Guest Post by SafetySue
When Covid hit, the next thing I found myself doing was assigning e-learning courses to employees on how to wash their hands. Granted, there is a skill to achieving disinfection through hand washing, but lately there is a lot of required safety training for some of the most mundane actions which I think is silly.
I want to pause here because I know what many of you are thinking. ‘If the training was properly done, properly measured, followed-up on in the workplace…then we will see an improvement in safety.’ Don’t get me wrong, I love learning & development, I love to facilitate training courses, and I love to develop instruction. I have seen it done well. But there has been an explosion in safety e-learning, training courses and the tool box talk materials but the content seems childish for a skilled workforce.
I am sure there are many reasons for this; technology is a driving force, as are customer requirements overlapping with regulatory requirements overlapping with management system mandates. But what is the root cause of this? Why are we creating so much e-learning, toolbox talks and procedures that continually push out safety information, a lot of which seems to be generic factual information. Let’s start with the definition of safety.
Recently, we have read some interesting re-worked definitions of safety – for example – “safety is not the absence of negatives, it is the presence of the capacity” (Retrieved June 15, 2020 from https://www.nerc.com/pa/rrm/hp/2016_Human_Performance_Confrence/1%20-%20NERC_HP_TConklin.pdf). I have gone with this definition for a couple of years now and it made sense to me but it has done nothing to stop the endless creation of yet more safety courses, toolbox talks, posters and procedures to increase. To build “capacity” we are filling up employee heads with safety information. We have missed the point all together; perhaps the word “capacity” has not been that helpful.
I work in an industrial workplace and the work performed is risky. There is a comprehensive safety management system in place including of course the usual repertoire of required safety training courses, toolbox talks, and procedures. The toolbox talks rely on having a supervisor who can transform factual safety knowledge and pull off something engaging, but this is not about improving supervisors’ ability to deliver dry facts in an engaging way. It’s about getting away from the facts. And here comes the challenge.
Something has restricted our approach to safety for workplace injury prevention. And then it hit me – safety is an “it” – a thing to be achieved, a capacity. Safety is some-thing that can be deliberately achieved if employees try hard enough to keep their attention focused on “it”. Safety awareness and information campaigns serve as constant reminders to stay alert to “it” so vigilance does not wane. Hence the onslaught of e-learning courses, toolbox talks, written procedures – which tell employees how to accomplish safety. For someone to know how not to step on nails, doesn’t someone need to know how to walk? For us to help prevent stepping on nails, don’t we have to know how employees are walking?
I don’t think all those safety e-learning courses are doing anything but imparting rational knowledge in the hopes that when it does become relevant that the employee will be able to pull it out of memory and apply it. It is an overly cognitive approach, steeped in our belief that our rational cognitive minds can control our daily working actions. So safety is a “thing”, some “thing” that can be achieved and we speak about it often without reference to any work context.
I revisited the previous definition of safety (absence of negatives) and found a gem. What if “safety” does not exist as a separate objective entity? What if safety is tacitly present, until it is not, and we notice we are unsafe? Suppose safety only acquires a separate existence when it is lost – that is, when injury or incident occurs. This helps explain why we may see safety as the absence of negatives – and why it is only when something negative occurs that safety gets our attention. If nothing bad is happening then every thing is safe, so carry on. Although safety being defined as the absence of negatives has been dismissed by safety thought leaders recently, I wonder if we dismissed it too quickly without adequate thought about why it has persisted to be thought of this way. If we have went with something for decades maybe there is a truth in there somewhere.
I accept there are multiple definitions of safety, and we need to choose one that makes sense for our objectives. My objective is to help create a safe workplace where workers go home every day better than they were when they arrived to work. Yes, a platitude of the safety professional, but if that is my goal then I have to look at my tactics. I can’t achieve that objective if I push out pedantic e-learning courses and safe work procedures on how not to step on nails. I believe those who work in a safety role want to convey practical understanding of risk and risk control, but providing theoretical knowledge puts safety out there on its own, as a thing that is separate from work.
What if safety on the job is as much a part of the world of work as the arms and legs of the workers doing the work? Safety takes place in situations of involvement in a practice. Can an analytic description of how to not step on nails keep one from stepping on nail in practice? I don’t think so. Safety is more subtle than that. Safety is not an object, something separate from work. Safety is tacit.
So what is tacit safety? Using a socio-cultural lens, Gherardi & Nicolini (2002) indicated it is pre-reflexive, social, open-ended, provisional and subject to local negotiation. To be knowledgeable in safety you need to participate, and that means you will interact with others, in a group community or local culture, and this will in turn provide you with interpretation of how to work safely.
So how do you work safely? Well, it begins with working for sure, not with e-learning. And working means you have acquired practical understanding of how to perform that work. Practical understanding is often tacit in performing skilled work. The tacit dimension is not conscious and so safety tactics that are aimed at the conscious, rational mind cannot connect to the unconscious, tacit mind. My point is that our training courses, toolbox talks and procedures are an add-on, aimed at the rational, knowledge-seeking conscious brain. But if safety does not exist there, we are missing a huge opportunity. To constitute the safety fabric we need shared repertoires, communal resources, common language and routines, and shared artefacts and stories (Gherardi & Nicolini, 2002).
Safety-II (Hollnagel, 2013) is another development that has emerged in the safety industry and one of its premises it to look at successful work as well as unsuccessful incidents in order to learn. Okay, this is a good start, but this is harder than it sounds. How do we learn about how work is safely performed? Well, we need to know how work is performed and find out how safety is incorporated into the fundamental actions of getting work done. This type of safety practice requires attention to less grand things. It implies we need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with employees as they perform their work. We need to listen to the language, pay attention to the subtle ways micro-decisions are made – we need to get onto employees’ wave lengths instead of telling employees to get on our safety train. Instead of pushing safety information out to employees, we need to get out and get into the mindset of employees.
We can look for drift, normalization of deviation, procedural variations, work-arounds and all those other sexy things advocated by Safety-II, but I think we need to be much more modest in our approach. Mike Rowe had a TV show called “Dirtiest Jobs” where he performed less than desirable, risky tasks. We may not be able to perform the work our employees perform, but we can put our boots on their ground and be there enough to learn how work gets done. And that’s where we will find out about the messy details of how work gets done. And it’s those messy details that we will find opportunity for improving decisions that impact outcomes.
When I explain what I do for a living, I say “I watch people work”. Learning is participation. Learning cannot happen if you do not participate in the workplace where work is getting done. Even if you yourself are not performing the work (and I have gotten to perform quite a few interesting tasks over the years!), you need to be there and you need to be focused on learning. The field of learning & development recognizes learning in the workflow and you may hear about the term learning at the “point of work”. Safety at the ‘point-of-work’ is the essence of what we need to learn in order to improve.
So that brings me to a final and scary conclusion, and that is the ability of someone working in safety to do this. It’s not about standing and watching people work, it’s about infiltrating the work in fine detail to find where decision making can be improved. Since thousands of tacit micro-decisions are made daily, employees won’t be able to articulate it for us, so this all takes time. Unless you have informant-an employee who is skilled at performing the work and who also is willing and able to comprehend how the many micro-decisions made when performing the work could have implications for safe or unsafe outcomes- you may find yourself out of your comfort zone, out of your element, resorting to generic life-saving rules.
And this is where it gets really scary. Safety curriculums teach someone how to create procedures, training courses, toolbox talks. So if you employ safety professionals what will you get? Procedures, training courses, toolbox talks e.g. “today we are talking about how not to step on nails”.
Safety has progressively grown into an industry which creates safety professionals who are generically skilled at creating training courses, toolbox talks and procedures – who have the capacity to churn out much factual safety information, but who are actually useless on their own. Although worldwide we see the safety industry evolving towards being a professional occupation, although there are safety certifications, curriculums and post nominals, the best “safety person” in your workplace may be one of the employees.
Simple and superficial safety facts get no traction at the point-of-work. And the point-of-work is where safety is enacted, or not, by employees. The point-of-work is a space of experience, interaction, and practice. If you want to improve safety, you have to find and improve elemental work practices, and this is why employees are the best source of safety.
So, if you want to get people to stop stepping on nails, don’t assign an e-learning course. Instead, find out how people walk through the yard in different contexts.
· Gherardi, Silvia & Nicolini, Davide. (2002). Learning the Trade: A Culture of Safety in Practice. Organization. 9. 191-223. 10.1177/1350508402009002264.
· Hollnagel, E. (2013). A Tale of Two Safeties, Nuclear Safety and Simulation, Vol. 4, Number 1, p. 385–422.