The “Shiny Car” effect for organizational safety culture

In a past career I was a safety director for 40 geographically separated work sites. One of the main complaints (or grievances) I usually heard about was that I did not just look at the compliance checklists and move on to the next work site. Instead I would review the paperwork and then put my boots on the ground and visually inspect the areas to ensure that what was on paper actually matched the work practices. Even though this was an unpopular approach by many safety managers, I was able to find the ones that had the flashy written programs or the newest software or gadgets to provide numbers and analytics but lacked a working model for real-world implementation.

Now, anyone that knows me usually gets very frustrated or lost quickly with how much I love analytics and data. I WANT to see numbers, metrics, and shiny new software to be used. However, my philosophy is that a safety program is like purchasing a car. The image above shows an incredibly technological marvel of a car. It has the looks, the speed, the sexiness of an incredible vehicle. If I were to purchase this vehicle based on the outside alone, I may be in for a real-world awakening when I get it home (I am sure an extended warranty on this type of car is more than I make in a lifetime anyways!).

Let’s say I did just look at the outside and take the safety program at face value from what was documented. I could always use the concept that I trust my safety managers, which I did for many of them. The majority of them documented their real world practices and I did not have to “trust but verify” very often. Other than my annual required walk through. However, there were a few that I had to verify at least monthly.  We can use the analogy of a used car salesmen for this. Let’s say he talked me into purchasing the gorgeous vehicle pictured above without me doing my due diligence of checking the service records, kicking the tires, or checking under the hood. I would be in for a rude awakening when I find something like this when I get home (obviously not the same car, but the point is the same).

Obviously, I should not have just trusted the salesmen. Instead I needed to verify that he was being honest, doing this would have saved me a lot of the headaches that I now have to deal with. The same is true for our safety programs.

I have taken over safety programs that looked amazing on paper but the actual work site was a hazard playground. If I had not done my job and trusted but verified, I would have had a lot more headaches and out of control mishaps. Instead my proactive approach to ensuring the documentation showed my managers that safety is more than just a fresh coat of paint. It is a real-world practice that requires documentation AND working programs.

So the real question is how is the safety culture in your organization? Is it the shiny car where no one has looked under the hood? Or does it get cleaned and receive tune ups on a regular basis?