2005 National Safety Survey: Focusing on Employees

Can safety professionals build successful programs in an era of tight resources? The answer depends on whether they have the skill to engage managers and employees in the process.

Safety and health doesn't come without its share of headaches. Asked what was the biggest obstacle to getting his job done, one senior safety engineer complained about "employees and management second-guessing safety decisions." A safety advisor cited "underinformed managers making bad decisions impacting safety that undermine the effective function of the program and inhibit employee involvement." A corporate safety executive admitted her staff was "too small to meet our governance responsibilities as well as provide requested services to all our locations." A plant safety engineer curtly pointed to "too much work and a micro-managing corporate office."

And these were safety pros who said their organizations had world-class safety and health programs!

But if our 2005 National Safety Survey, which received input from more than 1,400 safety and health personnel through an extensive online survey, reflected a world of tight resources, less than perfect involvement from supervisors and employees and salaries that wouldn't keep Paris Hilton in lip gloss, it also revealed many of the reasons why so many practitioners find the work satisfying and stick with it. Many cited the blend of technical and people work, the variety of duties and the basic reward that comes from engaging in work designed to prevent human injury and disease. In fact, 84 percent of NSS respondents have had EHS responsibilities for more than 5 years and 24 percent had been in the field more than 20 years.

Dennis Hussey, Ph.D., director, environmental health and safety for Goodrich Corp., falls into that latter group. After a 20-year career with General Electric, he joined Goodrich, a global supplier of systems and services to the aerospace and defense industry with annual revenues of $4.7 billion and more than 21,000 employees worldwide. Hussey said the most important part of his job at Goodrich is "communicating the EHS vision to management." Hussey explained: "If you look at any candid discussion about the health and safety function and how to really create a culture where the employee's health and safety is the critical concern, it always starts with management commitment. My communicating what we want to accomplish, how we want to accomplish it and getting management to endorse it, support it, participate in it that's what I mean by communicating the vision."

Hussey said this communication needs to be carried on in a continuing manner. In doing so, he said it is vital that EHS professionals understand the business side of their operations and express what they do in terms of business value.

As a simple example, he cited a health and safety person coming to an executive and asking for $50,000 for a safety awareness program. His justification is that it will reduce injuries by 25 percent. "The business leader still is having a little bit of difficulty translating that into dollars and sense," said Hussey, while the health and safety pro is thinking he has a "high-road kind of job" and that it should be enough just to say he is protecting employees.

In the meantime, a production engineer also asks for $50,000 to improve a process and increase yield 10 percent, resulting in a 1-percent productivity increase and a savings of $150,000. "The business leader sees a return on investment of 300 percent, so if he only has $50,000 to spend, it is pretty obvious which way he is gong to spend it and you can't blame him for making that call," said Hussey.

It would be far better, Hussey continued, if the EHS pro came in and said, "'I want to spend $50,000, it is going to provide a 25-percent reduction in injuries and that translates into a savings of $100,000 in workers' compensation costs. In addition, because we will have the employees on the job and we have a relatively lean work force, that means our productivity is going to be increased 1 1/2 percent.' All of a sudden, he has the edge in terms of getting what he needs."

Dealing with Ergonomics

Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they were actively targeting sprains and strains and back injuries in their workplaces. At Goodrich, Hussey said the effort to deal with these issues begins with having "solid, fundamental health and safety programs in place." That builds employee trust, which leads to them reporting incidents earlier so the company has better data to act upon. In addition, the company has programs to ensure any injury cases are managed properly.

Hussey also stresses the need for formal ergonomics programs that focus on employee involvement. "Where we have really made some dramatic improvements, it is led by management but the nuts and bolts work and the really creative solutions come from the employees being energized," he said.

As an example, he noted that employees do a lot of bolting and installing of screws with power screwdrivers, which put pressure on the hands and arms. They developed an attachment similar to a gunstock on the back of the power drill, so that they can use their whole body for the task. He said they have also developed a variety of fixtures for tilting or even flipping parts 180 degrees so that they don't have to use brute force to move them around. While such solutions follow basic ergonomic principles, he observed, the fixtures tend to be unique to the work environment and require the creative thought of employees.

While Goodrich does have an aging work force, Hussey said it is wrong to focus on that issue as a reason to make ergonomic improvements. "To say that a 20-year-old can survive in that environment is not the same as saying that that 20-year-old wouldn't be better off in a better work environment," he said. "I think that our aging work force just allows us to see symptoms faster. Good ergonomic design is going to help the 20-year-old and the 45-year-old."

Involvement at All Levels

The days of the solitary safety cop are drawing to a close. Results of the National Safety Survey showed a strong correlation between the best safety programs, management commitment and employee involvement. For example, 99 percent of respondents characterizing their programs as "world-class" said they have active and visible support for occupational safety and health from their top management, while 92 percent of those with "very good" programs said they had such support.

Employees can see when senior management is committed to safety, said Michael Saujani, corporate safety director for Fort Dearborn Co., a manufacturer of decorative labels for consumer goods with approximately 900 employees. Three years ago, when he joined the firm, only one company was willing to write workers' compensation coverage for the company. But since then, a strong commitment to safety has helped the company save $1 million in workers' compensation costs.

"When we first started, employees would bring up issues about safety and it would take a couple months to manage it," recalled Saujani. "Now, it gets done in a day or two."

Fort Dearborn states that the aim of its safety system is to "improve our safety record by increasing safety awareness through continuous education, training and participation that will nurture a strong safety culture throughout the organization." The company now has a lost workday incidence rate of 0.56, approximately a fifth of the industry average.

Saujani said Fort Dearborn employs several methods to ensure safety has a high profile. CEO Rich Adler Jr., for example, holds managers meetings twice a year to discuss the companies finances and operations. After he does the welcome, Adler turns over the meeting to Saujani for a report on safety. Saujani admits he was nervous initially about being first on the agenda but he quickly agrees with the observation that it sends a clear message about the importance of safety.

Adler makes award presentations when facilities reach a safety milestone. He includes safety in a weekly e-mail sent to all employees and posted in the plants. He also initiated a safety fair at each division and includes safety in surveys sent to all employees. And at informal meetings with employees called "Meet the Associates," he answers questions about safety that employees have.

Employee involvement also is stressed in the company. Joint management/employee safety committees include an employee from each department. Each employee on the committee conducts safety audits. During those audits, Saujani observed, many employees feel free to raise concerns or point out hazards to their co-workers. Other examples of employee involvement include:

  • Fort Dearborn takes advantage of employee expertise by having them conduct lift truck training.
  • An employee maintains the hard copies of material safety data sheets.
  • One facility uses a contest to design safety flyers to involve employees and their children in the safety process.

But Saujani isn't shy about going outside the company for help when warranted. He arranged with Northern Illinois University to have students come in and analyze the company's ergonomic situation. Saujani and the students found that about 70 percent of the company's losses were related to material handling, primarily in the sorting and palletizing areas. Based on their analysis, Fort Dearborn invested in vacuum lifts and lift assists to minimize bending and manual material handling.

At the same time, the company had its insurance carrier conduct training for managers and associates on ergonomics so they would understand basic ergonomic principles and recognize potential hazards. That paid off when a customer wanted the company to pack a certain number of labels per box. Each box would have weighed 60 pounds. When a manager realized that the boxes would exceed the company's guideline of 35 pounds for lifting, he phoned the customer, explained the situation and got them to agree to a smaller box. "The boxes were easy to lift and the potential for injury was less," said Saujani.

Adler's emphasis on safety has led to a culture change that has wide support. "Safety is the right thing to do, both from a business standpoint and from the standpoint of taking care of your people," Saujani said, adding that improved safety will boost production. "Once they realize you care, it makes a significant impact on people. They come back to work for you faster, they work harder for you and they take care of you as a company and as a family."

Safety Marketing

Nearly 80 percent of the respondents to the National Safety Survey said they are involved in EHS "policy and program development." While that phrase may sound rather dry and deskbound, when you come to a "young" safety and health program, as Steve Danielson describes that of North Pacific Group, it actually equates to a lot of "safety marketing" as he seeks to build "safety programs through policies and setting high expectation and developing the leadership" at North Pacific's 32 locations.

Founded in 1948, North Pacific is an employee-owned, privately held wholesale distributor of building materials, industrial and hardwood products and other specialty products with annual sales of $1.5 billion. Danielson, director, safety, health and environmental for North Pacific, is familiar with the journey from injuries as a cost of doing business to the development of a safety culture "where they wouldn't accept injuries." Prior to joining North Pacific 2 years ago, he spent 8 years at Louisiana-Pacific, which now has four sites in OSHA's VPP Star program.

In building a more robust safety program, Danielson has the firm backing of CEO Jay Ross. "It's been great to have him cascading that leadership down on the operations side while I am trying to work from the functional side and working with the mills directly as well," he said.

Danielson spends a week a month traveling to North Pacific sites. Auditing is one of his prime tasks as he brings new policies and programs to operations, communicates and trains staff on them and then works with site managers to make sure they are implemented. "I follow up the next month and make sure those programs are still in place and that we are progressing," he explained. "Once we put a lockout policy in place, for instance, I don't want to see it degrade even though we are working on confined space or something else. Once it's in, it has to get ingrained in the culture and woven into the fabric of the operation so that you don't have to do the rework."

Danielson is counting on others to do much of that "weaving." He is working with line managers to have them "manage behaviors, not outcomes." He explained: "One of the critical behaviors that causes lots of recordables and broken fingers is pulling lumber off a line from the end of the board, not the side. They pull it from the end and smash their fingers against their lumber cart. We need to manage those behaviors versus waiting for the incident to happen and then starting the management process. I think we are making progress in that area."

Danielson reports that incident rates are down and the number of workers' compensation claims are down 50 percent from the previous year, which also saw improvement. While not enough time has passed for these changes to impact the company's experience modifier, he expects to see some financial benefits this year and more to come in the future.

For 2006, Danielson plans to implement a behavioral safety program in the company. And further down the line, he wants to have North Pacific sites enter the OSHA VPP program. "Once you get things in place, you like to validate them and VPP is a good validation strategy," he said.

Everyone in the Safety Team

Some companies brag that everyone is part of the safety team but at ITW Dynatec, it is literally true. When the manufacturer of adhesive application equipment decided 3 years ago to pursue VPP Star status, the entire work force of 112 was divided into 17 safety teams. Each team corresponded to areas, such as job hazard analysis or preventive maintenance, that OSHA concentrated on in the certification process.

Denise Steiner, the human resources manager and safety coordinator, said company officials examined the requirements of the Star application form, did a gap analysis of where they were and what they needed to do to attain VPP status, made an action plan and got to work. The facility was already used to implementing a systems approach, having received ISO 9001 certification. "We weren't too far from our goal," recalled Steiner, adding that much of the work involved documenting programs already in place. But the company did make new investments, replacing portable emergency eyewash stations with permanent stations and creating a medical response team.

Teams met twice a month to work on their goals. Natalie Tachuk, a technical illustrator and the captain of the Personal Protective Equipment team, noted that her team duties allowed her to work with employees she otherwise would not have known. It also changed her awareness of safety. "I do a lot of artsy things at home like carving stone and using pneumatic chisels. It changed the way I did things. I started wearing a safety shield and vibration gloves," she said.

As the VPP work progressed, Tachuk said the employee involvement team came up with a popular incentive. Every quarter, the progress of the teams against their goals was checked. If teams met their goals throughout the year, team members got 2 "safety days" off. In addition, team members received jackets, T-shirts and other items as rewards for the work they were putting in.

Steiner said it took months to complete the binder-size application, but the attention to detail paid off. "We were the first company in Tennessee to submit an application that didn't have any follow-up questions," she said. The VPP audit this past January also went well. "They put us at ease right away. Before the week was up, I commented that I had never enjoyed an audit so much. We had such a good experience with them. They were never threatening, always gave us constructive criticism and did it in a very helpful way."

In June, the company held an induction ceremony with Tennessee labor department officials, local dignitaries and corporate executives. There was a lunch for employees and also a celebration dinner. Steiner said the company is not resting on its laurels. The safety teams continue to meet monthly and carry out duties such as auditing chemical cabinets or the condition of pallet jacks. And the facility is taking a holistic approach to safety, introducing ongoing health classes on nutrition, diabetes and other topics.

Tachuk, who said her friends in the building trades tell her some horror stories about safety, noted that the VPP effort has built camaraderie among ITW Dynatec employees. "I am extremely proud of our situation. My friends actually brag about my company. It's great that you are working for a company that cares."

Sidebar: What Do You Consider the Most Important Part of Your Job?

  • Convincing the workforce of the importance of being aware of the possible hazards associated with working around machines. We are a tooling shop and the types of hazards that exist can get you in a hurry.
  • We need to comply with regulatory standards; that's a given. However, I feel that staying in touch with the workers is more important than that. They are my customers and I'm here to ensure they have a safe and healthy place to work. By providing them peace of mind, they can do their job, which ultimately increases production and management's bottom line.
  • Teaching hazard identification and control to the line managers.
  • Educating the employees that their actions lead to their own and their fellow employees' safety.
  • Whoever screams the loudest at a given time. Like it or not, production usually gets the most attention unless an accident occurs.
  • Assuring that our employees make it home every night in at least as good condition as they arrived.
  • Interpersonal relationships with our employees. A heart to heart approach as to why their safety is so important to me personally, their family, their friends and their company.
  • Developing event-free performance programs and doing root cause investigations.
  • Getting employees to think of themselves (i.e., their safety) first at all times.
  • Helping management and workers understand the need for risk management in the everyday operation of their business. Most small and average businesses do not realize the hidden costs of incidents that could put them out of business.
  • Safety training and accident prevention.
  • Educating managers on how to manage people, the most important and most neglected part of their jobs.
  • Communicating the required standards and ensuring that these standards are followed.
  • Training and helping the employees understand that the safety program is their safety program.
  • Keeping alive the idea that safety, quality and productivity go hand in hand.
  • Coordinating the efforts of many levels of employees, from shop floor to upper management, towards the regulatory compliance and cultural change issues needed to reduce risks.
  • To be available ... not seen as a safety cop, but as an asset ... to assist in developing solutions and not just to find fault.
  • Keeping everyone here safe on a daily basis. That means being out on the plant floor regularly, meeting with safety committee members and keeping an ear to the ground about safety issues.
  • Balancing compliance with business realities.
  • Contact with hourly employees helping them to understand safety, building their confidence and increasing their 'ownership' of safety at their work area.
  • Trying to establish a safety culture that represents who we as a company are and who we want to be. Currently, our safety culture totally depends on the expectations and requirements of our clients/customers.
  • Safety cheerleader and counselor
  • Emergency treatment for injured employees.
  • Providing prompt response to safety suggestions and integrating ESH up front in the design and purchase of new equipment.
  • Coaching operational management on leadership behaviors and actions that can influence the behaviors of their subordinates
  • Making employees understand that they need to be accountable for their own safety and not depend on someone else to do it for them.
  • Ethics
  • Managing the company compliance audit program.
  • Balancing production needs while maintaining and promoting a safe and healthy workplace
  • Getting the safety message out - meeting and interacting with management, supervisors and employees. It's not just about conducting training but being visible - re-enforcing the training, showing and emphasizing the importance of training, letting everyone know that the highest levels of management care for their health and safety.
  • Earning employee trust and constant communication with all employees
  • Most importance part: Prevention of incidents, injuries, releases or security breaches, whether to employees, contractors, customers or the public or the environment.
  • Strategic planning, safety leadership, and partnership with operational leadership.
  • Process safety management
  • Continuous monitoring of our safety programs, identifying the 'soft spots' and improving them. Also, an on-going program of communicating safety awareness throughtout the organization.
  • Open communication with employees who can talk to me regarding workplace safety when they may not be able to talk to the direct supervisor/manager. And communicate upwards to management on employee safety concerns.
  • When it comes to safety, everything is important
  • Raising awareness levels for safety and environmental issues of all employees to ensure I am not the only person paying attention to safety issues. I promote a team approach rather than being the safety cop.
  • Insuring that all general and sub-contractors comply with the EHS program
  • Educating workers to perform their jobs safely as well as effectively. Promoting the importance of thinking safety at all times. Complete and thorough accident as well as 'near miss' investigations to continuously make improvements.
  • Building Safety leadership among operations managers and supervisors
  • Keeping the company's nose clean
  • Ensuring personnel are not exposed to hazardous chemicals.

Sidebar: Occupational Injury and Illness: Serious Public Health Problem?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 4,400,000 nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses in the United States in 2003. Of these, just over half resulted in lost time from work. And 5,559 workers were killed in job-related incidents, an average of 15 deaths a day.

In the National Safety Survey, we asked: "Do you consider occupational injuries, illnesses and fatalities a serious public health problem in the United States?" Some 79 percent of respondents said yes, while 21 percent said no.

Such a response may be fueled not only by the sheer numbers of work-related injuries and deaths, but by concerns in the safety community that OSHA, NIOSH and other agencies charged with protecting workers are losing government support.

Dennis Hussey, whose EHS education includes a master's degree in public health, said, "I really don't think we treat it as a serious public health issue." He called the number of injuries and accidents "still unacceptably high" and worried that there was some complacency in government about occupational safety. "If you look at government budgets, it's like we have our hands around this, we can focus on something else. Based on the numbers, I'm not sure that's an accurate perception."

As grim as the BLS picture is, it may be telling only part of the story. For example, J. Paul Leigh, an economist and professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine at the University of California, Davis and colleagues have argued that BLS misses between 33 percent and 69 percent of all occupational injuries. When he included data on the self-employed, federal, state and local government employees, small farms and others, he concluded that the true scope of occupational injury and illness was much greater than generally portrayed. His analysis of 1992 data, for example, found that while BLS had counted 6,342,000 nonfatal injuries, his best estimate was that the number was 13,336,871. Similarly, he estimated that rather than the relative handful of fatal occupational illnesses reported annually, the number was likely in the range of 49,000 to 74,000 deaths each year.

As Leigh pointed out in a followup study of 1999 data: "A large underestimate can result in too few resources from government and the private sector directed at improving occupational safety."

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