Failing to Fail: Reframing Health and Safety Failures
11 April 2023 - Langdon Dement
When you think of a health and safety failure, what comes to mind? It’s likely that you’re picturing a distressing incident—a scene involving damage, injury or even death.
When we hear the word failure, we have been conditioned to assume the worst. But when it comes to health and safety, are we doing more damage than good when we buy into failure’s bad reputation? Are we missing the key aspects of failure that are required to teach us how to improve our health and safety systems?
Are we failing to fail?
In this post, we’ll explore what’s wrong with the way many organizations approach failure in health and safety today. We’ll offer suggestions on reframing failure and discuss the steps on how to learn from health and safety failures when they happen.
What’s wrong with our current approach to health and safety failures?
1. Most organizations have a narrow definition of health and safety failures.
Merriam-Webster defines failures in a few ways: a lack of success, a falling short and the omission of occurrence and performance. We often think that only incidents involving losses, such as property damage, injuries or deaths, qualify as failures. In truth, many health and safety failures are related to an organization’s health and safety management, procedures or overall culture.
Failures like these may not be directly connected to incidents involving damage, injury or death, and for this reason, they may be harder to spot. For example, a failure may include a lack of communication between management and employees, a near-miss report going unacknowledged or an employee performing a task without the right PPE.
When organizations don’t acknowledge these problems to be failures, they fail to understand their severity and cannot investigate or implement corrective actions. Not only do these failures exist, but they are allowed to persist, leading to further potential incidents.
2. Many of today’s organizations approach health and safety failures with negativity.
One reason for this is a narrow definition of failure. When organizations only talk about failure in the same breath as a lack of success or serious injuries or deaths, they create a negative association.
Other organizations create a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to failure, telling employees that “failure is not an option.” Not only does this negative mindset create an adverse workplace, but it also discourages employees from reporting failures as they are too scared of getting in trouble.
When employees are afraid to report failures, the failures continue to present the same danger to other workers and may lead to further incidents. If organizations can’t learn from their failures, they won’t improve.
3. Organizations may place blame following a failure.
Humans are hard-wired to blame others; when something goes wrong, we’re psychologically destined to search for the cause or the culprit (Harvard Business Review).
When this happens in an organization, those who are blamed are disciplined or lectured, resulting in weakened trust between employee and employer. Additionally, when trust becomes weakened in an organization, negativity begins to grow and neither party (employee and employer) are communicating with one another. As a result, management awareness suffers which could promulgate more incidents.
In health and safety, we are going down the road of the blame cycle. Instead of reducing failures, it ensures that they continue to happen.
How can we change the way we approach health and safety failures?
1. Expand our definition of health and safety failures.
Most health and safety failures can be identified before they lead to incidents. Organizations should begin to understand that failures aren't people driven, they're process driven. In other words, encourage employees to talk about what they see and hear in the workplace, whether good or bad, and continually strive to create better communication and camaraderie.
When we expand our definition of health and safety failures, we fix two problems. First, we lessen the negative association that comes with the word failure. Second, we learn to acknowledge systematic failures and respond to them before they lead to incidents.
2. Banish the blame cycle.
Placing blame doesn’t decrease incidents. Instead, it increases employee turnover, reduces engagement and worsens performance (Harvard Business Review).
Instead of playing the blame game, organizations should encourage workers to share their mistakes and strive to learn from them. Management can encourage this behavior by modeling it and demonstrating to workers how corrective actions have been implemented as a result of past failures. Creating a culture of open communication can help to eliminate our tendency to blame others when things go wrong.
3. Learn to fail safely.
Instead of creating a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to failure, organizations need to understand that failure is a reality in life, in business and in health and safety. Organizations shouldn’t aim to eliminate failure. Creating a zero-tolerance policy can discourage workers from reporting failures, leading to an unsafe work environment and further harming employee retention.
Instead of teaching employees to fear failure, organizations need to focus on failing safely. Failing safely doesn’t mean choosing or encouraging failure; it means understanding that if a failure does happen, we can ensure it has been reduced to an acceptable level. Organizations that fail safely expect and accept failures while working to reduce any negative outcomes that may result from them.
For more information about the steps in an incident investigation, check out our post: What Is Safety Incident Management and Why Does It Matter?
Failure isn’t a popular topic in health and safety. At Evotix, we’re trying to change that. To learn more about reframing failure, listen to Episode 215 of Two Bald Guys Talking Safety, Failing to Fail: How to Redefine Safety Failures.
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