What is an HRO? The Benefits of High Reliability Organizations for Lab Safety Culture

The Benefits of High Reliability Organizations for Lab Safety Culture

It’s a real shame that the term “High Reliability Organization” sounds like a piece of conference room jargon. When I first encountered the concept, I know I came close to dismissing it out of hand. What a mistake that would have been.

Contrary to my initial impression, the High Reliability Organization wasn’t just forced on workplaces as a new fad safety measure. It was discovered, already smoothly functioning but without a formal name. Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe studied professions that dealt with high-risk situations on daily basis (i.e. nuclear power plants and aircraft carriers). Weick and Sutcliffe were surprised to see that the different groups had all developed similar ways of operating. They termed this common methodology “High Reliability Organizing”, and then set about codifying their observations in their book “Managing the Unexpected”.

If I had to use one word to describe High Reliability Organizations, I’d choose ‘agility’. It’s less about planning, and more about flexibility, reaction, and quick thinking. High Reliability Organizations have an easy to understand framework that guides these behaviors so that unforeseen problems that arise are noticed, addressed, dealt with, and learned from quickly and reliably.

High Reliability Organizations focus on core ideas like accountability, communication, and thoughtfulness. A High Reliability Organization takes people at all levels of a company and gives them a powerful common language to talk about safety and uncertainty in a meaningful and productive way. It’s direct, it’s intuitive, and it is proven to work in setting where lip service just isn’t an acceptable option.

The transformations that High Reliability Organizations (HROs) achieve are remarkable. After the metals manufacturer Alcoa adopted the HRO principles, “workers [were] more likely go get injured at a software company, animating cartoons for movie studios, or doing taxes as an accountant than handling molten aluminum” (Charles Duhigg, “The Power of Habit”).

While lab accidents don’t always have the impact of a nuclear meltdown or an eruption of molten aluminum, and serious injury and even death are possible, but relatively rare, why consider the HRO model for lab safety? I’ve spent years doing bench work, and I’ve personally tried to improve safety culture in my lab. It’s hard work. When I look at the HRO model, I see a set of tried-and-true best practices for improving safety culture from the ground up. Figuring out where to start can be a real challenge, and HROs provide a welcome set of guidelines as a jumping-off point. Specifically, HROs help to stamp out small problems that can chip away at the integrity of a positive safety culture.

Imagine a not-unusual situation where there’s an unreported laceration or animal bite. When researchers see others dismissing a small problem, it can reinforce the belief that lab safety is not a serious concern, making it more likely for the next problem to also go unreported. With the HRO model, researchers are educated, motivated, and supported to make improvements themselves.

HROs excel at changing the way people think about these small problems. It encourages near miss reporting and helps employees to be thoughtful of the hazards around them. HROs empower workers to speak up when they encounter an issue that would normally go unaddressed. The HRO model produces better feedback by shifting the blame of an accident from the worker to the system. This change frees workers and administrators to collaborate and solve an issue so that it doesn’t happen again, instead of just fighting over who was at fault.

A combination of accountability and easier reporting make an environment where people work together to identify problems before they happen. This is the “secret sauce” of the HRO – when it’s working in full swing, it prevents problems from occurring in the first place. In the rare instances when these problems do occur, HROs recover quickly, and they’re equipped with the tools to figure out what went wrong.

Stay tuned for more on HROs. In future articles, I’ll be diving deeper into some of the core concepts of HROs and providing suggestions for practically using them in your research center. If you’d like to be one of the first to know when our new posts in the series are available, sign up with your email below and we’ll let you know when the new one goes live:

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