The Safety Imperative

Realizing they can no longer afford to do the minimum, more companies are making safety a priority -- and realizing bigger profits in the process.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017
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Over the last five years, Kenny Construction Co., a subsidiary of Granite Construction Inc., watched its annual accident rate fall from 4.3 percent of the workforce to below 1 percent (from 20 injured workers to six), increased the overall number of man-hours worked by 10 percent and reduced the severity of injuries from serious to nicks, cuts and scrapes.

The heavy civil-construction firm, based in Chicago, knows how to build more than just bridges, highways and tunnels. It successfully built a culture of workplace safety that is more meaningful than statistics to its 650 employees.

"Some of our more profitable years have been the years we've been the most safe," says Ryan Nero, group safety manager at Kenny.

At many companies, productivity ranks above employee safety. They only do what's required by law to keep employees safe. This, in turn, often works against their bottom lines because it takes a toll on employee engagement. By focusing on boosting productivity and encouraging employees to engage in unsafe workplace behaviors to achieve it, employers are not only increasing the risk of injury, but are also making employees feel like machines, not human beings.

Other employers, however, are discovering that safety conscious workplace cultures help them achieve many of their corporate goals, including boosting profits and employee engagement as well as hiring and retaining skilled workers.

Recent research suggests that workplace safety often isn't getting the attention it deserves.

One recent study by the National Safety Council found more than one-third (36 percent) of the 2,000 workers surveyed strongly or somewhat agreed that "safety takes a back seat to completing job tasks."

Other results in the study are just as disturbing. Another 32 percent of the respondents confessed they were afraid to report safety issues; 30 percent agreed that employees are resistant to working safely; and 39 percent said that management only does the minimum required by law regarding employee safety. Ironically, 71 percent of the survey participants stated that safety training is part of employee orientation and 68 percent believe employees are well-trained in emergency practices.

"It's a bit shocking even for me as a safety professional to think that more than one-third of employees say safety takes a back seat to productivity," says John Dony, director of the Campbell Institute, the research arm of Itasca-Ill.-based National Safety Council. "This is a fundamental issue for HR folks as well as safety folks."

Dony, who is also director of environmental, health and safety at the NSC, says HR professionals can help elevate workplace safety by talking about the importance of safety during employee-performance evaluations and praising employees for performing a job task safely.

"Safety has to be driven culturally, not just looking at a bar chart," he says, noting that establishing a safe workplace culture involves much more than tracking the number of onsite employee accidents or injuries every year. "[Sixty-two percent] of those [participating in the NSC survey] say all employees are involved in solving safety issues. That's a message for safety and HR professionals to think about [as they attempt to] involve folks at all levels of the organization."

Programs Send Strong Message

Back at Kenny, a program was implemented nearly 15 years ago called "Take 5," under which foremen talk to their crew members daily for five minutes before work -- or when changes in the weather affect what they are working on -- about potential hazards and ways they can protect themselves from accidents or injuries.

In 2013, Granite acquired Kenny. Two years later, recalls Nero, Michael Stoecker was named president and made safety a higher priority at the company.

One example was a one-hour program called "Speak Up, Listen Up" that was delivered during employee orientation. Nero says it teaches new hires how to give and accept constructive feedback to and from their peers as far as safety is concerned.

"No one likes to be told that they're doing something wrong," Nero says. "They learn that when someone is speaking to them, they have to take the position that the person cares about them, accept [what he or she says, and] look at corrective measures and move forward."

Roughly one month later, Nero says, new hires participate in "Stop," which teaches safe behaviors and also trains them on how to spot and stop unsafe practices. Depending upon the company's workload, the training can last from two weeks to a year, he says, requiring employees to share workplace observations, communication approaches and corrective actions in a group setting.

Another program, called "20-20-20," asks employees to take 20 seconds every 20 minutes to look 20 feet around them in order to identify potential hazards and remove, report or fix them. Hundreds of workers also participate in "Good Catch," which recognizes workers for reporting "near misses," says Nero, explaining that their names are entered into a drawing for $25 to $100 gift cards.

Still, no workplace is perfect. Within five days of an injury, a meeting takes place between the injured worker and the company's president, the division vice president of the operating unit, HR and safety leaders, regional safety managers, and associated foremen and superintendents. While some of the parties, such as the president or injured worker, may attend via a conference line, they collaboratively address the worker's health status, how treatment is progressing, how the accident happened and tips for preventing a recurrence.

Nero says safety and HR work hand-in-hand to build and sustain a safe culture. As an example, he points to how HR, Kenny's current president (Stoecker) and other senior executives walk job sites to build solid relationships with workers and engage in candid conversations about workplace safety. They also use that opportunity to ensure that safe practices at the sites are being observed.

"This needs to happen at all levels of management," says Nero. "Build trust and relationships with workers so they're comfortable coming to you with [safety] questions or comments. That's when you turn the corner and establish a safe culture."

Actively Listen

Other companies focus more on building an internal safety brand and less on rules that end up in safety handbooks few employees read. Jetco Delivery, a trucking and logistics company based in Houston, is a prime example.

Its CEO -- Brian Fielkow -- is a consultant specializing in workplace safety and corporate culture and also author of Leading People Safely: How to Win on the Business Battlefield.

"Done right, it's a visual affirmation of safety values," he says, noting that Jetco's 225 employees developed its slogan -- 'Driving to Perfection' -- which appears on company uniforms, equipment and computer screensavers as a constant safety reminder. "There's never a safety versus productivity question. It has worked wonders for us."

Fielkow says company leaders must take time to engage all workers by listening to their suggestions. He routinely surveys his drivers or frontline workers for best practices and acts upon their tips.

Because many of the drivers are on the road and often disconnected with the main office, Fielkow asked them to form a driver committee. No driver decisions are made without this committee's input.

Alternatively, Fielkow says companies can informally invite employees to chat with senior executives over coffee and doughnuts each month or add a link to their website that collects anonymous employee-safety suggestions. There's no right or wrong way, he says, as long as a routine mechanism is established for front-line workers to express their safety views to management, which is ready to listen.

However, he says, there is a right way to build and sustain a safe workplace culture.

"Tear down safety silos," Fielkow says, adding that safety departments shouldn't be solely responsible for creating a safe worksite. "Create an environment where you're all in this together."

That includes HR, which can develop an "input-rich" hiring process by seeking out job candidates who possess safety skills and behaviors. He says that HR can provide a short list of job candidates to drivers and others involved in making safety-critical decisions to solicit their opinions about those being considered.  

Likewise, Fielkow says, discard rigid progressive discipline processes. HR, he explains, only needs to ask itself one question: Was this an honest mistake or reckless behavior?

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If the answer is the first, Fielkow says, change the tone of the conversation and explain that good workers sometimes make bad mistakes. Coach or train them to better understand what they did wrong, the impact of their actions and how to safely execute similar tasks going forward, he says.

And if the behavior was blatantly or intentionally reckless? Then, he says, he would fire them, because he wouldn't want them hanging around for an "encore performance."

Overall, he says, employers need to change their perceptions about safety being a cost and productivity being more important.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," says Fielkow. "[Employers that] continually put productivity ahead of safety will get away with it tomorrow, maybe next year or even the next five years, but their day of reckoning will come," he says.

Missing in Action

Other safety approaches include tying employee raises, salaries, promotions or bonuses to safety goals, adds William Marletta, a safety consultant based in West Islip, N.Y.

"It has to be inbred [among workers] that safety is as important as getting the job done quickly," Marletta says, adding that safety training is essential for employees at all levels. "Then make sure there's a good safety commitment from top management. They have to show an interest and know why they want a safe environment -- if they don't have healthy, non-injured workers, they won't have a profitable company."

Safety, of course, can be a tough sell because of added expenditures, ranging from safety goggles to guard rail systems. But consider that the average cost of a work-related injury is roughly $38,000, which includes wages, productivity loss and medical expenses, according to the NSC.

Marletta says HR professionals can share related industry statistics, in-house data involving workplace accidents or even employee perceptions about onsite safety with senior management to demonstrate the efficacy of a solid safety program.

Safety policies and programs, Marletta says, must be in writing versus informal programs that employees observe when convenient. He notes they need to include details such as which employees are responsible for inspections, the type of training that's needed, the frequency of inspections, and when and where they must be conducted.

Not every HR professional is knowledgeable about workplace safety, however. In these situations, Marletta says, HR can contact the organization's insurance company to send a loss prevention or risk-management consultant to identify onsite hazards, review safety programs and provide insights into key safety practices. Many insurance companies offer this service for free, he adds.

Otherwise, safety-savvy HR professionals can conduct safety climate surveys that gauge employee perceptions about workplace safety and then perform a safety culture assessment by reviewing all job descriptions and other documentation related to salary reviews and increases, bonus systems and performance reviews, adds Sam Gualardo, president of National Safety Consultants in Salix, Pa.

In nine out of 10 organizations he assesses, Gualardo says, the word "safety" isn't mentioned in written policies or program materials or these documents include a boiler-plate statement such as, "You have to manage your workforce safely." Nowhere to be found is anything specific as to employees' safety roles and responsibilities, he adds.

Gualardo says safety must be positioned as a significant driver of employee behavior so that it offsets the "gravitational pull" of the production side. For example, employees traditionally are asked to accomplish a long list of goals, which may include safety goals, to receive a bonus. Instead, he believes it is more meaningful for the company as a whole to meet overall safety goals before any employee is awarded a bonus.

Still, says Gualardo, there's one problem that can't easily be fixed: Ever since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was created, its powers have been limited. He points to the agency's inability to criminally prosecute employers for serious safety violations. Other times, he says, it's cheaper for employers to be fined by OSHA than comply with its regulations, especially since they can significantly negotiate the size of the OSHA fines and even, at times, eliminate them.

But he believes the main reason for safety lapses is that employees are compensated for production output, not for safety performance. The more they produce, he says, the higher their salary.

Sadly, he notes, it doesn't even "make the radar screen."


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