A small improvement in safety at work would have a huge impact – and culture is key.

Around the world, 2.78 million people died last year due to work accidents or work-related ill-health. It’s a shocking, unacceptable number. But it’s also hard to really get our heads around. To break it down: it’s 7,616 people dead every day. It’s 317 every hour. Every 10 seconds, another person is dead because of their work. Another person just like you: a husband, wife, partner, mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter, friend, colleague. Yet organizations rarely discuss safety in this way; talk about safety and it’s only ever about dry metrics such as Accident Frequencies and Lost Time Injury Rates. Real people fade out and we are left with mere numbers. Whilst a target of ‘zero accidents’ has been popular with organizations over the last decade, this binary target is actually not driving sustainable performance improvement, as we’ve seen in landmark cases such as Deepwater Horizon, DuPont’s La Porte plant in Texas, and others. The power of marginal gains is much more sustainable. When it comes to safety, a 1% improvement globally would result in 28,000 lives saved every year.

A new book, titled One Percent Safer, harnesses 142 contributions from some of the world’s leading thinkers about business, safety and culture. It is a compendium of ideas that any leader, anywhere, can access and draw out ideas which, put into practice, will help drive incremental progress towards a safer, healthier world of work. It’s not about providing easy answers, but about offering a wealth of meaningful suggestions, perspectives and encouragement to provoke critical thinking and generate new ideas. Post-Covid-19, the well-worn words ‘health and safety’ have a sudden new resonance for us all. It is the perfect time to think again about your role; to check if you can now see something you may have missed before; to go beyond the rules and regulations, the audits and the checklists, and that routine question, “Got any safety issues?”

Good safety is good for business

As nations and organizations feel the economic impact of Covid-19, there’s a risk of safety being sacrificed as the focus shifts onto rebuilding productivity and efficiency. It’s important to remember that the economic benefits of increasing safety far outweigh any costs associated with making workplaces safer. The UK’s Institution of Occupational Safety and Health reports that the benefits of a safer workplace include a happier and healthier workforce, lower staff turnover, improved productivity and a better corporate reputation. In the US, the National Safety Council and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believe that for every dollar spent on improving workplace safety, the return on investment is between four and six times the initial outlay. Good safety really is good business.

While we can’t fix everything all at once, we can always choose to do something right now – to do one thing which makes our organization 1% safer. Five ideas taken from concepts in the book will help get your thinking started.

1. Curiosity did not kill the cat

Before we do anything, we have to be curious. As management guru Stephen Covey said: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” When it comes to understanding safety, many leaders ask questions that are, to be blunt, a waste of their breath. I’ve heard them time after time, at the start of meetings or on ‘safety walks’, as the leader sets off to do their once-a-week/once-a-month/once-in-a-blue-moon tour of the shop floor. “Is everything safe? Any safety issues here?”

Rarely, if ever, do these questions produce meaningful dialogue. Workers respond with a quiet nod or shrug, and the leader walks on. Do people ask these pointless questions because they believe that old proverb, that ‘curiosity killed the cat’? Maybe it’s more than that. In her studies of leadership, American author Brené Brown suggests that curiosity builds connection; that connection gives meaning to our lives; and, ultimately, that “connection is why we’re here”. She argues that many leaders lack the courage to be truly curious.

Psychologists define curiosity as ‘wanting to know’ – a meaning that is entirely apt to thinking about safety. What if your approach to safety moved away from just compliance to a ‘search for information’? What if, instead of making inspections and walk-arounds, you engaged in ‘curious conversations’ with your people? Curiosity isn’t just a way of understanding the world; it’s a way of changing it, too. In this brave new world, start by asking yourself: why is safety important to you? What is it that you want to know about safety in your organization? And which questions do you need to ask in order to find the answers?

2. It’s all about them

Thinkers50 Hall-of-Famer and the world’s number one executive coach, Marshall Goldsmith, writes that to be a great leader, the first step is to understand that it’s not all about you: it’s all about them. You have to let other people be the heroes. So how do you turn regular folks into heroes? It’s not that difficult: we should start by getting input from the people around us, closing our mouths and listening, recognizing the contributions of others and thanking people for their efforts.

How does this translate to workplace safety? Goldsmith challenges us to ask our people what they’d like to see change. Ask them where the biggest risks of them getting hurt are, and then ask for their suggestions on how to stay safe. Next, know that great leaders don’t worry too much about what he or she looks like: instead, they worry about helping the people around them to look great, feel great, and be great. Remember, it’s all about them.

Finally, great leaders have a strong sense of self-awareness – and that is a trait that is as relevant to safety in the workplace as to any other aspect of leadership. As Goldsmith comments: “I’ve come to learn that with every problem I’ve ever had, I just had to look to one place to see the source of the problem. I looked in the mirror. What happens when you look there too?”

3. The leader’s toolbox

Leading German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer explains the concept of the leader’s toolbox by sharing the story of the former president of Florida International University, Modesto Maidique, who believes that every senior manager comes to the job with a personal ‘adaptive toolbox’. This toolbox contains a set of ‘rules of thumb’ – that is, broadly accurate guides or principles derived from personal experiences and values. They are the basis for making decisions about people, strategies, and investments in a world that puts a premium on efficient use of time. Good leadership consists of a toolbox full of rules of thumb and the intuitive ability to quickly see which is appropriate in which context.

Applying this to safety, Gigerenzer shares six rules of thumb developed by Ray Stata, co-founder of Analog Devices, as he sought to move his company into a new field. These rules are mostly intuitive, meaning that the leader cannot easily explain them – true leadership, it is argued, means intuitively understanding what rules work in what situation. They fall into two camps. Under the heading of People, the rules of thumb are: “First listen, then speak”; “If a person is not honest and trustworthy, the rest doesn’t matter”; and “Encourage and empower people to make decisions and take ownership”. The other three come under Strategy: “Innovation drives success”; “Analysis will not reduce uncertainty”; and “When judging your plan, put as much stock in the people as in the plan”.

As leaders, we need to develop our own toolboxes and then be brave enough to select the tools within them.

4. The 5 Cs

In his contribution to One Percent Safer, Bob Bea, emeritus professor at the University of California’s Berkeley Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, reflects on a ten-year series of research and development projects designed to reduce risks and improve the safety of infrastructure systems in high-hazard environments. His research resulted in the identification of five organizational components – the 5 Cs – required for successful risk management and a truly effective approach to safety.

  1. Cognizance Organizations must develop a realistic awareness of the hazards and risks that confront them, and concern about safety and risks should be constant.
  2. Commitment A sustained ‘top down and bottom up’ commitment must be developed among all those involved.
  3. Culture Beliefs, values, feelings and resources alike must be devoted to ‘knowing what is right, and doing it right’, with an understanding that these efforts require constant vigilance, diligence and continuous improvements.
  4. Capabilities The human, organizational, and other parts of the infrastructure systems must be highly developed, integrated and continually improving.
  5. Counting The development of validated quantified metrics that can be used to help evaluate risks is vital. That which is effectively measured can be more efficiently managed.

5. Give people control

Isaac Getz, professor at ESCP Business School, highlights the universal human need for responsibility and freedom, or “self-direction”, in work, but points out that in many traditional hierarchical organizations, most employees have their need for control denied. This lack of control over tasks triggers employees’ emotional reactions, such as anger and anxiety, leading to multiple costs such as terms of sickness and absenteeism which are added on top of the hit to productivity. Getz suggests there is a way these hidden costs can be eliminated for good: give people real control over their work. Stop telling people how to do their work, and stress levels go down, hidden stress-related costs go down, absenteeism goes down and engagement goes up.

This is hard to accomplish in companies with a ‘command and control’ management culture, but leaders can make changes through what Getz calls “corporate liberation”. A liberated company is one in which employees are free and responsible to take actions that they, not their bosses or procedures, decide are the best for the company. Employee initiative and potential – the two key ingredients of performance, which are traditionally stifled – are then activated. Getz suggests that freeing a company’s people to act, not only improves health and reduces the burden of sickness and deaths, but also dramatically improves wealth, by enabling liberated companies to out-perform the competition.

Time to act

The binary days of ‘all-or-nothing’ approaches to safety are over. ‘Zero injury’ targets aren’t taking us where we need to go. Too many people continue to die, get injured or be made ill by work every single day. Yet every leader, in every organization can – indeed, needs to – make a difference in their own way. The concept of making work 1% safer leverages the power of incremental progress and marginal gains: small steps made by everyone. We can all be harmed by failures of safety. We can all help ensure they never happen.