Ehstoday 634 Ceo Safety

Safety – A View from the Top

June 1, 2011
An employee’s amputation alerted this CEO to the fact that his company had some serious safety challenges.

As a senior executive or senior manager for any type of manufacturing company, you undoubtedly are concerned about the quality of your company's safety program and how it effectively provides a safe work environment for your employees.

You probably have a safety manual; safety guidelines; appropriate signage throughout your facility; training programs; an environment, health safety manager; a strong, worker-based safety committee meeting weekly; and safety discussions with management monthly and quarterly. Or do you?

In 1996, when I first became CEO of Pacific Grain Products, a food ingredients company in Woodland, Calif., it appeared as though we had all the components for a safety program that was sufficient for our business. Yes, there were some accidents, but we had procedures in place to handle them.

It was not until an associate severed several fingers in some milling machinery that I realized we had a serious problem. We were relying too heavily on manuals and meetings, and not instilling into our employees what safety really was all about. The first time I heard the ambulance pulling up in front of our front door was a moment I did not ever want to experience again. Unfortunately, it happened again, and it was evident we had serious problems.

And the problem began at the top, with me. The fact is I was being reactive but not truly engaged in the process.


By the time reality struck, we had been acquired by a much larger company, Associated British Foods, and they were very much attuned to safety in the workplace and the need for total ownership. We became part of the ABF Ingredients Group consisting of five different operating businesses with numerous plants around the world.

The ingredients group had a manager assigned to a corporate EHS position. This manager visited all of our locations and then came back to report his findings to the group. He based his assessment on the CEOs' understanding of what constituted a best-in-class safety program.

He compared the road to true safety awareness to knowing the way to Damascus. In doing so, he concluded that some of us knew where Damascus was and were on our way there but weren't really sure of how to get there; some had heard of Damascus and knew it was important to get there but had no idea quite how; and some had never even heard of Damascus let alone how to get there. His report was direct and to the point: We were not all on the same page with respect to our understanding of how safety programs should and could be most effectively implemented in our businesses.

In the beginning, our strategy included benchmarking visits to companies with very high safety standards, implementing vigorous trainings on a continuous basis, placing safety at the top of every agenda and having every CEO own safety and push it throughout the organization.

Eventually, safety evolved to the point that it begins when people walk through our front door. We require all visitors to view a safety orientation video at our plant because we expect everyone in our plant — whether employee, contractor or visitor — to share the same passion for safety as we do.

Each day we have two employees from different departments conduct behavioral based audits of our plant. They walk the entire plant and enter their observations on a white board in the break room for all employees to review. Every employee is expected to submit a safety observation form each month that details an observation made regarding safety. We average over 3,000 safety observations annually and track for completion. These observations range from behavioral — such as a fork lift driver going too fast or an office employee leaving a file drawer open or running an extension cord across a foot path — to the physical — a line of site to a fire extinguisher being blocked by a pallet. Observations also can include installation or equipment issues that might pose a safety hazard.

We have learned that we must be diligent in quickly addressing preventive actions through risk assessment. This has led to placing guards in certain locations to prevent employees from accidentally getting too close to a potentially dangerous location, for example.

Despite every precaution management takes, it is amazing how many things can be missed. Engaging employees who are on the floor every day and training them to look for risks helps them gain a keen understanding of their important role in achieving a safe workplace environment.


Today, we have an HSE manager responsible for these programs. I believe this is a full-time, dedicated position at companies that are serious about doing safety right. Our safety committee is comprised of employees who volunteer for membership. It meets every month and on an ad hoc basis for special projects. Management always is invited to attend, but the employees run the meeting. They own it.

Once a quarter, a safety management meeting is held with the divisional CEO and the divisional HSE director in London. Divisional meetings are held once or twice a year and all the operating companies can assemble and share their experiences, best practices and learnings. You see, when I first mentioned that the CEO has to own safety, I was not just referring to myself, but to the divisional CEO and ultimately the CEO of the entire corporation as well.

How do you gain engagement and empowerment? Simple: If you're the CEO, you lead. It has to be the CEO who leads the way for the safety effort to be meaningful and to create the awareness of safety throughout the organization. When the CEO provides direct leadership and then empowers the employees to take ownership, you are on your way to having a meaningful safety culture.

After providing this brief overview of our personal experiences at PGPI, you might be wondering how we are doing today compared to when we began our journey. Well, we still have not arrived at Damascus. We are so much better than we were but we still have not achieved our goal of zero lost-time incidents or some of the other metrics we have put in place.

As an example, our incident rate decreased from 16 to four in just over 2 years. We truly are on a journey and there is a sense of great accomplishment among our associates and a clear awareness that we want them to be safe in their work environment and to take that same awareness home each day.

Besides the achievement of creating a safer workplace and the fulfillment that comes from making great strides in worker safety is the clear business benefit. Working safe simply is good business. Reducing injuries of any kind reduces workers' compensation claim expenses, reduces or eliminates OSHA fines, reduces lost time from work and improves the P&L.

If you have not already done so with your company, I urge you to join us on the road to a safer workplace. You will not regret the decision.

Zachary S. Wochok is the CEO (retired) and chairman of PGP International Inc., Woodland, Calif.

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