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Perceptions of Safety
By Scott Skola


    Safety, safety, safety … with the full court press on safety these days, you would think that the rotorcraft industry would be at that much-revered “zero incidents and accidents” goal by now.  Unfortunately, we’re not.
 
    When you get down to it, what is safety?  Is it just an analytical state of mind, with a bunch of numbers and ratios proving its success?  Or does it also have a philosophical side, where perception and beliefs play a part in safety success?  The short answer—it’s both.  So, if a company wants no incidents and accidents—and every employee goes to work with the intention of not causing an incident or accident—why do we continue to come up short? 

History of Zero
   
The goal of zero incidents and accidents is not new.  In 1995, the FAA made an attempt at this goal with a published Aviation Safety Action Plan (ASAP), titled “Zero Accidents…A Shared Responsibility.”  While the majority of this plan’s findings were implemented over the years, the reference to “zero” has been dropped.  Why?  Could it be that the concept of zero has some underlying limitations or obstacles that hinders its achievement.  There has to be some reason why the majority of a safety program’s goal is attainable, but that last 10% is so elusive. 

    When a safety program sets goals that are not met, everyone has an opinion on the cause.  Usually the blame lands on the workforce for not following some specific rule, or for acting in an unsafe manner.  Maybe they are right … or maybe they are only partially right.

    In reality, most safety programs are set up on paper to be a joint effort between a company and its employees.  However, what if this all-important relationship had numerous small disconnects that ultimately changed how its end users perceived the safety program?  What if the implied openness of a safety program (with its touted “level playing field” and “two-way communication” policies) was perceived within the ranks to be just another policy to appease someone or something?  Even if this perception was directed at only a specific part of the program, it could have a huge effect on the entire program.  Could it be that these perceptions are the overlooked links to zero incidents and accidents?  Could it be this simple?

Perceptions and Environment

    Whether good, bad, or indifferent, there is politically correct safety … and there is real safety.  The sooner we mitigate this difference, the quicker we can work toward reducing incidents and accidents.

    Here’s a prime example of a political plan: a mechanic follows a new safety mandate that states “If a five-minute job requires fifteen minutes of safety preparation, then it is now a twenty minute job.”  This looks like it would work great, until the phone rings and the first of several phone calls come in wondering why the “five-minute” job is taking so long.  Politically the policy looks good—in reality it fails.  What do you think that mechanic will do next time?  Now, how many more employees would need to experience this or similar instances before the remaining workforce starts to perceive that certain safety policies are for show, or just part of a “paper safety program”? 

    Right in line with the political correctness of a safety program is the physical work environment where the program will be used.  For example, if a company’s safety program commits to providing and maintaining a safe workplace—yet the company turns a blind eye to the construction of a new hangar with no doors, the lack of adequate work lighting, or slick sweating concrete floors—what kind of example does that set for the workforce? 

    In addition to the immediate physical environment, a workplace also includes the support infrastructure used by employees during their work.  What if a company switches to digital maintenance documentation, yet places all the computers in an office away from the work area?  Or what if a company utilizes multiple maintenance reference sources, but does not offer a master listing or cross reference of their locations?  What if, what if, what if … the list could be endless.

    While these issues do not directly influence the Total Recordable Incidence Rate (TRIR), Key Performance Indicators index (KPI), etc., it does send a strong message to the workforce that only parts of a safety program are applicable to certain levels within an organization.  Like dominos, it’s this perception that leads to other perceptions, which can affect these ratios and indexes.

    But what really cements these perceptions is when legitimate hazards, support issues, and policy conflicts are reported through open discussions or the safety program reporting system, and are met with either no response or worse, a nonchalant “that costs too much money.”  It begs to ask, when does a safety hazard or policy correction become a wise investment—after someone has an incident or accident?

The Cultural Effect

          On the other hand, perhaps it isn’t just political correctness or an infrastructure deficiency that prevents us from reducing our incidents and accidents.  Maybe it’s something more personal, as well.

    When I entered the industry over 30 years ago, the overriding objective for maintenance was getting the aircraft up and available for flight.  Period.  Now, after countless safety initiatives have come and gone, the mantra of reducing incidents and accidents is well established in the industry.  Yet, how many weeks, months, or even years will it take for a workforce to transition from decades of established work habits to these new mandated “safer” work habits? 

    Human nature being what it is, we know that change doesn’t happen overnight.  In addition, various behavioral studies have shown that when a person is faced with stressful or uncertain situations, they have a propensity to revert back to their previous fundamental routines.  Therefore, it follows that if you have a workforce that has certain perceptions or misgivings toward a safety program, and that program has certain short-comings, that when those individuals find themselves caught in a gray area between a safety policy and completing the assigned task—well, it’s been proven by the studies and the TRIR that they will gravitate toward finishing the task.

    Some safety programs make a valid attempt to modify these existing cultural work habits through behavioral modification, or reward-based programs.  However, these methods also create their own conflict.  If there is conflict, the safety program suffers—and so does its goal of reducing incidents and accidents. 

    Hundreds of studies have been done on the effects of work culture on safety and the methods to effectively correct these issues.  Yet, most of these studies can be summed up as noted by author Alfie Kohn: “The bottom line is that any approach that offers a reward for better performance is destined to be ineffective.” (Punished by Rewards, 1993.)  So if we can’t “buy” safety, what is left?

Co-own the Mission

    The one cultural change method that does have a proven track record with long-lasting effects is employee co-ownership of the safety program.  The only way to make a safety program achieve its goals is to develop a safety foundation that satisfies the company’s requirements, but still functions for employees in the real world.  The place to start is with the number one item in any safety program: its mission statement.

    Most mission statements I’ve read are very detailed in setting forth program goals.  Simply put, the company is defined as committed to X, Y, Z, and the employee is defined to comply with X, Y, Z.  However, if we merge these two separate phrases into one—the company is committed to the compliance of X, Y, Z by the employee—this now puts everyone on the same level.

     Since everyone is now committed to a true common goal, it is vital for the company to share co-ownership of the safety program with employees at all levels.  It will be very hard for the workforce to develop perceptions on a particular issue if they are now part of the cause…and the solution.
 
Countdown to Zero

    With the program under new co-ownership, and with a few fixes to the infrastructure, that last elusive “10%” may actually be achievable.  Attaining zero incidents and accidents is a tough nut to crack—but it is possible.  Achieving it will require a new approach with a solid 100% team effort from the top on down—and the bottom on up.  But even with the workforce behind this zero goal, they will still need the company to provide all the necessary tools to make this happen.

    With the right mixture of company and employee input, maybe, just maybe, we can modify the biggest perception of safety—that there is another path to zero incidents and accidents, other than proverbial zero productivity.

About the author: Scott has been employed in the rotorcraft industry for over 31 years.    In his free time, he provides technical writing and research services through his business TEK Aviation LLC, and can be contacted at tekaviation@cox.net

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