The 3 Elements of “Safety First”

When we talk about safety, most people consider the context of accidents and injuries. But if we are to achieve a true continuous improvement environment, where everyone fully participates, we have to consider more.

A good way to sum it up is with three elements that all start with ‘P.’

1) Physical Safety

This is what most people think of when we say “safety is the most important thing.” But, aside from the moral, legal and financial imperatives, what are some other reasons why physical safety is important?

Simple. We want our Team Members 100% engaged in performing their work and improving it. We do not want any of their precious mental bandwidth consumed by worrying about whether or not they will get hurt.

This is a far cry from the “blame the victim” approach I have seen. Root Cause of Accident: Team Member failed to pay attention. Countermeasure: Team Member given written warning.”

A few years ago I was painting my house. I will tell you right now that I am not fond of ladders. (Go figure, I spent three years in the 82nd Airborne, you’d think I would be over it.) There I was up near the top of an extension ladder painting the eaves of the roof. I can tell you that I was paying a lot more attention to staying on the ladder than to where the paint was going. The quality of the job suffered, for sure.

The truth is that a physically safe environment is more, not less, productive. Ergonomically bad motions take more time than good ones. Well designed fail-safe’s and guards prevent quality issues and rework. An even, sustainable pace of work reduces disruptions upstream and downstream. Good lighting lets people catch quality issues and mistakes sooner. Reduced noise levels foster communication. High noise isolates people in invisible bubbles.

2) Psychological Safety

Can your Team Members freely share problems and ideas free of concern for ridicule or rejection by their co-workers? Or is it safer for them to keep to themselves? Do you know who the natural leaders are? Do you know who the influencers are? Do you know who the bullies are? Do you know which line leaders people are afraid of? Which co-workers? Don’t kid yourself, it is only the truly exceptional team that does not have these issues. And most teams that move past these issues become truly exceptional. It is something called “trust” but that is just another way of saying “feeling safe being vulnerable.”

3) Professional Safety

This is a deceptively simple concept. The Team Member is not put in fear (real or implied) of losing his job for doing what is expected of him. That sounds so simple. The really obvious example is the Team Member being asked to contribute to saving cycle time (and therefore, labor) when he knows unnecessary people lose their jobs. But it goes further.

How often do we expect, by implication, people to short-cut The Rules in order to get something done more quickly? Sidney Dekker has authored a number of books and publications focusing on human error as the cause of accidents. One of his key points is that within any organization there are The Rules, and a slightly (sometimes greatly) lower standard of the norms – the way people routinely do things. The norms are established by the day-to-day interactions and the real and implied expectations placed on people to get the job done.

Well meaning Team Members, just trying to meet the real or perceived pressures of everyday work take shortcuts. They do it because they feel they must in order to avoid some kind of negative consequence.

At this point you can hopefully see that these three elements blur together. The work environment and culture play as much a part in a safe work place as the machine guards and safety glasses.

All of these things, together, set the tone for the other things you say are “important” such as following the quality checks (when there is no time built in to the work cycle to do so), and calling out problems (when halting the line means everybody has to work overtime).

One more point – everything that applies to safety also applies to quality. The causes of problems in both are the same, as are the preventions and countermeasures. Do you use the same problem solving approach in both contexts? More about simplifying your standards sometime in the future.

One thought to “The 3 Elements of “Safety First””

  1. I’ll do something unusual and post a comment to my own post. And it is WAY off-topic from lean manufacturing.

    When writing this post, I wanted to include a link the the 82nd Airborne. While I turned up the link on Google, when I went to test it I got a “Server Reset” or some such message. Why? It is a .mil domain relating to the U.S. military. Such things are inappropriate for viewing on the Internet in China. Wikipedia is also blocked, as are ALL sites hosted on commercial blog sites like blogger and blogspot.

    Folks, do not ever take something so simple for granted. Freedom is rarely taken by force. It is gladly given away, a little at a time, by people who are willing to exchange “just a little” for a bit less personal responsibility, or a vague promise of increased protection from something or someone they find offensive, annoying, or scary.

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