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SLC 2017: What NASCAR Learned the Hard Way about Safety Management Systems

When NASCAR lost Dale Earnhardt Sr. in a fatal crash, it was a wake-up call to improve racing's safety management, even while driving 200 mph, says SLC 2017 speaker Jim Howry.

In his lively presentation at the Safety Leadership Conference in Atlanta, “Implementing Safety Management Systems,” Jim Howry – who is the associate director of the OSHA Training Institute at Georgia Tech – talked about safety lessons learned from NASCAR... Not exactly your average safety conference topic.

Often, said Howry, EHS professionals are told that adopting a safety management system – as opposed to reacting to incidents or injuries which is what many safety programs do – is too expensive. So he used NASCAR to illustrate his point about safety management as opposed to safety programs.

When Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed on the track, it was a wake-up call for NASCAR, according to Howry. In purely practical terms, the face of NASCAR – the man who drew thousands of fans to the track and whose face and number sold the most merchandise – was eliminated by a breakdown in the safety process.

NASCAR, like the NFL, doesn’t own the race tracks, doesn’t own the racing teams, doesn’t own the cars. NASCAR does, however, schedule and set the rules for the races. NASCAR demanded that the cars be redesigned so that seats are more centered, the cages surrounding drivers are better reinforced and the harnesses the drivers wear tether their head and neck to the seat. (Earnhardt suffered what amounts to an internal decapitation.) It demanded that tracks have safer barriers to better absorb impact. It required changes to the personal protective equipment worn by drivers. If anyone complained, Howry said, the response essentially was: “Do you want to race or not?”

Although complaints were made about the cost to redesign the cars and the tracks, the reality is that NASCAR hasn’t posted a fatality since the changes were made, which is healthy for drivers and good for business. When safety is integrated into the process and is managed as part of the business, it won’t be a drag on production, said Howry.

To that point, he mentioned that he says “Safety Third,” not “Safety First,” like so many of us have become accustomed to hearing. “If you ‘prioritize’ safety, it’s never going to bubble to the top,” said Howry. “What’s No. 1 is production. Money. Safety becomes an add-on.”

He mentioned speaking to someone about safety at a facility. Howry was told that safety was a priority at the company because “If we have another fatality, it will be the third fatality in our facility in eight years.”

Howry said his response was, “Are you telling me safety is No. 1 at your facility??!”

He mentioned another phrase we hear frequently in safety: “I want everyone to go home with all their fingers and toes.”

“I hate that saying,” admitted Howry. “If that’s all safety is, we would have solved it a long time ago… If you have an injury or illness on your OSHA log, then you had a breakdown in process. When you create a better safety process, your productivity improves,” he added, citing the improved business performance of Alcoa after Chairman Paul O’Neill’s now-famous emphasis on safety.

The only way to turn the corner on the 4,000+ fatal workplace injuries we experience every year in the United States is through safety management systems, said Howry.

In explaining the difference between safety programs and safety management systems, such as ANSI/AIHA Z10, he noted that safety programs:

  • Focus on compliance.
  • Concentrate on discrete events.
  • Identify hazards.
  • Are reactive in nature.

Safety management systems, he said, provide for continuous improvement, recognize safety as a business process and are compatible with ISO 1400 – Environmental Management System. Safety management systems also:

  • Focus on performance.
  • Are proactive in nature.
  • Identify risk.
  • Standardize processes for continuous improvement.
  • Bring programs together.

To illustrate his point about safety management systems being important to the bottom line, he showed a chart from OSHA that examined the “real” cost of an accident based on profit margin. If your profit margin is 1 percent and the total cost of the accident is $1,000, then $100,000 in sales will be required to pay for that accident. If that accident cost is $100,000, then $10 million in sales will be required to pay for it.

Cost benefit isn’t the only reason to adopt a safety management system, said Howry. Additional benefits include improved morale, increased productivity, a pro-active safety culture, increased workforce confidence and trust and increased compliance.

Howry said he had a safety manager once tell him they were working toward a goal of reducing injuries by 50 percent. “They had five injuries, so I said, ‘That’s great. That’s two and a half people who are going to get hurt. We should go tell them so they can be prepared for that.’”

TAGS: Safety
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