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This month I am going to be a little controversial. I will definitely be more opinionated then normal.

In February, 2015, there was an outbreak of Hepatitis A in Australia. It was traced to some contaminated frozen fruit. The frozen fruit was processed offshore.

It appeared the contamination was caused by procedural errors in washing and handling the frozen berries.

I discussed this with a friend that works at another university It got both of us thinking … are procedures a good safeguard? Now I know that there are specialists that can give an excellent answer to this, but because I am a simple person, I am looking for a simple answer. And I developed some opinions (both of us developed similar opinions, but I will stick with my opinion). I think it is almost a given that a human will make a mistake. That means a procedure will not be followed – unless additional safeguards are put into place.

It also got us thinking … a corporate board can blame a low-level worker if not following a procedure causes an incident. After all, the board can say that “safeguards were in place”.

Combining the two issues, we came to the conclusion that a strong safety culture would understand these issues. A strong safety culture would recognise that procedures need to be reinforced, either by checking, strong training, or other support. A procedure is based on compliance, but a strong safety culture understands the need to EXCEED compliance.

Yes EXCEED compliance. I would love to find a board member that says “We will not compromise on safety”. My follow-up question would be … “Would you compromise on extra safety?” In my opinion (I am using that statement a lot in this brief), a company that complies is doing the minimum to meet the requirements of the law. And not a thing more. No, they will not compromise on safety, because if they do, they will break the law.

<aside … the board member would not compromise on extra safety for his/herself, but possibly would compromise on extra safety for the public. Consider a car. A car that “complies” does with safety requirements does not have ABS, electronic steering control, reversing cameras, air bags, etc etc etc. I expect the board member would buy a car that has all of these safety features, but might not use the same logic for protecting the public or the environment>

In my opinion (again) organisations with a strong safety culture see the need to stay ahead of the safety curve, and exceed compliance.

Now … after coming to this conclusion (the talk) we both felt we had to “walk the walk” – if for no other reason than to set a good example for the students.

While we work on different campuses for different universities, our work brings us into contact with many students … who are naturally transient and temporary. And … are still learning how to think. For things like using a chemistry lab, they receive training, but … as students … it is probably reasonable to assume that procedures will not be followed 100% of the time.

We both made an informal agreement that … whenever we saw a safety violation that involved a procedure not being followed, we would report the incident not as:

“a procedure was not followed. Therefore the person is at fault.”

but instead, as

“the system accepted a procedure as a safety barrier, and it failed because the procedure was not followed. Therefore the system is at fault.”

This simple action will hopefully result in people looking at safety in a different way. And by looking at safety differently, some improvement may happen.

While my friend has no success stories to tell, I have a couple of small ones. I have been very diligent in working with the students monitoring trip hazards. They seem to find ways to leave laptop cables in very bad locations. When this happens, I tell them:

“What are the 6 ways to prevent a hazard?”

“First is elimination. Can we eliminate this hazard?” Once we did, because the laptop did not need to be charged. Other times it could not.

“Second is substitution. Can we get power from a different source?” So far the answer has always been no.

“Third is isolation. Can we isolate the trip hazard?” So far, the answer has always been YES! So I have been pleased to see that my attempt to walk the walk is having some impact.

I think this method is better than simple nagging, and definitely better than ignoring the issue. So, while I have made an effort to lift my game in being safe, and in encouraging others to improve or change the way people think about safety, it is nice to see some successful baby steps.

More to come.