SLC 2016: Everyone Plays a Critical Role in Safety

Aug. 23, 2016
When employees actively participate in the safety process, it builds ownership and fosters leadership at every level.

Brian Cook is the executive vice president & chief administration officer of USG Corporation and director of the National Safety Council. Here, Cook gives EHS Today readers a sneak peek of his session titled “How to Create a Safety-First Culture” at the Safety Leadership Conference in Pittsburgh, Sept. 19-21.

EHS Today: Can you offer us a description of your topic and how it relates to safety leadership?

Brian Cook: “Safety first” is a buzzword that nearly all manufacturing and industrial companies in the U.S. tout as a top value within their organization. It’s a term often repeated in promotional materials, executive speeches and internal announcements.

While creating a safe work culture certainly is of great importance to company leadership, executing safety best practices at operational locations across countries and motivating all workers to hold co-workers near and far to the same safety standards can be challenging.

Safety culture for an entire organization has to start at the individual level, with each employee motivated to follow through and live out their company’s safety priorities, on and off the job.

In this session, participants will learn steps that corporate safety leaders can take to ensure that “safety first” mantras ring true on the plant floor and share some safety best practices aimed at generating employee support around safety protocols. Participants will come away with practical suggestions on how to train teams to perform at the highest standards and how to empower their employees to make the workplace safer.

EHS Today: Why is that topic of interest to you and why is it important to SLC attendees? Please share an example of a personal or professional experience you’ve had related to the topic.

Brian Cook: While an employee-driven safety culture allows us to operate efficiently, avoid injuries and protect our people and communities from harm, it’s clear that when employees truly buy into a safety philosophy, it has a positive and powerful impact on every part of an organization. I was recently inspired by the response of our employees to a request we made which really showed just how committed they are to safety, one of USG’s core values.

In creating a new ‘Safety Vision Statement’ for USG Corporation, we encouraged teams across all of our operations in North America to submit videos about what safety means to them, why they work safely, and their vision for our safety future.

The videos revealed that safety is the common thread running through all of USG’s locations—and something that our employees value deeply. The company safety culture enables them to go home safe and well to their families, and to protect their fellow co-workers from harm. This passion was evident in the video submissions, which featured footage of employees leading our safety programs, safety habits extending outside our plant and branch walls and into the home and proud employees touting over a decade with no lost-time incidents at their facility.

These submissions inspired us to develop and launch a USG ‘Safety Vision Statement’ that everyone in the company can stand behind:

“We will be the industry leader in health and safety by creating an injury-free workplace and modeling safe behaviors for our families, colleagues, customers and communities. We are committed to working safely every minute, every task, every day—so we can live life to the fullest with those who depend on us.”

In the employee videos, many of our workers declared that “safety starts with me.” Our employees live that commitment by participating in employee-led Safety Audit Reports (SAR). Through this process, employees conduct inspections at a different manufacturing location, ensuring a set of fresh eyes on any safety wins or challenges.  Routine safety audits reveal our areas of strength and opportunity, and provide a holistic view of safety across our company. When employees actively participate in this critical process, it builds ownership and assists with retention, talent development and fostering leadership at every level. Most importantly, employees who participate in the audit process learn from the experience and take new ideas back to their home locations.

EHS Today: What are the takeaways you hope to leave with attendees?

Brian Cook: Everyone plays a critical role in improving the well-being of those around them in a safety-first workplace and in the industry as a whole. Although safety managers are essential in ensuring that safe practices and procedures are consistent across locations, companies should ultimately look to employees when determining the safest way to do their jobs. All of the best practices shared in this session will help attendees foster a sense of accountability in their employees regarding their own actions and the actions of their peers.

The importance of fostering individual accountability becomes clear when one of your plants encounters a potential safety hazard, such as a piece of malfunctioning machinery. In unpredictable situations like these, it’s up to your employees to minimize the danger to plant co-workers and the nearby communities

Additionally, make sure to emphasize to your employees that they do not need to be in a managerial position to step up when it comes to safety. Any employee can lead safety committees, conduct safety audits, and develop safe work procedures. Leadership’s role is to support and encourage complete engagement through head, heart and hands.

EHS Today: What do you think are some of the most pressing EHS and risk management issues facing corporate leaders and safety professionals in 2016 and beyond?

Brian Cook: No matter how strong your company’s safety culture is, we need to keep looking toward zero.  Some of the challenges that we must address to move toward a safer culture are communication, a changing workforce and using leading indicators.

Nothing happens in a vacuum, and we can all learn from others’ experiences. When an operational location solves a safety problem or improves a process to make it safer, we need an efficient way to share that information with other locations. Whether that’s an internal forum, a data bank or another tool, we need to create the space for open and honest communication. Employees need to feel free to approach leaders with EHS questions and solutions.

With thousands of Baby Boomers retiring every day, attracting, training and maintaining the younger workforce will continue to be a challenge. As we lose employees with decades of experience in their roll and with safety procedures, open communication becomes even more important. We need to dedicate time and space to the sharing of knowledge that will keep our younger workforce safe.

Using leading indicators is another area that will continue to promote improvement in EHS results. It’s no longer good enough to find out what went wrong and to fix it after the fact. We need to look ahead, to predict what could go wrong, and to prevent it. Using leading indicators requires an increased investment in EHS activities, but pays dividends in reduced incidents.

EHS Today: How will this session help attendees be a better resource for their employers?

Brian Cook: This presentation will provide attendees with some tools to help them create a safety-first culture at their own companies. They will have a new grasp on the importance of fostering an employee-driven safety culture, and will have learned a few strategies they can use to start executing on their safety priorities. The tactics we discuss will better equip them to turn company conversations surrounding safety initiatives from ones that are reactive to ones that are proactive. By learning about the steps that USG has taken on its safety journey, participants will come away with new ideas about how bring their own safety cultures to life through the work their employees do every day.

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