ASSE: Safety: Top Execs Say 'Just Do It'

June 16, 2004
Keep raising the bar, get involved in mentoring and mentor up, market yourself and safety within the company, and just do it, was some of the advice corporate leaders gave occupational safety, health and environmental professionals during the Executive Summit on Safety at the annual American Society of Safety Engineers' (ASSE) conference in Las Vegas.

Close to 3,000 conference attendees gathered to hear Bechtel Group Inc.'s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Riley P. Bechtel, Bell Helicopter's Chairman Emeritus John R. Murphey, DuPont's Vice President of Safety, Health and Environment Paul V. Tebo, and Bahrain Petroleum Co.'s Chief Executive Hussain Tadayon discuss the role safety, the safety professional and management play in their organizations when it comes to protecting workers.

Tadayon said safety professionals must market themselves within the company, maintain their knowledge base and keep learning. "They should not wait to be asked but be there with answers, be creative and they must know and understand their company's needs," he said. "When it comes to quantifying the benefits of safety we must look at the level of risk, probability, the costs and the benefits. We need guidance from ASSE to be able to translate intangibles into tangibles, that is a hard thing to do."

Dupont's Tebo told the audience, "Keep safety visible. We put up a traffic light in our offices. When a tragedy occurs, the red light goes on and we all immediately discuss the incident and how we can prevent it from happening again. We need to keep it personal. This is not just about statistics; it's about people; people getting hurt. You need to keep reminding people that workplace safety is getting better, but don't communicate through statistics, again keep it personal."

Bechtel, responding to what advice he would give safety professionals noted, "Perceived workplace safety problems due to different cultures around the world is just not true. They can be addressed and solutions found. For instance, at a project in Croatia, we had major safety problems there at first and realized that the workers were coming to work inebriated. We found that their culture allowed for drinking beer and eating bread in the morning before work. Well, we changed that, especially in light of the fact that it was for their safety as well. We instituted rules and drug testing and in no time, the workplace culture changed."

Bechtel advised safety professionals, "Remember how you grew up: there were things you would tell one parent, things you would tell another parent and things you would tell both parents. Or you just did it before telling your parents. Like when you were growing up, as long as you are doing the right thing, just do it. Then tell management. If it is the right thing it will work out."

Bell Helicopter's Murphey suggested becoming part of a mentoring program where a safety professional is mentored by a company officer and also suggested that safety professionals mentor people coming up through the ranks.

As for a company's safety culture, the panelists agreed that everyone should be accountable for safety and that senior management must value safety and advocate it throughout the company.

"We have safety walkabouts for top management," Murphey said. "Our leadership team is also measured by the company's safety results and they are tied to management's compensation packages."

Bahrain Petroleum's Tadayon said that company's leadership team reports on the company's safety efforts at quarterly board meetings, works with the trade unions on safety initiatives and conducts walkabouts. "When a major safety milestone occurs, the company chairman immediately sends a congratulatory letter," he noted.

"I can best illustrate the need for a focus on safety and its return on investment from this story," Tebo said. "In 1997, one of our plants had a small fire. No one was injured, but because of that fire, the plant was closed down for three months. We were oversold and to meet our customer's needs, we had to invite our competitors to fill those orders. Needless to say, by doing this, we eventually lost some of our business to our competitors. This one little fire, that could have been prevented, cost us around $30 million."

Tebo has championed the DuPont "the Goal is 0" approach to environmental stewardship and is responsible for integrating safety, health and environmental excellence as a core business strategy.

"There is no silver bullet. Zero is the only place to be, but there must be an unwavering commitment from management. It is hard for safety professionals when nothing goes wrong to communicate the return on investment when discussing budgeting and strategy," Tebo said. "It's similar to when Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge goes before Congress to request more resources when nothing has happened. We need to find a way to articulate the effectiveness of our efforts."

If you want to do business with Bechtel, you have to have safety as a core value. "Safety is one of our core values. It's good to work with customers that share that value. We don't work with a customer … that does not have the same level of safety commitment." Bechtel said. "And safety should not be pushed down the priority list because nothing happened."

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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