Time to Call in The Safety Psychologists

Before we meet the next big push for safety, are we are going to have to re-invent the safety guy?  In addition to all the things safety professionals need to know, do we need to add psychologist, statistician and HR expert to his skillsets?

Oil and gas has accomplished a lot in the area of safety culture, training and incident reduction in the last 20 years.   But some warn we may have plateaued and the measures that got us this far may not take us the rest of the way.

ABS President Jim Watson was in the Coast Guard when the maritime industry adopted  the International Safety Management Code and headed BSEE when the SEMS rule went into effect.  He spoke at a pipeline safety management workshop on Thursday, February 27th and said that we may have wrung out all of the efficiencies from machinery improvements and traditional safety controls and that we may have to look somewhere else if we are going to maintain our progress on safety.   You hear others voice similar concerns about whether programs like process safety management and other approaches have taken us as far as they can.

My own feeling is that we have focused on hazards (identifying it, controlling it, training for it) and the next step is to focus on risk (managing risk when I can’t make the hazard go away).   It is a concept that is very familiar to the maritime industry.  There is an old Coast Guard saying, “You have to go, but you don’t have to come back.”   Going to sea will always be hazardous; most maritime efforts involve managing the risks once you are at sea.

Managing the risk of hazards that we can’t make go away may require some different approaches and maybe different skillsets.  Safety professionals still needs to know OSHA standards and to recognize and control hazards, but now they also needs to know how to manage the risks from hazards they can’t control, like human nature or complex variables of complex systems.

This really came home to me when I read a posting by Phil La Duke, called The Madness Of Measuring Nothing. In it, he argues that tracking injuries or days away or other traditional metrics tells us nothing about what may happen in the future ( any more than a coin toss predicts what will happen on the next coin toss).  Instead he asks what would happen if we started tracking worker absenteeism, morale, worker skills assessments and (heaven forbid) leader competence.  Would we find that on the job stress, capabilities and management are better predictors of incidents?    When I read this, my first thought was, that real estate all belongs to some other department in the company, like Human Resources or training.   This would take some cooperation between HSE and those departments, but it is an interesting concept.

I sometimes wonder if behavior-based safety should focus on what is going on in a distracted worker’s head as well as how we shape positive behavior.   Observation cards are great, but how to I keep a 22-year old with a cell phone from having a fight with his girlfriend right before his shift?

This debate over what direction safety should take next is by no means settled.  In some ways it is just starting, but it is becoming clearer that safety professionals are going to need to add some new tools in their tool chest.

2 Replies to “Time to Call in The Safety Psychologists”

  1. Good article. I, as a safety professional, for the last 35 years have searched for that magic spell to get everyone to buy into safety. It’s almost like the phase…”you can’t fix stupid”! I can’t… but I can get the right people into place and help them buy into safety 24/7. Our onsite managers and supervisors must be our brother’s keepers and help them make safety personal, otherwise all our safety barriers and programs will fail.

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