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Zero safety incidents should not be your goal

What is the difference between a goal and an expectation?  A goal is something you strive for. You understand that you may not achieve it. In fact, if you are setting a "stretch" goal, you know you are likely to not achieve it. You celebrate when you accomplish a goal. And you are sometimes even congratulated just for trying when you fail to achieve a goal - other times you are simply disappointed. Rarely do you get punished. Goals generally come with rewards for achieving them, but no consequences if you do not. An expectation on the other hand is something you expect to achieve. You don't celebrate expectations. You expect it. If what you expected to happen doesn't, you are surprised and investigate to understand why.  Hopefully you learn from it so the unexpected outcome doesn't happen again.

Goals vs ExpectationsWhen you leave your house for work in the morning, is it a goal to arrive at work safely, or an expectation? Do you do a celebratory dance and high five your co-workers when you get to work safely? Of course not. It's an afterthought because arriving safely at work is an expectation. What if you didn't expect to arrive safely? What would you do?  I'll tell you what I would do - I'd figure out a different way to get to work!

Most manufacturing companies have incorporated safety performance into their incentive programs in some way.  Many plants offer employees gift cards, hats, t-shirts, or other trinkets as a reward for going certain amounts of time without an injury.  Others incorporate safety performance into their variable compensation program by tying some portion of employees’ bonuses to incident rates. Companies that do so, often see an immediate improvement in incident rates. Some safety professionals, and even OSHA, have begun to discourage this practice on the basis that it encourages employees to hide incidents.

Peer pressure from co-workers who want to receive their reward or bonus may lead employees to hide minor injuries. No one wants to be "that guy who kept us from getting our bonus" because of a small cut, burn, sprain, etc. But reporting even minor injuries is important so that lessons learned can be used to prevent future, possibly more serious incidents. Recognizing this, some companies have started basing incentives on participation in programs like Behavior Based Safety Observations, safety committees, and other proactive programs. While this is an improvement over incentivizing incident rates, it still treats safety as a goal. Is that really how we should view it? I believe safety is an expectation.

I frequently hear leaders say they "believe all incidents are preventable", "safety is their first priority," and that "no one should get hurt at work." Treating safety as a goal is not compatible with those statements. When you treat safety performance as a goal, you are saying that you aren't really sure all incidents can be prevented. In fact, you will celebrate if by chance you are able to avoid incidents. If you do believe that no one should get hurt at work, and you believe that all incidents are preventable, leaders should set the expectation that everyone does whatever they must to prevent incidents.

Is this just semantics? I don't think so. This notion has tremendous implications for the way leaders view safety. If safety is an expectation, we shouldn't reward people for not getting hurt. We shouldn't reward them for participating in proactive safety programs.  Those should be expectations and they should be treated as such. If people "knowingly" and "willfully" commit unsafe acts, they should be held accountable. If they do not participate in proactive safety programs, they should be held accountable.  Of course, those must also be expectations for leaders themselves.

Let me provide some practical examples. I've had the opportunity to manage 3 different manufacturing plants. When I first arrived at all three plants safety was treated as a goal. At two of the plants, employees were actually given gift cards for every month in which someone didn't get hurt. Because I viewed safety as an expectation, I ended this practice. The outrage was intense and immediate. I actually had an employee loudly and publicly tell me that I had taken away his incentive for working safely. I responded by asking him if there were times during the day when he thought about doing something unsafe, but the thought of losing his $30 Walmart gift card (rather than avoiding life altering injury) was the one thing that kept him from doing it. You could hear crickets chirp. On a side note, when we removed this reward system at one of the plants, we did see an increase in the reporting of minor incidents. It turned out that the peer pressure to avoid reporting incidents had been quite strong in that plant and incidents had been under reported.

So does that mean incentives should not be used to drive safety performance?  Absolutely not. Incentives are critical. At one plant, after removing the rewards for participating in safety programs, we overhauled the variable compensation program.  Instead of receiving a bonus for participating in safety programs, employees who did not participate in safety programs were ineligible to receive any bonus. Participation was now being communicated as an expectation, much like attendance. Employees were rewarded for meeting quality, productivity, and cost targets, but only if they fulfilled the minimum expectations for their job – including participation in a proactive safety program. The impact was dramatic. Participation in the safety programs increased immediately. Those who still refused to participate were obvious. You should have seen their faces the first time their co-workers received a bonus for increasing productivity, and they received nothing. It was the talk of the plant.

I'll conclude with this. I served as an officer for three years aboard a U.S. Nuclear Submarine. There aren't too many industries that are more dangerous. For us, safety wasn't a goal. We expected everyone to do what was needed to protect the ship and make sure we got home safely. We didn't celebrate the fact that we didn't die. We definitely celebrated though. We celebrated the successful completion of our mission. If we came home unharmed, but hadn't fulfilled our mission, there wouldn't have been a party on the pier. I assure you of that.

Safety isn’t the only dimension of performance where zero should be the expectation; it also should be the expectation in environmental performance and compliance.  In fact, we have identified this as a best practice of companies that achieve Operational Excellence.

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