The nature of risk is to fluctuate. So, while we can utilize safety management systems to establish great processes, the truth is that these processes tend to drift from expected levels of performance over time. As a result, a plan-do-check-act (PDCA) methodology is necessary in order to sustain safety efforts — and maintain risk at what has been agreed upon as an acceptable level.
Bear in mind, this “drift” can have any number of different causes, particularly in joint-employer environments: system pressures, production demands, time constraints, turnover, new risks in the workplace and more. That’s why, for both primary employer and the host employer, strong communication from front-line managers and leadership alike is critical. It’s the only way to break down barriers — and effectively signal to employees what’s really expected of them on the job.
As a component of strong communication, regular observation and feedback specific to work-related risks and safety standards is also important. It supports a healthier culture, increasing morale and encouraging employees to speak up. This “upward” communication is especially vital in identifying and preventing risk associated with serious injuries and fatalities.
Weak communication, on the other hand, is typically delivered in a negative manner. In these environments, standard work and safety practices are often only delivered during orientation and only followed when the boss is around. When supervisors aren’t in sight, shortcuts and other measures that contradict safe work practices tend to be commonplace. Worse, safety messaging typically only circulates in the aftermath of an injury or incident, which amounts to communicating what people already know — along with the more negative messaging, likely assigning blame to employees when things go wrong.
This is the worst-case scenario. It has repercussions for the rest of the workforce and significantly undermines the creation of a healthy culture.
The diagram below illustrates the path of “operational drift” as well as the types of messaging and efforts that can restore risk to acceptable levels. The blue “safe operations line” represents standard work practices and risk controls. The red line indicates deviation from them, signaling "drift" from known safe work practices. Now, think of what positive, job-specific safety feedback needs to be given to restore and re-establish expectations. This is considered a strategic intervention, as it’s informed by knowledge of risk matched to job type and has been anticipated and planned for through the PDCA process.
As this diagram suggests, consistent, strong and positive communication from leadership around safety and risk can be an effective strategic intervention — and turn the tide on “drift.” At the same time, the reality is that managing and sustaining acceptable levels of risk is always a work in progress. Only by continually engaging in dialogue, and coordinating with stakeholders at all levels, internally as well as externally, will organizations strengthen their risk and safety performance over the long haul.
One additional example of managing risks to acceptable levels is worth mentioning, since it is connected to several points made in previous chapters. Namely, try to imagine for a moment what “safely working” means in today’s workforce. Then, think of the changing requirements: self-sanitation of tools, new PPE, more time cleaning surfaces and workstations and more. Clearly, delivering on those requirements won’t be easy.
Why? For one, the use of any chemicals in a work environment — from administrative and clerical settings to hospitals and clinics — requires careful scrutiny from employers. To do so, companies first have to evaluate the use of the chemicals to ensure they’re being applied appropriately. At minimum, that mandates training and the maintenance of safety data sheets in the event of an exposure-related illness.
Where enhanced cleaning is required, therefore, additional safety measures, training and communications will need to be in place. Just make sure they’re in line with OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard — it’s the only way to comprehensively evaluate, manage and prevent potentially harmful exposures in your work environment.