Recently, a safety professional posed a question on a safety-related web site. He asked, “What is your working definition of safety?” Although everyone responding was a safety professional, many with years of experience and academic credentials, the answers varied greatly. Each response had merit and addressed one or more aspects of accident prevention, but none really encompassed the whole issue in a way that would bring clarity and focus.

In my consulting experience, very few organizations have taken the trouble to define safety and the basic terms related to it. Many have created elaborate safety mission and vision statements designed to direct and motivate efforts, but I have found that a lack of unity in definition can inhibit efforts to improve safety. For example: 

Leadership – If the organization thinks safety must be led, it tends to develop a do-as-you-are-told culture. Blind dependence on leaders is dangerous and such cultures almost never reach excellent performance in safety.

Following the rules – If workers think of safety as simply following the rules and procedures, their safety performance will be determined by how accurate and complete the rules are and by their level of knowledge and compliance with the rules. Almost all workers readily will admit that they can obey all the rules and still get injured on the job.

Paying attention – If workers believe or leaders preach that safety is simply a matter of paying attention to the job, workers tend to depend on their conscious decisions rather than their habits to keep them safe. Most sites have risks that could best be addressed by a combination of conscious awareness AND routine tasks with risks for which the precautions should become habitual and not require deep thought. Strict attention to detail in the conscious mind is impossible during an entire 8- to 12-hour shift.

Experience – Workers who have longer tenure tend to better understand the risks on a job. However, organizations that solely rely on worker experience seldom reach excellent safety results. By the time workers have learned all the risks by experience, they usually retire and a new group of workers begin the experience cycle.

Common sense – Leaders who encourage workers to use common sense to avoid accidents either ignore or misunderstand the nature of low-probability risks. In most organizations, workers don’t experience high-probability risks unless they slip up or have a lapse of performance. That is what common sense does:  It keeps workers from taking “common” risks, i.e. risks that are obvious and easily discerned with common logic. If you believe current accident data, the average risk that injures a worker on the job is a 1-in-500 (or more) risk. 

Managing Safety: The Power of Shared Definitions
EHS Today