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SLC 2024 Preview: A Unified Approach to Safety

May 29, 2024
Safety can mean different things for different people, and there are many languages to safety. That’s why it’s key for safety professionals to periodically focus on the basics.

It’s important for everyone to be on the same page on any job. Safety is no exception.

What one employee thinks is a safe practice could be, in a safety professional’s eye, an accident waiting to happen. That’s why well-defined and clear communications are essential to improving workplace safety.

David Thurwanger, EHS risk mitigation manager for Yaskawa America Inc., will share the aha moment that changed how he viewed safety—and the all improvements that have since followed.

Thurwanger will speak at the 2024 Safety Leadership Conference (SLC) that’s taking place Aug. 26-28 in the greater Denver area. More information, including registration, can be found here. Below is a preview of what to expect from Thurwanger’s presentation.

EHS Today: Your session will help to demystify safety, but how do you think safety got so muddled in the first place?

Safety has become muddled primarily because it lacks a universally accepted definition. Historically, perspectives on what constitutes safety have varied dramatically. Consider how some construction projects once quantified safety as having no more than one fatality per $1 million spent.

Today, safety means zero injuries for some. For others, it's about strict adherence to regulations. The most frequent definition I encounter is the idea that safety means, "Everyone goes home the same way they came in." But is this truly safety, or is it merely luck? Defining safety as the absence of negative outcomes is not only inactionable but can lead to both delusion and a disjointed approach to safety management.

Why do you think employees can recite a company’s quality policy but not the safety policy?

There are three primary reasons why employees might be more familiar with a company's quality policy than its safety policy:

  1. Clarity and Definition: Quality is often more straightforward to define and understand; it is typically described as conformance to requirements or the absence of defects. In contrast, safety does not merely equate to compliance with regulations or an absence of injuries. It involves a broader, and often more abstract, set of practices and principles, making it harder to grasp and communicate effectively.

  2. Adherence to Standards: The widespread adoption of ISO 9001, a quality management standard that requires all employees to be familiar with the quality policy, affects a significant number of companies—over 30,000 in the United States. Meanwhile, ISO 45001, which sets the framework for occupational health and safety and requires employees to know the safety policy, is far less prevalent, with fewer than 1,000 companies certified in the U.S.

  3. Shared Understanding and Relevance: There's often a gap in creating a shared understanding of what a safe workplace entails. Employees may be able to recite the safety policy, such as "We believe that safety is paramount to the success of our business and is the responsibility of everyone," but they might not fully understand what this entails in practical terms. Without a clear and actionable interpretation of the safety policy, employees are less likely to internalize its principles, making it harder to recall or prioritize compared to quality policies, which are usually more concrete.


How do you define safety? How do you explain it to others?

When I first took on my role in safety leadership, I found it challenging to pin down a definition of safety that truly resonated with me. However, everything changed when I had a conversation with Terry Mathis at the Safety Leadership Conference in 2017. He defined safety succinctly and effectively as: 

  1. Identifying hazards,
  2. Controlling these hazards, and
  3. Doing these things all of the time.

This straightforward and practical approach instantly appealed to me, and I adopted it as the cornerstone of our safety management system at Yaskawa.

This definition transformed how I engaged with our policies and even altered my view of OSHA standards. Before this, I saw OSHA regulations as mandatory requirements we needed to follow. But armed with this new definition, I began to view the standards as a collection of tools designed to assist us in identifying and controlling hazards more effectively. This shift in perspective has been fundamental in how we implement safety procedures and promote a culture of safety within Yaskawa.


When I hear the term “safety triad,” I think of a circular bar stool. As we all know, it does not take much for a three-legged piece of furniture to get wobbly! As a safety professional, how do you keep the safety triad from metaphorically wobbling?

Thank you for the interesting analogy! It’s a great visualization that I can use when I talk with our employees. The bar stool wobbles for one of two reasons: It’s either sitting on an unstable foundation, or one of the legs is shorter than the others.

Yaskawa has a long history of world-class quality. This applies not only to our products but also applies to internal processes. This commitment provides a strong foundation for our safety practices. To prevent the safety triad from "wobbling," we focus equal strength and attention to each element of the triad: identifying hazards, controlling them and doing these things always.

If we neglect any of these areas, our safety practices will become unstable, just like the stool. For example, a hazard that goes unidentified can lead to an injury. Recognizing a hazard but failing to control it adequately, or not consistently applying the controls we've established, can similarly put us at risk.


There are probably an infinite amount of reasons how something can go wrong, but why do you think it ultimately comes down to the safety triad?

In our analysis of more than 150 incidents over a six-year period, we observed that deviations in one or more components of the safety triad played a role in 89% of the cases. Although the dataset is limited and not extensive enough for definitive conclusions, it points toward a significant trend. In my upcoming SLC presentation, I will explore the particular failure modes associated with each triad element and discuss strategies to decrease their incidence.


How can safety professionals apply or utilize the safety triad at their workplace?

The initial step would be to champion the safety triad as the core definition of safety to ingrain the concept of safety as a value within the organization. The second step would be to weave the principles of the safety triad into every process.

This begins with the product and process design stages where, ideally, 90% of potential hazards are identified and controlled before any manufacturing or construction commences. Training for operators should focus on understanding these hazards, how to spot new hazards, and the actions required upon detecting any uncontrolled or inadequately controlled hazards.

Furthermore, when investigating any incident, it’s crucial to evaluate whether a breach in the safety triad was a contributing factor.


What happens after you've built that foundation of safety?

The safety triad is a cycle. We continually reevaluate to see if there are more hazards or if we can improve the controls. It’s a never-ending process. This mindset drives ongoing enhancements, utilizing technology to streamline each phase of the process.

For instance, we are on the brink of integrating artificial intelligence to analyze engineering drawings for potential hazards and employing augmented reality to identify risks on the manufacturing floor or construction sites. Meanwhile, we leverage one of our most effective tools—incident investigations with thorough root cause analyses—to learn how we can detect hazards earlier and take decisive actions to mitigate or control them.


We know that safety is a second (or third) career for many others. You have experience in many different areas: human resources; quality, production and manufacturing engineering; EMT; and as a hospital corpsman in the U.S Navy. What previously acquired skills or experiences have helped you the most as a safety professional?

Communication. While there are a lot of experiences that carry over—working within a regulatory environment, working under pressure, root cause analysis, etc.—it really all boils down to listening to others, making intense observations and the ability to communicate a message.


What has it meant for Yaskawa to be named one of America's Safest Companies in 2023 and 2017?

Yaskawa is honored to have been named one of America’s Safest Companies by EHS Today. Customers want to work with companies that care about safety because they know that safety, quality and productivity are not individual elements but a singular commitment to excellence. More importantly, this recognition is significant to our employees, as it acknowledges their dedicated efforts in establishing, sustaining and continually improving a safe working environment.


How does Yaskawa continue to refine and improve upon its successes? What is it doing to avoid complacency and keep making progress?

Yaskawa America is committed to continuous improvement in our safety practices because we are keenly aware that complacency can undermine safety efforts. To combat this, we consistently focus on the fundamentals of the safety triad: identifying and controlling hazards coupled with ensuring these practices are a permanent aspect of our workplace culture.

We prevent complacency by actively maintaining a fresh and engaging approach to our safety messaging, ensuring it remains a focal point for all employees. Furthermore, we strive to make adherence to safety measures simpler and more intuitive than neglecting them, effectively ensuring that following safety protocols is the easiest and most natural course of action for everyone at the company.


What's one thing you hope attendees take away from your presentation at the Safety Leadership Conference?

One key takeaway I hope attendees grasp from my presentation at the Safety Leadership Conference is the importance of a shared understanding of safety. Every new employee brings their own preconceived notions of safety, which have been shaped by past experiences.

Whether you choose to frame safety around the safety triad or another model, it's essential that everyone in your organization knows exactly what is meant when you wish them a "safe day." This shared understanding is crucial for fostering an effective and cohesive safety culture.

About the Author

Nicole Stempak

Nicole Stempak is managing editor of EHS Today and conference content manager of the Safety Leadership Conference.

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