July 1, 2014

Workplace Safety

A culture, not a program

A slow and steady shift started in 1970, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was created: The cause of workplace deaths and injuries began changing.

Until OSHA’s birth, unsafe workplaces were mainly to blame for the majority of worker deaths and injuries. But over time, as workplaces became safer due to OSHA education, penalties and employers’ increased efforts to accident-proof their facilities, the total number of deaths and injuries decreased. Eventually, the primary reason for the deaths and injuries that did occur became employees’ own unsafe behaviors.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the rate of workplace deaths per 100,000 workers fell from 5.2 in 1992 to 4.0 in 2002 to 3.2 in 2012 (the latest data available). Safety experts say not only that workplaces are getting safer, but also that efforts to further improve safety need to focus on employee behavior. The real key to a safe workplace, they say, is a workforce that is personally committed and consistent.


The Management Commitment

The genesis of committed employees is committed employers. If the employees don’t really feel that management cares about safety, they’re not going to do their part.

James Heard, vice president and operations lead for Cargill Metals Supply Chain in The Woodlands, Texas, says it best: “Our overall safety program and philosophy is one that is top-supported and bottom-driven. Behavior-based safety processes work well only in an environment of trust and candor.”

“One of the biggest challenges facing the industry today as it relates to safety is dispelling the misguided idea that compliance with OSHA standards is all there is to safety,” adds Todd Zyra, president of Klein Steel Service Inc. in Rochester, New York. “OSHA standards must be complied with, but they are the bare minimum and only the start of a solid safety program. More important is building a company culture geared toward success. This means that safety is not in competition with production, but is actually completely integrated into the production processes.”

The leadership team at Klein Steel is directly involved in the safety program, Zyra says. The company president holds monthly safety meetings with the entire senior staff plus sales and operations managers, quality engineers, shift supervisors, production team leaders, warehouse managers and maintenance supervisors. A member of the senior staff must also participate in monthly safety tours run by Klein’s compliance and safety manager. “They walk the entire floor of the plant, from the perimeter through all of the processing centers, looking for areas to improve safety,” Zyra explains.

Red flags include wet floors, improperly stacked materials, a forklift parked incorrectly or a frayed power cord. Photographs are taken and shared with team members. The tour team also uses a checklist to score the tour and make sure it is complete and accurate. Any safety issues are posted on the area display board. The checklist also helps ensure that all previously noted safety issues were resolved.

“We want to build enduring relationships with our team members, and providing them with a safe environment is foundational to maintaining trust,” Zyra says.

The Employee Commitment

“I am a firm believer that safety is not driven from my office or any other executive’s office,” says Eric Worley, a certified safety professional and corporate manager of health, safety and environment for O’Neal Steel Inc. in Birmingham, Alabama. “It requires buy-in from the operators.” Worley notes that coming to work and doing the same things every day can breed complacency, and that’s a big enemy to safety vigilance.

The way to overcome complacency, Worley says, is to get employees involved. For example, every one of the company’s facilities has a safety committee that conducts scheduled monthly audits. “In addition, operators are expected to take ownership of their work areas and identify the risks that exist there,” he says. “This is something that can’t be done at the corporate level.”

The company’s approaches to safety are working. “In terms of OSHA recordables and workers’ compensation costs, we are at about one-quarter of what we were in 2006,” says Worley. “We are striving for zero, and while we’re not there yet, we are getting close.” (“Recordables” are workplace deaths as well as injuries or illnesses that result in loss of consciousness, days away from work or medical treatment beyond first aid, among other things.)

Cargill’s Heard agrees with Worley. “We believe in leadership at all levels of our organization and that we are all accountable to each other, particularly when it comes to working safely,” he says. Employees observe one another in the workplace to identify gaps in work practices, training or hazard-recognition capabilities. They’re committed, Heard explains, to one another’s well-being.

An employee who observes a co-worker engaged in risky behaviors or working under risky conditions discusses his or her observation with the co-worker and then provides one-on-one verbal coaching. The employee also fills out an anonymous written observation form describing the incident and the coaching provided, and then submits it to management. “The card is kept for data purposes, so that we can take a look at the observations and quantify common at-risk behaviors or conditions,” Heard says. In addition, since the forms are completely anonymous, employees are not afraid of being disciplined because of the process. Heard says about 225 of these reports are filed per month, and that number is rising. “Our goal is a contact rate of 1.0, which means that every employee either coaches or is observed every month,” he says. Right now, the company’s contact rate is about 0.8.

“Our business has experienced steadily improving safety results over the past two decades,” Heard says. The company finished out its 2013-14 fiscal year (which runs June 1 through May 31) with a recordable injury frequency rate of 0.52. (The national rate was 3.4 per 100 workers in 2012, the most recent BLS data available.) “When it comes to safety, getting airborne is tough, but staying airborne is even tougher,” Heard says. “With great results comes complacency, and we fight complacency with fervor every day.”

Looking Out for Each Other

A key lesson here: Building employee commitment to safety requires that employees not only look out for themselves, but also monitor what their co-workers are doing. This is part of a concept called behavior-based safety. However, employers can’t introduce this concept until the employees themselves are ready for it. And that requires demonstrable management commitment and caring.

“You need to start out by having managers and supervisors observe workers, and then provide them with positive feedback if they are performing their jobs safely, or constructive feedback if they aren’t,” says Stephen Bennett, director, casualty risk consulting, at Aon in Chicago. “Once a safety culture and employee involvement are strongly in place, then you can expand the program to having the employees observe each other.”

To get to this point, employers must back up their words with action. According to Bennett, that involves listening to employees and, just as important, using their ideas. “I visited one company recently, and one of the most telling things was that, when I talked with the employees, they said they didn’t feel they were being listened to or part of the process,” he says.

Building employee commitment to safety requires that employees not only look out for themselves, but also monitor what their co-workers are doing. This is part of a concept called behavior-based safety. 


Not so at Earle M. Jorgensen Company in Schaumburg, Illinois. The first safety program the company implemented was the DuPont STOP behavioral safety program. “This program focuses on OSHA compliance, readiness, and a managerial and employee observation program,” says Tony Granata, director of plant operations. It is based on the idea that safety is everyone’s equal responsibility and is a discussion that takes place every day, not just when completing a formal observation.

While EMJ Schaumburg still uses this program, it has added a second DuPont program, called SafeStart, which focuses on total employee awareness and involvement in overall personal safety. It addresses human error and unintentional at-risk behaviors in the workplace, at home and on the road. The program helps to increase awareness, develop safe behaviors on and off the job, and teach critical error-reduction techniques.

“We have had numerous employees come forward with suggestions for safer practices,” Granata says. “This demonstrates the commitment and participation we have achieved for safety from all employees.”

The results are more than just anecdotal. EMJ has reduced its total number of work-injury claims from a high of 133 in 2000 to 11 in 2013, and its lost time/restricted duty incidence rate from 14.33 to 2.00 in the same period. “We have reduced our total incidence rate from 20.71 in 2000 to 3.14 in 2013,” Granata says.

Klein Steel has also benefited from employee involvement and commitment. One area of its plant has a very challenging job filling special orders for customers. The area suffered repeated safety incidents, most commonly caused by too much traffic in the area’s congested aisles. Rather than wait for management to find a solution, workers in the area took the initiative to form a small group to work on the problem. “Everyone on the team had a say,” Zyra says. The team members came up with more than 20 ideas and settled on one to implement. They then did all of the work themselves, and the only financial investment required by the company was a specific improvement of one machine. Not only did safety improve, but productivity and quality did, too: Productivity on the machine increased 15% and there was less damaged material.

Best of all? In the first three months after the team implemented its plan, the incidence rate dropped to zero.

William Atkinson has been a full-time freelance business magazine writer since 1976. He has also had seven books published.