'Tis the Season

Dec. 20, 2005
As another year draws to a close, I find myself taking stock.

In 2005, I was named editor of Occupational Hazards and Homeland Response magazines; coordinated the 2005 America's Safest Companies program; and shared a gold editorial excellence award from the American Society of Business Press Editors for three Occupational Hazards articles pertaining to regulatory coverage. In addition, I co-founded a neighborhood beautification group and wrote two successful grant proposals for neighborhood projects; continued to restore my 115-year-old house; participated in the planning and opening of my city's first dogpark; worked on air quality issues in the city; and managed to find time for (very patient) family and friends.

In the past year, I alternately have felt excited, stressed, engaged, overwhelmed, enthusiastic, overburdened and trapped. Sound familiar? We are all busy people. But when do commitments once undertaken with enthusiasm become burdens? The answer for me is when I stop being engaged in the process; when I tune out instead of tuning in and lose sight of the value of the project.

Tuned in to Safety

The same is true of the safety process: For it to be successful, employees must be engaged in the safety process and management must understand the value both in human and financial terms of safety. Take, for example, General Motors, and the evolution of its safety process.

It was only a few years ago, according to Mike J. White, director of global and North American safety for General Motors, that "the UAW ignored our safety programs and the training we rolled out." Why? Because the perceived direction from GM management and, therefore, the message of the plant floor leadership to employees was: "Get the job done quickly, not safely."

When Paul O'Neill, the former chairman of Alcoa Steel, joined GM's board of directors in 1993, his first question wasn't about profitability or sustainability. "Where's the safety report?" O'Neill wanted to know.

Safety was key to Alcoa's business turnaround; GM implemented a new safety policy. That same year, GM management and the leadership of the UAW decided that safety issues would be hammered out before going to the bargaining table. In other words, safety is not a bargaining chip. It is the way the company does business.

At a recent safety management leadership symposium held by the American Society of Safety Engineers in Atlanta, White noted that safety now plays a key role in manufacturing competitiveness for the automotive giant. Since 1993, White estimates GM has prevented 1 million workplace injuries.and avoided 9,000 lost workdays. Since GM estimates that one lost workday equals $33,000 in direct and non-direct costs, those 9,000 days add up to a cost savings of $2.97 million for the company.

"How did we reach this milestone?" White asked. "The key to this success, and I can't stress this enough, is that you have to engage all employees in the process."

My most successful projects are the ones in which I am fully engaged and present. The same is true at GM and other companies with sucessful safety processes.

Are your employees engaged?

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of EHS Today, create an account today!