(October 2011) It seems like almost every organization supports safety. Posters proclaiming “Safety First” are plastered all over companies around the world, and many corporate manuals contain words saying something similar to “Any employee can call stop.” And yet the real world of corporate culture often strays far from this ideal. The intense pressure to reduce costs and increase profits can lead corporate management to cut corners on safety and even to pressure employees to ignore problems and take risks. The NTSB report on the New Mexico State Police (NMSP) helicopter crash in June 2009, which I wrote about last month, contains a wealth of valuable advice for management. In fact, the NTSB devoted 17 pages, or about 25 percent of the report, to management and organizational risk-management issues.
Listen to Your Experts
In an ideal world, management would realize that it is there to make it easy for employees to do their jobs. As managers work to come up with corporate policies and procedures, they would seek the input of their experts — the pilots, mechanics and other personnel who know from experience how to fix and fly airplanes, and how to keep customers happy. The unfortunate reality is that people in management, some of whom may have no operational experience, often fail to take advantage of the wealth of experience and expertise available from their employees. This can lead to friction with employees who are trying to do the right thing, keep the customer happy and put safety first. The NTSB report states that the NMSP chief pilot reported to a special operations captain. The chain of command continued through a major, the deputy chief of police and the chief of police before finally culminating with someone called the Department of Public Safety (DPS) cabinet secretary, who had overall responsibility for the NMSP. No one in this chain of command had any aviation knowledge or experience except for the cabinet secretary, and apparently no one consulted with aviation personnel on aviation safety and management issues.
Be Alert to Pressure
Even a simple pep talk can be perceived by employees as an edict from management to get the job done no matter what, and overt pressure can have a devastating effect on safety. In the case of the NMSP, the DPS cabinet secretary took a personal interest in the aviation section due to his aviation experience. Part of this interest seemed to be focused on maximizing use of the aircraft. The former chief pilot stated that he often received complaints from the cabinet secretary when he turned down flights he considered too dangerous, and he was eventually relieved of his duties as chief pilot for declining a mission because he didn’t think it was safe. This kind of pressure from management, however well intended, can lead to people taking unnecessary risks, and sooner or later will result in an incident or accident that costs far more than anything saved by cutting corners on safety.