Setting ‘grown-up’ safety goals cut accidents 84%

by on February 7, 2012 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

If you’ve ever questioned just how important safety leadership is, here’s some strong evidence:

One company cut its accident rate 84% – and raised productivity, efficiency and reliability well above industry benchmarks.

Three keys
How did the company do it?

Strong safety leadership, particularly in these areas:

  • setting goals
  • building skills, and
  • correcting errors.

That’s according to research from Harvard Business School. The researchers didn’t identify the company, saying only that work was conducted on a busy offshore oil platform with high safety risks.

‘Immature safety culture’
Here’s what happened: Initially, the researchers went to the company and observed supervisors and workers. They conducted one-on-one and group interviews based on their observations.

Their conclusion: an immature safety culture.


  • Took unnecessary risks on safety matters in order to demonstrate physical courage (e.g., not wearing safety gear when working at heights).
  • Didn’t admit it when they lacked technical knowledge or didn’t know how to do something, for fear of looking stupid.
  • Concealed mistakes for fear of looking foolish or incompetent.

Any safety director probably knows at least one person (or more likely, a work crew) who demonstrates one or more of these characteristics.

To turn that person or crew around, you may want to consider the steps this company took to reform its whole safety culture:

1. Took control of the ‘Dares’
The study showed that without strong goal-setting from company leadership, people will substitute their own personal goals. Unless employees are uniformly mature, some of these goals may be destructive; even if not, they may not include safety.

Researchers found workers were challenging each other to find out who the top dog was. And to save face, others accepted these challenges too readily.


  • Ridiculing people for wearing the proper safety gear (“You only need to wear that when the boss is around”).
  • Encouraging people to “touch the buffalo.” We’ve seen companies where new workers were dared to grab a handful of semi-toxic chemicals to show they weren’t afraid.

In this case what the company did was issue its own challenge. It set aggressive productivity, efficiency and reliability goals – effectively daring its workers to meet them.

And these goals had to be met safely. This proved to be an important first step – it focused workers on goals bigger than themselves.

Key: Find goals that resonate with workers, something that gets their competitive juices flowing as a team, e.g.:

  • “break a record”: all-time high performance goals,
  • “beat those guys”: friendly competition among shifts, crews and teams, and
  • “meet tough goals”: similar to break a record, but the goal is to simply try to accomplish something difficult.

2. Focused on building skills
Next, the company addressed the issue of competence.

With aggressive goals to meet, everyone on the team has to deliver the goods. So the company increased the level of training for individual workers.

Keys: Offering workers an opportunity to improve their skills is one of the strongest motivational tools in any manager’s toolbox.

Environments that stress continuous learning get workers away from a fear that they’re supposed to “know it all.”

To institutionalize this, consider mentoring programs, where one worker helps another, and making supervisors available for teaching. Both build teamwork by building individual skills.

3. Made it safe to admit errors
In a high-hazard environment, small errors can snowball. One worker leaves a hand tool on a catwalk, a second kicks it, and the tool falls on a third.

Concealing errors was rampant at the drilling company. So safety managers and supervisors made it clear that workers could ask about anything and admit they’d forgotten something.

The rule was simple: If workers admitted a mistake and gave co-workers time to correct it, there was no penalty.

Workers were praised for coming forward and being “stand up guys.” What become considered unacceptable was trying to slip something by your co-workers.

Adapted from article by researcher Robin Ely in Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge newsletter.

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