Safety in the News: Why We Are Still "Safe by Accident"

Two recent articles, one in USA Today and another in the Wall Street Journal are once again illustrating unfortunate examples of organizations (and industries) that are at risk for being safe by accident. Oil giant BP reported in the Wall Street Journal that it is "ensuring that lessons learned from the Gulf disaster will lead to improvements in operations and contractor services in deep-water drilling."  The same article also describes the vigilance of one BP leader at Alaska’s North Slope who worked tirelessly to report and follow up on all safety concerns he saw and that were reported to him. He was a leader who gained the trust and commitment of the men and women who put their safety at risk each and every day. Unfortunately, after some time, BP showed him the exit, leaving safety to chance once again.

Changing the BP safety culture may be a daunting task if history repeats itself. With a new Chief Executive, BP will undoubtedly institute new safety programs, attempting to improve their safety culture. Companies often change their approach to safety, using new programs and practices designed to address safety metrics, only to have their culture of safety remain unchanged. These companies MUST understand that only approaches based in science, the science of behavior analysis, are effective in the long term.

The airline industry, on the other hand, reported that there were no US airline fatalities in 2010, continuing a trend toward safer skies. The USA Today article identified new rules and better training as part of the recent reduction in airline fatalities. The article goes on to report, "In the entire First World, fatal crashes are at the brink of extinction." This assertion was based on no deaths in US airline accidents in the years 2007, 2008, and 2010. The last fatal accident occurred February 12, 2009 when 49 people onboard a Colgan Air Bombardier and one person on the ground were killed in Buffalo. Is this cause for celebration or concern? Incident rates alone will not guarantee a strong culture of safety in the airline industry or in any other industry or organization. We must be cautious of these and other examples and look more closely at how safe behavior is managed and supported in organizations to know if we are indeed safe by design.

I highly encourage anyone that has a hand in the safety of their people or their organization read Safe By Accident? Take the Luck out of Safety - Leadership Practices that Build a Sustainable Safety Culture by my colleagues Judy Agnew and Aubrey Daniels. This book calls out the signs that companies are gambling with safety including focusing too heavily on incident rate as a metric of safety management and relying on training, policies and procedures to ensure safety compliance.


Posted by Don Nielsen, Ph.D.

Don is a behavior change expert who brings a true business perspective from his 20 years of management experience in both public and private settings. Because of his background, Don understands the demands managers and executives face in applying behavioral science to improve business outcomes. When he.s not hanging out on tug boats with his clients, Don enjoys spending time with his family, including six granddaughters.