2006 National Safety Survey: Safety's Satisfying Journey

Oct. 23, 2006
Safety jobs don't make you rich - unless you are talking about the benefits that can't be put in a paycheck.

If our interviews with some of the respondents to this year's National Safety Survey are any indication, there's more truth than ever to the idea that safety is a journey, not a destination. For some, the journey is just starting - a new safety program or a new employer. For others further along the road, the challenge is to upgrade a program, to introduce new ideas, to change what "we've always done" to what they should be doing. And for a lucky few who find themselves in flourishing safety cultures, the gratification they get from working in such a positive environment is tempered with the knowledge that the journey is never finished, but rather requires hard work and a continuing willingness to make the small incremental improvements that signal a dedication to world-class safety.

While less than 5 percent of our respondents say they have "world-class" safety programs, that hardly prevents safety managers from feeling good about their work. Some 70 percent say they find their jobs highly satisfying, a fact most attribute to the feeling they can make a positive difference in people's lives. That's not to say they don't express their share of frustrations - employees who don't follow safety rules, supervisors who don't actively promote safety, too little help and too many duties. But if safety work has its share of pitfalls, it's also clear that the work along the way is rich with intrinsic rewards.

Gary Wolf's safety journey began in July 1990 with the infamous explosion at Arco Chemical's Channelview, Texas, plant that killed 17 people. Wolf headed up a team that conducted a thorough process hazard analysis at the facility. When he finished and was preparing to go back to his normal duties, the corporate safety director's job had opened up and Wolf asked to be considered for the position. The company wanted to make a significant change in its culture and he had experience in leading such efforts, plus a desire to move into a more people-oriented role. Wolf got the job, a change this veteran engineer calls "the most significant thing I've done in my career."

Today, as the head of Wolf Safety Group in Chesterbrook, Pa., Wolf works with a variety of small-to-mid-size companies, helping them modify their safety management systems, implement new programs and, not uncommonly, deal with problems that arise from the attitude that "safety is just common sense."

Wolf is quick to cite Dr. E. Scott Geller for his belief in applying behavioral psychology principles to improve safety at his client's workplaces. He said most workers he encounters want to succeed and prove they are worthwhile. "The challenge is finding ways to motivate people. It's so fundamental to try to get owners and managers to understand the ABC [Activator-Behavior-Consequence] analysis of motivational behavior," said Wolf. He stresses that by introducing safety into daily operations, it establishes safety as a value and helps drive bottom-line performance.

One tool he uses, Wolf explained, is to have work teams start each morning with a toolbox meeting. He asks clients to have one of the team members discuss an incident from the previous day, particularly a near-miss, and identify "what bit of luck, what human intervention" occurred so that it did not result in injury or damage. That 3- to 5-minute exercise, he said, promotes attitudes of being aware of potential hazards and watching out for each other's safety. "Once you start doing that, it literally starts building on itself," Wolf observed.

Wolf's practice also involves putting safety management systems together for clients. In doing this, he helps them understand accountability processes, define roles and responsibilities, set objectives, set up communications and training and, in his words, "make the paradigm shift from the old school to today's way of thinking." He said these exercises often touch on other areas such as quality assurance. "Safety management is nothing more than either Crosby or Deming's quality management process applied to safety with behavioral psychology concepts," said Wolf.

Not surprisingly, Wolf also is an advocate of good root-cause analysis as a key to improving safety. "So many people don't know how to do that and instead apply Band-Aids to symptoms. The sore festers and crops up again, only usually worse," he said, adding that using simple techniques such as asking six whys about an incident's causes can uncover root causes and prevent recurrences of the same problem.

New Job, Wealth of Experience

When we caught up with Daniel Sabatino, he had been on the job as corporate safety director for Western Partitions Inc., a wall and ceiling contractor based in Tigard, Ore., for just over a month. But Sabatino is no rookie when it comes to either the construction or safety fields. He has 34 years of experience in construction for a variety of employers and is an award-winning safety manager.

Sabatino now faces a situation that he agrees is a "treat for any safety professional to walk into." Western Partitions is a progressive, growing company where management already has a good safety program and wants to improve it. One of his primary challenges is to introduce what he likes to refer to as performance-based safety - "your behavior does dictate your performance" - into the organization. He has conducted a perception survey to start examining the culture and held meetings with management and supervisors to begin familiarizing them with behavioral safety concepts. He also is working on the development of Western Partitions Inc. University (WPIU), a year-long program for supervisors that will include behavioral safety training.

The day before we spoke, Sabatino had provided 40 field supervisors with a weatherproof yellow booklet for recording observations on safety walks and instructed them to put it in their hands once a day. "We will audit that," said Sabatino. "Part of their performance evaluation by their general superintendent will be to work with me and make sure those observations get done."

Sabatino puts his experience in the construction industry to good use. He knows it's no picnic to get a worker who has been doing a job a certain way for 30 years without injury to change his behavior, but he said he has heard all the excuses in his career and sought with his supervisors to put safety on a can-do basis from the onset. At the meeting, he asked them, "How many of you would take a job from the project manager, hand it back and say, 'I can't do it.'?" They quickly responded that they would figure out a way to get the job done. "I said, 'That's just like safety.' Let's stop arguing with people about how we can't wear safety glasses and gloves and figure out how we can," he said.

As the new guy in safety, Sabatino said it was important for him to show that he was not afraid to get out in the field and help fix things. "Typically, the safety person identifies problems, throws them in somebody else's lap and walks away," he observed. "No, you've got to be part of the team." He noted that shortly after joining the company, he had to close a scaffold down because it was set up incorrectly by the supplier. But he sent his field safety advisor down to the site with the appropriate equipment to remedy the problems and instantly established credibility with supervisors and employees.

Oregon has seen its on-the-job fatalities fall from an average of 81 per year in the 1980s to a record low of 31 last year. Sabatino credits the state's safety record in part to a good relationship between the state OSHA agency and the construction industry. He said he uses the agency's consultation services and its training programs. He gives the agency credit for working with employers, citing his experiences on committees that developed a small business outreach program and a guideline for multi-employer worksite citations.

Sabatino said he gets involved in associations such as ASSE, Associated General Contractors and the Oregon and Washington safety agencies not only because he considers it his duty as a safety professional to help others but because they provide him a valuable network of contacts. He can pick up the phone, for example, and call a safety colleague in Texas to get expert advice on current safety policies and practices. He said his employer recognizes that his participation with safety associations and agencies reflects well on the company as an employer actively interested in safety and one general contractors can have trust in to perform safely on their projects.

World-Class Safety

Check out privately owned Cargill's Web site and you'll see some impressive numbers posted, but they've nothing to do with sales. Cargill posts its Safety Index - a measure of frequency and severity of job-related injuries and illnesses - on the site and the numbers show a steady trend downward from about 7 in 1995 to 1.4 in 2004.

Gary Long, senior EHS coordinator for the company's grain and oil seeds business unit, said the company's dedication to world-class safety is reflected in the "real dedication not just by EHS people but by business managers as well to take care of safety." As an EHS professional with 35 years' experience in a variety of businesses, Long said he has "no doubt on where the leaders for whom I work stand on safety - it's going to come first."

In every Cargill production facility, said Long, there are basic requirements for employees to wear safety shoes, hard hats, safety glasses and, in many cases, hearing protection. This uniform approach is not only easier to monitor, he said, but helps employees build an awareness of proper safety procedures that carries over to their home life.

"We believe there is not better way to get safe workplaces than to have people constantly aware of their surroundings and the risks they face each day as they go to work. Working and living safely can't be separated," said Long. To promote that, the company employs a variety of both awareness and compliance training programs, including monthly safety meetings and daily toolbox meetings. Safety signage is used abundantly. And the company has begun a behavior-based safety program.

"We've driven a lot of accidents out of the workplace, but we recognize that we're measuring mistakes using OSHA statistics as the measurement tool," said Long. BBS programs offer a way to identify actions and conditions in the workplace that could put employees at risk and eliminate them, he said. Moreover, they provide positive, proactive measures such as percentage of safe acts. "When we do observations, we look at PPE and find a lot of positive things going on. Having safety shoes, safety glasses and gloves on provides positive measurements that help to reduce accident potential," said Long. Facilities are audited for number of observations and percentage of safe acts. The company has set 2010 as the target for implementing BBS across the organization.

Cargill's emphasis on safety has been extended to contractors. Contractor qualifications and safety performance are being assessed, a process that has required 400 Cargill employees to go through a 30-hour OSHA construction safety course. For any project over $5 million, Long noted, the company now requires an employee trained in contractor safety processes to be on site.

Each year, the company recognizes business units with outstanding safety and environmental performance with a chairman's award. Measures include senior management involvement in EHS matters, energy efficiency, community involvement, external recognition and performance against regulatory standards and corporate metrics.

Taking the Hazards Out of Hazardous Waste

Von Roll America's hazardous waste facility in East Liverpool, Ohio, can store and incinerate up to 60,000 tons of bulk solids, bulk liquids, various drums and containers and lab packs annually. The company's rotary kiln incinerates wastes and containers at temperatures ranging from 1,800 F to 2,200 F.

The facility has both ISO 14001 registration for environmental management and ISO 9001:2000 registration for customer service. Says President John Paterka: "Continuous improvement, technological leadership, customer satisfaction, environmental compliance and empowered employees are the guiding principles of our company."

Jeff Hall, safety manager, said the facility also aspires to join OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program some day, but he cautions that the company's safety culture is still a work in progress. In June, with help from DuPont, the facility kicked off a behavioral safety program for its 170 employees and has conducted training for management, supervisors and workers.

Hall said BBS represents a departure for the safety program. "A lot of the old programs we've had in place were very stringent, very rule-oriented and focused on safety standards. 'Are you doing your job the way it was written in the safety manual?'," observed Hall. "Employees have taken to this program because it involves them more."

Helping to ensure management involvement is a central safety committee that has each facility manager take charge of a subcommittee. The subcommittees deal with issues such as training, accident investigation and safety observations.

Hall starts each day with an 8:30 a.m. staff meeting that gives him a chance to review safety issues, listen to other manager's production plans and deal with safety needs, such as requests for PPE.

Asked what his most important duty is, Hall cited regular walkthroughs of the facility and conversations with employees about safety issues. He said it is one thing to tell an employee to put on safety glasses, but a conversation provides an opportunity to explain why wearing the glasses is important to prevent an injury, express your concern, find out if there is a reason for the at-risk behavior and reach an "agreement" with the employee. Does each conversation result in permanent behavior change? Hall admits it doesn't, but he expresses confidence that the process of culture change will eventually bring the safe behaviors desired. And what about VPP? Said Hall, "When the time is right, we'll apply for it."

Safety Generalists Needed

Jason Schaufenbuel is a risk management consultant with United Heartland, a workers' compensation insurer based in Wisconsin. His job primarily entails working with small-to-mid-size companies, the vast majority of which do not have a full-time safety director. And for these companies with 100 to 1,000 employees, he thinks there is a great need for generalists who are knowledgeable in both human resource and safety issues.

"We need to get out of the rut of worrying about whether or not we are graduating people that can take the CSP exam and pass it, and partner with business colleges and colleges that are doing human resource training," said Schaufenbuel, adding: "There are a lot of human resource people who don't have formal training in small-to-mid-size businesses. Community college-level training on human resources and safety would be of assistance."

Schaufenbuel's clients range from manufacturing plants to nursing homes. While some of his clients "do their best to comply with OSHA standards," he said there are others who, while not disregarding OSHA, simply "don't have the technical knowledge to know which standards apply under which circumstances." Much of his time is spent helping nursing homes implement lift-free programs to minimize the stresses and strains associated with resident or patient transfers. He said he is still "amazed" by how many nursing homes have patient lift and transfer devices that are not being used. When he asks management about this, they often argue it's not true or blame employees. When he persists, he said, he gets down to a familiar root cause - management. "No one is enforcing [the devices'] use. They've never set the expectation and they've never held anyone accountable," he observed.

Schaufenbuel said he "thoroughly enjoys" the fact that he can help businesses reduce employee injuries and be more profitable. "Safety is one of the few fields that once you get beyond the headbutting with management, it is truly a win-win," he said. "You are creating a better environment for employees, they're having fewer injuries and you're increasing the profitability of the company."

Like a majority of our respondents, Schaufenbuel believes workers' compensation does provide an effective incentive for companies to improve safety. He said making the case for safety controls to reduce workers' comp costs involves simple math. "Here are the injuries you're having and what you're paying in medical costs. If you're not self-insured, you're paying a premium for all those injuries you're having because your insurance carrier needs to make a profit," he explained. "If you're self-insured, it is eating at your profit because medical costs are growing at a faster rate than general health care. Here is what you are spending and what we could save if we put in some simple controls."

In particular, he said business managers respond when he tells them what injuries are costing them and, based on the insurer's experience with other clients, what their savings could be if they implemented certain controls. They get "excited and realize this is what they should have been doing all along."

2006 National Safety Survey: Views on OSHA

Safety managers always had a love-hate relationship with OSHA. They know the agency is needed and that it has contributed to the growth of the safety profession. Yet they frequently see it as cumbersome and clumsy, slow to develop needed standards and at the mercy of lobbyists and political pressures.

But for all its perceived shortcomings, the agency continues to make an important contribution to safety, according to the majority of safety professionals in our National Safety Survey. Nearly 80 percent of our respondents said OSHA is "absolutely vital" or "important" to overall safety performance in the United States.

Standards Needed

Gary Long, senior EHS coordinator for Cargill's grain and oil seeds business unit, said OSHA was not critical to a company like his that has made a significant investment in safety and health. Still, he thinks the agency has an important role in the safety field. One issue he thinks should move to the top of OSHA's to-do list is its aging permissible exposure limits (PELs). Citing the litigation that led to the long delay in updating the standards, Long pointed to OSHA's use of cooperative rulemaking on the metalworking fluids standard as a model for how the agency could move forward. "Get all the players involved and determine the number for any given chemical," he said, adding that many companies "have internal standards that are more stringent than the PELs."

Gary Wolf, head of Wolf Safety Group in Chesterbrook, Pa., said OSHA should be working on a safety management standard. Like the process safety management standard, he said, a general standard would offer companies a framework for safety improvement. He said elements could include goals and objectives, communications system, documented safety requirements, root-cause investigation and measurement of both leading and trailing indicators. He said implementing such a standard "is needed in this country" and would not be expensive. "We are leaders in the world," he noted. "We ought to get past the political process, the lobbying process and do it. I don't see that it's that difficult."

Jason Schaufenbuel, a risk management consultant with workers' compensation insurer United Heartland, says OSHA will always be needed, but that doesn't stop him from postulating that if the right financial incentives were in place, such as a tax on the medical payments made by employers for workers' comp, "you would have a much more effective safety and health program in this country."

While Schaufenbuel says OSHA standards are needed to address ergonomics and manual material handling, citing the fact that OSHA has had "horrendous luck in enforcing the general duty clause," he admits even a good performance-oriented ergonomics standard would be very difficult to enforce. The reason? "Ergonomics is not this black-and-white issue like putting up a handrail at 42 inches. It is subjective. Employees react differently to different stressors," he said, making it difficult to establish safe boundaries for work activities.

When you look at what is a significant cause of work-related fatalities, he added, it is motor vehicles. Yet, he charges, "OSHA doesn't talk about it. We have businesses that completely ignore this issue. Some companies don't do motor vehicle records checks on their employees, which to me is just negligent, and then they wonder why some of these employees have motor vehicle accidents."

OSHA Compliance

OSHA compliance is one of the benchmarks used to screen out unsuitable contractors by potential employers, says Richard Ogden, safety director for Trac-Work, a railroad contractor that primarily builds and maintains railroad tracks on industrial facilities. That makes compliance "an essential part" of Trac-Work's safety program. But though he says OSHA has an "important function to fill," he criticizes the agency for a "one size fits all" approach to standards. When it works on industrial sites, Trac-Work is regulated by OSHA, not the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). Noting that most OSHA standards are designed for manufacturing plants and building contractors, he complained that there is "very little under the OSHA banner that is relevant to what we do." He said it would be better if FRA's scope was enlarged to include tracks not belonging to railroads so that FRA's inspectors could oversee this work.

For Grant Van Buren, safety director for Inland Power & Light, the need is not to develop more OSHA rules but to get people to "read and understand" the existing rules. He said if workers would take the time to understand jobs and analyze potential risks, most accidents would be eliminated. "Just putting in another regulation doesn't make a job any safer," he said. "It's the people performing the job that make it safe." Van Buren said he was frustrated that Washington state would grant contractors licenses but not require that they be knowledgeable about safety regulations.

While OSHA may be far from perfect, safety professionals such as Daniel Sabatino, who worked for a time in South Korea, are concerned that globalization and an influx of workers from Third World nations may influence safety standards and attitudes in the United States. "We have to bring the workers that are coming to us up to our standards," he said, adding that many immigrant workers will "sacrifice their bodies for minimum wages." In Korea, Sabatino recalled, "I tried to convince a worker to comply with a standard or risk dying. He turned to me and said, 'When I die, I die.'"

Sidebar: What Would Happen?

What would happen to safety and health in your facility/organization if your position was eliminated? According to the vast majority of our respondents, nothing good!

A strong message would be sent to employees that the company does not support safety, which could affect morale and performance.

  • It would continue but with a reduced emphasis. Then it would start to decline until there were several accidents ... Then management would make safety a high priority.
  • It is being eliminated slowly. I can see safety is getting worse.
  • It is an integral part of the company's success that would not be eliminated.
  • There would be a total breakdown or elimination of all prevention and safety programs.
  • Don't give them any ideas! If my position was eliminated, they would just pass the duties onto some unqualified person.
  • I am the last person remaining out of an office of eight from just 10 years ago. We had 15,000 employees then and 7,500 now in sites around the world. I would like to think things would continue running for a while, but in the end, the emphasis placed on core mission performance at any cost would result in the acceptance of injuries and their costs as the price of doing business.
  • Safety people would not know how to handle industrial hygiene concerns.
  • I am not sure if they would notice.
  • Safety activities would be outsourced and the overall quality of safety efforts would decline because vendors cannot possibly know and understand an organization as well as in-house personnel.
  • I would like to think that our culture is pretty good now and safety and health would continue to improve. I suspect, though, that improvements might stagnate without the pressure for change that I put on the organization.
  • Probably not much as the organization sees safety and health to be the main responsibility of the line management.
  • More employees would be exposed to toxic agents. The level of professionalism would go down.
  • It would probably not exist. The position is presently about 25 percent underpaid and someone would not likely take the job for the salary based on hours, responsibility and the stress level that goes with it.

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