How to Successfully Manage your Safety Program
This article appeared in J. J. Keller’s Safety Management Today newsletter and is being reprinted with permission by J.J. Keller.
This is the time when we often reflect on the events of the past year and gage our safety successes and failures. Undoubtedly, there are safety issues which you still need to manage closely or maybe even those you weren’t able to manage at all. While there isn’t much we can do to change the past, there most certainly is something we can do to shape the future.
Now is the perfect opportunity to plan for safety success. Often the focus of a safety plan is the ‘nuts and bolts’ of safety: injury and illness rates, training, etc. These elements are vital to a good safety and health management plan; however, there are others which inherently have nothing to do with safety, but are nonetheless keys to its success.
It’s said over and over again that you cannot have a successful safety program without management commitment. It’s true. Were there instances this past year when you weren’t successful because you didn’t have the backing of management?
If so, it could be for several reasons. Whatever those reasons are, it’s up to you to make both the business and ethical case for safety. Most can make the ethical case, but the business case is more difficult.
At ITU AbsorbTech, a Wisconsin laundry service company, Kurt Meyer the Director of Human Resources says that you must first educate your leadership about the “economics of safety” and then communicate that message to the rest of the organization. At ITU AbsorbTech, safety is a top strategic objective. “A company’s safety record is a direct reflection of the quality of the leadership,” says Kurt. As such, there is no separate budget for safety because it’s simply part of how they do business, which management believes gives the company a competitive advantage.
What does having a management commitment mean in practical terms? First, it means that the organization has a clearly stated policy on safety. A policy statement is more than just something written down that doesn’t carry any weight in an organization, however. Think of the policy statement as your foundation for safety and health management. It communicates the value that safety has in the organization. For example, ITU’s motto is that “safety is a way of life.” Whatever policy is developed at your company, it should be the basic point of reference for all decisions affecting safety and health. That way, when it comes down to a situation where there’s debate about whether to spend money on a certain hazard control, you can point to your policy to remind everyone of safety’s place in the company.
For example, as recently as five years ago, ITU was paying four times the premium for Workers’ Compensation coverage then they are today. How did they reduce their cost? ITU lowered their MOD rate from 1.25 to .64 currently. In addition to the savings from the MOD reduction, their insurer also offers guaranteed premium dividends and other discounts. This has both reduced ITU’s premiums by 75% and returned hundreds of thousands of dollars to the company.
While some of the top management involvement will be evident by the fact that you have a policy that incorporates safety, actions always speak louder than words. If top management gives high priority to safety and health in practice, the rest of the organization will naturally follow.
If not, a written or spoken policy of high priority for safety and health will have little credibility and limited affect. Plant managers who wear required personal protective equipment in work areas, perform periodic “housekeeping” inspections, and personally track performance in safety and health protection demonstrate that involvement. Jerry Chapman, Corporate Safety Manager at ITU, routinely evaluates job tasks of delivery employees face to better understand day-to-day safety issues they encounter on their routes.
This types of hands-on involvement says to all ITU employees that the company is “going to do the right thing” with regard to safety and they believe it significantly improves employee morale and speaks directly to the company’s safety culture. Mr. Chapman says that it’s the wrong attitude for employees to fear the safety guy. At ITU safety is a partnership!
Designated individuals must be assigned to carry out the various safety tasks that need to be implemented and they need to be held accountable for both safety successes and failures. It’s as simple as that. At ITU, safety successes are celebrated and shared equally for meeting safety goals and objectives as an organization, not as individuals. The company also recognizes that there will be safety failures. When this happens, the issue is quickly and aggressively investigated and solutions are applied throughout the company because if it likely exists at one facility, it likely exists at other facilities. This has cultivated a culture in which everyone is accountable for safety.
This approach also provides everybody an opportunity to improve safety. Therefore, one of the key elements of a successful safety and health program is to formally implement a procedure regarding what changes need to be communicated, who needs to be involved, and so on. This certainly isn’t a new or radical concept, but it is an element that companies have to proactively implement or the improvements won’t happen.
ITU has a program in which employees are encouraged to formally submit near misses, improvement ideas and solutions, and general safety feedback. The form goes directly to the “Opportunity for Improvement” (OFI) Coordinator who then assigns a responsible manager to ensure appropriate corrective actions are taken and that they are effective. The form is then again forwarded to the OFI Coordinator to ensure the process is completed.
Obviously, any system needs to be evaluated from time to time, and safety and health programs are no different. How is this done? In other words, how should safety be measured?
There are essentially two types of measurements or metrics: leading indicators and lagging or trailing indicators. Lagging indicators are those things assessed after an injury or incident has already occurred. The common one is incidence rate or dart rate. However, this doesn’t necessarily provide a lot of useful safety information that will help prevent future incidences. To simply know that the incident rate went up or down is somewhat helpful, but really, was it just luck? Can you pinpoint any specific actions you’ve done to make it go up or down? Also, could that change tomorrow if there was a big incident? In other words, lagging indicators aren’t always representative of the actual state of safety in the workplace.
Therefore, leading indicators are really what should be the focus. Leading indicators are activities that occur in an attempt to prevent injuries from happening. Common leading indicators include:
- The percentage of employees submitting safety suggestions.
- The number of safety meetings held and/or the percentage of attendance.
- The number of behavior-based observations and/or the percentage of employee participation.
- The length of time is takes to implement corrective actions or act on safety suggestions
- The percentage of employee training completed.
After an accident at ITU, the company conducted “gravity audits.” Both management and their insurance company did a complete walk-through of the facility and examined everything that could ‘fall’. As a result, ITU changed railings, work procedures (ladders), redid stairwells and edges, etc. to eliminate the associated risks.
Obviously, all of this is easier said than done. You will encounter barriers to success. Paul Kihslinger, Vice President for Robertson and Ryan Insurance, ITU’s insurance carrier, says, “Safety is really hard. You have to be passionate and committed to make it work.” In doing so, you’ll likely see benefits simply beyond a better safety culture; it will extend into the company’s overall business culture.
Based on ITU’s safety success, Kurt Meyer knows this argument is a winner and stresses, “you just need to know how to make it effective inside of your organization.”