Corner Cubicle: Cummins Tells its Leaders to 'Get Going' on Safety

Corner Cubicle: Cummins Tells its Leaders to 'Get Going' on Safety

Strong leadership is essential to the success of any organization, and it's certainly essential to EHS excellence.

As the 175 America's Safest Companies have demonstrated over the past 13 years, the vast majority of firms that excel at safety are blessed with courageous leaders who believe that safe production is the most profitable and sustainable path for their businesses. 

Those who attended the National Safety Council's 2014 Congress and Expo in San Diego were fortunate enough to hear from one executive who exemplifies safety leadership: Tom Linebarger, chairman and CEO of Cummins Inc. You can count me among the attendees who came away from his presentation inspired and impressed.

For Columbus, Ind.-based Cummins, a $17 billion company with 48,000 employees, EHS excellence starts with leadership engagement. In layman's terms: The company demands that its leaders – from senior executives to line supervisors – care about safety. 

In corporate terms, Cummins demands "that everything we do leads to a cleaner, healthier, safer environment." As one of five mission statements, the promise to do right by employees and the environment codifies the mandate that all company leaders need to have a stake in safety.

"When we wrote this more than 10 years ago, we used the word 'demand' on purpose," Linebarger said. "It took some debate among our leadership team, but we settled on 'demand' because we wanted to eliminate the economic calculus, [the debate] about what's the ROI on this. We decided that we're done talking about it. It means that every leader has to be outspoken, has to be out front about safety, and there's no need to do any economic calculus – just get going."

The story of Cummins gets to the heart of the $64,000 question for many safety directors: How do you get the CEO of a multibillion-dollar company – operating in 190 countries – to truly care about safety? 

It helps when your CEO worked his way up from the factory floor, where he started as an intern assembling diesel engines. When Linebarger interned at the company's Walesboro, Ind., engine plant in the early 1990s – while pursuing graduate degrees at Stanford University – safety already was a core value. Since then, the company's commitment "and our willingness to focus, invest and confront more" have grown steadily.   

Still, for Linebarger, the importance of safety didn't hit home until he was a senior manager.

"We had a fatality in the company, and the safety leader and the plant manager spoke to a group of us about that incident," Linebarger recalled. "And I began to think about the humanity of that person's loss in much more tangible terms. It wasn't that I didn't care about it before. But as it got more personal, I began to imagine myself in that place, losing somebody who I cared about," or having to inform a worker's family members about a fatal accident involving their loved one.   

At that point, Linebarger said, he realized that workplace safety isn't "just about numbers."

"It turned up the heat a little bit," he added.

Linebarger, who became CEO on Jan. 1, 2012, keeps the heat turned up on safety. He wants to know about every serious safety incident within 24 hours. And the company has tried to light fires under the bellies of its middle managers through its "Live it, Lead it" program, which helped Cummins earn the National Safety Council's 2014 Robert W. Campbell Award for EHS excellence. 

To show how the program changes the way that company leaders think about safety, Linebarger shared an experience from his visit to a Cummins plant in Juarez, Mexico. Just as the plant manager was about to take Linebarger on a tour of the facility, he asked Linebarger to place his hands on the safety rails, noting that a worker recently had tripped and fallen on the stairs, ending a streak of 400 days without an accident.

"This is exactly the living-leader behavior that we're looking for – a manager willing to tell his boss's boss's boss to put their darn hand on the safety rail," Linebarger said. "By the way, I always put my hand on the safety rail now, which is exactly what we should be doing."

Cummins's approach to safety leadership is what every company should be doing. While Cummins is fortunate to have an articulate, homegrown CEO as the face of its safety leadership, the company's mission statement demands – and empowers – all of its managers to be safety leaders, regardless of who's at the helm. That's safety leadership. 

On Oct. 27, Cummins will be hosting one of the facility tours for EHS Today's Safety Leadership Conference in Indianapolis.

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