Breakthrough Safety Management

June 8, 2004
Our three-part series on Breakthrough Safety Management starts with how to structure, lead and manage a world-class safety program.

When trying to define world-class safety or world-class safety management, one participant at the "Defining World-Class Safety" seminar in New Orleans in March paraphrased the famous quote about pornography. He said he can't describe what world-class safety or safety management is, but he knows it when he sees it.

As he munched on his lunch, the safety manager from a large, multi-facility manufacturing company added, "We have very few injuries major or minor each year and no fatalities, thank God. By some definitions, that might be considered world-class, or at least, very, very good. And I have a boss a vice president who says he supports safety. Whenever I ask him for additional training for employees, talk about adding additional machine guards and preventive maintenance or discuss personal protective equipment needs, he usually grants my request. But his first question is always, 'How much money will this cost?' I believe that takes us out of the running for world-class."

"Companies have different opinions about how to define 'world class safety,'" Mitchell K. Blada, CIH, manager, Specialty Services, Broadspire Risk and Safety Consulting, told attendees at the conference sponsored by the American Society of Safety Engineers. "Some common attributes include promoting a culture that values safety, [setting] goals and aspirations, management leadership and employee participation, risk and hazard analysis, injury and illness policies and safety training and skill development."

Blada says whatever your definition, a safety management system is needed if world-class results are to be achieved. "A safety management system is a collection of all the processes and related activities that result in a safe organization," he says. "This approach provides a formal structure for managing safety within an organization."

The components of a safety management system include policies, planning, implementation of plans and policies, internal audits and corrective actions if necessary, management review of safety management and striving for continuous improvement, says Blada.

Many attendees at the seminar acknowledged that their companies have what they termed "good" safety programs. What they hoped to learn was how to break through the "good" barrier to achieve greatness.

Defining a World-Class Program

Thomas Cecich, CSP, CIH, believes world-class safety, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. He says that while many companies "aspire to excellence," saying they are the "best" at safety is not something most companies are ready to do. He suggests safety managers use these benchmarks to know if their company is achieving world-class safety results or if they need to step up their efforts:

  • Injuries, illnesses and losses have been eliminated. "You can't lay claim to safety excellence or world-class safety if you haven't virtually eliminated injury and illnesses," says Cecich.
  • Safety is perceived by management and customers as a competitive advantage.
  • Consistent global safety processes are encouraged and supported by management.
  • Safety processes are externally verified through outside audits.
  • Benchmarking against other organizations is promoted.
  • Other organizations seek you out to mentor them in safety.
  • Safety accomplishments are acknowledged by outside organizations.
  • Stock is acquired by socially responsible investment companies.
  • Safety achievement is sustainable across multiple business cycles.

A world-class safety program does not exist only when business is booming, says Cecich. "If you're world-class, then when business is good, safety is excellent. When business is bad, safety is excellent," he explains. A company that cannot sustain its safety management program during economic downswings has not come close to achieving world-class safety, he notes.

Building Blocks of World-Class Safety

If you read Cecich's list and realized your company is still a long way from safety excellence, then the best place to start is by building the proper foundation, says Samuel J. Gualardo, CSP, a professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Several factors lead organizations to improve safety performance, Gualardo notes. They include financial, regulatory, moral and ethical and corporate recognition. However, for organizations to move from a level of good safety performance to a level of great or world-class safety performance, several critical elements need to become institutionalized.

According to Gualardo, there are 13 critical elements that are the building blocks for the achievement of safety performance excellence. "As they are embraced, the organization's safety culture will change significantly and substantial improvements will occur. Safety performance will no longer be a priority. It will become value- and culture-driven and safety performance excellence will be attained and sustained long term," he says.

The 13 elements of a world-class safety program are:

Senior management commitment and involvement Managers conduct incident investigations, employee observations and safety tours and include safety in written and verbal communications with employees. Safety is given "equal billing" with other company values and management provides necessary financial and labor resources. "Senior managers," says Gualardo, "need to have both an intellectual and emotional acceptance of their commitment for improving safety performance."

Communicated Safety Philosophy The company's safety philosophy must be: written, taught to employees, continually reinforced, practiced daily and a company value. Employees must be convinced that "safety is equal to other business objectives," says Gualardo, "and that they, employees, are the most important resource." Employees should also be aware that management believes all injuries and illnesses are preventable, that line management is held responsible for safety performance and all employees are accountable for safety, and that working safely is a condition of employment.

Effective safety management structure Gualardo believes that safety management should have three levels, with senior leadership leading the way by serving on the top-tier executive safety team. A supporting branch made up of members of the executive safety team oversees the safety and risk management staff and various safety committees, while an implementing branch oversees the line organization. Such a structure "promotes ownership and teamwork," says Gualardo, "and links management, staff, line supervisors and employees to a common goal."

Line management ownership for safety "The boss gets what the boss wants," says Gualardo. "They are where the rubber meets the road." Line managers should model desired safety behaviors, communicate safety expectations to employees, recognize good performers and deal with poor performers.

Supportive safety staff The job of the safety staff is to coordinate the broad program direction, and consult with and support line management with regards to OSHA compliance, workers' compensation, regulatory training, industrial hygiene and regulatory auditing. "The safety staff must be advisors, not doers," says Gualardo, since safety is everyone's responsibility.

High standards of performance Safety rules, safety operating procedures, departmental procedures, standards and regulations (federal, state and local) and consequences for non-compliance are all established.

Employee motivation "All people are not motivated the same way," Gualardo notes. "Supervisors must understand what motivates each individual worker and use different techniques." Employees must be motivated to change their own behavior, he adds, saying, "There are only three [outside] ways to change people: brain surgery, psychotherapy and religious conversion."

Aggressive and achievable goals and objectives Goals should be well-defined, quantifiable and set for all levels of employees. Upper management goals should be numeric, says Gualardo, while middle management goals should be both numeric and activity-based. Lower management goals should be activity-based, while employee goals need to be activity- and outcome-based.

Deliberate, ongoing communication "What the mind attends to, it considers. What the mind does not attend to, it dismisses. What the mind attends to regularly, it believes. What the mind believes, it eventually does," says Gualardo. Tell employees what is expected of them and keep telling them.

Ample employee training "Ninety-plus percent of accidents are caused by people," Gualardo points out, "and experienced workers do have incidents because complacency occurs." Regulators say workers must be trained, plus, he added, desired behaviors need continual reinforcement "to overcome the strong desire to take risk."

Unconditional regulatory compliance "It's not optional," Gualardo states of regulatory compliance. "Paying fines serves no useful purpose and going to jail would not be fun either."

A systematic approach A systematic approach is necessary, because safety and regulatory compliance programs are "endless," says Gualardo, "and will always be endless." Better to go hunting with a scope on your rifle, he says, focusing on incident severity, injury frequency and employees with safety problems, than to go hunting with a shotgun.

Allocated resources Safety excellence requires resources, says Gualardo, including management and employee time; funding for engineering and process improvements, personal protective clothing and training; salary increases and bonuses for managers and employees who reach safety performance goals; and support for recognition events and awards.

"In the time I spoke today, 645 workers were injured; one every 8 seconds. One more worker died; one every 103 minutes," Gualardo points out. "As you travel toward safety excellence, countless injuries and illnesses will be prevented and lives undoubtedly will be spared. What else is more important in your business?"

Sidebar: Major Pitfalls to Achieving World-Class Safety

Denis E. Zeimet, Ph.D., CIH, director of Member Services for the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities, offers these "pitfalls" to achieving a world-class safety program.

  1. 1. Failing to get management commitment.
  2. 2. Failing to utilize easily accessed sources of information.
  3. 3. Assuming a written program constitutes an effective program.
  4. 4. Accepting a quick-fix mentality.
  5. 5. Losing sight of program advantages.

Zeimet says characteristics of a culture of safety include:

  1. 1. Teamwork in the form of management commitment and employee involvement.
  2. 2. Communication and collaboration are highly visible and interactive.
  3. 3. A shared vision of safety excellence (an over-riding attitude that all accidents and injuries are preventable).
  4. 4. Assignment of critical safety functions to specific individuals or teams.
  5. 5. Continuous efforts toward quality improvement. There is a consistent and ongoing identification and correction of problems and hazards in the workplace.

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