A conversation with leadership and safety culture expert and author, Dr. Andrew Sharman.
Dr. Andrew Sharman is on a mission, and it started with a book 137 chapters long.
A consultant and managing partner at RMS Switzerland and Professor of Leadership and Safety Culture at the European Centre for Executive Development, Sharman has spent more than 25 years working to improve safety in the workplace. Now, he’s published a one-of-a-kind, limited edition safety handbook (that reads more like a beautifully crafted coffee-table book) and launched a project called the One Percent Safer Movement.
The 252-page book, One Percent Safer, includes contributions from thought leaders around the world who Sharman hand-picked for their expertise in matters related to occupational health and safety. He describes the piece as a “handbook” that is meant to inspire business executives and OSH professionals alike to think about safety in a more productive way.
We recently sat down with Sharman and asked him about the genesis of One Percent Safer and the message he hopes the initiative will convey.
Cority: How did you come up with this idea of making workplaces one percent safer?
Sharman: It was 2020, and I was five or six months into my presidency at the Institution of Occupational Safety & Health. I had gone from Switzerland to Scotland for a short trip to visit family, and suddenly the world shut down because of the pandemic and everything was cancelled, and I was stuck. I was sitting there thinking one night, and I started feeling really frustrated with the way we were approaching safety. This myopic fascination with zero harm, zero injuries, zero accidents—it drives me crazy because safety isn’t binary. Something can’t be “safe” or “unsafe”; you can only have degrees of safety.
So, I was thinking about “zero”, and then I started thinking about some other safety numbers, like the 2.78 million people who die every year in work-related accidents or because of work-related illness. We have better-trained safety professionals than ever before, but that number hasn’t changed in decades. And why is that? It’s because we still haven’t got safety right—the way we work on safety isn’t working.
Cority: Is that when you decided there had to be a better way?
Sharman: Right. If you break the numbers down, 2.78 million per year equals 7,616 people dead every day. It’s 317 people every hour, or one person every 10 seconds. I thought, you know, we can’t keep looking at safety as all or nothing and get to zero accidents and deaths. But what we can do is try to strive for continuous improvement toward making working safer. One Percent Safer was born out of that idea—that if we can make the world just one percent safer, that would be 28,000 people that live this year instead of dying at work. And if we make the world one percent safer this year, we can also make it one percent safer next year, and the year after, and now we’re suddenly making significant and sustainable progress.
Cority: You launched the One Percent Safer Movement with a book. Can you tell us about that?
Sharman: I knew that I couldn’t keep telling people they needed to look for marginal gains. So instead, I wrote to 144 global thought leaders and I asked them: In 500 words or less, what is the most important and valuable advice you would give to make the world of work just a little bit safer?
The idea was to have 100 chapters, and if I got 100 contributors to each write one chapter, each chapter would represent one percent of the whole book. Well, 143 people wrote back to me, and three months later we had a coffee-table book containing nuggets of wisdom weighing nearly a kilogram.
But more than that, the proceeds from the sale of every copy of the book go directly to our charitable foundation to make the world of work safer.
Cority: Do you think this idea of incremental gains resonates with senior leaders of organizations? There’s obviously a natural inclination to say the goal has to be zero.
Sharman: In my consulting practice, I’ve worked with CEOs of the world’s biggest organizations, and the question they have the most trouble answering is, “What is safety?”. They focus on failure, and they set a target of zero accidents. The problem is, we can’t help but fail—as human beings, we make mistakes.
Of course, leaders don’t want to stand up and say, “our target is 10 accidents” or “five fatalities”, because that just doesn’t make any sense. One Percent Safer pushes the idea that we need to look at things differently. Safety is the only part of business where we’re measuring failure and believing that the absence of accidents means the existence of safety. It doesn’t. The absence of accidents might mean everything is okay, but it might mean there’s under-reporting, it might mean there’s a culture of fear, or it might just mean that we were lucky.
Cority: What do you think are the most interesting ideas within the book?
Sharman: It’s hard to choose a favorite – especially when you have contributions from people like Carillo, Cooper, Conklin, Dekker, Gantt, Hollnagel, Hopkins, Slovak, Schein, – basically the ‘who’s who’ of safety! – but Ann Davis, a regulatory lawyer and forensic criminal specialist in Europe, talks about the notion of bilingual safety. Her argument is quite simply that most practitioners don’t speak the language of business, and businesses don’t speak the language of safety. Another contributor, Dr. E. Scott Gellar, makes the point that we need to be more human in safety. He talks about the importance of practicing empathy and putting people at the heart of health and safety rather than process.
There’s a lot of thought-provoking stuff in there, whether you’re interested in psychological safety or mental health, physical safety or process safety, or risk management more broadly. Every single page contains a message that you can take away and interpret for yourself as a useful piece of wisdom.
Cority: How would you recommend OSH practitioners and business leaders approach this book?
Sharman: I’d tell them to just dig into it. I deliberately made the book with no contents page or index that says, “if you’re interested in chemical safety, go to this chapter.” It’s easy to pick up and read and go back to again and again, and that’s one of the things that makes it different from the typical safety book—there’s no one way to take it in.
We’ve been dominated by prescriptive processes and policies in the safety profession forever, really. The last thing I wanted to do was create a book that’s filled with a prescriptive approach. I’m hoping people will use it in a more human way, and then, as a result, be more human in their approach to safety.
Cority: The book seems unique in that it can take people on different paths depending on what they need in their organization. A lot of organizations believe that there’s some sort of recipe they need to follow, but that’s not what you’re saying.
Sharman: We know from research that people work safely when they feel like they’re part of something bigger; when they understand why safety is important; when they understand why their role in the business is important and why it’s important that they do that role well. They get a sense that they’re looking out for others and others are looking out for them. These things are all very human factors, and so I don’t think you can just say, ‘this is the prescription, off you go,’ or ‘this is the recipe, off you go’. There isn’t a universal metric that everybody can use. It has to be based on what fits your organization.
Cority: As a technology company, Cority is trying to help organizations utilize their data to enable people to make better decisions that are ultimately going to help them better manage risk. From your perspective, where does technology fit into this broader conversation?
Sharman: The late Peter Drucker—the management guru—said, ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’. My view is that tech organizations like Cority are really providing a useful support input to the OSH profession by helping us manage complex data in a relatively simple way.
I think without good data analyses of accident trends, accident themes, accident locations, it’s hard to work out where to invest the limited time and resources that organizations have. At its most fundamental, tech can help organizations identify the hotspots that they should be spending more time on right now. I think tech also, at its simplest, gets rid of all the Excel spreadsheets and formulas we used to need to understand what the data was saying. Now, tech like yours does all of that for us and tells us exactly what we need to know and exactly where we need to go.
For more on the One Percent Safer Movement, visit the website www.onepercentsafer.com
and LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/company/onepercentsafer/