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Destination zero — Are we there yet?

Are we there yet? Are we there yet? was the repeated chorus from my two kids in the back seat of my car. And just like my parents replied to me when I was a kid, so I replied to mine: “We’re there when we’re there.” Every once in a while I would change it up and say “Our destination is just around the corner”… knowing that it was not. That really got them mad.

Like the concepts of distance and time which are difficult for young children to understand, employers often miss the mark by establishing safety goals that have unrealistic destinations. Do you believe setting a zero injury/incident goal is fair? Many safety professional are divided on this issue. On the one hand it’s an admirable achievement if attained and should be celebrated by shouting it from the rooftops.

“Now what?” as many nay-sayers point out because the only place to go is down, or up in the case of zero. Would an injury from this point forward be considered failure? On the other hand is zero too lofty, mythical, unachievable, and therefore a bad goal that can only disappoint and drive morale in the wrong direction? Too lofty of a goal layered with incentives may be a recipe for “sweeping incidents under the rug,” which will definitely get you in to trouble with OSHA.

Related: Safety becoming a concern

In order for progress to a destination to be measured you must know exactly where you are going and be clear on the path to take to get there. The basis for destination or goal setting for years has revolved around adopting the “SMART” principles — specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. And before the goal-setting process begins the question that must be answered is: “Is this goal a good fit for our organization (financially, logistically, and culturally) and is it sustainable?”

Many times safety progress is measured through numbers and countable actions and commonly identified by lagging and leading indicators. Things such as incident rates, EMR, tool box talks, inspections, and training events are very real and measurable. But rather than seeing zero injuries as the ultimate goal, isn’t it more realistic to set a goal that is achievable for a longer period of time — a goal that, when achieved, actually contributes to the process of improving safety? “What sort of pie in the sky goal might that be,” you ask? If the goal is to grow a better safety culture or to make lasting changes that improve behaviors of the workforce, then the benefits will multiply on achieving the goal.

When we value progress in attitude, and the effort behind it, we can recognize our success regardless of whether or not a goal of zero incidents is or isn’t achieved or sustained. Leading and lagging indicators are then viewed as byproducts and an indirect measure of a safety culture on the move.

So how do we measure this transformation of culture? Consider pursuing “zero” for each of the following:

  • Bad processes — If it’s broke or it isn’t working, change it. Periodic audits or post-incident investigations may uncover a process that needs to be modified. This is measurable.
  • Bad behaviors — The human factor (decision-making) is a strong element in controlling the occurrence of an injury. Behavior-based programs have been in play for some time and allow for peer-to-peer observations to help change behavior for the better. This is measurable.
  • Aligned goals — Working together toward the same destination is achieved through labor-management collaboration and messaging from the top as well as front-line supervisors. Reminders of why we are doing what we are doing and the progress that is being made informs the workforce and builds a greater sense of ownership. This is measurable.
  • The pulse — Checking the pulse of the safety culture transformation can be achieved through perception surveys, small group meetings, or one-on-one casual discussions. This is measurable.

Are we there yet? Yes kids, we are finally here! Unfortunately for the safety professional we are rarely where we want to be as there is always room for improvement. I’ve been working at safety for twenty-six years and I’ve never caught myself believing I’ve arrived at my safety journey destination. But by setting more sustainable goals we can still measure progress and continue the journey. Next stop … Inspirationville!

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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