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All is good until it’s not–When safety practices strain company culture

It’s believed that for change to occur an addict must experience the bottom.  For some that could be waking up in a strange place, or for others it might include thoughts of suicide.  For some employers this is also the case, as a need to change and account for risk proactively only comes on the heels of a workplace fatality or serious injury.

Consider the auto industry. How many crashes must happen before a recall on a defective part is initiated?  Lives, jobs and of course huge costs are at stake for the auto manufacturer, so the decision is not taken lightly.  Most would agree that safety is not fun and at times gets in the way of production.  The adoption of a new safety practice therefore cannot be taken lightly as it can place significant strain on a company’s culture by asking the workforce to think and behave differently.

Although a new safety practice may be the obvious choice to reduce risk, its impact on company culture may be feared more than the risk it’s addressing.  Take the hypothetical example of a company that performs a motor vehicle record (MVR) check annually on their personnel operating in the field or away from the office.  These employees rack-up the majority of the total miles driven by the company but represent only one-third of the total workforce.  To fully address the risk of a negligent entrustment lawsuit, the company proposes to modify the existing driving policy to include everyone that drives for company purposes.

Under the revised policy, MVR checks would be required for nearly all company employees, including office personnel who drive occasionally to client meetings in the region.  Is risk seen as the number of miles a person drives, the frequency they drive or the historical behavior of a person once they get behind the wheel?  Insurance carriers have demonstrated that a pattern of drinking, speeding or driving recklessly is a strong indicator of future behavior and thus ask for MVR checks.

The need to preserve existing culture is strong, and pushback from the workforce about the revised driving policy would likely solicit comments such as: “This is too intrusive…you’re destroying this place”, “Big brother is now watching us both at work and away from work,” or “You’re making it harder to retain good talent with all these rules.”  Does the company’s management yield to the concerns for fear of reprisal?  Or does the company hold fast with its need to proactively manage risk and move the company in the direction of best-in-class to keep up with its peers?  These are tough decisions as the assessment of risk and adoption of a practice must evaluate all the impacts to the company, including the potential for injuries, damage to culture, morale, productivity, lawsuits and sustainability.

Often times it’s not what is decided or said but rather how things are decided and communicated. Whether the contentious issues are related to safety, operations or other aspects of a company, the following process can be applied to help with accepting the need for change.

  1. Identify the issue and its need. Is change required (i.e. new regulation) or wanted (i.e. adopting a best-practice)?  This becomes the rationale and basis for implementation.
  2. Identify who the change will affect. These people/groups are now known as stakeholders and need to be brought to the table when discussing the proposed change.
  3. Review the plusses and minuses (cost-benefit) of the issue with the stakeholders. This forum allows their opinions and views to be heard.  Stakeholders then become part of the dialogue and will help shape, for instance, a new safety policy or procedure.  This participation allows them to be part “owner” of the outcome—having skin in the game.
  4. When implemented, clearly communicate why the change is needed. Often times people are more accepting of change, although they may still not agree with a decision, if they are told the reason or basis.

In the end those in the position of authority must often make decisions on behalf of those they manage.  Decisions can be discrete and apply to a single instance or can involve sweeping and lasting change.   The degree to which change helps or hurts an organization’s culture is a perception that can be influenced if it is managed correctly from the start.

About the author:

Dan Hannan of MerjentDan Hannan is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and has been practicing safety for twenty-four years.  He is presently the Safety Director for Merjent, an environmental and social consulting firm serving the world’s leading energy and natural resource companies. Merjent  consultants have decades of specialized experience on pipeline projects, including planning and feasibility, environmental permitting, construction compliance, operational compliance, third-party analyses, stakeholder engagement, and technology solutions.  Dan can be reached at dhannan@merjent.com.

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