determine if your current status could have better focus and direction, better uniformity and accountability, and/or better knowledge and skill levels. Another aspect of strategy is prioritization. If you need to improve in all these areas, should you address them all at once or in progression? Which would produce the greatest improvements, and which would be the quickest and easiest to improve?


Trying to do too much at once is a major cause of failure in safety, so don't overestimate your ability. Eat the elephant a bite at a time, but strategically pick which bite goes first.

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