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Corrie Pitzer is principal and CEO of SAFEmap International, a global safety consultancy that focuses on risk competence, safety commitment and culture change. In this interview, Pitzer explains how strategic safety management, competency-based safety and other concepts can help reduce human error and improve safety culture in the workplace.

Please provide a brief description of your professional background and of your position as a consultant and specialist in strategic safety management for your company SAFEmap International.

My educational background is in industrial psychology (bachelor’s and honors degrees) and in business management (honors and master’s degrees) with a focus on human and risk management. I also completed a postgraduate qualification in education.

Career-wise, I progressed from the human resources field, as regional human resources and training manager for a large multinational company to group risk manager for Billiton (now BHPBilliton) until 1992, when I started SAFEmap. For Billiton, I developed several key strategic safety interventions for a workforce of about 120,000 at the time, comprising 65 mines, plants and smelters. The two initiatives, a safety review and a safety performance process, are still key processes in SAFEmap, now significantly refined and improved.

As the principal of SAFEmap, I consult to several large resources companies, largely in leadership and strategic safety development. As CEO, I also oversee the activities of our offices in Canada, the U.S., South America, Australia and South Africa.

What is strategic safety management and how can it be used to reduce human error?

Strangely, there is no such thing as strategic safety management, but there should be!

By definition, strategic management is the conduct of drafting and implementing long-range plans that will enable an organization to achieve its long-term objectives. It is the process of specifying the organization’s mission statement, vision and objectives, developing policies and plans, which are designed to achieve these objectives, and then allocating resources to implement the policies and plans, projects and programs. Similarly, an organization should have strategic, long-range plans for safety and safety objectives.

However, on closer inspection, most organizations treat safety as a tactical issue at best or as an operational issue at worst—setting accident rate targets and “plugging the holes” in the business with a reactive range of interventions or bolting on the latest fad. Very few organizations can name the coherent range of safety strategies they follow and which are integrated seamlessly with their organizational culture, values, vision and goals.

For example, if the organization states that an approach or strategy would be to establish and foster a “learning culture” in the business, it would necessitate transparent, supportive and blame-free human resources practices. However, most if not all countries’ safety regulations are such that a “culprit” for an accident must be identified, and it will be targeted with legislative persecution—all strategic issues that make reduction of human error extremely troublesome.

Based on your professional experience, what are the primary causes of human error?

Human error does not have a cause. Human nature is the cause of human error, if anything, because humans have an inherent tendency to change, adapt and create least-effort pathways to an outcome, which in positive terms would be known as innovation but in negative terms as risk-taking. That is just intentional human error/risk-taking. There would be a range of causes why a person did not see a stop sign or underestimated another vehicle’s speed or misjudged a risk altogether. Humans have an incredible capacity to tolerate or ignore risks, which, if we did not, would drive us crazy.

The traditional focus on human error is that it is the erratic behavior of people, and the things they should not be doing. The focus is on mistakes, lapses or lack of awareness—all of these point toward failure, and the goal is to eliminate this. But another view exists.

You established the concept of competency-based safety. What role can this concept play in identifying circumstances with a higher probability of human error?

Competency-based safety is a concept that evolved over many years and is based on the most fundamental premise: can you eliminate risk-taking behavior? You can, but then you will also kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, namely the human being’s innovative ability. The 3M organization is a classic example of that. They have recently returned to their innovative and learning culture after trying to implement six sigma practices—a management control process that standardized everything, eliminating cost and deficiency through statistical techniques—with nearly disastrous consequences. In competency-based safety, the focus is not on standardization and creating consistency but on the innovative improvement of work practices that will be more efficient and also safer.

You also developed a model and methodology called e-Profile to measure and study an organization’s safety culture. This model was extensively used in the Australian resources industry. How did you develop this model and how has it impacted safety culture in Australia?

The model was developed in 2000 for the Australian Minerals Council as part of an industry-wide survey of safety culture, in 42 resource companies. The model comprises 8 broad cultural categories and in total 41 factors, such as commitment, trust, balance, etc. The database of this survey model has now reached in excess of 100,000 employees, in many different languages and cultures, apart from English, also French, Spanish, Russian, Indonesian Bahasa, Tswana, Swahili and so on. The initial study was widely communicated in the industry and also led to the adoption of many strategic focus areas in the industry. Most notably, it created a positive focus on the supervisor and subsequently, many conferences and interventions were deployed to improve “the lot” of the supervisor. It also spurned a significant focus on safety culture in Australia, and many other survey instruments and consultancies have targeted different aspects.

More recently, we have developed a new culture model called Profile-R with a shift in focus: risk culture as against safety culture. The difference is important—the way in which an organization views risk is inherently a value-defining angle. It can be argued that the way in which they address risk also fundamentally defines the organization. Risk for a museum is different than for a deep underground mine or for an oil rig. Defining culture in risk terms also allows for a more broad view of risk as a potential opportunity or threat. If we talk about a safety culture, we inherently define risk as threat only.

Have you applied e-Profile when consulting in North America, South America and South Africa? If so, what was the outcome?

The e-Profile forms an integral part of our consulting and the first step in deploying the SAFEmap competency-process. In all organizations where we have deployed this process and where there was genuine commitment and support from management, the results were spectacular. We do not like to boast about our clients’ safety statistical improvements because we strongly believe that such an approach is part of the problem. In targeting accident rate improvements, the organization’s culture becomes increasingly opaque, secretive and eventually, pathological, such as was clear in the Upper Big Brach mine disaster and BP’s oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

What is the relationship between the human element and safety culture? How does one influence the other?

One of the most fundamental needs of the human being, as a social being, is the need to fit in. All organizations, no matter how small, have a unique set of forces, demands and prescriptions (culture) that influence the behavior of people who enter the organization. The influence is not a rational, one-way process. The collective behaviors of people define the culture and the culture defines the behaviors in a complex and dynamic way. It is dynamic because, just like risk, when you look at culture (measure it), you actively change it.

Just as risk and behavior are two sides of a coin, human behavior and culture are two sides of a coin. What we do not know yet is what to call that coin.

You have conducted research on risk-taking behavior. Does risk-taking behavior have a place in an organization that is trying to reduce human error?

As mentioned, risk-taking behavior is the “heart and soul” of innovation. You want employees to constantly seek new and better ways to do even the most mundane of organizational tasks. If an employee eliminates a small step from a task, s/he is adding value to the business, and the sum of all small values added by all employees creates what the Japanese call kaizen.

However, if it results in an accident, it hugely detracts value from the business and offsets the positive value it added originally. This is the key in all companies—to encourage and support employees to take the right risks at the right times and to do so competently. Hence, our focus on competency. We must give our employees the training to deal constructively with risks, identify and judge them and then provide them with a supportive environment so that if they make mistakes, they can learn and constantly improve their repertoire of risk skills. Not many organizations achieve that balance, and they need not take that risk if the profits are good and margins are large. But in the long run, that is not a sustainable option.

The research into risk-taking behavior was rather fascinating. I spent long periods underground at coal mines, observing the risky behaviors of coal miners, and came out of there with a different view and understanding of risky behaviors. Where it happened, it made sense to them (and to me) and was essential in getting the job done. What they lacked was an understanding of the threats around them. Even experienced miners had a limited and distorted view of what could injure or kill them, and they acted in terms of those perceptions, not in terms of the rules that would prevent the accidents. 

How do you define organizational error? What can be done to prevent it?

Organizational error is, just as human error, an unfortunate and ill-conceived term. All organizations are subject to deviance, failures, mistakes, problems, constraints, as well as successes, achievements and innovations. All organizations have latent pathogens inherent in their systems that create little but inconsequential failures every day. As soon as an accident happens (think BP), the investigators step in and can readily pinpoint the accident’s sequence of events/failures. It does not take a rocket scientist to start from an event and work backwards with hindsight’s cleverness.

In my experience, these pathogens are everywhere. The safer an organization claims to be, the more obscure but more treacherous these pathogens are. Employees know about them, but a culture of secrecy prohibits/prevents them from speaking up. That is what I would define as organizational error—our inability to create a culture that is transparent and constructive and a positive work environment in which people can make mistakes and learn from them.

How can organizations best incorporate strategic safety management into their everyday operations, especially if they have historically experienced a high number of errors, incidents and accidents?

A strategic decision would be to integrate safety management into the business’s operational management. The safety function in the business must change its focus and role away from the policing focus it now has in most organizations. This is still true in organizations whose safety executives are vice presidents and report to the president. Even at that level, the safety strategy is still a bolted-on, tactical focus on accident prevention. Just like the near 3M disaster, a safety strategy cannot work against the fiber of the business; it must be integrated into it.

Corrie Pitzer completed the degrees, Bachelors and Honors in Industrial Psychology and Honors and Masters in Business Management (Human Resources Management) and a postgraduate Diploma in Education.

He worked in the resources industry for the last 27 years, ten years as a senior executive for a large mining corporation (Billiton) where he spent several years researching, developing and implementing new concepts on human risk-taking behavior, as the Group Risk Manager.

He founded SAFEmap International in 1992 and became one of the leading consultants internationally in the field of behavioral safety. Pitzer consulted to most of the major mining companies and mines in Australia, Canada and USA.

He published several papers for the Australian Institute for Mining and Metallurgy, the Minerals Council of Australia and others and is a regular speaker at international safety conferences. His consulting firm SAFEmap operates several offices around the world.