Is safety purely cosmetic?

Is safety purely cosmetic?

While facilitating a recent safety maturity assessment, BRETT SOLOMON had a most interesting and revealing experience

Before we began with the assessment, we were required to attend a company induction programme. The typical safety issues were highlighted; including personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements. The company had two sites, and on arrival at the first one we were required to do a site-specific induction.

The second site had three operations and we attended a short safety briefing for each one. The day before we were to assess the third operation, the safety manager casually mentioned that orange long-sleeve reflective shirts were mandatory. This was not mentioned in any of the induction sessions, nor was it a prerequisite at any of the other operations.

Under any other circumstances I would have complied. However, as part of my assessment I deliberately wore a yellow reflective shirt to see what would happen. Just in case, I had brought an orange reflective shirt with me.

Upon my arrival at the entry gate, the safety manager for that operation remarked that he wasn’t sure if my shirt would be acceptable. I was disappointed that he was not more assertive. As he was the safety champion, I was hoping for a more definitive response.

Shortly thereafter, the safety manager for all three operations arrived. I explicitly brought it to his attention that I was wearing a yellow shirt, but also mentioned that I had an orange shirt in the car. Instead of asking me to exchange shirts, he smiled and told me that as I was with him there was no need to worry.

“There is always an exception to the rule,” he said. I was dismayed by his mindset. Once through security, we met the GM and then attended a safety meeting. one raised an one raised objection to my shirt.

I spent the rest of the day with the plant manager. We started off with a plant-specific orientation, including PPE expectations and, surprisingly, there was still no mention of my yellow shirt.

After about an hour of walking around the plant, we entered the geology laboratory. While I was being introduced to the staff, one of the ladies asked the manager why I wasn’t wearing an orange shirt. I immediately thanked her for her willingness to challenge me. Finally, someone had spoken up.

Suddenly, it became an embarrassing situation. Instead of letting me quickly go to the car and retrieve my orange shirt, they insisted I wear an orange reflector vest over my yellow shirt. How silly can you get?

Is safety purely cosmetic? Two hours later, a contractor joined us for lunch. Pandemonium broke out as the reflective stripe on his pants did not have an orange band above it. The same plant manager who had overlooked my incorrect PPE became very vocal.

He said: “Here we take safety very seriously and don’t compromise on the rules.” He then threatened to ask the contractor to leave the site. I sat and watched this hypocritical commotion with amazement.

What a classic learning moment. Personally, I believe that if there is a rule or procedure in place it must be followed. I should never have been allowed to enter the gate, full stop. As soon as the safety manager made a concession for me, I knew the company’s safety culture wasn’t as robust as it should have been.

When managers don’t insist on the very standards they have put in place, two detrimental things happen. The first is it sends a message that management doesn’t take safety seriously; it is something that can be compromised. Managers then shouldn’t be surprised when their people take shortcuts because they have inadvertently implied that it is acceptable.

The second is it causes a rift between managers and their teams. Workers become disheartened by the fact that their leaders are inconsistent, and feel it is unfair that they aren’t held to the same criteria.

This experience made me question what we really value. Is it keeping people safe or complying with rules? I wonder how many workers are following procedures that have little or no bearing on their actual safety.

I also wonder how many people are being disciplined for breaking pointless rules that simply don’t make a difference when it comes to keeping team members safe. I am not promoting the violation of procedures, what I am challenging is the necessity and effectiveness of some of the rules being used.

The worst example that I have come across is a manager who insists that a crew, who work at heights, wear their harnesses all day – even when in the office. I have always felt sorry for electricians, who, for some unknown reason, are required to wear padded gloves, despite the fact that slim gloves are available.

There are so many similar examples like this that cause workers to feel safety rules are a farce. This reinforces the resentment towards managers and the safety department. Is this what we want?

We need to be asking ourselves whether our rules are appropriate to the risks. If not, why are they in place? What do we actually care about?

If adhering to a rule will prevent someone from being injured, are we vigilantly insisting that everyone complies? Are we leading by the proverbial example? Then, are we willing to change, or even remove, rules or procedures that don’t make sense? Are we caught up on insisting on trivial matters, like the colour of a reflective shirt, that will in no way improve one’s safety?

Brett Solomon is the CEO of The Kinetic Leadership Institute and is a recognised leader in combining neuroscience, change management and leadership theory to drive cultural transformation processes. Brett specialises in neuro-leadership, especially when it comes to understanding what drives human behaviour and how to influence it. He has been involved in numerous safety culture change initiatives in throughout South Africa, Australia, Canada and Saudi Arabia.

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