How Does Winning a Gold Medal Relate to Safety in Your Organization?
by Randy Snow

There aren’t many experiences in life that compare with winning a gold medal. To participate on a team of athletes that is blended into a cohesive unit that performs at the highest level brings unbelievable gratification. Talent driven by superb leadership towards a common goal frames the epitome of collective responsibility.

But every team going to the Paralympics proclaims that they are going to win the gold medal. But only one team does. Winning the gold medal is a journey available to all, taken by some and completed by an elite few. Each year it seems a few of the same teams consistently position themselves near to the top.

One of these teams is the men’s wheelchair basketball team from Canada. Not only did they win the gold medal at the Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia, in 2000, they duplicated this incredible accomplishment four years later, in Greece in 2004, a legendary feat that had never been done before.

So what’s the difference? What is it about the Canadians? Why are they always there? How do they continuously place themselves above all the other teams that have the same basic goal, talent and plan? The difference is culture.

Culture comes from the top, which in this example is the Canadian Basketball Association. There isn’t anything supplementary to the C.B.A. about wheelchair basketball. No separate programs, no special budget, no pressure from the outside. If it’s basketball in Canada, wheelchair or not, then winning is integrated into the production of the product and woven into the fabric of their values.

Excellence is generated by focusing on what drives high performance – culture and leadership. The core values and practices, which are to be the best they can be, power the program. As the coach of the team Dr. Mike Frogley says, “A gold medal is a result of doing things right.”

So how does this relate to safety in your organization?

Management in each organization proclaims that safety is a top priority. They employ safety officers, establish safety committees and conduct safety training. Just like the teams going to the Paralympcis, each team is going to win the gold medal but most fall short. However, statistics show that time and time again, certain organizations are always at the top of low recordable incidents and lost time accidents.

So if safety programs are a common denominator to organizations that both fail and succeed, and the organizations that do succeed arrive there consistently, what is the difference?

In Professor Richard Wokutch’s book, Worker Protection, Japanese Style, he observed that Japanese safety records were much better than records in the United States, but the safety programs were very much the same. These findings suggested that safety programs weren’t the differentiating factor – culture was.

Wokutch says, ‘The culture of an organization – its basic beliefs and values concerning people — is what drives safety excellence. Organizational attitude determines whether safety initiatives succeed or fail. Concern for safety is integrated into the production system. Individual craftsmen and line managers take primary responsibility for ensuring the workplace is safe and healthy.’

Passive safety performers think people are the problem. Accidents are accounted to employee carelessness so management hires a person to fix the people.  Then line managers issue rules and more rules, but frequently compromise them in their own day-to-day behavior. 

Recently I was holding a safety training program and a V.P. of a large refinery had just flown in and joined us for the training. I was appalled to see this person, in clear view of all the craftsmen, not wearing any safety gear, even though we were in the middle of a turnaround.

In an organization that exemplifies a culture of safety, management values the health and well-being of people, believes that accidents are preventable, and isn’t shy with their philosophy. They eschew quick fixes, promote informal communication and avoid judgment of feedback. They carve out a constructive grapevine rather than a destructive one. Employees are rewarded and reinforced rather than disciplined and coerced. Approaches that produce safety are ‘built into” the mission and standard operation procedures. Passive safety is replaced by active safety.

In his article, Stepping Up To Organizational Safety Excellence, Larry Hansen wrote ‘For an organization to advance to the next level, they must discard traditional beliefs and approaches and undergo a radical change. Safety is less scheduled and more systematic. Safety activities are not separate. They are integrated into the organizations mainstream value system, policies and practices. This will not result from safety programs forced upon the organization, but only when safety is fully accepted as integral to the organization’s mission, and as a strategy critical to the success of business objectives.”

In his Occupational Hazards article in 2003, Don Eckenfelder said, “Values lie at the core of an organization’s culture, and are the predictors of, and ultimate determinants of, all operational outcomes – safety included.”

The most successful teams don’t need excessive rules, forced accountability or high-handed coaching or supervision. Pressuring them to perform isn’t necessary. From the president and the stock holders all the way to the newest hire, success is woven into the fiber of the organization. These “teams” are clearly different and the difference is in their values, processes and programs. The difference is in their culture.

D.A. Weaver said, “Safety (the gold medal) is nothing more than a byproduct of doing things right.”

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