Passive Safety Bones
Recently I worked for a person in the utility industry who would tell everyone that they needed to get over their passive bones when it came to safety. What are passive bones? They are not physical bones, nor are they similar to funny bones. Instead, the term “passive bones” refers to an approach to handling a safety concern. Each worker is a bone in the skeleton of an organization’s safety culture. If the culture within a company or work group is for workers not to call each other out on safety performance, the culture becomes a skeleton made of passive bones.
There are a number of reasons why some cultures are built on passive bones. For example, I have heard people say that it is easier to walk by a safety concern than it is to address it, or that the cost of safety is high, or that the work needs to get done. Complacency and luck are factors as well.
When a person sees a safety concern, they have to make a choice: Do they address it, or do they walk by? There is the difficult conversation that must be had, the paperwork that comes with it, the meetings to discuss corrective actions and the lost productivity that results from the safety fix that is put in place. The right thing to do is address the issue, do the hard work, have the difficult conversations and make the situation safe. Make it visible to others that a safety concern was addressed in a positive way. Normalize speaking up and addressing safety concerns.
It’s true that the cost of safety is high. It does not make good business sense to purchase a pricey device that never gets used. In business, equipment that does not see utilization is considered a stranded asset. It has a high cost to maintain and audit. But the cost of safety is high for a reason. Safety equipment undergoes a lot of engineering and testing to ensure it will function as designed. If you have a strong safety culture and proper safety equipment, there is money saved from not experiencing a safety incident, from not paying a fine or penalty, and from seeing employees go home at the end of each day. Talk about owning safety, not the cost of owning safety equipment.
The utility industry does not produce safety as a consumer product. Time is money. Sometimes there is productivity loss due to using safe work practices and special equipment. The short time gain from utilizing a shortcut does not make up for the long-term loss that comes with a passive nature regarding safety. Look at the downtime, equipment repairs and lost revenue that result from a safety incident.
Complacency is one of the hardest safety challenges to address. It is human nature to get comfortable. We adapt to our situation. Not addressing safety risks early on allows for a level of comfort to settle into the work. As a power lineman, I know that I grew comfortable with heights and electricity. The risks were still there even when I was more comfortable with them. This is where safe work procedures that build in multiple controls and reduce the risk of human error are so important. Comfort is not a safety control.
Luck is tricky. Sometimes you have luck on your side, and other times it is not your lucky day. If people in your company or work group are using the word “luck” or “lucky” when discussing the outcome of a safety incident, that should be a warning sign. Relying on the consistency of luck is asking for trouble. Unsafe acts and near misses need to be addressed to reduce the number and severity of incidents. This requires active participants to address even the smallest safety risks. Stop relying on luck and start creating safety results.
Each person in a work group and a company is part of the safety culture. If you are one of the passive safety bones, you need to work on that. Speak up, address issues and manufacture safety results. Be a safety leader regardless of title or position. Follow safe work procedures and utilize safety equipment properly. Hold others accountable for their safety and yours. Thank someone who calls you out on a safety concern because it is difficult to speak up. Work on your own passive nature as it relates to safety and encourage others to work on theirs. You will know your efforts are paying off when you cannot turn a blind eye to safety, and when that happens, you will strengthen the skeleton of your company’s safety culture.
-Aron McInnes, CUSP