Systems Thinking – Integrating safety eyewear into the PPE program at work

April 6, 2022

For most trades, coming to the worksite with safety boots, hard hats, and even high visibility vests or clothing is second nature — they just put them on as they leave home and never think twice about it again until the end of the day.

It just isn’t the same with safety eyewear.  It’s not uncommon to see employees with their safety eyewear on their heads, hanging around their necks on a lanyard, or in their pocket.  Actual use and enforcement of safety eyewear depends on employee perception of the hazards to the eyes, work site policy, and the energy put into enforcement of wearing  safety eyewear. With more than 700 Canadian workers per day sustaining eye injuries on the job¹, employers need to pay closer attention.

An approach to improving this, and workplace health and safety in general, is for all of us to start thinking “systems”.  Systems thinking means considering the interactions between all the parts of the system (human, legal, technical, information, economic and organizational) in the realm of an organization’s goals. Too often we think in terms of silos, safety program elements, HR programs, training programs, standard operating procedures, and work methods.  Figuring out where safety eyewear selection, use, and compliance fits in our overall programming can sometimes be difficult.

When a serious jobsite eye injury occurs, the corporate focus turns to the investigation into what happened and how a re-occurrence can be prevented. Often each department looks at their own system in isolation asking questions such as: How could this happen?  Why was the worker not wearing safety eyewear?  Why didn’t the employee consider the hazard of not wearing safety eyewear when doing that job task? The safety team will say safety eyewear compliance was an operations role.  Operations will say that the training was incomplete or that HR failed to confirm the need for safety eyewear during the onboarding process. Each group tends to regress into their own silo.

If we take a systems approach to understanding the issue, we would ask more general questions as a team and learn more, such as:

  • How do we attract and hire the best employees?
  • How do we onboard them?
  • What is the safety training content and does it include all components, including safety eyewear?
  • How do we tutor, coach, and mentor employees in proper hazard assessment and use of safety eyewear?
  • What is our PPE enforcement strategy including enforcement of safety eyewear use?
  • What did job observation teach us about compliance of safety eyewear use?

The goal here is to work as a team and develop real interventions and shifts in policy and procedure that will be dramatic in the change it brings.  It becomes less important to find out which siloed system failed and more about working together to implement an effective corrective action.

The truth is workplace safety and safe production operate as complicated systems, rather than simple cause-effect relationships. Understanding how these systems work and are interconnected is the key to understanding why minor faults manifest and result in major incidents that seem to keep happening.  What is required is for all of us to look beyond pointing a finger of blame.  If we can do this, we will get closer to finding the system failure that allowed the incident to happen.

Systems thinking is a view of all systems from a broad perspective and seeing the overall structures, patterns, and cycles in systems, rather than seeing only specific events. By focusing on the entire system, the safety professional can attempt to identify solutions or leverage points that address as many problems as possible in the system. The positive effect of this is that it will create improvements throughout the system.

It is also up to every employee to create their own personal culture of safety, by getting into the habit of donning goggles or safety glasses whenever they put on other safety gear.  Seeing is a gift that deserves protecting. Protect your eyes!

 ¹The Incidence of Eye Injuries in Canada, Keith D. Gordon, PhD; 2012

Glyn Jones is a partner at EHS Partnerships Ltd. in Calgary. He is a consulting occupational health and safety professional with 35 years of experience. He is a regular safety conference speaker in Canada, and he provides program design and instructional support to the University of New Brunswick’s OHS certificate and diploma programs.

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