When It Comes to Workplace Safety, Trust the Experts: Your Employees

March 1, 2009
A well-designed and properly executed safety program - like the one found at Worthington Industries - can be incredibly beneficial with advantages ranging from lower insurance premiums to improved employee morale.

Even the most well-intended workplace safety programs can backfire when the program is designed and led from the top of the organization down. While they may be well-organized and fiscally responsible, safety programs led from the top down miss the key ingredient — the authentic buy-in from those who the safety program affects daily.

Rather than relying on familiar methods to communicate safety messages — informational videos, posters and booklets — Worthington Industries, a leading diversified metal processing company with 8,000 employees in 64 facilities worldwide, tried something different. After reviewing its existing safety practices and employees' perception of safety in 2001, company leadership determined they had to go beyond traditional processes that simply told employees to be safe.

They sought to create a safety culture where employees believed in the importance of safe work practices and chose these behaviors every time, every day. The result was Safe Works, a centrally governed but locally managed safety program that engages employees in the process. Safe Works provides facilities with detailed, measurable metrics that relate to the goal of maintaining the safest working environment possible and holds them accountable for the results.

During the 7 years since Safe Works was implemented, the revitalized safety program has paid off. For the fiscal year ending May 31, 2008, Worthington achieved the following results:

  • One-third reduction in serious injuries (DART);

  • 27 percent reduction in total injuries (OSHA recordable); and

  • 22 percent decrease in the number of workers' compensation claims.

Compared to industry averages, Worthington's safety results continue to lead the manufacturing sector for steel processing, metal framing and pressure cylinder manufacturing, with a 78 percent lower DART rate and a 66 percent lower average recordable injury rate compared to industry averages.

Additionally, 22 percent of facilities completed the fiscal year with zero DART injuries, and eight facilities had zero DART and zero recordable injuries

Safe Works also has reduced the self-insured company's insurance reserves for workers' comp by several million dollars.


The Safe Works program provides standardization and sharing of company-wide best practices, while allowing facilities to address localized needs and concerns. The program is driven by the company's Golden Rule philosophy and is rooted in employee empowerment and communication. Elements of Safe Works that heavily contribute to the program's success include:

  • Voluntary safety councils made up of employees at all levels, who lead their facility's safety process. More than two-thirds of facilities have an active safety council.

  • A voluntary behavior-based reinforcement program, Business Risk Improvement Techniques for Everyone (BRITE), focuses on developing safe behaviors and preventing injuries through positive reinforcement. At the end of FY2008, 42 percent of facilities and 3,900 employees participated in BRITE.

  • Safe Works award program, which recognizes safety accomplishments at the facility, department and employee levels, and is managed by facility safety councils. In FY2008, 12 percent of facilities were awarded the highest honor for zero DART and zero recordables. Three of these facilities were recognized for the second consecutive year. Additionally, 16 percent of facilities received the second highest award for zero DART injuries.

Another major contributing factor to Safe Works' success is the company's personal protective equipment (PPE) trial program. Prior to the implementation of the Safe Works program in 2001, corporate management or individual plant leaders selected their employees' PPE based on a variety of traditional factors including cost and brand reputation. With the introduction of the Safe Works program came a shift from top-down safety program management of the PPE trial program to more employee-led initiatives.

Instead of one making the PPE decision for many, representatives for the many were empowered to make their own decision. Worthington tapped its newly created safety councils to guide future PPE purchase decisions. Since PPE decisions vary from gloves and arm guards to electrically rated equipment, safety council members conducted trials of the equipment and even worked with some manufacturers on ways to improve products in development. From FY2006 to FY2008, Worthington achieved a 41 percent decrease in cut-related injuries due in part to the PPE program.

A great example of the PPE trial program at its finest is the company's partnership with HexArmor for arm guards. Because plant employees deal with banding and scrap metal, cuts on the hands and arms easily can occur. When HexArmor was developing a new arm guard, it worked with several of Worthington's safety councils as mini-focus groups to test the product and get valuable feedback. The input provided by Worthington's safety councils helped ensure employees worked with a product they believed in and provided a level of comfort for HexArmor as they brought the new arm guard to market.

“One of the biggest reasons for the success of our safety program locally is our employees really trust the products they're using,” said Ryan Lamb, safety coordinator for Worthington's Delta, Ohio, plant. “There's not a hassle to get them to wear the PPE because they were so closely involved in selecting it that they already know they'll like working with it.”


In tough economic times, more and more organizations are turning an eye toward improving internal processes to improve efficiency and save money. Companies interested in making the shift to an employee-led safety program should follow five rules in order to make a successful transition:

Establish your target areas for improvement — Like fingerprints, every organization is different, which means your company's target areas for improvement will be unique. Talk with employees from all aspects of the company to get their input in order to ensure everyone's voice is being heard from the start.

Set clear goals and objectives for the program — Even in the program's first year, benchmarks need to be set to gauge success. The more the goals are aligned with your organization's business model, the better.

Identify your communication structure — The key to establishing an effective structure is to start at the base level and work up to ensure every employee group is involved. The structure also should encourage information sharing and best practices among different parts of the organization. To encourage this, Worthington established an e-mail group for safety council leaders and a section on its intranet for the sharing of quality PPE products and workplace safety best practices.

Communicate clearly and often — Not only is it important to communicate to employees about the program and its benefits, but it equally is important to listen to employees and communicate back to them about how they've impacted the program.

Measure as often as possible — Measurement not only helps mold the safety program so it's running at its optimal level, but it also provides the tools to show its return on investment. Establishing consistent metrics from the beginning will help employees realize the organization's long-term commitment and provides ways to measure the program in a scope larger than just year to year.

Traditionally, the biggest obstacle to a successful safety program is a fear of involving employees from all levels of the company. Leaders often are taught to lead with a firm hand, but that doesn't mean not having the vision to listen to subject experts — particularly when they work just down the hall.

Terry Leberfinger is director of corporate human resource services/environmental health and safety for Worthington Industries. He has more than 17 years experience in the environmental health and safety industry, and leads the Worthington Industries safety initiative.

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