Safety Management: “Nothing Special”

By making safety nothing special – a routine part of the corporate culture – your company could become an outstanding safety performer.

Safety management traditionally means safety programs, committees, rules and inspections. Companies that have average safety systems like this can find their results are average, or worse. There are few – if any – other operating parameters where average is considered to be good enough. Companies that want to excel in safety go further by integrating safety into daily activities, with lots of management and employee responsibility and mutual participation.

My loss control consulting clients can be divided into two groups: those that treat safety like something special, and those that don’t. I’ll explain the “safety is something special” system first. In my way of thinking, safety is treated like something special in companies where it has its own special system that is nothing like the systems by which every other operating goal is accomplished. It’s something special, off by itself and managed with a unique system. It’s not a routine expectation.

Something Special

This is how the “something special” safety system operates: Senior management takes no active, visible role. There are no fair metrics for managerial or supervisory safety performance. The company’s OSHA DART rate is compared against BLS’ industry statistics, and everyone is satisfied when the company’s numbers are the same as the national average. Maybe managers are held accountable in some way for accidents, which is a measure heavily influenced by luck, not necessarily effort. There’s no comprehensive way to measure what people are doing for safety on a daily basis.

Often, the safety director and others have some stated authority, like the right to “stop a job when it looks too dangerous,” but still have trouble getting many people to routinely follow procedures. An employee who does not follow safety procedures will get written up if caught by the safety director, but the nearby supervisor who could have prevented the violation gets off scot-free. If a safety-related issue comes up or an accident needs to be investigated, everyone points to the safety director or safety committee. It’s a form of organizational buck-passing. In this scenario, very few people have a sense of true responsibility for safety. Rather, they wait to be told what to do, and then, sometimes, don’t do it.

There’s very little outside of safety that’s handled this way in any successful company. I’m not blaming senior management for allowing this to be the typical model for a safety program.

Employers might think they’re doing exactly what they need to do by funding and staffing a safety department. A client recently told me his senior management “just isn’t committed to safety. They’re all about sales.” Yet these same senior managers annually spend about a half a million bucks on safety-related salaries, benefits, equipment and other expenses. Is it that they aren’t committed, or is it that they are doing what they think is the best they can do?

Having heard some CEOs lamenting their companies’ poor safety performance, I have to assume that could be the case. The CEOs are troubled and mystified by the mediocre results they see, especially when their companies are excellent in every other way. They are stymied because they think safety really should be something special at their companies, having such vast resources devoted to it. That creates an opportunity for me to tell them something they’ve probably never heard: Companies that don’t treat safety like it’s special are the ones that succeed.

Nothing Special

Companies where safety is nothing special, just a routine part of the culture, are relatively uncommon. These are the places where safety is handled exactly like production and quality are. Responsibilities for specific activities are assigned at all levels, and metrics have been created to measure performance. Poor performance is studied and properly addressed. Supervisors have a list of useful tasks they perform on a frequent basis. Middle managers have a sure, simple way to verify that supervisors have been keeping up with these tasks.

The accountability system is aimed at motivating correct behaviors, not enforcement of draconian rules. And management has the guts to actually hold people accountable for their responsibilities. If a good production performer is habitually poor in safety, he’s not seen as a good performer for long.

At these companies, each employee has a role and a voice in safety, and is well-aware that safety is important to their immediate supervisor. That awareness comes not from slogans, signs or incentive programs, but from supervisory involvement; frequent emphasis on safety; a positive, coaching approach to behavioral situations; and an overall view of safety that includes both proactive and reactive measures.

Senior Management Commitment

To start a system like this, the starting point is to have a “heart to heart” talk with senior management. You and I know that if you even need to have a talk like this, it may be the end of the line for your new proposed system. But it’s critical that senior management understand that they have to take a role, although a small one, in making safety happen beyond just signing the checks.

We shouldn’t assume that senior management doesn’t care. They probably think they’re doing everything they need to do for safety. They’re smart enough to know that the insurance premiums come out of the profit. They need to learn that their main job is to visibly stand behind safety, not just quietly fret over it and sign the checks. If we want safety to be a part of the company’s shared values, attitudes, competencies and behavior patterns (what we sum up as the “culture”), it’s going to take more than a determined safety person or committee to make it happen.

People need to know that the big boss truly cares about something other than how many gizmos get built and shipped. If the senior management cares, they have to show it for people to know it. What’s important cascades down from the visible activities, attitudes, values and statements of the senior managers. Another way of saying it is that when something is truly important, everyone should treat it like it’s important, especially senior management. It is an ironclad fact that people generally will do what they consider to be important to their immediate supervisor, and not much more.

A client company had a run of construction fatalities and decided that killing people on the job wouldn’t cut it anymore. They’ve implemented some highly visible senior management safety activities to get the point across. The CEO, CFO or COO routinely step into safety orientations and talk with new employees about safety as a company value. Each class hears a tape of the CEO’s radio interview talking about nothing but how safety is vital to him and to the company’s performance. The tape includes his heartfelt statement that he never again wants to visit one of his employee’s wives and “tell her that her husband won’t be coming home.”

At this company, training time for new people has been expanded from a few hours to several weeks, and the process has been made much more effective and organized. Company meetings always start with talk of safety performance. People who’ve done a good job are recognized. The lost-time accident penalty in the safety bonus plan has been eliminated, because it rewarded luck over hard work, and luck isn’t measurable performance.

To show they mean business, company management implemented some “not-an-option” safety rules for some extremely critical life-and-death behavioral items. During site visits, “not-an-option” compliance is the first thing the senior managers check. Anyone who breaks a “not-an-option” rule will not only be looking for a new job, but their supervisor and the rest of the crew also will be looking with them. And that’s not talk ... since implementing the “not-an-option” rules, entire crews have been fired for breaking them.

You can bet that a summary firing is attention-getting, especially when skilled labor is in shortage and the crews were top performers in every other way. Yes, it’s punitive to fire people, and not necessarily motivating, but the company couldn’t handle such serious items any other way without losing its safety credibility.

Supervisory Accountability

In a system where safety is nothing special, supervisors have routine, visible duties. One of these duties is making sure everything is the way it ought to be in their areas. Most supervisors will say, “I’m keeping an eye on safety all day long,” but if there is a guard removed from an energized machine, or an employee not wearing required PPE, this assertion is questionable. Even if they’re doing a great job observing employees’ safety behaviors, if the employees don’t know that their actions are being observed, they will assume that the supervisor doesn’t care about it.

Production-related matters are obviously being closely watched and documented. This means a similar level of attention, and a similar observation and accountability system, need to be devoted to safety to keep it on the employees’ radar screens.

When working with clients, I start by having the supervisors work with their teams to develop their own checklists of safety-critical items (behaviors and conditions). The aim is to come up with as short a list as possible without leaving off anything that can lead to a serious accident.

After these are approved by the company’s safety department and managers, each supervisor begins regular, documented inspections using this list. An hourly person accompanies the supervisor on every walk-through and signs off on the checklist. The checklists are sent to the department management, and a record is made of how well they were completed and the presence of an employee’s signature on the checklist is confirmed. Any issues are addressed, and the checklists then are shredded to eliminate a non-productive paper trail.

The safety-critical items checklists are incorporated into documented, department-specific safety orientations that replace the old, casual system of showing the new people around. The tighter orientations are an example of “when something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right every time.”

Supervisors conduct much of the safety-related sections of the orientation and complete a checklist. They also can do a documented follow-up. If there is large-scale safety training, the supervisor is given a role in presenting it. This sends a much better, more visible message than the safety director sitting employees in front of a TV and popping in a generic safety tape.

Supervisors are expected to include safety in team meetings; spend a little time working through job safety analyses with their teams; be the “point person” responsible for accident investigations; do a safety briefing when it’s time for an employee to do a non-routine task; and personally conduct behavioral safety observations.

If the company is using “peer observation” behavior-based safety (BBS), having supervisors reinforce the importance of critical safety behaviors is a must. Any visible lack of support for the BBS process will chop the legs right off its chances of making a difference, at least over the long term. BBS can’t make someone care about something that their supervisor couldn’t care less about. An actively involved supervisor will champion the BBS process.

If supervisors are over-tasked, some of their recordkeeping and clerical tasks can be delegated to lead people and senior hourly employees. That frees up a little time for supervisors to perform accountable safety tasks. When supervisors do all these good things, employees quickly get the impression that safety matters on the shop floor – not just in the safety director’s office – and they’re right.

Safety as Morale Booster

The effect of involving all levels of management in a more visible safety process is to show employees that safety matters, and that they really matter to the company. When does attention to any operating parameter ever do that, other than safety? A big push for fewer quality rejects just says, “Hey, let’s make more money for the company, which won’t necessarily be reflected in the size of your paycheck.” Same thing for efficiency and productivity. But caring about safety tells people, “We care about you.”This is a factor in building a better workplace climate, commonly thought of as morale.

Numerous industrial psychology studies conducted decades ago showed that an improved workplace climate substantially increased job performance. I’ve seen my own clients achieve 30 percent reductions in cost per accident claim, and 35 percent increases in employee retention. Both of these improvements directly help improve net profits.

In my practice, I’ve observed that improving morale even unintentionally – for example, by implementing a new safety program with lots of supervisory visibility and employee involvement – cuts turnover and improves productivity. We should make good workplace climate, (aka morale), a point of competitiveness and an operational goal. It pays for itself.

In making safety a routine responsibility for everyone, we can make our companies into excellent safety performers. Day-to-day, hour-to-hour inclusion of safety into everything that happens in the facility will bring the lowest possible accident rates and improve other important parameters such as workplace climate. That’s how we benefit by making safety into “nothing special.”

Contributing Editor William H. Kincaid, PE, CSP, is vice president and senior loss control consultant for Lockton Companies LLC.

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