Sandy Says: How Often is Too Often When Crying Wolf?

It rained yesterday. That's not exactly an exciting news flash, is it?

But apparently to my local weather forecasters, it was the stuff of legends. We had tornado warnings, tornado watches and flash flood warnings … They broke into evening programming to track the storm – and I kid you not – street by street. How did we survive before Doppler radar came along?

When I was a kid and we heard storm sirens, we grabbed a radio, some snacks, a jug of water, the dog and cat, and headed for the basement. Now, we ignore the warnings and stay on the couch and grumble about television programs being interrupted. Potentially, we are risking our safety because we have become immune to the warnings.

We just conducted our annual EHS Safety Survey and the results can be found on page 18. Nearly 50 percent of respondents indicated they are targeting increased employee engagement as a goal. As Senior Editor Josh Cable writes in the article, this "point(s) to the ongoing challenge of winning the hearts and minds of employees and supervisors, with the end goal of a world-class, self-sustaining safety culture."

What I found fascinating was that out of nearly 1,000 respondents, only 5 percent described their EHS programs as "world-class." Some of that might be modesty, but a lot of it is honesty. And not to cry wolf and claim the sky is falling, but I think we're in trouble. 

Nearly 80 percent of respondents agree that top management in their organizations provided "active and visible support for occupational safety and health." That's an impressive number, by anyone's standards.

However, nearly 40 percent of respondents said their organizations prioritize production over safety. If efforts are being made to engage employees – and you'll read about one EHS manager's creative way to do that – and 80 percent of top management offers active and visible support for safety, then who is perpetrating the competition between production and safety?

I believe supervisors and lower-level managers have become immune to safety efforts and they're leading workers by example. Often, they are the people tasked with meeting production goals. And when their goal simply is to increase production by 5 percent or 10 percent or whatever production goal senior management has set for the company, they'll do their best to meet that goal. 

It might mean adding another shift – and how those workers are onboarded can make a huge difference, since new and young workers often suffer higher injury rates – or ignoring maintenance issues because shutting down machines takes time away from production. Or are they encouraging employees to work faster, not smarter, by overlooking what they decide are "small" safety infractions for the sake of production? Or have they diverted resources from safety-related requests to the bottom line to show greater profitability?

I've visited a number of companies where senior managers practically wept when discussing the importance of safety to them personally and the supervisors, in the presence of upper management, nodded their heads vigorously while the boss was talking. Afterwards, they shrug their shoulders and tell me, "Yeah, safety's important but if I don't make my numbers, I'll lose my job. And my job is more important." 

Most companies I've seen that I would consider world-class hold supervisors and managers just as accountable for safety as anyone else in the facility. Bonuses and sometimes even promotions and/or pay are related to safety and employee engagement efforts, not just production numbers. They don't risk their jobs to work safely and to encourage workers to be safe; they're rewarded for doing so.

If we want to shift that bar on the number of EHS managers who self-identify their programs as world-class, every employee needs to walk the safety talk AND be recognized and praised for doing so. And upper managers need to acknowledge that they shouldn't openly talk about the importance of safety but silently promote production by ignoring the safety shortcuts supervisors make or encourage employees to make to reach production goals.

Send an e-mail with your thoughts to [email protected].

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