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What can rearing children possibly have to do with reducing industrial risk and making even hazardous working conditions safer? Mainly, it’s about the attitude we bring to the task. While workers are, of course, not children, cultivating a culture of care at work has a lot in common with creating a safe haven at home.
Keeping kids safe is a fundamental tenet of good parenting. It’s an instinct that usually arises organically between parents and children and gives rise to behaviours that aim naturally to mitigate risk. The current conversation around workplace safety highlights behaviour-based approaches in a way that echoes our natural instincts. Consider the ways we try to influence our children’s behaviour in the interest of safety:
Quite a bit of thought goes into “child-proofing” a home even before the baby is born: gates are purchased for stairs, electrical outlets are plugged, floor-level cabinets are outfitted with child safety locks, etc. The process very much resembles a HAZOP analysis, with the adult’s intent on imagining and preventing every conceivable dangerous scenario. As the child grows, risks change and new approaches are called for. The same thing needs to happen in an industrial setting, starting with the recognition not only that new processes call for new risk assessments, but that even when processes remain the same, the people interacting with them may become perilously comfortable and risk blind in their behaviours.
When our kids do the right thing, we praise them. It doesn’t matter that they are “only” fulfilling our expectations, we take pleasure in expressing pride in their accomplishments, even on a small scale. This has the added benefit of motivating them to continue to do whatever it is we have indicated is desirable and praiseworthy. That’s why it makes sense to incorporate a metaphorical “pat on the back” at work as well, especially around behaviour-based safety practices. Unfortunately, we sometimes withhold praise of this kind with the justification that it’s not necessary when a person is “only” doing their job. Worse still is the persistence of blame culture in some organisations with the effect of actually demotivating the workforce.
We do not hesitate to warn our kids when danger looms. We would not for a moment hold our tongues while a toddler scales an impromptu “ladder” of objects to reach the cookie jar or our teen whips out their phone for a selfie to document their first driving lesson. In these cases, nobody thinks, “They know what they’re doing, and I don’t want to offend…” However, in a work setting we may justify our silence in precisely this way, even in the face of gross negligence.
In a family setting, we don’t usually refer to them this way, but it’s what happens before your child cycles off to a friend’s house or your teenager borrows the car for the first time. There’s preparation involved specifically aimed at ensuring safety. Beyond the “technical” aspects of riding a bike or driving a car, there is a discussion about what to look out for, a protocol for handling unexpected situations and an agreed schedule for check ins with the parents. This probably happens for new or non-routine tasks at work as well, but moms and dads repeat the “safety briefing” even when biking, driving and other activities become familiar because they know accidents can happen the hundredth time as easily as the first. This truth holds for the workplace as well.
In parenting, the ultimate goal is self-sufficiency. We gradually hand over more and more responsibility to our children, trusting that as adults they will be able to self-monitor and make good decisions. Similarly, organisations striving for zero harm do well to incorporate self-monitoring mechanisms to gauge safety progress and adjust as circumstances change. At DEKRA we help our partners along the Cultural Maturity Ladder, which includes steps that empower organisations to progress independently toward safer outcomes.
Parenting is a convenient and relatable model, but any caring relationship includes concern for others’ safety. While the behaviours we’ve outlined are often second nature in a familial setting or among friends, allowing them to inform our professional relationships and tapping into the power of care in organisational culture can be transformative in improving safety levels in our workplaces.
DEKRA Organisational Reliability is a behavioural change consultancy. Working in collaboration with our clients, our approach is to influence the safety culture with the aim of ‘making a difference’. We deliver the skills, methods, and motivation to change leadership attitudes, behaviours and decision-making among employees. Measurable sustainable improvement of safety outcomes is our goal. We are a service unit of DEKRA SE, a global leader in safety since 1925 with over 39,000 employees in 50 countries.
Author: Mariska Binnenmars, Senior Consultant & Teamlead Benelux at DEKRA Organisational Reliability