Safety Manager – an Ultimate Scapegoat

Safety Manager – an Ultimate Scapegoat

safety scapegoatI heard an interesting story recently from an acquaintance of mine which prompted me to write this article.

As the most senior corporate Safety Manager for the organisation with no operationally based direct reports, she was assigned a personal goal for the year of delivering 20% reduction in TRIFR and a zero LTIFR. In addition, she was made accountable for the execution of the organisational annual safety plans which were completely operational in nature. The organisation had just completed its third year in the row where operational safety plans failed to be executed and implemented from the operational perspective. As a result, formal safety targets and KPI’s pertaining to new financial year were removed from the operational senior managers and assigned to a Safety Manager instead.

When the Safety Manager asked for some formal and increased authority over the operational activities she was denied and told to ‘use her influence’. As the conversation with the CEO (her direct boss) drifted into who is really accountable for safety in the organisations one clear message was delivered back to her.

‘We do what we need to do to hit operational targets and you do your best to keep us safe’. She was also told not to publicly declare that safety is a line management responsibility as this made some senior line managers ‘uncomfortable’.

Sounds senseless and it truly is. How does a support function ‘own’ the output which is completely in control of another organisational function, specific organisational structure and its managers? The answer is it cannot be done successfully. This is an illusion and a true meaning of setting someone up for a failure.

But how can something like this exist? What makes otherwise smart and competent people so reluctant to assign accountability for safety in work execution where it truly belongs – line management? What makes them skirt around the ownership of safety and believe in fairy tales that one of the most critical and most difficult organisational function can be delegated to others, managed ad hoc and outside of all other normal processes, organisational structure and operational accountability?

The answer lies in leadership.

Denial of accountability for safety as a core operational process

If the most senior people in the organisation responsible for operational execution of work do not feel directly responsible, and are not made accountable for safety, two critical things occur. Safety is delegated to someone else and this skewed balance and misguided transference of accountabilities penetrates all management levels, amplifies along the way and ends up all the way down to a supervisor and his crew. In this environment, ‘divorce’ from safety ownership at operational level is the most obvious and is easily recognisable however it is indeed created much further upwards in the organisation. Where this occurs, safety advisors and even safety representatives are seen to be accountable for safety at the shop floor level. As this is obviously not achievable, the result is an illusion of ownership and a repeat of failures with all associated human and financial cost.

There are many reasons why this misguided delegation of safety accountabilities and responsibilities occurs. Some common factors for this are previous failures of operational personnel to own safety and execute safety plans, poor understanding of safety, risk and leadership at senior levels, reluctance of executives to hold senior operational managers accountable for their safety performance or hidden beliefs that safety stands in the way of increased production targets. Regardless of the angle this is analysed from, the conclusion is always the same – lack of understanding how safety works for the business and how it is achieved from the leadership perspective, resulting in direct leadership failures.

Another effect of this transference of accountabilities is creation of a culture where safety becomes a secondary priority in operational execution of work. This ‘divorce’ of operational departments and stakeholders from their primary accountabilities (safety and reliability) creates a culture where safety always belongs to someone else who does not have authority to actually execute it. This is a real recipe for disaster, unfortunately with plenty of examples in all industries.

· Assigning inappropriate KPI’s and Illusion of shared responsibility.

To paraphrase Deming, if everyone is accountable, no one is really accountable. Assigning responsibility and accountability for safety to everybody, and I mean all organisational functions is a good way of ensuring confusion and dilution of safety ownership at operational levels, and this is where safety is really made or broken. Assigning responsibility and accountability for safety execution to a support function is equal to sticking a head in the sand. It makes absolutely no sense as the problem will not go away.

To be successful, each organisational function needs to have their accountability for safety performance specifically defined into a fine detail (SMART goals), written into KPI’s and individual targets. Functional influence only goes so far. Support functions must be accountable for providing timely support with training, developing, coaching, guiding, mentoring and facilitating. Operational stakeholders on the other hand must be accountable for adequate resourcing and actual physical implementation of safety strategies and systems of safe work execution, at the sharp end. It really does not work any other way.

Diluting safety responsibilities and accountabilities and hiding behind a generic ‘collective accountability’ for safety is a sure way to suffer damaged relationships and a collective failure, with some tragic and costly consequences. Undefined, generic and collective functional responsibilities and accountabilities for safety ensure only one thing – a collective failure. When this happens, safety managers are often used as sacrificial lambs, they are often thrown under the bus and the New Year starts with new false hopes and promises. In the meantime human and financial costs are mounting and heads remain firmly buried in the sand.

Organisations where this occurs tend to repeat their negative performances and are stuck in the space where leadership and ownership in safety is well verbalised but generally very poorly understood and practiced. They can benefit from ‘back to basic’ approach in leadership and relevant training at the most senior levels.

Safety as an output can only be achieved from the operational perspective and only if key operational stakeholders are owners of safety performance and are embracing that ownership. This ownership needs to flow, relentlessly, from CEO as the most senior line manager in the organisation, to chief operating officer, general managers and operational management and supervision. Making support functions accountable for operational outputs has no value other to create an illusion of collective accountability and a real effect of collective failure.

This probably all sounds as a common sense to most; however the reality is continuously proving to us that what we commonly consider to be common sense is often not so common at all.

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Goran Prvulovic

Goran Prvulovic

Director & Principal Consultant at RiskWise Solutions
Goran Prvulovic
Goran is a HSE Professional from Western Australia with multi industry experience, currently operating in the power generation industry as a Regional HSE Manager. His career in the Western Australian mining industry began in 1989 where Goran performed a multitude of operational and leadership roles, culminating in a full time engagement as a safety professional in 2005. Goran’s specialties include Safety Culture, Leadership and Operational Discipline interventions and catastrophic risk profiling and management. Goran holds a Master’s Degree in OHS from Edith Cowen University in Western Australia. He also holds a number of vocational educational accreditations and is currently undertaking further studies in the area of Management and Leadership. Goran has held a number of senior HSE management positions in Western Australian Mining where he has managed multidisciplinary teams as well as lead and assisted in development and implementation of HSE management systems. He also developed a number programs aimed at leadership development, improvement of safety culture and operational discipline in several organisations. He is currently developing his consultancy business focused on safety leadership and upskilling of front line leadership in OHS. He enjoys development and execution of training as well as occasional writing. He lives with his wife and children in Perth, Western Australia and enjoys bushwalking.

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