America's Safest Companies: Walking the Talk at Bell Helicopter

A culture change at Bell Helicopter is fueled by the participation of all employees in the company's journey toward zero illnesses and injuries.

At Bell Helicopter, safety and a safe work environment are not the sole responsibility of the safety department, but of every employee. While many companies make this statement, not all "walk the talk" by backing it up with the resources Bell Helicopter devotes to creating an accident and injury-free environment.

Employees receive several types of training including DuPont's STOP (Safety Training Observation Program) and SMART training, which teaches good body mechanics and lifting as well as safety-specific training for their jobs and, in some cases, daily safety briefings.

Mark Bregenzer, manager of Shipping and Receiving, says the employees in his area have begun monthly safety audits as an outgrowth of their DuPont training, which teaches them to stop and observe both safe and unsafe behaviors and activities. In Shipping and Receiving, every operation is inspected by two or three employees who work in a different area. "You might have 25-foot lengths of pipe sitting there, but everyone in that area is used to them and just walks on over them," says Bregenzer. "The employees from another area bring a new set of eyes into it. They want to know "Why is that pipe a potential trip hazard laying there?"

Two of the most successful tools the company uses to engage employees in safety have been Safety Summits (for both hourly employees and managers) and Operations Managers Safety Training.

Operations Managers Safety Training

Participants in the Operations Managers Safety Training review the company's current culture, and look at seven "deadly sins" that have caused problems with compliance and safety performance. They study what other best-in-class organizations have done when faced with the same challenges, conduct a cultural analysis and culture gap analysis, and discuss what is needed for change to occur.

The seven "deadly sins" reviewed by participants are:

  • Tolerating EHS defects. "That's when you get accustomed to seeing the trees in the forest and don't do anything about it," explains James "Skipper" Kendrick, manager, Industrial Safety and Hygiene. "Kind of like those pipes Mark was talking about."
  • Assuming that small operations just because they're not part of the main focus of the company don't need an EHS management system.
  • Delegating responsibility without understanding what's been delegated.
  • Setting up EHS managers for less than success. EHS managers must be provided with the resources and corporate commitment to get the safety message across to all employees.
  • Positioning EHS professionals in the company hierarchy so they cannot be a catalyst for change.
  • Forgetting about the community. Bell offers activities for members of the local community, invites them into the facility and makes donations to local schools and for local projects.
  • Making safety the responsibility of the EHS manager only.

At the end of the day-long session, managers are asked to commit to one activity or behavior they will personally change to help move the culture change forward at Bell. Some managers have committed to daily safety meetings with employees. Others said they would take a daily "360;" that is, stop at some point in the day, do a complete 360-degree turnaround to look for safety problems, and fix any they see.

Bregenzer recalls he vowed at a meeting to never be caught without his safety glasses. There are certain operations in the area Bregenzer supervises where nail guns and saws are used. The use of safety glasses in those areas is a relatively recent and important cultural change at Bell, and Bregenzer says he wants to lead by example. "The first thing I do when I come in is put my safety glasses on and head straight for that area to check that employees are wearing them. I can't tell them to wear them if mine are hanging around my neck."

Conversely, when Bregenzer sees an employee exhibiting safe behavior, he stops and encourages him and commends him on working in a safe manner. "You have to reinforce the good behavior, not just criticize the bad behavior," he says.

Safety Summits

Over the past 5 years, cross-functional teams of 20-30 Bell employees evenly split between hourly and supervisory have gathered to discuss ways to make Bell a safer place to work. They review current activities, discuss safety challenges and break up into three teams to ponder three questions: What is Bell doing well as a company? What is Bell not doing well as a company? What should Bell be doing?

The results of the team activities are submitted to senior management for their review and approval. The summits have proven so popular with employees, and so valuable to the safety effort, that they are conducted four times a year.

A.W. Allen, the Facilities and Equipment manager, remembers that confusion about the correct type of gloves to wear during different operations was brought up at one Safety Summit.

"We have 13 or 14 different styles of latex gloves in the tool crib, and employees were confused about which type to choose. So with Skipper's help, we built a display board that includes all of the gloves and their uses," says Allen.

At the end of the summits, participants are asked, "What is the safety culture like at Bell?" The culture is rated from one to 10. The initial Safety Summits elicited responses of twos and threes from hourly employees; fives and sixes from supervisors. "Last year and this year, those numbers were getting closer together and higher, and from employees, we even got a couple of 10s," indicating more employee buy-in, says Kendrick.

"Hourly workers haven't had much ownership for safety in the past, not much of a voice in being part of the solution," Hurst adds. "Now, the people who use the equipment make the decisions that help them work safely."

Through the Safety Summits and the Operations Managers Safety Training, employees have learned to work together to achieve a change in the safety culture. Allen tells the story of one supervisor who held a contest for his hourly employees with the promise of a barbecue at the end. Employees were challenged by the supervisor to find and fix 150 SHEARS (Safety, Health and Environmental Action Requests) in a six-week period. The employees found over 200 and fixed 130 of them. (The remaining SHEARS required engineering changes or capital improvements and were passed along to senior management.) The union embraced this particular program, says Hurst, "because the UAW doesn't like to reward employees for things like no lost-time injuries because that leads to non-reporting. This is a proactive program to find hazards before something happens and someone gets hurt."

Kendrick shares an anecdoteabout an employee who wrote a poem on her own time about the importance of working safely, and shared it with her coworkers at an all-hands meeting a few weeks ago. "There was no way, a couple of years ago, that an employee would sit down on company time to write a poem about safety, let alone on their own time," says Hurst. "We have come a long way."

But not far enough, says Kendrick: "While we celebrate honors [such as being named one of America's Safest Companies], we still have a long way to go. We recognize this as one step on the road to zero."

Company Profile

  • Bell Helicopter is headquartered inFort Worth, Texas.
  • The company manufactures helicopters and vertical lift rotorcraft.
  • Bell employs 8,000 employees at 12 locations.
  • The company has 16 EHS professionals.
  • The lost-time injury rate at Bell Helicopter is 0.66. The industry average is 1.4.
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