Making Safety More Efficient and Effective

HR & Safety

The following article first appeared in the American Society of Safety Professionals Professional Safety publication. It is reposted here with the author’s permission. Copyright American Society of Safety Engineers 2018. 

Having spent most of my career in safety and operations leadership positions, it is clear that many organizations make safety more of a burden than necessary. 

Sometimes, occupational safety and health professionals are part of this problem. No leader wants employees to be injured while working, but sadly and quite often the burden of safety (e.g., additional time, process steps, equipment and expenses) complicates good decision-making. 

When safety becomes a burden to the organization, the effectiveness of the safety process is threatened. 

The ultimate goal is to reduce that burden, add business value, and achieve the level of safety required, but sometimes this goal is difficult to achieve. The solution is to make your safety approach more efficient. 

This article outlines symptoms of inefficient safety and some practices to make safety more efficient and effective. 

Finding Middle Ground

A few years ago, a company asked my team to assess the effectiveness of its safety approach. 

We traveled to many of its sites around the world and interviewed about 800 employees and 100 first-line supervisors. 

One question we asked supervisors was, “How much time do you spend on safety?” 

Most said that they spent at least 60% of the day on safety-specific activities such as safety observations and conversations, incident investigations, training, completing forms, attending meetings, and data entry. 

Middle ground is achieved through a common understanding of how to be both effective and efficient at safety. 

When we presented this information to the management team, the safety professionals were happy, but the operations management personnel were less pleased. If a company is in the business of making things or providing a service, then having operations staff spending 60% of their time doing something else may not please management, customers, or investors. 

My experience in both the safety and operations leadership world helped me to understand that the solution lies somewhere between these two perspectives. 

Middle ground is achieved through a common understanding of how to be both effective and efficient at safety. 

For safety solutions to be effective and sustainable they must make good business sense. 

Weighing Safety and Production

Machine guarding is a great example of a sound safety solution that often hinders production and maintainability. 

How do OSH professionals measure the appropriateness of the guarding solution? Is it based on a decision that is good for safety and productivity? 

If the decision is mainly based on regulatory compliance or risk reduction, these solutions may be worsening, rather than solving, the problem. 

The operational reality in most organizations is that productivity (e.g., cycle time, the amount of production or services offered) is measured more frequently than safety. 

This frequent measurement and reinforcement by management focuses employees on its importance and incentivizes their behaviors. 

The operational reality in most organizations is that productivity is measured more frequently than safety. 

When a decision point between safety and production is created (e.g., by burdening production with inefficient safety), the negative impact of poor productivity is perceived as immediate, while shortcuts in safety may not be. 

Many employees are hurt or killed every year while trying to save productivity. These unnecessary decision points encourage employees in operations and maintenance to make unsafe choices and possibly become injured. 

Therefore, if by design, safe enough does not equal productive enough, then productive enough will usually win. 

If organizations truly care about the safety of employees, they should not use them as the “emergency stop” for unbalanced decision-making. 

Create Safety and Operational Synergy 

Have you ever seen an outfielder playing Major League Baseball without a glove? Why is the value for wearing a baseball glove different from the value of a safety device? 

Because the outfielder sees the glove as an operational necessity: without it, they have little chance at being successful at his job. 

A missing glove will also be immediately recognized by teammates who want to win and they will not let him play the game without it. 

When operational processes are flawed, they typically create excessive hazards and risk.

How do we make our safety solutions more like a baseball glove? We must make good safety essential to operational success. 

Conversely, when operational processes are flawed, they typically create excessive hazards and risk. 

Where there is waste (e.g., unbalanced decision-making, rework, inefficient processes, poor planning, and design) there are unneeded hazards and exposures. 

To foster this synergy, safety professionals must become operationally savvy and team with employees who perform the work and make risk benefit decisions.

Improving Effectiveness

Following are some basic examples of how to improve both operational and safety effectiveness: 

  • Include hazardous energy control process elements in maintenance work orders or work instruction. Printing them out together is a first step; ultimately, these should be melded together as a single process. This creates a more efficient, integrated work process in which maintenance staff are less likely to forget the requisite safety measures. Therefore, doing the job well means doing the job safely. 
  • Integrate the Job Hazard/Job Safety Analysis expectations into operational standard work to make safety and the work process more effective and efficient. How many employees hate to conduct a JHA prior to starting a job? This is partly because it is perceived as extra work. Perceptions of extra work, time or paperwork contribute to poor decision-making. For example, the first of the three JHA elements is the task list. This should be part of a thorough work instruction, job plan, or defined in a pre-job meeting. Having to determine specifically how the work will be performed by requiring completion of a JHA is evidence that the overall job planning process is weak. Fix the process rather than adding an extra step.
  • Incorporate safety training into work process training. For example, if the organization conducts job task-specific training, include the required hazard communication elements in that training rather than making everyone attend a generic hazard communication training session. When incorporated into work process training, hazard communication elements such as job-specific chemical hazards and protective measures will be more germane and seen as part of the task, and the knowledge will be transferred in a more sustainable and cost-effective manner. 

‘Recognizing Right’

Early in my career, I was asked by senior management of an engineering and test center to help with a safety problem. 

The center already had an OSH management system in place for 15 years and the management team fully understood and appreciated their safety leadership responsibilities. 

The problem? They walked the plant on a weekly basis conducting safety inspections and consistently found issues that spurred disagreements regarding the applicability of OSHA requirements. 

The leader of the center asked if I could teach the management team all of the OSHA compliance requirements. Knowing that I could spend weeks going through the myriad OSHA regulations, interpretations, and photos of nonconformities without them attaining the expertise that they wanted, I offered a simpler solution. 

Make the team experts in recognizing right, not in finding wrong.

The strategy was to make the team experts in recognizing right, not in finding wrong. 

Right then became a visual standard for operationally sound and safe practices and conditions in each area.

If the entire population of the plant could clearly, visually, and unmistakably recognize the right condition, person, body position, tool, material, size, location, or equipment setting, then anything else would be wrong. 

We then made right clear by setting up each area to be safe and efficient supported by visual cues to ensure sustainability. 

Remove the Ambiguity

The dilemma in many operations is that right is not readily apparent to or understood by everyone. 

Do not assume that because an organization established clear rules, procedures and training and reinforces conformance little variation in methods, tools or measurements exists. 

Consider significant variation to be the enemy because it creates risk. 

For example, consider the variation in decision-making associated with a traffic light. Red and green are visual and offer little decision-making ambiguity, but while yellow is also visual, it invites a wide variation of decisions. 

Make right so clear and visually apparent that anyone can determine right or wrong.

Find the yellow lights in the operation by reviewing requirements, procedures, practices, and interviewing employees. 

Then compare the information and look for variation. Start where the variation creates significant risk to people and operability then change the yellow light to red or green.

The design challenge is to make right so clear and visually apparent that anyone, even those with no knowledge of the process or safety requirements, can determine right or wrong. 


Looking at Figure 1, assume that the two gauges are attached to an essential piece of production equipment. 

How much experience and knowledge of the process is needed for someone looking at the gauge on the left to know whether the process is healthy? 

This individual would likely need to know quite a bit about the equipment, the operational criteria, minimum/maximum, and optimal gauge readings. 

To prevent production from shutting down, only a highly qualified person viewing the gauge could respond appropriately. 

We all should appreciate how much cost (e.g., wages, time, training, experience) is required to sustain this approach, and how dependent it is on a few qualified, reliable people. 

If we replaced this gauge with the one on the right, how much would a passerby need to know to make a process health decision? 

As long as the person is not color blind and knows that red is bad, no technical knowledge is required.

With this gauge, anyone can clearly see when the process is in trouble and can make an appropriate decision because right and wrong are now simple to recognize. This gauge represents a more reliable and cost-effective approach. 

Although it may require an OSH professional to determine how to make the process safe, it should not take an OSH professional to keep it safe. 

Let’s use the gauge example as an analogy for a better way to manage safety. Should the OSH profession strive to make safety in operations more like the gauge on the right? 

Although it may require an OSH professional to determine how to make the process safe, it should not take an OSH professional to keep it safe. 

If safety (e.g., expected workplace conditions, body positions, practices) is visually apparent, it will be easy for anyone to identify non conformities. When this is the case, everyone in the operation instantly becomes a safety leader. 

Here are the steps to make safety visually apparent:

  • Bring a representative group together to agree on and define the right way (condition, body position, etc.). For example, what does this machine and operator look like when it is operating in an effective and safe manner? If it is not clear or varies by part, operator or shift, then find out why. Narrow and agree on the necessary variation, then memorialize the right way.
  • Recruit those with process knowledge and creative energy to design the visual standards and cues. Create visual cues that make it easy for anyone to see what right looks like. Provide examples such as color coding and photos or diagrams of the right condition or position. Remember, the goal is for a passerby to be able to determine whether it is right or wrong. 
  • Include the cues in the work instructions, training, inspection processes or area placards. Visuals are much better than words. LEGO instructions are a great example of this. 
  • Use individuals with no process or technical knowledge to check your work. Make the Process the Shortcut It is human nature to make shortcuts. We have all on occasion cut diagonally across the grass instead of following the longer route defined by the sidewalk. 


When safety measures become impediments to production or are perceived as an extra step and employees decide to omit or create a work around, the results can be tragic. 

Shortcutting, such as skipping safety steps or using the wrong tool for the job, is often found in the chain of causes for injuries and fatalities. 

If you have discovered custom job aids in your workplace (e.g., tools made by employees and markings on operational controls) it is an indication that shortcutting is present. 

To get ahead of floor-level process hacking, have the hackers help design the process.

When these shortcuts are discovered, it is imperative that operational leaders ensure that the root reasons are constructively identified and included in the process design and redesign initiatives. 

As the root of the shortcut is further studied, there may be a benefit in determining a more productive and safer way to do the job. 

To get ahead of floor-level process hacking, have the hackers help design the process. Have them make the process the shortcut by design.

Find the Right People

One of the principles that I learned early in my leadership career is that you cannot put energy into people. 

Unfortunately, for various reasons, some of the most energetic and purposeful people will be found working against the system. 

Law enforcement agencies have been able to find value in savvy lawbreakers for years, taking the best computer hackers and putting them to work in cyber security and investigations. 

Start by acknowledging the hackers’ energy, capacity, savvy, and ingenuity. 

if safety seems to take a back seat at the end of the month when your product gets shipped, this is a good time to test shortcut-proofing.

Include these individuals in process design/redesign teams and give them a stake in making the process the shortcut and therefore, shortcut-proof. 

Provide the team with your organization’s quality, operational excellence, safety, or performance expectations, and challenge them to make the process both safer and more effective and efficient. 

Validate the new approach with inexperienced employees during the most challenging operational periods. 

For example, if safety seems to take a back seat at the end of the month when your product gets shipped, this is a good time to test the shortcut-proofing of the process. 


To sustainably embed safety into the core of an organization, it must make good organizational sense at all levels. 

Burdening the organization with inefficient safety practices is not healthy for the business or safety. 

Measure success with metrics that combine good for safety and good for business attributes.

OSH professionals should become familiar with the symptoms of inefficient safety and introduce practices such as these to your management team. 

To implement one of these principles in your organization, create a small working team, provide guidance and support, build consensus on a pilot project, and generate some success and momentum. 

Be sure to measure success with metrics that combine good for safety and good for business attributes.

About the author: Peter T. Susca, M.S., is a principal at OpX Safety and has 35 years of environment, health and safety, business leadership and process improvement expertise. He has served in various EHS technical and senior management positions in large multinational corporations. 


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