The Power of Positive Safety

March 13, 2003
To make safety a continuing success, you have to recognize it, compliment it, nurture it, encourage it.

As director of risk management services for R&R Insurance, an insurance agency based in Waukesha, Wis., Frank Wegner visits a lot of workplaces and he has become adept at sizing up a company's culture. At a company like client E.R. Wagner, he said, creating a positive safety environment almost seems easy. Yet, he observed, "You try to take people in a totally negative culture and have them look at that company, and they will say, 'We can never do that.'"

But according to the safety officials we contacted at four award-winning companies Air Systems Components, BASF, Koppers Industries and E.R. Wagner Casters & Wheels creating a positive safety culture is possible for any company. It takes work and continuing dedication, but it can be accomplished and the benefits result in fewer injuries, lower workers' compensation costs and a work force that is happier and more productive. Here is their advice on the key elements to have in place.

Culture and Leadership

It is fashionable for companies to identify their employees as their most important assets, but safety success is built on managers believing that and acting accordingly. "One of our core values is people," said Wade Fletcher, vice president and general manager of E.R. Wagner Casters & Wheels, Hutisford, Wisc. "Everybody has to get out of bed in the morning and go to work. We'd like this facility, and E.R. Wagner as a whole, to be a place that they feel good about going to. It is clean, organized, well-lit and safe."

Randy Collins, vice president, safety, health and environmental affairs for Koppers Industries, noted that his Pittsburgh-based company operates a multitude of locations in the United States and abroad that are relatively small. Traditionally, this has been reflected, he said, in a caring work force and family culture where "we know our workmates and their families." He said the company wants to maintain those good qualities even as it moves to incorporate increasingly sophisticated management systems. Recently, Koppers won the National Safety Council's Green Cross Safety Excellence Achievement Award, honoring its efforts to build a workplace culture and environment that focuses on safety.

Anita Orozco, who manages human resources and safety for Air Systems Components in Tucson, recalled that it was only a few years ago when "OSHA was pretty much at our door every single day." Changing the culture at the facility, which manufactures grills and registers for HVAC units, required "a lot of discipline" initially, she said, as company managers struggled to convince employees that they were serious about the new emphasis on safety. But now, she observed, "It's nice because we have employees who know that our top priority is not production or anything other than safety."

Making safety a value in the company requires more than simply good will. Top management needs to clearly communicate the importance of safety and hold managers and employees accountable for safety performance. At Koppers, for example, an executive-level council chaired by the CEO meets monthly to review injury statistics, accident reports and the steps taken to prevent or minimize the likelihood of recurrence. New policies and action steps are developed. Communications from the council, Collins noted, go out as a single voice from the chief executive. "There is real power to that," he noted. "It has been an important element of our improvement."

Koppers' Collins also emphasized the importance of accountability. "We expect the plant manager to be the most outspoken person about the interest the company has in ensuring that employees get to go home as healthy and safe as when they showed up at work. We won't excuse the plant manager from that role, no matter whom she or he may have dedicated to that discipline." Safety is a component of managers' goals and performance evaluations, two tools that directly affect their base pay and incentive compensation.

Collins said employees need to know that line management is committed to safety. "The plant manager doesn't do an accident investigation because there is a form to be filled out. He doesn't hold a safety meeting because there is one that is required at this moment in time," he said. "If he is doing that, he is never going to motivate employees because our employees are smart enough to smell that out."

Wegner said consistent, day-to-day management support and communication about safety is vital. "I tell supervisors, 'If you have seen someone do something unsafe and you don't say anything, you have approved it,'" he said.

Communications and Training

Wegner marvels at employers who shy away from educating employees about safety and workers' compensation. He observed there is plenty of information and plenty of sources about filing workers' compensation claims available to employees. "If you aren't the one communicating and giving advice, they are going to get it elsewhere and you aren't going to like what they get," he warned.

Air Systems' Orozco puts her undergraduate degree in marketing to good use in making sure that safety has a high profile among her organization's 450 workers. For instance, she uses National Safety Month in June to increase safety awareness and motivation. Along with weekly events such as a barbecue and prizes such as safety lollipops, she conducts training throughout the month.

Orozco admits that safety training can be a challenge because of the plant's diverse work force. English and Spanish are the main languages, but other languages include Vietnamese, Bosnian, Thai and Farsi. "It's mandatory that we train in the language they are used to speaking," she said, adding: "When I do a full plant training for hazcom or PPE, the classes that everyone has to go to, it takes me about a week to get all the training done. That's a week of 10-12 hour days to cover first and second shift and make sure all the languages are covered."

Last year, Koppers, a producer of carbon compounds and treated wood products, developed a safety awareness training program that was presented to every U.S. employee. This year, Koppers is targeting supervisory safety skills first and then offering leadership safety training for company executives. Koppers also is requiring all locations to initiate behavioral safety programs. "We want to know that people are uniformly well-informed about company policy, that they follow it and that they are willing to stick their neck out and take responsibility for observing and, if necessary, correcting the acts and conduct of others," said Collins.

Koppers holds an annual meeting for every plant manager and dedicated safety and environmental manager. "We pull those personnel into Pittsburgh and spend three days training, communicating, discussing policy and going through some work situational analysis, all for the sake of trying to strengthen our knowledge systemwide," said Collins.

Since people are central to the success of safety programs, it follows that they have to understand what their role is in safety. At BASF, that is a tall order, given that the chemical firm employs 14,000 people in North America alone. Yet last year, the company reduced recordable injuries 20 percent to 163 and had a total recordable incident rate of 1.14, substantially below the average in the chemical industry.

BASF safety officials credit the strong safety performance to a focus on sound safety practices and training, mixed with a strong teamwork ethic. Said Peter Huber, the safety and health team leader, "Everybody, no matter what your position in the organization, has a specific role and responsibility to work safely and contribute to the success of programs." Recently, he said, the company has focused on safety being a competency, with each employee expected to develop a set of safety skills. Huber said it was important to maintain competence in fundamental safety skills such as hazard recognition, accident investigation, job safety analyses, safety leadership and safety observation and measurement techniques. The company has emphasized safety training and coaching to ensure that employees have the knowledge they need not only to perform their jobs safely, but also to take a proactive approach to their coworkers, encouraging them to work safely.

Huber said BASF expects its managers to lead by example in safety. They need to actively participate in the safety program, communicate with others about the program and encourage feedback, provide the necessary resources, and assign direct reports responsibilities, authority and accountability to make sure programs get implemented. They also must follow up on corrective actions.

"We are motivating people through that increased ownership and opportunity to participate," said Huber, adding it causes them to connect better with the safety program and feel that they play an important role in its success.

Incentives and Recognition

The companies interviewed for this article use a wide variety of recognition and incentive programs to encourage safety performance. Some of them make safety a factor in performance reviews and compensation. Others use safety incentives and recognition to ensure that the need to ferret out unsafe acts and conditions is balanced by management attention to safety activities and performance. BASF's Huber said that while you have to reinforce safety policies at times, you get farther by "encouraging people and focusing on the things they do correctly."

Wegner said he is leery of complicated incentive programs or those that award a large prize based on a certain time frame without an injury. If something bad happens early in a six-month program, he noted, there is no longer an achievable goal and nothing positive to promote.

"From a recognition standpoint, the ones I like are just 'attaboys,'" said Wegner. "Recognize it, compliment it, nurture it, encourage it."

He said more formal incentive programs can work if they are carefully structured. For instance, a contractor client had a year-long incentive program for which the grand prize was an all-terrain vehicle, which the contractor suspended from the ceiling of his shop. Work crews that went a certain number of days without a lost-time claim received incentive tickets for a lottery drawing. Managers also carried the tickets and passed them out to employees who did something exemplary. "If employees did have a lost-time claim, they were out of the lottery for a short period of time, but they didn't lose the tickets they had accumulated and then they were back in," he recalled.

Special events can have a powerful role in communicating the company's interest in safety. E.R. Wagner Casters & Wheels had a luncheon last November to celebrate two years without a lost-time injury. The company's president, chief financial officer and vice president of human resources all attended and thanked the division for its performance. Congratulatory banners signed by employees were hung up and each employee received a $100 bill.

As an ongoing safety effort, Patty Hill, the director of human resources for the division, developed "Wheel of Safety," based on the popular television quiz show. Employees answer questions about safety on the wheel and receive small prizes such as lunches, fire extinguishers or camping equipment.

At Air Systems, Orozco began a program called "Caught in the Act" to recognize employees who are working safely. When she finds an employee wearing the correct PPE, for example, she takes his picture, then shows him what he are doing right. She then posts the photograph in the plant. "That did a lot because people like to be recognized," said Orozco. "I don't think you always have to give people money or prizes to recognize them. You can get a lot of mileage with just, 'Hey, you're doing a good job.'"

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