Building Ownership for Safety

Building Ownership for SafetyHere’s a simple three-question test. First question: Who SHOULD own safety in your organization? EHS? Operations? Someone else?

Second question: Who currently DOES own safety in your organization? EHS? Operations? Someone else?

The third question is a follow-up to question #2, and assumes a shared-ownership model: What percent equity stake does each “owner” have? EHS ___%? Operations ___%? Someone else ___%?

Having conducted some informal surveys with these three questions on a number of EHS managers and Operations managers I can tell you that the equity split of question #3 seems to average right around 75% ownership going to EHS and 25% ownership going to Operations, even though both groups affirm that the majority of ownership in question #1 should go to Operations.

10-things-sl-stylesIn other words, both groups recognize that Operations should be the primary owners of safety, but in actual practice it’s still the EHS team that’s doing the heavy lifting. Still not convinced? Here’s another simple test.

Think about all your current safety programs. You probably have to maintain programs like LOTO, hazardous chemicals, arc flash, confined space, fall protection, PPE, and (depending on your industry) perhaps dust explosion, temperature exposure, ammonia safety, etc.

Now, when OSHA (or whatever other governing authority in your location) comes knocking at your door and wants to inspect those programs, where do all fingers point? Who specifically is maintaining those programs? Someone on the Operations team, or someone on the EHS team? The answer to that question will provide insight on who currently “owns” safety in the organization.

An organization can tout slogans like “everyone owns safety” all day long, but the proof (as they say) is in the pudding. Until (and unless) Operations takes over the day-to-day oversight of safety (the programs already mentioned are really just part of that), they aren’t really the owners of safety.

Unfortunately, there are some unintended consequences that follow when EHS retains ownership for safety. One of those consequences comes from general principles of employee engagement.

Engagement Principle # 1: When a responsibility is relegated to a special person or team, it is generally abdicated by everyone else.

Let’s go back to the example I gave earlier. When the inspectors arrive at the plant door and want to examine the documentation for your LOTO program, what’s the response on the floor? “You’re going to have to get with our safety guy on that one. He’s the one that does safety for the plant—we don’t do safety.” fctc-online-banner

Okay, maybe that last part isn’t stated as explicitly as that—but it’s implied. The point is, once safety is delegated to “the safety guy,” it’s immediately abdicated by everyone else. And it’s problematic when someone from Operations (more specifically, Maintenance in this case) has to defer to the “safety guy” to explain a program they work with daily.

If we grant that we must transfer ownership of safety to Operations, then we need to be aware of a second principle of engagement:

Engagement Principle #2: When a responsibility is treated as an added task, it “gets in the way of real work,” and the initiative fails.

Obviously, based on this principle we’ll need to be careful about just how we’re transferring safety to Operations. We’ll take a deeper dive into this principle in our next issue. But that’s it for this edition of Recordable INSIGHTS. Until next time.

~ES


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Eric Svendsen

Eric Svendsen, Ph.D., is Principal and lead change agent for safetyBUILT-IN, a safety-leadership learning and development organization. He has over 20 years experience in creating and executing outcomes-based leadership development and culture change initiatives aligned to organizational goals, and he personally led the safety-culture initiatives of a number of client organizations that resulted in “best ever safety performance” years for those companies.

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