Friday, January 28, 2005

Bureacratic Safety

Also from the 1/28/2005 LANL NewsBulletin:

Jan. 24, 2005

Thinking safety

The analytical work required for my doctoral dissertation involved starting up a long-dormant clean room. I asked my adviser if he thought I should institute a "clean room glove and gown" rule. He answered: "I'm more concerned whether you are "thinking clean" than whether you are insisting on gloves and gowns. If you consistently think clean, the rest will sort itself out."

That was very good advice from a respected scientist. If one substitutes "thinking safe" for "thinking clean," it bears directly on our present safety situation.

Recently, one of my safety responsible-colleagues stopped one of our technicians and asked him a safety-related question. The observer, in the midst of several errands, did not make a formal "observation" but rather asked a pointed question and had to run. However, this clearly got our technician thinking. The tech came to me and we discussed the matter and thought about whether indeed there was a problem and if so, what were some solutions.

Later that day, I ran into the observer and thanked that person for taking the time to ask the question. Much to my surprise, the person was apologetic for asking a quick question rather than making a formal observation. I was floored and replied 'my gosh, you did exactly the right thing from a safety perspective' and thanked the person a second time.

Are we unwittingly encouraging the notion that our thinking about safety should be saved for formal occasions? Are we "bureaucratizing" safety to the point that our model for safety impedes our ability to spontaneously "think safe?" If the observer did not have the time for a formal observation and chose instead to do nothing, that technician and I would have been less safe. The observer's quick observation and question got us "thinking safe."

Unfortunately, I don't think this Laboratory rewards real-world "behavioral safety training" but instead something easier to measure: IWD's and hours spent in formal training. Given the "flat" injury rate graph that Director Nanos showed us last week, I wonder if we are missing something important. In my years running an analytical lab at a university, we managed to keep the ambulances away by teaching thinking and behavior rather than stressing paperwork. As my adviser taught me to "think clean," we taught our students to "think safe and think clean."

We must change our paradigm and do more to encourage safety as an attitude that springs from our culture and is thus internalized. We must encourage and reward the "quick hallway questions" from a peer, ensuring these are at the heart and soul of the system. We must streamline and simplify the ongoing bureacratization of safety. If we do not, I am pessimistic about improving our safety statistics. And frankly, I'm not optimistic that the Laboratory or DOE is willing to risk real change.

--Khalil Spencer



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