Communication in Safety Management
Introduction - Safety and risk management in an organizational context
‘Safety’ is the state in which unacceptable outcomes are prevented. In safety management, our primary objective is to proactively avert these undesirable outcomes. Karl Weick astutely observed that "reliability is a dynamic non-event". He stressed the necessity of a collective mindset that helps organizations to stay vigilant, anticipate potential issues or surprises, and effectively address them to prevent adverse consequences.
Nevertheless, the occurrence of incidents often leaves us bewildered as to their causes. Risks typically emerge from a complex interplay of factors and decisions, making it challenging to identify their ‘root causes’. Communication plays a central role in recognizing, mitigating, and addressing these risks. This article goes into the significance of communication within organizations and how it shapes our comprehension of reality, especially concerning the occurrence of unacceptable outcomes. For this I used the work of sociologist Niklas Luhmann, including his book 'Risk: A Sociological Theory'.
How organizations perceive and manage accidents
Organizations have distinctive perspectives and approaches in dealing with accidents, different from society at large. The formalized structures, roles, and responsibilities within organizations lead to specific behaviors and decision-making processes. Handling accidents within formalized systems is therefore complex, and specialized, organization-specific responses are needed.
Driven by expectations, organizations make decisions. They often adopt a risk-averse stance to avoid unwelcome surprises. Organizations frequently fragment decision-making into smaller components, enabling them to effectively manage risks. But this approach may inadvertently lead to delays, information-seeking, and revisiting initial decisions.
Organizations tend to manipulate probabilities in uncertain scenarios. Signs of safety are overestimated, whether leaning towards 'almost certainly safe' or 'this scenario is extremely unlikely'. In collaborative decision-making or in project presentations, uncertainty is reduced. Favored solutions are supplemented with arguments that make a residual risk seem bearable. External resources, experts, supplier reputation brought in from the outside, or internal investigations may help absorb uncertainty, even leading to the illusion of having it under control before the decision. All of this makes the initially presented certainty and confidence in the decision subsequently come into question.
Elaborate networks of expectations, such as safety rules and risk assessment forms, guide and trigger decision-making, providing structure but occasionally limiting the capacity to recognize unforeseen events. When these unexpected events occur, organizations retrospectively adjust their judgments and calculations. In hindsight, the initial hope, uncertainty, and openness associated with decisions tend to fade. The organizational communication process strives to identify causes and accountabilities. The organization sometimes uses post-decision regret to evade learning from unfavorable outcomes.
The Role of Communication in Social Systems
Communication is the foundation through which social systems organize, sustain, and distinguish themselves from their environments. The communication process encompasses the selection of information, message composition, and the interpretation of these messages by recipients. This last part - the interpretation by the recipient - is very important:
How often do we discard newsletters without reading them, despite potentially containing valuable risk management information? The sender may mistakenly assume, "I sent them a newsletter, so they are informed". Alternatively, your boss might deliver a safety peptalk, urging you to "care more" without collaboratively addressing underlying issues. This shows us that the success of communication is measured by the continual flow of messages, rather than unanimous agreement.
Safety-related communication is indispensable for disseminating policies, procedures, incident reports, and lessons learned. Diverse stakeholders may interpret information differently, impacting the effectiveness of communication. Importantly, safety management often grapples with situations where actions and responses do not perfectly align. Organizations have to acknowledge diverse perspectives and, again, comprehend that communication's success is not about reaching unanimous agreement but on maintaining continuity.
The Shaping Power of Media
Media, in their various forms, serve as both facilitators and constraints in communication. They play a central role in shaping our perceptions, extending communication beyond immediate presence, and guiding our behaviors. Media enable certain forms of meaning while excluding others. Mass media simplify the complexity of reality by relying on distinctions created by observers. Mass media have the power to select and disseminate information, shaping societal perspectives and defining what is deemed newsworthy. Their selections are influenced by factors like novelty, conflict, quantitative data, local relevance, norm violations, moral judgments, individual focus, current events, and expressions of opinion. After accidents and disasters, the mass media have a ball ;-)
Communication within the Sector
Organizations exist within dynamic environments. They have to remain receptive to external stimuli. For instance, monitoring regulatory changes, industry practices, incident reports, and other factors that may influence risk. Organizations exchange safety-related information to maintain an open boundary with the environment.
Digital communication technologies play a central role in quality and safety management by facilitating information exchange, incident reporting, and training. Categorizing information into relevant themes and topics enhances effective communication and decision-making, although it may obscure certain aspects. Transparency and responsiveness to public concerns are crucial for influencing an organization's safety practices and reputation.
Good old Face-to-Face Communication
Of course, real-time, nonverbal cues and direct face-to-face communication stay relevant in safety management. Nonverbal communication conveys emotions, urgency, and seriousness, amplifying safety messages. Encouraging direct communication within the organization is fundamental. For instance, gathering qualitative data by engaging with workers directly provides insights into practical challenges and risks, allowing organizations to identify potential safety issues and adjust their strategies.
Prioritizing Safety Data
Ultimately, organizations must discern which safety-related data to prioritize and transform into actionable knowledge. This involves analyzing themes and trends, allowing for strategic discussions to prevent serious incidents, and keeping a watchful eye on the controls used for high-energy hazards.
Organizations grapple with the complex interplay of factors and decisions that lead to incidents. They often manipulate probabilities and attempt to reduce uncertainty, sometimes to the detriment of ‘safety’. These decision-making processes are influenced by networks of expectations, rules, and risk assessment forms, which may limit the capacity to recognize unforeseen events. The importance of effective communication in these decision-making processes cannot be overstated.
Communication is the lifeblood of social systems, allowing them to organize, sustain, and differentiate themselves. Success in communication is not necessarily measured by unanimous agreement but by the continual flow of messages. Safety-related communication is indispensable for disseminating policies, procedures, and incident reports, and organizations must recognize the diversity of perspectives within their stakeholders.
Mass media have the power to influence societal perspectives. Communication within the sector, including digital and face-to-face modes, is critical for organizations to stay receptive to external stimuli and maintain open boundaries with their environment. Digital communication technologies play a significant role in safety management, offering tools for information exchange, incident reporting, and training. However, face-to-face communication remains relevant, as it conveys nonverbal cues and emotions that can amplify safety messages.
Ultimately, organizations must prioritize safety-related data, analyzing themes and trends to prevent serious incidents and maintain effective controls. ‘Safety’ is about preventing unacceptable outcomes, which necessitates a constant process. In communication with its environment, an organization has to work with the concept of ‘risk’ to ensure that high-energy hazards are not overlooked.
You can read about Systems Theory and the role of communication, here.