decade a new “X factor,” such as a potential flu pandemic, seems to come into play, threatening the optimization of a company’s human resources. Even the threat of terrorist attacks takes its toll on a company’s effectiveness as workers avoid the workplace or are less attentive to work.
In many companies injuries and illnesses that originate during off- duty hours exceed the total cost of on-the-job injuries or illnesses. Directors should be asking how the company is addressing these safety and health exposures. Is it advocating safe driving and seatbelt usage, as well as safe practices around home improvement jobs or other activities that may cause its workers to miss work or be less attentive while there, and increase health care costs? In our experience, the frequency and severity of off-the- job injuries or illnesses goes down as the organization’s safety climate and organizational culture improves.
Today, the Avian Flu, HIV/AIDS, and threats of terrorist attacks may be seemingly uncontrollable risks for global firms. Terrorism is now a global threat designed in part to disrupt normal business and economic activity. In the past, outbreaks of Legionnaire’s Disease in the US, and globally, smallpox and malaria, have posed difficult problems and placed stress on the organization. Directors should be asking what anticipatory planning is
being done and how the leadership of the organization might respond to such threats.
Are our employees aligned with the board, CEO and other leaders in our ongoing commitment to safety and how are we assuring maximum employee engagement?
Organizations that achieve safety and health excellence find ways to engage employees throughout the organization. True employee engagement creates personal commitment and accountability, and accountability is critical in improving safety and creating a performance-oriented culture. This is equally true whether a workplace is organized or not.
Engaging employees means more than putting up posters or having safety contests. Most employees have a natural interest in their own safety and the safety of others, and are open to becoming engaged. But actually engaging them requires an organizational culture that values safety highly, as well as leaders who express the value consistently in the things they say, the beliefs they hold, and the decisions they make every day. Directors should ask to what extent employees are engaged in safety improvement, how that engagement can be measured, and what steps are underway to improve it.
What kinds of cognitive bias may be aecting the quality of deliberations on environment, health and safety among our senior leaders, including our own board members?
to a variety of “cognitive biases,” habitual and largely unconscious ways of estimating the likelihood of uncertain future events. Such biases often cause wrong decisions. The most visible recent example of this process is the failure of the space shuttle Columbia. The accident investigation panel found that NASA knew the properties of foam and the hazard that it represented. However, the organization gradually became accustomed to the acceptability of the risk of foam loss and began to rely on its experience of successful missions rather than its knowledge of the actual risk. A culture developed that allowed this risk to exist in spite of the fact that it was known. This is one example of a bias in judgment that had catastrophic consequences for the nation. The director must ask: “Where are we subject to bias in the way we evaluate risk and predict the probability of uncertain future events?”
Just asking these 12 questions at regular board meetings and at meetings of the board’s environment, safety and health committee will engender a safety climate that may over time lead an organization to a zero-tolerance culture for worker injuries and illnesses. At a minimum, they help the board in assuring its own diligence in the oversight of safety risks and threats, all of which erode the ability of a company to deliver great results.
Tom Krause is the chairman of the board and cofounder of Behavioral ScienceTechnology, Inc., (BST) in Ojai, California. John Balkcom is an independent director of Aleris International, Inc. (NYSE: ARS). John Henshaw is the former Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health.
A rich literature suggests that even the most thoughtful leader is subject
Boardroom Brieng: Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery