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Safety Assessment: Bridging the People-Environment Gap

November 13, 2012

Blog Authors:  Paul Gantt, CSP and Ron Gantt, CSP, ARM

One thing that seems to be constant in the business world is that things are getting more complex. New technologies, new regulations, new chemicals or raw materials, new management systems and techniques – our organizations are more complex and interrelated than ever. And the speed of these changes is breathtaking. The “latest and greatest” technologies become yesterday’s news almost before you have a describe the imagechance to read the instruction manual.

This increasing complexity and the speed with which it’s being introduced into the workplace poses a significant challenge to safety and health professionals. There is an increasing mismatch between the complexity of the human beings in your workplace and the complexity of the work environment that the human beings work in. This mismatch leads to error traps, which in turn leads to incidents. To deal with the human-environment complexity mismatch we have two choices – decrease the complexity of the environment or increase the complexity of the humans. Obviously, you’ll have a hard time convincing anyone to take steps backwards in terms of organizational complexity. These new technologies, new materials, and new processes all help to give organizations a competitive business advantage.

So what are we left with? Do we just have to accept that there will always be a mismatch between the workplace and the humans that work in that workplace? Or can we go with our second option – increase the complexity of humans? The answer is yes - we can increase human complexity. How? Add more humans and have them interact with each other. The amazing thing about people is our capacity to rise to the occasion, but the greatest human feats are when people work together. This interaction between individuals creates something extraordinarily complex – it creates a system. This system, when managed appropriately has the capacity and requisite complexity to bridge the gap between people and their environment.

And this is why so many great safety thinkers stress the importance of safety management systems. If organizations want to create an environment where the humans are as complex as the workplace then the safety programs need to be turned into safety systems. These safety systems take the focus (and, in turn, the pressure) off of individuals. Humans make mistakes, and strong safety systems understand and embrace that reality. Safety management systems position themselves to anticipate not only the hazards and risks within the workplace, but also the errors that will trigger exposure to the hazards. They create robust investigation tools to systematically seek our hazards, risks, and error provocative environments. These tools include a basic job hazard analysis or more complex tools, such as risk assessments, failure modes and effects analyses, fault tree analyses, process hazard analysis, and many others.

Most importantly, safety management systems are built on a strong foundation of people working together. All safety management systems that we’ve seen and worked with stress the importance of safety culture, management commitment and leadership, and meaningful employee participation in the safety management system. These systems create an environment where everyone works towards the common goal of making sure that everyone gets to go home at the end of the day the same way they came. That sounds like a nice place to work doesn’t it? In fact, these safety management systems, when done right, are also correlated with increased productivity, quality, and profits. But don’t tell the bean counters about that, they might actually start to like the idea!

 For more information on safety, click here to watch our video series.  

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