A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has conducted case studies of 10 Ontario business operations in the first of a two-part examination of business perspectives on health and safety.
One perspective, says Mark Pagell, professor of operations management and information systems at York University’s Schulich School of Business, contends that “operational or organizational excellence is premised partially on leveraging your human capital. [Consequently,] if you don’t take care of your human capital, you can’t create a distinct competitive advantage… So, it sounds like safety should be a prerequisite for organizational excellence.”
Another perspective contends that “what we do in operations would be in conflict with what would be done in safety. In other words, you would trade off safety in favour of productivity… if you want to produce more, you have to run the system faster, you have to take shortcuts…” Pagell notes there’s no empirical data to support either perspective.
To test them, Pagell recently assembled a team of researchers to explore, in participating Ontario businesses, relationships among
The team comprises researchers from the Schulich School of Business, as well as the Institute for Work & Health (IWH), Oregon State University, and Western University’s Richard Ivey School of Business.1
At a recent presentation hosted by IWH, Pagell shared results from the first part of the two-part study. Part 1 involved conducting a series of on-site case studies of 10 business operations in 9 companies. The companies vary in size and industry sector; the smallest has 100 workers. Part 2, still underway, involves a survey of 200 Ontario businesses. Both parts are funded through the Workplace Safety & Insurance Board (WSIB)’s Research Advisory Council.
Data collected at each operation fall into four areas that Pagell described as
worker perceptions — an anonymous safety climate survey of 30 workers at each facility
claims data from the WSIB covering a 10-year period
classic qualitative data — interviews with a minimum of four managers at each facility
“any other additional information we could get. We did plant tours, reviewed award [documentation]…”
What the results from Part 1 revealed
While analyzing the data from the first study, researchers tried creating various groupings, or models, into which the data would fit. “If you group the operations by industry or size,” said Pagell, “it doesn’t work. If you group them by how dangerous the work is, it doesn’t work... but when you group them by what managers choose to do, it works. So, you end up with these two groups:
supportive of safe operations. In these workplaces, there is an assumption shared by everyone that management is committed to its production goals and to safety. The workplaces take a disciplined approach to how work is done, which is preventive and participatory. They also maintain a long-term perspective on how to manage both safety and operations. “If you can make this culture work,” said Pagell, “you will have the ability to simultaneously improve operational outcomes and safety outcomes, which means over time you’re going to do better on both of them.”
day-to-day. These workplaces are committed only to operational goals. They are not disciplined. They may have safe processes and procedures, but ignore them in favour of production. The workplaces are reactive and not participatory: workers don’t have much of a role. The workplaces focus on the short term rather than the long term. “These companies have poor safety performance,” said Pagell. “They also have lousy operational performance… The things they did to get the product out the door tended to mean the work was poor quality, which means they had to do it again in the future. And because they had to do it again, their costs went up. Because they were taking short cuts, people got injured, [which] also has costs associated with it and reduces the likelihood of them being able to produce things the next day. In other words, trying to meet their short-term goals by taking short cuts… did not provide any economic benefit. They met their daily goals, [but] they did it poorly.”
Pagell described one business that at first glance appeared supportive of safe operations. “Top management will tell you that safety is a critical priority,” said Pagell. “They have significant formal safety processes and procedures. They’ve got all kinds of manuals on safety training. They spend a lot of time and money training workers on what the processes and procedures are. They are also very willing to spend money on capital improvements that will improve safety… They actually have dedicated, highly trained, well-paid health and safety staff.”
“If you put this all together,” said Pagell, “they’re putting an awful lot of resources towards health and safety… all things being equal, this should lead to better than average safety performance.”
In reality, the business has a day-to-day culture, and its safety performance is poor. “They run their operations so that getting products out the door takes precedence over everything else.” Pagell noted an additional problem: “because they have that huge dedicated [health and safety] staff, the people in charge of getting the product out the door feel that health and safety isn’t their responsibility. ‘That’s somebody else’s job.’ So, from a top down perspective, they have a strong health and safety culture; from a bottom up perspective, they don’t.”
Pagell described a second business that at first glance did not appear supportive of safe operations. “This company didn’t have an OHS management system. They didn’t even have safety practices… they had no training in safety, and the person responsible for safety did it as part of much larger responsibilities for human resources.” However, this business’s safety performance was significantly stronger than the other business.
What the second business had was a single management system for operations and safety. “They didn’t really talk about safety practices or operational practices individually… We call this a joint management system. There are formal processes that allow for the shared planning, measurement and monitoring of continuous improvement for both the operational component of what workers are doing and the safety component.”
Pagell summarized the team’s findings this way: “when you’re putting workers at risk, you’re putting organizational goals at risk as well.”
“It’s important to note,” continued Pagell, “that among the companies supportive of safe operations, a lot of them were in highly competitive industries. They were running flat out, yet they were managing to operate in a symbiotic way. Management wasn’t going to take short-cuts to get product out the door a little bit faster, and put worker safety, product quality and customer satisfaction at risk.”
“So, it’s not about how competitive it is, it’s not about how much pressure you’re under to produce, and it’s not about how inherently dangerous the work is. It’s really about how the managers behave, the practices they engage in, and the culture they create. It’s really about managerial behaviour.”
A WSPS perspective
Scott McKay, Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS)’s vice president, strategic relationships, agrees that some companies have little understanding of their health and safety responsibilities, or how to act on them. They also aren’t aware of the benefits that a managed health and safety system offers.
“Then there are firms that are starting to understand it from a moral, legal or financial perspective, or all three. Many of these firms want to put together a managed system and initiate a series of prevention activities. If they conduct a hazard assessment, they’re able to prioritize their prevention activities and maximize their investment. If they don’t conduct a hazard assessment, there’s a good chance they won’t achieve their goals and the activities will flounder.
“Further along the continuum of health and safety performance are companies that truly understand how to implement a managed system. This approach is heavily focused on implementation and evaluation. Some companies have documented health and safety systems in place, but aren’t living or breathing them. They haven’t brought them into the company’s day-to-day culture. In these workplaces, production trumps safety instead of working in hand with safety.”
McKay points out that a managed system doesn’t have to be elaborate or complicated. He defines it simply as the most effective and efficient way to realize desired outcomes. “A managed system has to fit into your business environment, so a managed system in a small business could look very different from a system in a larger business.
“The bottom line: in our experience, a poor safety program often indicates larger problems within the business. Conversely, high-performing, productive firms have strong safety systems.”
How WSPS can help
WSPS offers a wide range of resources, including training and information, on all aspects of managing health and safety. As well, WSPS can provide consulting and auditing support to firms thinking of implementing or enhancing a health and safety system.
Review Mark Pagell’s PowerPoint from his IWH presentation
Read “Understanding breakthrough change: new study examines why and how,” about complementary research into breakthrough change conducted by the Institute for Work & Health (HSO Network News, November 2011). While both projects aim to identify and understand best OHS practices, the breakthrough change research looks at how and why a firm achieves OHS best practices
Read “View from the Top: 4 corporate leaders talk about health & safety,” Part 1 and Part 2 (HSO Network Magazine, Volume 1, Issues 2 and 3, respectively)