Can Line Ownership of Safety Succeed?

Feb. 28, 2000
For the concept to work, there needs to be management commitment, employee participation, and health and safety resources.

A relatively recent trend in the management of health and safety has been an emphasis on moving responsibility out of the health and safety department and into the line organization.

This is sometimes referred to as "line ownership of safety." This approach developed naturally from other lean manufacturing efforts that have moved responsibility down the chain of command and the move to teams. It was also an artifact of the flattening of the traditional management pyramid.

I must admit that I have been skeptical about how well line ownership of health and safety might work in actual practice. The reason for this skepticism is that, commonly, line ownership simply has represented rhetoric to decimate existing health and safety staffing along with other middle managers. Others have shared my skepticism. However, over the last couple of years, I have had the opportunity to see some examples where I believe it actually works. In this article, I will discuss the concept and give an example that seemed to work well. I will also give you my opinions on what is necessary for this concept to work.

Should We Do It? Point and Counterpoint

The rationale for line ownership of health and safety is relatively straightforward and simple. You will never have an effective health and safety program unless you can get buy-in from all factions and parties involved. This buy-in needs to be more than simple tacit approval or sponsorship of health and safety. This has always been a tenet of health and safety. I cannot believe that there is anyone on this planet who does not believe in health and safety, especially after the incident has occurred.

True buy-in means active participation. This is especially important for managers, supervisors and line workers. It seems to me that it is also the basic tenet for behavioral safety observation programs, another trend in health and safety management. There are other arguments for this approach, including the changing of attitudes that place all responsibility for the health and safety of workers squarely on the shoulders of the health and safety department. There are also the obvious cost benefits of staff reductions that typically follow this approach.

There are counterpoints to the benefits of line ownership of health and safety. The first is that health and safety is a complicated technical field that requires expertise and resources (health and safety professionals, like ourselves -- thank goodness). Therefore, it should not be left entirely to manufacturing line management without technical support.

The obvious optimization of this point-counterpoint is to structure a system where line management takes responsibility and is involved, while having the technical resources to develop the programs and guide them as needed. Stated another way, it's health and safety staffing with line ownership of programs and activities.

A second counterpoint is that the expertise of line management is to produce the product or service. Some would argue that this is the area where they should focus their efforts and not be distracted by other responsibilities. Said another way, let them do what they do best, while still being champions of the health and safety effort. I believe that this argument has some merit.

The Proof Is In the Pudding

I recently visited a plant where I witnessed an interesting approach to the concept of line ownership of health and safety. This was a fairly large facility with reasonable health and safety staffing (industrial hygiene and safety staff). At this facility, all the plant's health and safety programs had been assigned to line managers by the plant manager. For example, there were line managers assigned plantwide responsibility for confined spaces, lockout/tagout, fall protection, respiratory protection, etc. This included relatively senior managers that ran departments.

What is different about this idealistic approach is that these managers were responsible for the implementation and maintenance of these programs. While they were not technical experts, it was truly amazing to see the breadth of knowledge and interest they exhibited in "their programs" (obviously, some more than others, just as would be expected). When I say they were responsible for these programs, I mean they had total responsibility. This included assisting in the development of the program using a team approach (hourly workers, health and safety staff, supervisors, etc.), implementation of the program, monitoring of results, incident investigations that involved their area of responsibility and training.

Believe it or not, I witnessed some line managers teaching fall protection to hourly workers and supervisors. This included suiting up in harnesses. When questions would come up from the floor on one of the programs, they would go to the "owner" of that program. The line manager who owned the program would not go to the health and safety department unless he could not handle the inquiry. For this plant, line managers reported that they would typically spend about 25 percent of their time on their assigned health and safety programs.

The interesting characteristics of this particular plant situation were a history of poor safety performance, hierarchical line management and poor employee involvement. From this dismal history, the plant instituted an approach of establishing absolute safety rules (e.g., use of PPE), active employee participation, a behavioral safety observation program, line management of safety programs and other measures.

Since then, a little over one year ago, the plant has cut its incident and illness rates in half and had productivity improvements. I believe that much of this improvement resulted from the wholehearted commitment of the plant manager to this concept of line ownership of safety and the other measures that were taken. I should add that these changes did not diminish the importance of the health and safety staff. Rather, their energies were focused on assisting the owners of programs, program development, technical work (e.g., noise and air monitoring) and improving the overall program.

Can It Work For Me?

I believe there are several key prerequisites for the line ownership of health and safety to be successful. The foremost criterion is management commitment. The second most important criterion is employee participation at all levels. Finally, health and safety resources can not be eliminated.

Management commitment is the key. Unlike our government, managers and supervisors in for-profit companies follow the lead of the person in charge or find they are working elsewhere. If the plant manager is committed to making the concept work, it will. If not, it has no chance of success. This means that the plant manager must rally the troops, sell the program, provide the resources and tools to implement it, hold his staff and workers accountable and reward achievements. Simply put, if it is important to the plant manager, it will be important to those who report to him, as well as down the chain of command. This, of course, includes the element of reward. The year-end bonus and worker incentives need to include health and safety performance in the areas where the individual can influence or affect results, not just injury and illness rates.

Once the plant manager is fully on-board or driving the line ownership charge, it is critical to achieve buy-in and involvement of all workers. This means employee participation through work teams, health and safety committees, quality circle, or some other form of active participation. This also means lots of training. If a manager or supervisor is going to approve the confined-space permit, he needs to know what is safe and what is, or could be, unsafe. Most important, he needs to know when and where to ask questions, if unsure. The same concept holds true for worker and work teams, not only what may be unsafe but why.

The last critical element is the need for health and safety resources. In this regard, I realize that I am preaching to the choir. As I stated in the beginning, it is quite common for the line ownership concept to be used as a means to eliminate or reduce health and safety staffing. While I will not get into the issue of the correct ratio of health and safety staffing to line workers, suffice it to say that technical expertise is needed.

Clearly, line management can handle routine health and safety activities. This is commonly done in many sectors, especially petrochemical industries. However, there are always new regulations, new materials to evaluate, new jobs and out-of-the-ordinary work tasks that will need the expertise of someone trained and fully capable in the broad areas of health and safety. In this case, it's important to train line managers to ask for help when unsure. Fortunately for us, there needs to be someone to answer the questions and provide that help!

Can the concept of line ownership of health and safety work? It can and does work in a number of companies. What it takes is management commitment, employee participation, and health and safety resources.

Contributing Editor Zack Mansdorf, Ph.D., CIH, CSP, QEP, has more than 25 years of technical and strategic experience in safety and health management. He is a past president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association and a director of the Board of Certified Safety Professionals. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].

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