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Ask Yourself These 5 Questions About Your Safety Policies

August 9, 2017

safety-policy-questions.jpgIf you are a supervisor, manager, or safety professional at your company – let me ask you some simple questions. Please try to answer each one seriously, before moving onto the next question.

  1. Do you ask people to follow safety policies in your organization?

  2. Why?

  3. Why does that matter?

  4. Why is that important?

  5. And…why is that?

Yesterday my colleague and I asked a group of supervisors in a manufacturing company this simple set of questions in order to better understand their underlying values and attitudes behind the rules that they try to enforce every day. Too often, we start with the “What” behind a safety policy, rather than the “Why” and I think this really diminishes the impact of our message. What if we not only told employees what the safety policies are, but why they are important and why we as leaders care?

Related: The Power of "WHY" When Communicating Employee Safety

The 5 Whys technique is a great and well-known technique for problem solving and root cause analysis. Developed originally by Sakichi Toyoda, the original founder of Toyota, it’s a simple but powerful method in which you ask “Why” five times when a problem occurs, in order to get to the true source of the problem. A prominent aspect of Six Sigma and lean manufacturing processes, it is often applied to the safety realm to help us identify the root cause of system failures, safety incidents and injuries.

When we use the 5 Whys to do root cause analysis on a safety incident, it usually focuses on the various types of precursors that led to an unsafe behavior or poor decision that put a person at risk. These can be both active and latent failures in a system, ranging from equipment failure to unsafe acts to senior leadership decisions. In my experience, however, we don’t often apply 5 Whys to our personal attitudes regarding safety. For example, I could ask:

  1. Why did you just remind John to lock and tag out that device? (Because we have a strict lock-out/tag-out policy)

  2. Why do we have a lock-out tag-out policy? (Because this exposes people to electrical hazards)

  3. Why does that matter? (Because they could get seriously injured or killed)

  4. Why is that important to me? (Because I care about people like John)

  5. Why? (Because it would be very sad, it would cause grief and suffering for his family and friends, his family would be without income, etc.)

We received a lot of interesting and personal responses from this group of leaders when we asked them these questions and tried to get at the ‘root cause’ of safety policies and mandates from upper management. Some thought about what life would be like without a dearly loved friend and coworker. Others thought about how tough it would be for the employee’s family if they were gone or unable to work. One safety coordinator got emotional thinking about a horrific fatality he had witnessed many years ago in his first job; he said “Because I’ve seen what can happen and I never, ever want to see that happen again to anyone on my watch.” That was his “5th why” and it was quite powerful.

So, my questions for you are:

  • What are your “5 Whys” for safety policies and procedures?

  • What is your 5th, or your final, “Why?”

  • Have you talked about that final “Why” with anyone at work lately?

You never know what you might learn about yourself in the process, and how this could impact someone you work with.

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Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. is the Director of Safety Solutions at PSI. He manages the development and implementation of all safety solutions and services, which address some of the critical challenges faced by organizations today in workplace safety.