Do You Use Safety System Best Practices?

By Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems

In my current role as an international TapRooT® root cause analysis and investigation process trainer, facilitator, and coach, I get the chance to work with over 500 safety professionals from 30 or more organizations every year. This level of exposure, coupled with my own personal experience in designing and implementing personal and food safety system improvements over 35 plus years, has taught me a lot about what it takes to achieve very low incident rates and to make the shift from a reactive safety focus to a proactive safety focus. I have also learned what safety system best practices look like.

One of my biggest learnings over this time is simple, but not practiced by that many organizations. Each process owner (manager or supervisor) must demonstrate daily responsibility for the safety of their people. As with process improvement, quality, or team development, you can’t expect a department (such as the HSE or Engineering group) to keep your customers happy or your people safe. It has to be a team effort – something that every leader is responsible, and held accountable, for on a daily basis.

Why do safety performance levels vary so much across organizations and locations?

As an international trainer for the TapRooT® investigation and root cause analysis process, I get the opportunity to meet and talk with safety professionals from around the world. These people represent companies that are at different places on the safety performance spectrum. Some have gone months, if not years, without a lost time accident, and they rarely even have OSHA reportable incidents – others are still experiencing fatalities. As a performance improvement coach, the main question I continue to ask is “Why is there such a difference in safety performance across these companies?” You might think that the companies with the relatively poorer safety records work in more hazardous environments, but that is not always the case. Some of our TapRooT® customers work in very hazardous work environments, such as off shore oil rigs or deep tunnel mines, but their lost time and OSHA reportable rates are low, even in comparison to relatively safer industries. Why does this performance difference exist? The answer is simple – a better safety system is being used.

As a Plant Manager, Production Manager, Director of Quality, and Industrial Engineer, I have learned that a system gives you what it is designed to give you. These companies have great safety records because their safety systems are designed to help them achieve these numbers. The companies that are struggling to improve their safety records have weaker safety systems. They may preach safety, have a safety professional on staff, and conduct the required safety training each month, but they have key components missing from their safety system. Take a look at my “Top Ten” list of safety system weaknesses on the right – do any of them sound familiar to you? If so, how many of them might be holding back your efforts to pursue safety process excellence?

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Top Safety System Weaknesses

If you would like to learn more about the safety system improvement tools I have to offer, please send me an e-mail at

Why do I think personal safety is one of the easier performance areas to improve?

Personally, I think personal safety is the easiest performance area to improve in (the others which I consider to be more challenging are cost, quality, and morale). In other words, if you are struggling to attain better than average safety numbers, you are also probably having trouble with the quality of your products or services, the morale of your people, and your profit margins. Why do I think safety is the easiest performance area to improve in? The answer is simple – you can more clearly see whether or not you have safety issues! Quality problems are typically tougher to spot, and morale challenges are even more difficult to identify.

By saying this, you might think that I mean you can see work area hazards, so you ought to be able to eliminate them. While this is true, I am speaking much more about unsafe acts than I am about unsafe conditions. Most safety professionals know that most accidents are a result of unsafe acts, as opposed to unsafe conditions. The great thing about safety is that we can also see unsafe acts, just as easily as we can see unsafe conditions. The problem is that we don’t have systematic approaches in place for (1) regularly identifying unsafe acts and (2) consistently addressing these unsafe acts when we see them IN AN EFFECTIVE MANNER. A sound near miss program or behavior based safety program is intended to do this, but far too few organizations have such approaches in place. When they do, these approaches are often poorly designed and even more poorly executed. The problems are still easier to spot however.

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Safety System Improvement Steps

Who is responsible for improving your safety systems and performance?

The biggest challenge I see facing those companies who are struggling to improve their safety records is simple. In these companies, safety improvement is seen as being the responsibility of the safety professional, the safety department, or someone else other than the front line supervisor (the process owner). In these organizations, EACH process leader (also known as a supervisor or manager) IS NOT required to identify and correct the safety concerns that exist in their area on a consistent basis. Such work is left up to the safety professional. They might have safety measures in their performance expectations, but rarely are these supervisors expected to demonstrate HOW they changed the work systems they are responsible for in order to make improvements happen. They count on the safety people or the engineers (or threats and fear tactics) to make them look good at the annual review. This is not a sustainable, or recommended, approach by the way.

The need for safety improvement may show up as a sentence or two in their job description, but how do they approach their jobs each day? Look at how they spend their time, and listen to the types of things they say when they talk with their people. How much of a safety focus do you see? Such behavior is a cultural problem, but it is also the leverage point for making significant safety gains.

The Key to Driving Positive Safety System Change

If you want real safety improvement to happen in a fast and sustainable manner, you have to do three things. Begin by changing the job descriptions of each process owner to include specific safety responsibilities. Second, monitor safety performance from both a lagging indicator (incident rates) and a leading indicator (at risk behavior rates) perspective. Third, require each owner to PROVE HOW they are consistently changing their work systems in order to obtain better safety results. Don’t tolerate poor performance. If a process owner is not meeting job expectations, provide coaching and support for at least year, but expect quarterly improvement during that time. If the desired changes are not practiced consistently within a year, help them find a different role to fill.

Keep improving! Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems

If you would like to learn more about the safety system improvement tools I have to offer, please send me an e-mail at

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What does a well-rounded safety system consist of?

This “Safety Star” contains five key components – measures, recognition, procedures, improvement processes, and workgroup meetings. These five components should be part of any well-rounded safety system. Some safety systems contain additional components. If you can find a way to at least build the approaches that are shown here into your safety system over time, you will find that it will produce better, and more sustainable, results.

My experience has shown me that of the four areas, companies tend to be the weakest in the ‘Measures’, ‘Recognition’, and ‘Improvement Processes’ areas. In those cases where meetings and training regularly occur, these practices are often much less effective than they could be. Don’t just take my word for it though. Review the safety star yourself. Where you currently have approaches in place that work well and where you don’t. How great is your safety system?

EXPLORE MORE: How great is your safety culture?


Safety System Star

Personal Safety System Analysis and Design – I can work with your safety committee or management team to design and execute a comprehensive plan for developing safe work systems and minimizing the potential for on the job injuries. Typical system components include a monthly internal audit process, safety committee setup, an investigation process for near misses and reportable injuries, safety training curriculum and material design, a project management process, and monthly safety reporting tools. I can also help you set up a behavior based safety system and a scorecard of leading safety indicators that can be used to address potential safety problems before they become real ones.

Safety System Improvement Steps

TapRooT® Root Cause Analysis and Investigation Training – I have taught over 400 courses and helped more than 600 organizations as a certified international contract trainer for the TapRooT® root cause analysis process. I believe that this approach to root cause analysis far exceeds the more opinion-based approaches that have been used for years, such as fishbone diagrams, 5 Whys, and fault tree analysis. Additionally, the TapRooT® root cause tree represents a collection of 103 best practices for reducing human error and performance challenges, and in turn, can be used to error proof your work systems. If you want to reduce the potential for accidents, minimize significant amounts of waste, improve customer satisfaction levels, and grow your business, you need work systems that promote effective, daily human performance and minimize the potential for equipment breakdowns.

To learn more about this service that I can provide you with, I would be happy to provide you with additional details or a quote for an onsite 2 day or 5 day TapRooT® root cause analysis workshop. If you would like to learn more about the safety system improvement tools I have to offer, please send me an e-mail at

Incident Investigation Facilitation and Safety System Redesign – Some of my TapRooT® customers in particular enlist my services to help them analyze persistent problems that they can’t seem to make go away on their own. By using a combination of onsite investigation interviews and facilitation, coupled with systems analysis, workplace observation, and online consultation, I can help you find the systemic causes of these problems. More importantly, I can help you identify effective corrective actions, (systems changes) that can be put in place to help minimize the likelihood that these problems will come back in the future. I can also help you improve your existing investigation process so that it routinely produces better results in less time.

Keep improving! – Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems