Safety and Health Excellence Proves Elusive

July 15, 2002
Regulatory compliance still gets the most attention from top management, so is it any wonder that only 20 percent of EHS professionals rate their safety and health programs as "excellent"?

For the past several years, we have been told how internal motivation such as leadership, management support and making the business case have guided EHS programs in the workplace.

Don't believe it. Regulatory compliance is still king.

Readers who took Occupational Hazards' National Safety Survey were asked, "What drives EHS performance at your company"? Nearly two-thirds listed regulatory compliance as most important (36 percent) or second most important (28 percent) among seven choices.

When readers were asked what approaches to win top management support of safety have proven most successful, 78 percent chose "need for regulatory compliance" (see chart below).

Using an external motivator such as compliance may be one reason why only 20 percent of readers rated their safety and health programs as "excellent" (see chart on next page). A corporate safety and environmental manager in Georgia, for example, gave his program an "average" rating because of an "overreliance on complying with government regulations."

When companies focus their EHS efforts on compliance, there tends to be a lack of management commitment and financial support. That was the overwhelming reason why 80 percent of survey responders rated their programs as "good," "average," "fair" or "poor."

"Top management and line management need to get involved and be the driving force," wrote a safety supervisor in Ohio. "All managers view safety as the safety supervisor's responsibility."

In some cases, corporate ownership of safety and health is lacking, such as for a health and safety coordinator in Illinois. She complains that, because of corporate's disinterest in safety, she has no power to make decisions on her own. "I report to the service director, who has veto/censorship over everything I do or write."

A safety and compliance manager in New Hampshire seeks greater involvement in safety and health from supervisors and upper management. Instead, he wrote, managers are "too much talk, not enough action."

Proactive involvement from management in safety and health also is missing for an environmental/safety coordinator in Louisiana. He would like to see managers who help "prevent incidents from occurring, not react to incidents after they occur."

Others who responded to the survey see line supervisors as the biggest obstacle to an excellent safety and health program. A safety and environmental director in New Mexico stated that "some supervisors have yet to grasp the concept that their production quotas are directly tied to employees who come to work on a daily basis accident- and injury-free." Another New Mexico reader, a facility safety and training manager, seeks "more buy-in to safety from the mid-level manager who insists on 'chapter and verse' citations of regulations before fixing unsafe conditions."

Management support also influences other reasons mentioned frequently, such as providing enough resources (i.e., money, staffing levels, etc.). A human resources/safety manager in Iowa wrote that "most of the things I would like to improve take money, and money is tight."

A safety consultant and trainer in Georgia would like to see companies "get the bean counters out of the program."

If management support isn't stopping EHS professionals from having an excellent safety and health program, employees may be the culprits. A safety engineer in Louisiana stated that his employer has "all of the safety programs [that] good, safety-conscious companies should have. Even with this, our employees still break safety rules more often than they follow them ... because they are either lazy or feel rebellious. What fascinates me most is how knowledgeable and aware these folks are in regards to the hazards and the safety requirements, yet they still choose not to make the right choice."

An occupational health nurse and workers' compensation coordinator in Georgia desires a higher level of employee awareness and participation. "They seem to be of the mindset that 'if nobody is looking, we can do what we want.'"

Ranking one's safety and health program as excellent may be a step toward complacency, according to a manager of quality manufacturing in Texas. "Any safety and health program is a living program. Room for improvement exists at all levels."

Sidebar: What single action have you taken in the past year that has most improved the effectiveness of your safety and health program?

"I changed my attitude that proactive meant punishment to using proactivity as an opportunity to teach, coach and alter attitudes." - divisional senior safety engineer in Michigan

"I started a daily tour with the general manager and a weekly tour with the vice president through different areas of the plant." - safety coordinator in Texas

"I developed a safety and health Web site for our company. This allows much more convenient access to our company's safety information. Our people are more willing to look up safety information from a Web site than from our safety manuals." - safety engineer in Louisiana

"The safety committee became a more visible presence. Members talk to workers and get their ideas. The workers then see that changes are being made and that they feel listened to." - safety coordinator in Massachusetts

"I implemented a corporatewide, 100 percent rotation policy that led to less cumulative trauma-type injuries for our work force." - health and safety coordinator in Ohio

"I finally achieved commitment from senior management." - corporate safety coordinator in Illinois

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