What Safety Excellence Managers Do

May 12, 2006
One of the most commonly cited reasons (excuses) for underperformance in safety is lack of management commitment.

by Larry L. Hansen, CSP, ARM

The truth of the matter is: Senior managers care deeply about many things; most importantly, delivering results to shareholders, meeting stakeholder expectations and keeping their jobs! And, as extremely intelligent individuals, they clearly recognize that the key to their success and longevity with the company is their ability to deliver products and services at quota, within specification, under budget and on time and not injure anyone in the process!

Executives of high-performing organizations have a clear understanding of Peter Drucker's contention that, "The first duty of business is to survive, and the guiding principle of business economics is not the maximization of profit, it is the avoidance of loss."1 Consequently, they recognize that loss, cost and expense are the only things a manager can truly manage; and by effectively doing so, transform top dollars (revenue) to bottom dollars (margin) the ultimate objective of every manager.

James Champy, author of "Re-Engineering Management," observes: "Much of American management doesn't seem willing or equipped to address directly what is often the real core of operational problems-mindset." And, in safety, it is traditional safety mindset concerning accident causation and correct strategy that impedes most organizations from attaining safety excellence results.

It keeps Going and Going and...

In the 1930s, H.W. Heinrich set the safety discipline on a course it has not yet been able to correct. From his original theory of causation has evolved an embedded managerial belief that workplace accidents are primarily caused by but one thing: "PDD" people doing things more commonly referred to as "unsafe acts." Based on the belief that people are the problem, traditional strategies have evolved to focus on education and training, enforcement of company rules and government regulations and engineering controls such as machine guards to "idiot-proof" equipment and the processes. But, as quality-control consultant Karl Albrecht has observed: "You work hard to idiot-proof a process, and sure enough, someone goes ahead and develops a smarter idiot!"

Today, in the Year of the Dog ... not much has changed!

A recent survey of the profession indicates that the majority of U.S. companies continue to employ traditional safety strategies: training (81 percent), compliance (74 percent) and technical controls (75 percent).2 Bottom line: What we believe about accident causation and, as a consequence, what we do about safety, has changed very little over the past 50 years.

And results continue to change rapidly, for the worse.

According to National Council of Compensation Insurers data, although total workers' compensation cases filed over the past 10 years have been reduced significantly (over 34 percent), the cost of workplace injuries continues to escalate, with annual indemnity and medical costs increasing 7.4 percent and 9 percent, respectively.3

No "Quick Fixes," but ...

Accidents, injuries and their financial consequences called LOSS, for lack of safety strategy all have the common trigger of at-risk behavior and multiple common causes. The Professional Safety May 2000 article, "The Architecture of Safety Excellence,"4 identifies these performance drivers as the "Strategies of Excellence," specifically organizational: culture (values), leadership (actions), structure (relationships) and process (performance systems). These variables interact to produce organizational performance, and ultimately determine outcomes and results. Although there are no "quick fixes" in business or safety, companies that forge strong values, lead people, align roles and relationships and effectively manage human performance can reap rapid returns and dramatic reductions in accidents, injuries and loss costs.

In an organizational safety context, there are three types/levels of change, each of which addresses a different target, and correspondingly, has an increasingly greater impact on performance and results. These are:

Level I: Transitional Change (minor): Initiatives to change working conditions and behaviors; safety programs are an example.

Level II: Transactional Change (moderate): Initiatives to change organizational roles, process systems and management practices; safety management is an example.

Level III: Transformational Change (major): Initiatives to change organizational culture and values and executive actions; safety leadership is an example.

To significantly impact results, an organization must advance beyond Level I traditional thinking in safety, and target Level II and Level III, as these are the headwater causes of and controls over loss in an organization. These are the "Excellence Strategies" that drive human behavior.

To achieve high performance, leaders must ultimately face the two core questions of safety excellence:

  • How many want to be part of a safety excellence organization? and
  • How many are willing to do safety excellence?

What many senior managers openly confess about their role is that they don't know what to do. They ask: "'What strategies should I develop?' 'What tactics should I employ?' and 'What actions should I take?' in order to improve safety performance and bottom-line results in my organization?"

This article responds to these questions with best-practice citations that identify what high-performance managers do to establish their values, demonstrate their leadership, align their organizations, communicate their expectations, motivate behavior, measure performance and reward results in safety. These are the targets of safety excellence managers:


"Understand that what we believe precedes policy, procedure and practice." Max DePree, past CEO, Herman Miller Co. Inc.

Employees perform safely when they believe safety is important to the success of the business. Excellence mangers manage by values:

Saint-Gobain In order to manage by values, you first must have values. Bob Scherer, general manager of Saint Gobain's Granville, N.Y., Performance Materials plant, has documented 19 personal values that he believes will guide his organization to safety success, and they have. He personally meets with each new employee during orientation and discusses these core values, then continually reinforces these values by conducting ongoing values-affirmation meetings with various plant departments and employee groups.5

Bechtel Corp. Bechtel does not make safety a priority, said Kevin Berg, principle vice president of safety for Bechtel, at the first ASSE Symposium on World-Class Safety. Safety had always been espoused as a priority at Bechtel, but in recent years, it has been changed from a priority to a corporate value. "When you prioritize something, that means it's not always going to be at the top of your list," said Berg. "A core value is woven into everything you do, every business decision your make." At Bechtel, involvement, not commitment, drives excellence in safety.6

Alcoa At Alcoa, "True North" refers to its core values, and in safety that means more than zero injuries. The "True North" concept means "thinking as far ahead as you can think, and then thinking further." Past CEO Paul O'Neill believed: "The absence of accidents does not in any way assure the presence of safe." According to William O'Rourke, vice president of Safety, his job is to find out how the company can improve further. "We have to go past zero," he says, "We have to send employees home healthier than when they came into work."7


"If you haven't got any skin in the game; you're not in the game." Aussie Football Saying (Thanks Kelvin Blackney)

Employees perform safely when leader actions demonstrate that safety is important. Excellence mangers are "safety VIPs" (visible involved participative).

Chevron Chemical At Chevron, how a manager gets results counts as much as the results they get. At a behavioral safety conference in Las Vegas, Jack Beers, managing consultant, identified 12 specific leadership behaviors that the company believes supports performance excellence. Employees rate their immediate supervisor on these key leadership behaviors via a confidential 1-800 call-in number, and these ratings form part of the supervisor's overall performance rating.8

N.Y. Power Authority At the New York Power Authority (NYPA), the president shows up at safety meetings ... all of them! Eugene Zeltman, president of NYPA, observes: "We recognize that safety requires a concerted effort by everyone, from union and nonunion workers to management ... and most of all me." Zeltman attends all the quarterly corporate safety committee meetings, which can last as long as 2 days. In fact, he has not missed one of those quarterly meetings since coming on board as CEO in 1997. "Word has filtered down to employees that if the president attends the meetings, then safety must be important," says Noel DesChamps, director of Power Generation Support Services at NYPA.7


"Every organization is uniquely designed to exactly produce the results it achieves." Stephen Covey

Employees perform safely when roles, responsibilities and relationships are well-defined and aligned in an organization. Excellence managers integrate safety into the business process. Safe is how work is done, not a program.

DuPont DuPont credits its safety success to a philosophy that makes line management not its 750 environmental, health and safety professionals personally accountable and responsible for safety, health and environmental.9 Line managers are responsible for the incident investigation process, for making employees clear on what is expected in terms of safety performance, for conducting safety training and for integrating safety, health and environmental expectations into the fabric of how work is carried out daily.

Delta Air Lines Safety is incorporated into every single job description and leadership performance evaluation at Delta, representing the company's requirement for safety in every job function. "Employee involvement in any safety process is critical to achieving success in Delta's operation," says James Swartz, director, Corporate Safety. "Safety is a fundamental element in the competency modeling process, which describes the characteristics, skills and abilities of people that are related to success."9


"People, however different, when placed in the same system, tend to produce similar results." Peter Senge

Safety excellence is but one outcome of an organization's core performance-management process, the key components of which are communication, measurement and consequence delivery systems.


"Employees are in the best position to prevent loss, but they need open channels to share their ideas." Tillinghast - Towers Perrin WC Study

Employees perform safely when communication systems and practices establish clear expectations, provide timely information and allow undistorted feedback on safety. Excellence managers communicate effectively.

Steelcase Corp. Steelcase, of Grand Rapids Mich., sends a very clear message that safety is not a "competitive advantage" for their organization, it is a "collaborative advantage." Steelcase believes that health and safety is so important to its organization that the company dedicates a full day each year to a safety conference for all managers. In 2004, realizing that additional teaching and learning opportunities existed, Steelcase expanded the invitation to include its vendors, service providers, members of the local business community and its competitors. Steelcase knows safety is a "win/win" proposition for all.

Hemerich & Payne H&P, a drilling company in Oklahoma City, doesn't wait for near-misses to react to potential safety problems. Warren Hubler, vice president of Safety for HP, has implemented a corporate-wide "Good Catch" program that incentivizes employees for identifying and communicating situations that can generate potential injuries and incidents. These situations are analyzed, corrected, written up and distributed throughout the organization for learning purposes. Talk about the payback of effective communications: the process caught and prevented a very real potential rig loss valued at half a million dollars from occurring!


"What gets measured gets done. However, what gets done may defeat the purpose of what is measured." Dan Zahlis, president, Active Agenda Inc.11

Employees perform safely when the metrics upon which they are measured make safety an important measure of their performance. Excellence managers measure the right things, and pay attention to what really counts.

Foamex Inc. Foamex Safety Director John McLaverty established a Safety Measurement Improvement Team (SMIT) tasked with combining leading-edge safety indicators (activities) with lagging incident measures (results) to create a composite metric that would incentivize facility managers to accomplish safety goals, and to provide a scorecard of their efforts. At Foamex, a good safety performance is achieved when managers do more safety and have fewer incidents. At Foamex, "SMIT Happens!"

MeadWestvaco "I hate to use reactive measures like the total case incident rate as the primary measure of the safety process," says Finn Schefstad, vice president, Safety Management. Instead, safety excellence process reviews are performed at business units that focus on proactive and preventive safety measures. The objective of the reviews are to: determine where a site is relative to implementing the safety excellence process; evaluate the level of understanding and application of the principles associated with the program's key elements; identify opportunities for performance improvement; and leave the business unit with a blueprint that will move it to the next level of safety excellence and produce sustainable results.10

Active Agenda Inc. Dan Zahlis, in a past life as the Western Region risk manager for the Häagen-Daz Co., developed what he refers to as "the ultimate metric of safety." Faced with corporate pressures to improve workers' compensation results in the highly volatile California environment, Zahlis took radical steps to address the real cost driver that plagued operations: He replaced OSHA incident rates with "truth."

Instead of measuring lower recordable rates which created an atmosphere of fear and underreporting he measured and rewarded reporting of all incidents. Yes, folks, all incidents leading to near-hits, first aid, medical only and lost-time and restricted.

The metric used to track performance was "total cost per incident," calculated as: "Total injury costs divided by the total of all incidents." By the design of this metric, the only way the operation could truly improve performance was to either drive down injury costs or drive up incidents (to learn more about risks previously not reported) in the operation. By encouraging truth, building trust and removing the "veil of fear" that had discouraged past incident reporting, the division's total injury costs were dramatically reduced.11,12 (Note: The Active Agenda is an open source, free risk-management technology project. Visit www.ActiveAgenda.net to learn more about it.)

Consequence Deliver

"You simply cannot manage yourself out of problems you behave yourself into." Stephen Covey

Employees perform safely when significant consequences positive and negative are attached to their safety performance. Excellence managers manage by and are managed by performance consequences.

Potlatch Corp. At the Potlatch Plywood Mill in St. Maries, Quebec, safety performance rates high in importance, for a good reason. A supervisor's overall rating can be no higher than their rating for safety performance, regardless of how well they do in meeting other goals. This practice helped this facility reduce its lost-time injury rate by 76 percent and number of lost workdays by 90 percent.

Alcoa In the company's 2001 annual report, CEO Alain Belda noted that Alcoa had intensified efforts to raise safety performance at locations, and had undertaken a company-wide effort to eliminate fatalities. As part of that effort, managers of facilities that were underperforming in safety were told to expect a phone call from a member of upper management, as should the managers of facilities where injuries have been reported. Sometimes, he added, calls go out to facilities when upper management learns safety has improved. "They talk about what the facility is doing well, and what needs improvement," said Belda.


"If you talk about change, but don't change the recognition and reward systems, nothing changes." Paul Allaire, past CEO, Xerox Corp.

Employees perform safely when they are recognized and rewarded for their performance in safety. Excellence managers use positive reinforcement, recognition and rewards to move safety from "gotta" to "wanta."

Georgia Pacific Corp. GP facilities regularly host what the company calls "revival tent meetings," which are designed to re-energize employees about safety. Facility employees are recognized for safety improvements they initiated and often are asked to speak to the group. Employees from other facilities attend the meetings to share best practices. Lunch or dinner is served outdoors in a large tent, and plant managers often serve as the chefs for the meal.7

Bronson Healthcare Bronson asks all managers to write 12 thank-you notes per quarter, and to show them to their own managers as proof that they recognized their employees. Additionally, human resources does random spot-checks on managers, asking to see copies of thank-you notes, and if a manager doesn't have them, he or she is asked to schedule a "little talk" with the senior leader of the group. They've never had to schedule more than one talk before managers quickly got the message that the organization was serious about this activity.13

Jerry Garcia inspired Deadheads around the globe with two unique contributions: great music, and his conviction that "Someone has to do something, and it's just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us."

An unfortunate reality concerning safety in business is that far to many managers follow Coderre's Law of Least Resistance: "Given the opportunity to do nothing, most will."14

This law does not apply in organizations striving for safety excellence.

Larry L. Hansen, CSP, ARM, is principal of L2H Speaking of Safety Inc., a safety excellence facilitation company; creator/author of the "Architecture of Safety Excellence," a work identifying and aligning the advanced strategies of excellence; and author of: "ROC Your Organization: Fifty-Two Ways to Instigate Radical Organizational Change for Safety Excellence,"a guide to contra-thinking in the safety profession. He can be reached at (315) 383-3801, via email at [email protected] and online at www.L2HSOS.com.


1 Drucker, Peter, F. "Technology, Management, and Society," New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1972.

2 Industrial Safety and Hygiene, White Paper "Survey of the Profession," 1999.

3 National Council of Compensation Insurers, "State of the Line Report," NCCI Web site, 2004.

4 Hansen, Larry L., "The Architecture of Safety Excellence," Professional Safety, May 2000.

5 Scherer, Bob, Saint-Gobain Performance Materials, Presentation at Business Excellence Conference, October 2005.

6 American Society of Safety Engineers, Symposium of World-Class Safety, New Orleans, March 2004.

7 Atkinson, William, and Smith, Sandy, "America's Safest Companies," Occupational Hazards, Penton Publishing, September 2002.

8 Beers, Jack, "Achieving Important Business Objectives at Chevron with Behavioral Analysis," presentation at Behavioral Safety Conference, Las Vegas, 1999.

9 Smith, Sandy, "America's Safest Companies Share a Passion for Safety," Occupational Hazards, Penton Publishing, October 2005.

10 Smith, Sandy, "America's Safest Companies," Occupational Hazards, Penton Publishing, September 2003.

11 Zahlis, Daniel F., and Hansen, Larry L., "Beware the DISCONNECT," Professional Safety, November 2005.

12 Zahlis, Daniel F, "CAUTION: Beware OSHA Statistics," Professional Safety, December 1995.

13 Nelson, Bob (The Guru of Thank You) Web site resources and posted articles (www.nelsonmotivation.com).

14 Coderre, Paul, personal communication.

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