Sports Lesson for EHS Professionals: Organization-Wide Effort Drives Results

Oct. 28, 2011
Quite a few articles compare safety and health professionals to coaches, and many occupational safety and health programs use sports themes to build teamwork, tap the power of competition and raise awareness of performance areas and metrics. Are these programs missing the mark?

The downside of sports analogies for occupational safety and health (OHS) programs is that they sometimes miss the big picture. If we focus exclusively on coaching theories, our annual “Health and Wellness MVP” award or how our department can win the “Super Bowl of Safety,” we may forget that health and safety performance ultimately depends on and benefits the entire organization, not just a few spotlighted individuals.

The same is true in professional sports. Plenty of smart coaches and star players never win a championship, while great organizations achieve excellence year after year regardless of personnel and other challenges. So let’s take the sports-OHS analogy to the next level and explore how the organizational components that drive great sports franchises parallel key areas separating OHS champions from the rest of the pack.

The Coaching Staff

The coaching staff has the central responsibility for everything from overall strategy and defining players’ roles, to training, resolving problems and more. Each component of the OHS team is critical to achieving excellence, but the coaches are unique in having a direct connection with every area.

In terms of OHS, the head coach typically would be the OHS director or vice president of environmental health and safety or someone similar. It’s easy to draw parallels between these positions and a head coach, but what doesn’t get discussed enough is the importance of the entire coaching staff. In sports and OHS, a head coach’s “big picture” duties may leave little time for ground-level tasks and interactions. The day-to-day support and specialized expertise of assistant coaches are the essential bridge from strategy to execution.

In obvious cases, the assistant coaches of OHS are the supervisors, occupational nurses and other professionals who report directly to the head coach. But assistant coaches also may be in entirely separate departments. For example, a site supervisor, shop steward or team safety rep may play the critical role in translating safety and health goals and processes into on-the-job realities. Any OHS head coach should make it a priority to identify and direct these assistant coaches, who are best-positioned to monitor and improve daily performance, provide individual instruction and set and reinforce expectations.

A company cannot expect an OHS coach to elevate its game without commitment from senior executives and appropriate staffing and technological support, as well as other components. But the OHS coaching staff is the key piece that ties those components together. Their performance in the following areas is vital:

➤ Vision – Coaches must set big picture safety and health goals and allocate resources to achieve them. They must blend innovative new approaches with traditional practices, overcome the resistance to change and deal with the challenges that come with their vision.

➤ Training and execution – OHS coaching staff must clearly define policies and processes, make sure employees have the necessary training and follow through by monitoring performance.

➤ Accountability and analysis – Measuring and analyzing safety and health metrics, including leading indicators, is the key to identifying and correcting problems before they become losing streaks.

➤ Culture – As a bridge between senior executives and front-line workers, OHS coaches are uniquely

positioned to help build an organization-wide safety and health culture where people do the right thing because it’s the right thing. Culture building takes time, but the long-term payoff is tremendous.


If OHS managers are coaches, employees become players. A key lesson from great sports franchises here is that it’s not just the coaches but the entire organization that invests time, money and resources to help players realize their potential. Many companies do this in terms of developing job skills and production processes – but shortchange employee safety and health, which can have just as big an impact on productivity.

Another lesson involves coping with player turnover. Sports teams inevitably include individuals with varying levels of skill and experience; some franchises may ride a core group of veterans to a couple winning seasons, but plummet into mediocrity as those veterans are lost to retirement, injury or free agency. Sometimes the drain of talent and experience leaves a team resigned to a rebuilding year (or several), where expectations shift from winning now to merely getting the pieces in place to win in the future.

An aging and increasingly transient work force presents similar challenges – but in safety and health, no one can afford a rebuilding year. So our model must be the great sports franchises that consistently win even as stars and veterans come and go. Three principles are worth emulating:

➤ Standards and screening – Just as great teams rigorously research draft choices and trades to find the best players and minimize the risks other players present, top companies should do pre-hire screening (including safety and health criteria), physical evaluations, drug screening, driver background checks and more. From HR to the shop floor, clear standards should guide personnel decisions.

➤ Mentoring and support – The best sports veterans and stars reach out to help the rookies and underperformers. Great organizations encourage this by recognizing team captains, partnering players directly and creating mentoring programs and events. These are ideas that work well at companies too. Helping veterans share their knowledge, whether through mentoring, training materials or other media, is essential to avoid a knowledge drain as they retire.

➤ Continuous improvement, not blame – Everyone makes mistakes. In losing environments, that creates a cover-your-butt culture where people focus more on avoiding and assigning blame than on doing what’s best for the team. Contrast that with how great sports figures dispute suggestions that any individual breakdown cost the team the game. Inevitably, they say there were multiple breakdowns and a team failure, which corresponds in OHS to looking at systems, processes and root causes rather than attributing incidents to one individual. At great organizations, people watch out for each other and strive for continuous improvement, not continuous blame.

Owner and Front Office

Coaches and players are the focus on game day, but efforts of many others in the organization impact whether they succeed. In sports, that starts with the owners, general manager, director of operations, scouting coordinator and other front office personnel. Consistently successful sports franchises inevitably have the most respected owners in sports, while perennial losers almost always exhibit a lack of front-office stability, expertise and investment.

Similarly, the OHS department cannot be the alpha and omega of work force safety and health initiatives; you must have senior management participation. That includes financial investment because shrinking budgets and staffs are real challenges. Still, as notable sports flops have shown, budgets alone do not guarantee success, so let’s specify how your front office can support the cause:

➤ Visible leadership commitment – Employees are more likely to commit to safety if management identifies it as a priority, invests in it and participates in efforts. Visible support for OHS programs encourages players to focus on making the coach’s system work rather than questioning it.

➤ Hiring and development – Executives and HR personnel are responsible for the makeup of the work force. That includes the aforementioned screening and standards to ensure that players are aligned with organizational goals, including safety and health. It equally is important to hire solid OHS professionals and give them resources to develop leadership, learn best practices and benchmark with the best.

➤ Technology – Unlike point solutions of the past, today’s best Web-based systems help connect multiple departments and functions. Their enterprise-wide scope generally requires executive budget and implementation decisions.

Wondering how to win greater front office involvement? Start by making the business case for safety. Don’t allow OHS departments to be cast as idealistic, compliance-mandated cost centers. Top safety and health programs are proving to be solid business investments. Show your executives measurable ROI, including reduced costs related to incidents and injuries, better productivity, higher brand value and improved ability to attract top employees, and they’ll have a broader incentive to support your work.

Facilities and Resources

The quality of a sports franchise’s facilities and resources, including training centers, meeting rooms, performance-enhancing computers and, of course, its stadium, can give its players and coaches a competitive edge. For corporations, the obvious parallels include medical facilities, as well as the tools, personal protective equipment (PPE), and other resources a job requires.

The workplace is your stadium and the quality of these resources – including the maintenance of machinery, available software and technology and condition of the work environment – impacts safety, health and productivity.

The Playbook and Analysis

In football, each team has a playbook detailing formations and plays. One thing that separates winners from losers is how well that playbook leverages player strengths, and how well the players learn and execute that playbook. As in football, an OHS playbook should spell out a common strategy, goals and procedures. When individuals understand their roles and what they should do in a given situation, you unify efforts, maximize performance and ensure accountability. A playbook also needs to be updated periodically in response to environmental or competitive factors, new challenges or exposures and regulation changes.

Equally important in shaping the playbook and driving continuous improvement is analysis. In sports, that includes scouting reports and analyzing game films to understand strengths and breakdowns. Similarly, top OHS programs use analysis to determine the root cause behind incidents or near misses. This analysis drives corrective action to mitigate risks. Today’s innovative technology makes it easier to collect, analyze and communicate greater quantity and quality of data, and champion organizations are going beyond traditional lagging indicators (injury rates, workers’ comp costs, etc.) to also track leading indicators, such as number of inspections/audits, percent of compliant/safe conditions and percent of employees trained. This makes it possible to proactively correct problems before they show up in lagging indicators, and also guides allocation of resources toward the areas that most impact safety, health and profits.

Winning Is a Habit

Legendary coach Vince Lombardi once explained that, “Winning is not a sometime thing ... You don’t do the right thing once in a while ... you do them right all the time. Winning is a habit.” What he’s talking about is an organization-wide commitment, a culture of winning. That’s not just about having a great coach or exceptional players. It’s about all organizational components focusing on one purpose: winning.

Everyone must understand and fulfill clearly defined roles that serve that purpose. Building that winning team is about the dedication of resources as well as the dedication of individuals. It’s about knowing why you won or lost so you can make the continuous improvements that will drive future wins.

Eric Glass is director of strategic resources at PureSafety. He has more than 15 years of experience in loss control, commercial insurance and risk management. Before joining PureSafety, he provided expert risk assessment, safety consulting, on-site loss control and investigation and training to a range of clients in the health care, manufacturing, retail, non-profit, warehouse/distribution and energy sectors. He also has been a risk consultant with Federated Mutual Insurance and the corporate risk manager at Swifty Serve Corp. Glass holds a B.A. in risk management from Florida State University and is an OSHA Outreach Education professional.

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