Over the past 50 years, there has been a struggle between safety and production. For safety management, this means running a production system with no accidents, injuries or work-induced illnesses. For operations management, this means producing the goods or service with no quality defects, late deliveries or cost overruns. We can view safety as a separate system; however, mature organisations understand that workers can be both safe and productive and neither function is separate or impacts on the other.
For this article, we look at research that explores a stable system where safety and production are happily intertwined where there is no loss of safety or operational production. The study finds that when we jointly manage safety and operations the system is stable, allowing for safe and effective production. However, when we manage safety and operations separately, tension erupts to create unequal silos and either one or both suffer.
It All Depends on Managerial Choices
Do safety and operational management have to compete? The study results show that safety and operations are neither contradictory or complementary. Instead, managerial choices determine if tension occurs between operating a safe process and an effective process. Managers can choose a culture where workers are either safe or productive; or both safe and productive.
If managers value, prioritise, and reward safety as an integral part of operations, production can be both safe and effective. Conversely, when safety is not an integral operational value and priority, individual worker’s safety performance can vary, often dramatically. There may be a sense that rules need to be broken because it is at odds with productivity.
When safety is not an integral operational value, workers may “tweak” processes to get results. In doing so, these tweaks may result in placing themselves or others in harm’s way. The idea that it’s ok to tweak the process can lead to a culture where all rules can be broken for the sake of results. In these settings, workers are either getting hurt or focused on avoiding getting hurt.
Companies that treat safety and productivity separately, force workers to navigate between two competing sets of priorities. When safety training and procedures instruct to “Never disable a machine guard,” but operations managers instruct workers to temporarily remove the guard to get an important order done for a key customer, the worker faces an uncomfortable choice.
What’s more important? Their safety or job performance? How likely are they to place their job at risk if they go against the operations managers instructions?
These conflicts can create a culture that allows shortcuts as the norm to meet productivity goals.
Safety Must be a Defining Value for the Organisation
Organisations should start from a base position that safety is a defining value. Executives, managers, and employees should focus on designing, monitoring, and improving safe production.
To date, there is no evidence that protecting the workforce will harm competitiveness. However, there is plenty of evidence that worker health and safety are a foundation of globally competitive organisations. Companies need to understand that safety is not the enemy of efficiency.
One-off promotions of specific safety initiatives generally fail to make a lasting impact. The goal is to build long-term organisational competency, capability, and culture around safe production.
Where employees feel safe, engagement will rise, which in turn will create a competitive advantage for the organisation. Instead of treating safety and productivity as separate organisations need a single, overarching culture that aligns safety with other competing priorities.
The organisational culture that is both safe and productive will:
- contribute to a process for concurrently monitoring and improving safety and production;
- identify who is accountable for monitoring and improvement;
- direct the design of work that is both safe and productive;
- facilitate communication between management and workers; and
- inform human resources decisions about compensation, recruitment, dismissals, and promotion.
Four Cultural Values for Safe and Productive Workers
There are four essential cultural values around safe production:
- Commitment – Safety is the first priority from the top down. Translating to accountability in the organisational structure and incentive system. We should recognise and reward employees and managers who show accountability to safety in their communications and behaviours.
- Discipline – Organisations with a culture of safe production create and follow formal processes for how work is done. Without this discipline, organisations resort to “ad-hocracy” and bend the rules when they are busy. Managers who hold people accountable to formal processes are willing to discipline employees if they go against safe wok practices. Safety should be a key performance indicator.
- Prevention – Organisations with cultures of safe production do not wait for accidents, quality defects, or late deliveries to occur; they systematically work on preventing them. They do not accept that accidents are going to happen any more than they accept that quality defects. Instead, they adopt a long-term perspective and have a focus on simultaneous, continuous improvement.
- Participation – Workers are included, engaged and never passive in their participation in any management system. Organisations should expect broad worker participation on continuous-improvement teams, where workers debate and control safety issues.
Organisations aiming to be competitive in the long term do not see safety and productivity goals as trade-offs. They understand that they can achieve both safe and productive workers.
See our article, How to Improve Worker Attitudes to Safety.
How Can We Engage Workers in Safety?
One way to engage workers in safety is to provide interactive safety training that relates to their work environment and the jobs they do.
The level of interaction and engagement affects learner buy-in and changes to safety behaviour after the training. Good safety training is not just competency development it develops an emotional connection with the subject.
See our article, How to Engage Your Employees in Safety Training.
This is where Tap into Safety can help. The workplace safety training on the Tap into Safety Platform is highly engaging and is underpinned by sound adult learning principles. The training uses realistic panoramic scenes where employees engage and respond to hazards in the scenes to learn about effective safe behaviour.
Because the training requires decision-making from the employee, there is an emotional connection with the content. The training modules provide concise and relevant information, using simple text and concepts that are immediate and ‘to-the-point’.
Tap into Safety takes training seriously. We provide engaging methods to train how to manage workplace hazards using critical control measures. We understand that relevant and engaging safety training is crucial for the transfer of knowledge into practice. Contact Us for more information.
Worker health and safety are a foundation of globally competitive organisations and organisations need to understand that safety is not the enemy of production. Instead of treating safety and productivity as separate organisations need a single, overarching culture that aligns safety with other competing priorities. If managers value, prioritise, and reward safety as an integral part of operations, production can be both safe and effective. Conversely, when safety is not an integral operational value and priority, individual worker’s safety performance can vary, where short cuts are taken and safety is compromised.