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Chris Ross Has the Answers for Supervisors, Safety and the Human Factors in Between

Warehouse worker and manager looking at safety concern

Chris Ross recently conducted a fascinating webinar called Safety and the Supervisor: Developing Frontline Leadership Skills to Improve Safety Outcomes. In the Q&A at the end of the presentation, Chris was asked a number of questions.

We’ve consolidated some of the most common questions and Chris’s responses below. His answers are well worth reading for anyone interested in health and safety, employee engagement, and improving supervisors’ ability to influence safety outcomes.

1. How do you ensure the management level of your organization takes responsibility for everyone’s safety?

The answer to that is the same as the answer to the question, “How do you get management to take responsibility for anything in the organization?” In my experience, most senior leaders want to do the right thing with respect to safety but they don’t always understand how.

The easiest way to achieve your goal is to set performance expectations, measure results and deliverables, and hold people accountable for activities and outcomes.

Taking responsibility requires buy-in and commitment. That has to come from the heart. Safety and health folks can help a bit with techniques, but caring is an innate human factor. The trick is to unlock the motivators for these folks and unleash their passion for the safety of their workers 24/7.

2. How do you implement safety procedures when senior leaders don’t walk the talk concerning compliance—or worse, disrupt safety efforts?

That’s a good question—and one that’s tough to answer. Part of it depends on your relationship with senior management and your willingness to have difficult conversations. Having those tough conversations is a skill that can be learned and practiced. If handled correctly, they can resolve problems and build stronger relationships between parties, enhance creativity, foster engagement, develop organizational learning loops and increase performance. This is just as true for challenging safety-related discussions as it is for any other type of difficult conversation.

There are myriad skills and strategies for developing the proficiency of difficult conversations. Just a few of these include:

  • Managing the gap between stimulus and response (e.g., take a deep breath). This is a well-known but very difficult technique to use. It requires self-control and practice not to let others push our buttons. When we listen first to understand, the dynamics of communication are considerably improved.
  • Working on yourself first. The key is to think about what we are truly trying to accomplish, recognize (and perhaps inventory) our own skill set, and then take specific actions to improve.
  • Understanding the conflict continuum of two dimensions of conflict behavior—recognizing how to use assertiveness and cooperation, and knowing how and when to use our own conflict preferences.
  • Using proven negotiation/conflict management techniques, including going to the balcony, listening to the other side, separating the person from the issue/problem, exploring interests versus positions, taking steps to maintain the relationship, and understanding how to create win/win agreements.
  • Implementing strategies for resolving disagreements, such as properly describing the conflict, focusing on underlying causes, looking to the future, appreciating the human factors involved (organizationally and individually), and taking a systems view and using mental models.

It all begins with developing a dialogue, finding out what the underlying motivations are, and gaining commitment for change. It’s worth noting that change rarely happens spontaneously, and in organizations, it often requires someone willing to have a difficult conversation or two in order to change the company’s direction.

You can also build a culture of looking out for each other with human factors training that establishes a common language, common goals and regular communication. When it comes to safety, remember that there is tremendous value in getting the organization to adopt more accountability or make their dedication to safety more visible and/or rigorous. It’s worth the effort to hold the conversations required to bring about change.

3. What resources are there (if any) to create extremely detailed JSAs that aren’t so time consuming?

Let’s begin defining a JSA and a THA. In my world, a JSA (job safety analysis) is performed for jobs regularly. The job/task is selected, often based on a risk ranking matrix; a key performer is observed doing the task; the task is broken down into its constituent parts, and the steps, hazards, and hazard control methods are all defined; and then this is all incorporated into the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP).

A THA (task hazard analysis) is a pre-job analysis that is done before each job/task by a crew. The intent is to identify many of the same elements—steps, hazards, control methods—but does so based on a discussion/dialogue with team members. There should also be an appreciation for the human factors involved (e.g., heat, production pressure, need to rush, or fatigue because it’s the end of the week).

It sounds like you might be interested in using more THAs, which are valuable because of their discussion and robust dialogue, not because they create a piece of paper. They can also help to identify when change occurs and to address changing conditions, hazards and human factors.

As for specific resources, it really depends on your exact situation. Online resources usually come in a one-size-fits-all format, so if you can’t find something that fits your needs with a Google search then you may want to consider talking to a specialist who can help you with a custom solution.

4. What is a solution to reduce risk and build a prevention strategy for human factors?

I think this question is worth thinking about this in its own right, as well as in the context of COVID. Human factors are ever-present in our daily lives and can increase risk in all kinds of situations. They get further magnified by external events and conditions—such as COVID. An organization needs to be sure to address human factors for everyone involved in any given situation, so they understand the fact that certain states of mind can influence their actions and decisions. Frequent discussions can help people identify what they are experiencing, such as frustration, anxiety, fear, rushing, family issues, monetary concerns, and more.

Address these factors on a regular basis through dialogue and discussion. Ask people what is going on, encourage them to use tools like self-triggering and looking at others to observe best practices, and to help people to develop new habits.

5. When cultures are in their infancy, and a reporting process is being developed, what is your experience with the expectation of “perfect” reports? (i.e., “Thanks for filling out the report, but…”) My experience is that it becomes a deterrent. How have you seen this in practice?

Developing a culture offers opportunities that changing established cultures do not. It’s important to determine the behaviors you want and then reward people for taking the proper actions, rather than attempting to discourage people who don’t.

If you want people to report, encourage and reward reporting, and if you want open dialogue, then the moment someone makes a suggestion, give them positive feedback for making the suggestion (even if you can’t do anything about it at the time). As people get in the habit of completing reports, then the focus can shift to increasing the quality of reports—though it’s worth noting that it’s unrealistic to expect perfect reports all the time.

6. What happens when there is NO accountability, based on the fear of a retaliation lawsuit? Does that mean the company is not dedicated to safety?

A situation like this doesn’t indicate a lack of dedication to safety, it merely suggests that there are different priorities or lingering cultural issues that are influencing the safety culture.

Every person and organization is a product of their past. You can’t simply ignore the past, but in order to proceed you must develop a robust vision of the future and what is required to accomplish the desired results. The way to get over a specific fear is to demonstrate that there’s nothing left to be afraid of and to begin building trust, which will lead to a sense of dedication to safety.

7. With 33 years of experience in the field of oil and gas, I’ve found that human factors are overlooked and neglected. How do you improve on this situation?

All of us safety professionals tend to make sure we are addressing all the system and organizational factors in our assessment of risk. Having good underlying systems and processes are of course the first step. But we can’t ignore the huge impact of human factors both from an organizational perspective and an individual perspective. Human factors are always present, always have an influence and should always be recognized.

Human factors and behavior got a bad rap when organizations (and individuals) started using them as tools of blame and shame, rather than using them as a way to understand complex interactions between people and their environment. Any attempts to use human factors as a blame mechanism are doomed to fail. It’s always possible to introduce a human factors approach to a workplace, and that’s just as true for oil and gas companies as it is for any other industry.

8. At what point does an at-risk behavior become a near miss? How do you factor in serious injury and fatality (SIF) potential?

As soon as there’s at-risk behavior, there’s the potential for a near miss or an incident, and often the only difference is a degree of luck and/or the amount of hazardous energy present.

This means that near-misses can provide lessons that are free for the looking. These lessons are primarily examples for the individual, not the organization—for example, “I tripped over my foot” is an opportunity to get better at looking where you are going or testing your footing before committing to a path. There is little organizational value in this, but huge potential individual learning to improve habits.

That is why I am a big proponent of “dual-path” near-miss reporting. Save the big, onerous near-miss report form and investigations for close calls that could have resulted in serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs), and encourage discussion (rather than formal reporting) about minor near misses.

9. How do you minimize human factors in an organization?

This is a surprisingly complicated question. On an individual level, it’s an issue of both minimizing human factors—because they are always going to be present to some degree—and teaching workers to recognize and manage human factors. Doing so requires dedicated training, practice and management support. If supervisors and workers can get better at using the internal feedback loop then they can recognize the factors that are precursors to potential incidents.

At a broader organizational level, human factors can be reduced by making improvements to engineering, systems, work processes and teams of people. If organizations can get better at identifying system/organizational human factors by using the organizational feedback loop then the organization can become much better at learning from not only mistakes and but also successes.

10. What’s a good resource to help improve communication skills?

There are many terrific resources, beginning with commercial products and vendors such as Franklin Covey, Development Dimensions International, Achieve Global and countless others who provide communication skills training and coaching. There is also a myriad of independent consultants who offer very good training. Another great resource is local community colleges, many of whom offer skills training for workers.

For safety-specific communications, SafeStart has developed training that, among other things, will make supervisors and frontline leaders much stronger communicators, especially when it comes to safety.

There is another aspect to safety communication that most programs don’t provide that is unique to SafeStart. The program provides easy, non-punitive and positive ways to talk about safety and human error by establishing a common language, common patterns and common storytelling elements. Combined, these elements make communication much more effective, more comfortable, more open and more frequent.

11. Do you have any safety webinars for staffing agencies?

Because staffing agencies connect workers and employers across so many different industries, it makes the most sense for these types of firms to focus on transferrable safety skills. For frontline workers, this means looking at webinars and other safety resources on human factors, personal awareness and other 24/7 skills. For supervisors and similar types of leaders, cover all the same topics (because supervisors should understand those too) and also look at communication skills and safety frameworks that help them understand how organizations and individuals interact.

You may also want to look at safety issues that are common across most sectors, like slips, trips and falls, distraction, and PPE use.

12. I am retired but I have 33 years of experience in the field of onshore, offshore, refineries, plant operation, safety, process design, and troubleshooting. I still want to work in safety. What should I do?

SafeStart has a comprehensive guide to building a safety career no matter what stage you’re at. You can find the safety careers guide here. You need a very specific set of skills and knowledge to secure and thrive in a job in the EHS field, and the guide offers suggestions on how to make yourself more attractive to potential employers, as well as how to take the next step in an existing job in safety.

13. What are the lagging indicators of culture?

Culture can be defined as “the way things are around here.” There are many indicators of culture, including collective values; patterns of interaction; rituals or traditions; special language or jargon; power (e.g., peer pressure, who has power, how is power anointed); symbols (e.g., heroes, myths, artifacts); work styles (e.g., flow, pace, how decisions are made); perceptions; justice; how people are promoted; communication styles and frequency; what is collectively considered important; organizational responses to input, incidents, near misses, and upset conditions; employee engagement metrics (e.g., Q-12, DDI E-3, NPS) and levels of trust; underlying assumptions; shared norms; and goals.

No organization is going to track all of these indicators. But almost every company will find that they can track a few of the items on this list and begin to get a better sense of where their organizational culture is currently at.

This can seem like a complex issue and it often is. To uncover underlying cultural issues, a formal assessment or perception survey is often a useful way to identify the gaps between what is said and what is being done about safety. There is often a gap between management and employees, which, once uncovered, can then be addressed with appropriate strategies. There are various levels of this type of service from various vendors and consultants, including SafeStart and the National Safety Council.

14. How do you feel about stewarding a business climate vs. culture? And what key components would you specifically steward?

If culture is “the way things are around here” then climate is “what is happening today.” In other words, just like the weather, the climate can change in an instant. The job of leadership is to determine desired outcomes (e.g., what we want the culture to look like) then decide what inputs (e.g., climate factors) will be most effective. If you look at the list from the previous question, all of those indicators are also potential levers that you can pull to influence the climate and begin gradually shifting the culture. I suggest focusing on values; shifting communication styles; adjusting workflow procedures and rules; providing recognition and promotions; altering the organizational response to input; making use of organizational and individual learning loops; driving engagement and trust; and creating shared norms (through onboarding, setting standards, developing accountability, and demonstrating leadership commitment).

15. A report is written on paper, which means it can be filed and put away. A pre-task safety meeting can provide verbal lessons on behavior. What do you believe is the best way to learn from near-miss reporting?

There are two major benefits of near-miss reporting and discussions:

    • Minor incidents help feed the internal learning loop. If we talk about and share our experiences, at-risk behaviors, close calls and near misses, it helps us all recognize our own internal patterns and responses so we can make adjustments.
    • Near misses and events that could have resulted in serious injuries or fatalities can feed the organizational learning loop and help lead to organizational adjustments and decisions. These types of incidents are typically far fewer than individual events.

The paper report is necessary to create a record of the incident but the real learning will come from discussions of those close calls—big or small. Talking about all of this helps to reinforce the learning loops. Formal near-miss reporting should probably be reserved for major near misses, not the thousands of little mistakes and errors that happen every day.

These learning loops are part of the SafeStart Human Factors Framework, which you can explore in more detail in this short webinar.

16. How are incentive-based programs allowable under OSHA? They are directly tied to worker compensation, so it seems like they could encourage under-reporting.

OSHA effectively banned incentive programs in 2016, citing a concern they could inhibit reporting, then rolled back their decision in 2018 to allow incentive-based programs.

OSHA says that employers using a rate-based incentive program may also want to implement:

  • Rewards for employees identifying unsafe conditions,
  • Training to reinforce reporting rights and responsibilities and non-retaliation policies, and
  • “A mechanism for accurately evaluating employees’ willingness to report injuries and illnesses.”
17. In your experience, what best helps people buy in to openly participate in accident investigations?

First, there needs to be an active effort to reduce or eliminate a climate of blame. People should feel free from repercussions for reporting and discussing incidents. This is a tone and official policy that must be set by senior leaders. It should be clear to everyone that a climate of open and positive communication is the norm. Then, senior leaders need to hold themselves and managers/supervisors accountable for maintaining that climate of open communication by recognizing and rewarding people (by verbally praising them, not offering monetary incentives) for participating not only in investigations, but also in reporting near misses, offering improvement suggestions, and engaging in safety meetings.

18. Can workplace inspections encourage near-miss reporting?

Absolutely, especially if “inspections” are changed to “walkthroughs” with discussion and dialogue rather than hazard hunts. Whoever is conducting the walkthrough should start the discussion with an opening like, “Here is a story about a near-miss I recently experienced firsthand,” followed by “Now tell me about a close call you’ve experienced.” Giving a personal example helps ‘prime the pump’ by illustrating the value of discussion, removing the stigma of talking about near misses, and eliminating the blame game. Setting the tone for open dialogue and discussion is a key contributor to a stronger climate.

19. Is discipline or reward more effective?

The best you get with discipline is compliance. And compliance is the lowest possible level of engagement. If you want to drive stronger engagement, there must be positive recognition. Countless studies have shown that one of the greatest motivators is immediate positive feedback from the direct supervisor to reinforce desired behaviors/outcomes. It’s probably the single most effective tool supervisors can use.

Discipline creates a climate of fear and distrust, which leads to less communication, decreased levels of engagement and under-reporting. Discipline is certainly one tool to be considered for repeated, willful offenses, but it usually isn’t the first tool that should be used.

As Abraham Maslow said in 1966, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Supervisors should have a number of tools in their repertoire for coaching, communication and engagement so that they’re not reliant on only using a hammer.

On-demand webinar

Safety and the Supervisor: Developing Frontline Leadership Skills to Improve Safety

Supervisors are the bridge between organizational directives and on-the-ground operations. Their skills and knowledge are critical to a seamless flow of information in both directions and to their organization's safety success. This webinar offers EHS managers and company executives actionable advice on improving safety through leveraging the role of frontline leaders.

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