How to Create a World-Class Safety Program

March 1, 2005
Safety management has to be part of a company's business plan before it can become part of a company's culture.

Creating and maintaining a world-class safety management program differs only slightly from other organized approaches to business management. It's just a lot tougher. A common denominator of successful companies, whatever the business, is that they have an organized approach to management.

Safety management should be treated no differently. Too often a company's safety program amounts to doing the minimum prescribed by Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines.

Where to start
Generally, the first step in establishing a world-class safety program is to recognize the need to improve the current process. More often, a company needs to determine its weaknesses rather than get back to fundamentals. As with other management programs, a company needs to establish a continuum of improvement.

"We start at the top," says Dan Zipes, associate vice president, Home Interiors & Gifts (Dallas), a manufacturer and direct seller of exclusive home decorative accessories and gifts offered through nonemployee, independent sales representatives in the U.S, Mexico, Canada and Puerto Rico. "Any world-class program starts with top management's buy-in and is pushed down to other levels within the organization."

For Zipes, the financial rewards of a solid safety management program have proved his point with his superiors. "In the past four years," he says, "our Workers' Compensation claims have dropped from $1.2 million per year to $10,000 last year. The message is that safety is important and there are rules of the game that have to be followed."

Safety begins, and ends, with people, explains Jerry Brannon, safety manager, Columbus Bakery (Columbus, Ohio). "It's not just about saving money," he says. "People make up the business and if you don't have good people, or if people are getting injured all the time, you don't stay in business very long." The 100-year-old Columbus Bakery is one of 42 manufacturing divisions of the Kroger Company and its largest bakery.

Instilling a world-class safety program across international borders is a challenge, however, some things are the same no matter what language people speak. Glen Clark is director of safety and training for TNT Logistics, (Jacksonville, Fla.). He's responsible for the company's safety initiatives in North Anerica.

"Regardless of where people live," says Clark, "people have a vested interest in safety and well being."

Clark says, as an organization, the mindset you want to have is that all employees are involved in safety. "There are no exceptions," he adds. "Safety awareness begins with the president of the company and throughout the organization."

One successful approach to safety management used by many companies is based on observing employee behavior. Behavior-based observation and feedback gives managers visibility and control over indicators of safety performance, namely, safe and at-risk behaviors. The potential for discovering near-misses is a major attraction of this management approach. Using simple, effective observation techniques, employees observe each other. They then offer feedback regarding safety-related behaviors. Safety committees collect and analyze the observational data to identify to management areas needing special attention.

In 1998, says Brannon, before launching its behavior-based safety program, Columbus Bakery had 106 OSHArecordableaccidents. Last year it had 24. "We're trying to achieve zero accidents," he says, "and it's possible. There are companies using behavior-based programs that actually detect accidents before they happen; it's a matter of observing situations and behaviors."

An on-the-job injury that results in the loss of time has the same impact on a business as a machine breakdown. Following the OSHA format of tracking recordable injuries or illness, is like measuring failure. It's counting something after the fact. A world-class safety program has to be able to head-off injury. Clark says he measures the effectiveness of his program through things like employee surveys and safety committees. "Employee involvement, through safety committees at a grassroots level, identifying hazards and risks in the work environment, is how management learns." He adds that management can't be everywhere in a plant so they have to rely on the people doing the job to bring unsafe working conditions to their attention.

Another company with a behaviorbased safety program is the General Mills' plant in Wellston, Ohio. It began its program in 1989 and has made modifications to it over the years.

"We call our program the WASP," says Linda Maerker, safety manager. "It means Wellston Awareness Safety Process. And we have every employee trained to make safety observations."

The program is elegant in its simplicity. Each of the plant's 1,200 employees takes a turn, spending 15 minutes each month throughout the plant checking for safety items listed on a card. If a safety violation is noted, the employee doing the observation politely brings it to the attention of fellow employees and the violation is noted on the card.

"We also make note, and thank coworkers when someone is doing something right," says Maerker. During the observation, employees look for things such as improper pallet placement, someone not using the handrail, improperly stored tools and overloaded carts.

You can't just tell people about unsafe activities, Maerker notes, you still need active programs like lockout/tagout as well as posters located in conspicuous places to raise employee awareness.

"Another key point of a great program," adds Maerker, "is to have a strong safety committee on the shop floor so that ideas flow from the floor to management."

What motivates people
Few things motivate people better than money. Zipes is a believer in incentives for employees. "We create teams of employees, including managers, that work together to create a safe workplace. If the team goes a quarter [of the year] with no accidents, each employee gets a check for $50 net."

In addition, the Home Interiors & Gifts program rewards people who do outstanding jobs at any time with special jackets and other items. While some managers might not view these as a big deal, Zipes says it creates an awareness of safety. "At the end of the year we have a drawing for employees who have gone 12 months without injury and award a check for $500 net," he says.

Columbus Bakery's Brannon also experimented with incentives and abandoned the initiative. "We found that employees were paying more attention to winning the prizes than understanding what the prizes were for."

Maerker is lukewarm on incentive programs. "My philosophy is that you can't buy safety, but you can advertise the heck out of it," she says. General Mills does have some reward programs when the plant passes major milestones, such as a million work hours without lost time. Rewards can be monetary, or jackets for all employees that promote the safety program.

Just as systems are put in place to prevent equipment failure, smart managers put into action programs to prevent human failure. Incident severity, along with hazard potential, are better indicators than numbers of injuries. When the message employees hear most often centers on meeting production schedules, safety diminishes. Managers need to find ways to give safety an equal place on the shop floor. This can be accomplished with established standards and measurements of performance, just like production.

In addition, safety should be incorporated into job performance evaluation. Don't just count the number of days worked without injury; include what people have done to make the workplace more safe, how they have helped fellow workers and what they have done in the community outside the plant walls. Something as simple as handing out information about fireworks danger or furnace maintenance takes the safety message into the community.

"We've made adherence to safety a part of our job performance appraisals as well as part of job termination," says Zipes. "If there's an accident, those involved immediately take a drug screening test. If a lift truck operator is involved in an accident and it's determined horseplay was involved, the person is terminated."

Don't wait, educate
Stop training and start educating. We train dogs and seals; we educate humans. Any safety education program undertaken should apply to the specific machinery or unique working conditions within the plant, not as a satisfaction of some government mandate. Education has to be applicable to make an impact on employees. Real work situations, demonstrated on the shop floor with actual employees, creates a lasting impression.

Columbus Bakery's behavioral-based safety program is a blend of classroom education and on-the-floor work. Every person in every department is responsible for doing two observations every month. An observation involves watching a fellow employee work, then giving that person positive feedback with suggestions of how to do the job more safely.

"We've done more than 75,000 observations since 1998 and not had one case where somebody was disciplined or punished because of an observation," says Brannon, who spent 10 years as an hourly employee on the line before he entered management and became the safety manager.

Brannon says its program is designed to build understanding within new employees as well as veterans. "We want them to understand that, yes, it's your life on the line, but also that we all have some responsibility for the person working next to us. 'If he's being safe, I'm safe as well,' is part of the message."

Along with equipment-or, area-specific demonstrations, an educator needs to explain the value of the subject. A sense of importance must be established, not that the program is presented because OSHA says it has to be done. Safety education does not end when the bell rings. It's incumbent upon managers to observe and follow-up. This accomplishes two things: It assures the safety message is implemented, and it tells employees that managers view safety on the same level as other aspects of production.

A key to success in safety education—like any management initiative—is to talk with not to employees. Many aspects of safety requirements and regulations can be detailed and confusing, and require explanation in terms employees can understand.

Safety impacts the bottom line
Investing in safety should not be an option, however, it usually is viewed as such. Even plant managers who might be in full agreement with recommendations from safety managers still have to ask: "What will it cost?"

Brannon is quick to note that safety pays, no matter what it costs. "We reduced Workers' Compensation claims from about $1 million in 1998 to the current $200,000 range," he says. "But we're reducing the number of injuries and that's what's important."

Zipes says the way to sell safety management to the upper echelon is to show how superior safety delivers a return on investment. "You do this with the Workers' Compensation claims. You measure the number of hours saved by having people at work being productive, and not having to bring in temporary labor and the potential of errors. It's all about asset management."

He adds, there are many costs of safety not considered beyond the obvious regulatory fines. Add in productivity lost when the permanent employee is not there and a temporary laborer, possibly prone to injury, takes over. There is also the cost of overtime that might be required to pick up the slack of a missing employee.

Clark explains. "Ultimately we're all leaders because we're looking out for each other and committed to the overall goal of having a safe work environment."

Just as quality manufacturing begins with focusing on the process rather than inspecting the final product, build a world-class safety program must set its sights on accomplishment, not measurement of failures. Experts recommend viewing the process as safety leadership, not safety management. It's that easy and it's that difficult. If generating the "perfect order" is the distribution center's goal, start including safety along with things like on-time delivery and accuracy as part of the matrix.

Safety Pays Dividends for Schneider Electric

Schneider Electric's North American operating division (Palatine, Ill.) is realizing big cost savings and improved productivity and performance by increasing safety awareness among its employees.

Medical incident rates (MIR) for the 15,000 employees at 30 plant facilities in the U.S., Canada and Mexico decreased by 33 percent last year. The reduction in MIR rates includes overall number of medical cases, reduction in lost time and lost days worked due to a range of workrelated accidents in plant environments. It translates into a healthier work environment and a 20 percent reduction in Workers' Compensation premiums totaling approximately $1 million, says Rich Widdowson, vice president of safety, health and environmental affairs.

"By raising the company's collective awareness of workplace safety and showing we're serious about it," says Widdowson, "we've exceeded expectations in terms of reductions of accidents and cost savings." He adds that this contributes to improvements in the quality of life for workers on and off the job.

Widdowson says the company's "Safe Start" education programs focus on:

  • Prevention of muscular disorders among assembly workers.
  • Reductions of contusions and lacerations among parts fabricators.
  • Education on guarding against back sprains and strains among warehouse workers.
  • Electrical safety education among service workers.
  • Education for office workers about issues related to ergonomics and proper stretching and exercise routines.
  • Developing heightened safety awareness on and off the job.

Latest from Labor Management

#171785560 © Mark Gomez | Dreamstime
DOL Announces New Actions  to ProtectH-2B Workers
# 170547495 © VectorMine| Dreamstime
Labor Skills Needed for the Future