February 2009

Achieving the “perfect zero”

Innovative approach to safety shows why systems are not enough

By C. Bianco

At one time, a recordable injury rate of 0.5 (1 per 200,000 hours worked) would have been considered a spectacular accomplishment. However, today, many mining companies have set their sights on achieving the “perfect zero” in safety performance. There’s just one problem: what got us here won’t get us there.

Companies are demanding more out of each worker than ever before, with less supervision. Downsizing, mergers, buyouts, closings, and the grim realities of the national and global economy all contribute to increasing “noise” in the system and an environment that is less stable and certain.

Amid these challenges, developing and driving a culture that supports safety requires very deliberate actions and transformational leadership. Simply adding more safety systems or using more muscle, without acknowledging organizational and business realities, won’t move us to safety excellence. Getting to a “zero-injury” workplace requires rethinking how we use the systems we have and how we approach the safety performance mechanism itself. Most importantly, it will require a culture in which safety functioning is treated as a part of doing business.

The 2:00 a.m. test

Safety systems are essential — indeed imperative — for achieving zero injury performance. At the same time, they are subject to the same pull of activities, conditions and events that influence other business processes and are effective only to the extent that they are aligned with the organization as a whole. The effectiveness of procedures is dependent on how they are perceived in the organization. (For example, is following them a part of standard operating procedure, or is it okay to be lax when things are busy?) Hazard removal is only as good as the infrastructure that supports it. (Is it easy or hard to get this equipment replaced?) The longevity of training depends on alignment with organizational priorities and practices. (Do supervisors support new ways of doing things or will employees meet resistance?)

Safety systems thrive when they are both part of how we work and how we see ourselves. Injury-free organizations work at passing the “2:00 a.m. test” — which evaluates what happens on third shift, when most managers have gone home. Even with no one watching, does the employee use safety systems and procedures because it is the right thing to do? In the “2:00 a.m. organization,” employees frequently approach each other independently regarding safety concerns and move safety issues up the chain of command, even when the news is not good. Employees at all levels have ownership for safety outcomes. In other words, the culture itself drives safety functioning.

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