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March 30, 2017 


By J.A. Rodriguez Jr., CSP, SGE

We know behavior is the result of a risk assessment. What we choose to do, how we do it and why is determined by our perception of the potential outcome of our actions. A risk assessment conclusion is further based on a point of view. Your point of view has a significant impact on how and why you draw conclusions. The issue arises when expected outcomes are dependent upon employees making the right choices at the right times. Any process that depends on employee behavior for success is subject to varying degrees of predictable and unpredictable results.

Leaders can implement sustainable processes that do not solely rely on employee behavior for safe operations. To expand on this thought, let’s talk about the story of two co-workers and their boss. While the details here may be different, most of us have heard about or have experienced this scenario within our organizations.

Dichotomy: To Work Safely or To Work Unsafely

Ralph reports to work loving his job, loving his family, enjoying financial stability, and looking forward to making a positive difference for his company. He is on top of the world this week.

Jean reports to her job distressed because her house is about to get foreclosed on and she has to leave work right away or she will be late for an appointment with the foreclosing bank. Her world is upside-down.

Their boss, Susan, is expecting a high level of work productivity from both Ralph and Jean by close of business. An critical customer need must be addressed immediately. Failure to perform this work by the end of the work day can mean the loss of a major contract for the company. Susan’s leadership is holding her accountable for a successful outcome and she has committed her team to completing the work on time.

Ralph and Jean take a four-hour drive to the customer’s remote site. Both employees have serviced the site many times. Upon arrival, they noticed they forgot their confined space gas detection meter back at the tool crib. The company’s confined space entry policy requires all confined space entries to be clear of toxic gases as validated via instrumentation. There is not enough time to drive back and get the job done but there is enough time to get the job done without returning to retrieve the gas detection meter. Ralph and Jean know that several meter readings taken previously by other technicians at this particular site have allowed for a safe confined space entry.

This situation unites two employees, each with a different appetite for risk-taking. One has all day; the other has a life-impacting deadline to meet. Jean cannot miss her appointment with the foreclosing bank. Her home is at risk. Both want to get the job done for their boss, Susan. They know what is at stake.

As you think about this scenario, think about the potential dichotomy that exists between Ralph and Jean relative to risk assessment and their choice of action given where they are in their lives and their boss’s expectation to get this high-impact work accomplished. What will they do? Will Jean talk Ralph into proceeding with the job without following the company’s safety procedures? After all, nothing has ever happened before and Jean has a life event she cannot miss, or, will Ralph convince Jean that it is best to let the boss know an important customer commitment will be missed because of their oversight? A different risk assessment will be made by these two employees. An ultimate decision and a course of action will result. What do you predict Jean and Ralph will do?

The better question to ask is why where these employees placed in this tough position by their leadership? Why where they offered the choice to forget the gas detection meter? The critical instrumentation needed to perform their job safely was located at a location that did not meet mission requirements, the company tool crib.

Leadership in Action

A great leader implements checks and balances to assure that Ralph and Jean are not placed in a position to choose between work accomplishment and safe work behaviors. This can include a pre-work checklist authorization process which precludes securing a company vehicle until all applicable items on the checklist are addressed and signed off; similar to what a pilot goes through before each and every flight. No pre-work checklist authorization? No company work-truck keys! No transportation, therefore no option for forgetting the life-saving confined space entry equipment back at the shop.

Implement sustainable processes that do not solely rely on employee behavior for safe operations. Implement gate checks that assure compliance rather than a process that relies on human memory and behavior for success. Implement leadership in action.

Dare to think differently.