Safety management: the importance of safety for your bottom line

By Lindsey Anderson14 January 2010

Safety. It's a word that should be engrained in our minds. It's at the core of our industry, it's what we preach and practice. But how to companies stay safe? How does a company start a safety program, and, more importantly, how does a company implement safety into its workforce in an effective way?

For any company - rental, construction, or your mom and pop maintenance shop - the first step to developing a safety program is the step acknowledging the importance of safety not for your company's bottom line, but for all of workers' livelihoods.

"A company has to want to do things safely because it is the right thing to do, not because it saves money or because, if we don't have accidents we can bid more work or win more contracts," says Jeff Stachowiak, director of safety training, safety and risk management, Sunbelt Rentals.

"Safety has to be a moral decision from top management communicated by the (chief executive officer) or president, otherwise it will not be a priority for the frontline worker who we are trying to protect."

Rodney Oliver, vice president of corporate safety for Flatiron Construction Corp., says that real safety management, whether it be day to day or long-term planning, should belong to the actual supervisors of the employees on jobsites.

"These supervisors have the most knowledge of the operational tasks of their employees, what the hazards are in the work, and the attitude and behaviors of their workforce," Oliver says.

"It is proven that workers follow the lead of the supervisor, so if the supervisor is a proponent of the safety program and follows all the guidelines, the workers will pattern this safe behavior in performing their work tasks."

Planning

With safety starting at the top, and being a lead-by-example practice, the next vital step is to create a safety program.

"Planning must be an integral part of the safety process, both in pre-task planning," says David Adsit, corporate safety director, Baston-Cook Co. "Lack of planning results in wasted time and experience, and, as is often the case, an acceptance of a greater risk to get a task accomplished."

But what is effective planning?

Starting with a written safety program built into a training program is a proven method, Stachowiak says.

The overall written program should consist of safety requirements, made up of a book of sections, such as an introduction, possibly a lock-out/tag-out section, a portion that covers personal protection equipment and so on.

After the company builds a book of safety requirements, they can then move forth with training programs from the books.

Some companies might find identifying hazards in certain situations an important aspect to have in safety manuals. "The goal for most companies is to get to a point of having a true safety culture in the organization," Oliver says.

"Performing all aspects of your job in a safe manner has to be as automatic as putting on your seatbelt in a vehicle."

Adsit says effective planning should also include all personnel involved with a task or operation.

"We conduct safety planning activities at several key opportunities: preconstruction for the overall project, subcontractor start-up as they come on site covering their operations and pre-task as a daily exercise for each crew."

Safety watch

Enforcing safety is a whole other aspect of safety management. The key to safety adherence and using guidelines in the field starts with accountability, Oliver says.

"If unsafe behavior is tolerated or even ignored, the unsafe behavior will be repeated," he says. "Of course, we first have to do our job in assuring that the workers know the rules and expectations for safe work performance."

Oliver says one of the best safety practices his company follows is a daily risk assessment or pre-job brief. "This is the safety planning of the work to be accomplished that day," he says.

Work crews collaborate in defining the task steps of the work, identify the hazards of each task step and develop a safety mitigation for each hazard. If the work task changes or a new worker joins the field, the document is amended to reflect said change.

"Daily group tool box safety meetings are held for all crews on the site, and the monthly safety meeting typically has a common topic to be presented and discussed on a company-wide basis," Oliver says.

But be careful with safety meetings, Stachowiak advises. "Safety meetings are an important element, but not the whole program like some companies think [they are]," he says.

"Safety meetings simply reinforce the training that they should have already had and with Sunbelt [Rentals], we also communicate accidents and incidents that have happened and the corrective measures to help employees understand that they did not have to happen."

Stachowiak says he would like to start seeing a shift toward work or task observations and coaching employees the proper way to conduct the task to prevent accidents, versus writing employees up or suspending employees after an accident has occurred.

One way of accomplishing this is to use safety observation, which can consist of two parts.

Sunbelt Rentals implements a General Safety Observation called an SOS and then another Drive Observation called a DOS (see figures 1 and 2). Completed weekly by the store manager, the DOS is filled in by a manager either riding along with a driver or by following a drive to the jobsite and observing the task of a delivery and/or pickup.

Stachowiak says the SOS is "completed by simply walking around the yard and seeing what is going on. We encourage management to look for the good behavior, and encourage that, but do not overlook unsafe behavior."

Even though Stachowiak acknowledges companies shouldn't put all their safety chips into a monthly meeting basket, a main monthly meeting might still be of use.

"We conduct a main monthly meeting with an online quiz [that] each employee has to complete," he says, "and then we have weekly topics that the employees read and discuss, usually lessons learned or other problems we have seen."

Adsit with Baston-Cook says issuing a warning as a way of enforcement could be a first step for safety management, and that after doing so, looking at the root of the violation is a solid indicator of what can be done better next time.

"In my experience, I find that most of the time a [safety violation] is related to lack of motivation," he says. "Workers who violate safety rules often feel that the 'positive' factors - get done faster, less hassle - outweigh the negative factors - risk of getting hurt, risk of getting caught."

Adsit suggests a practice of job hazard analysis which consists of planning and employee involvement. By tapping into a worker's knowledge and experience, a company can discover and address hazards while also refreshing workers' minds about safety and steps in which to stay safe.

Companies can also investigate near-miss accidents. "They are freebies," Adsit says. "An opportunity to gain valuable insight and information without all the costs associated with an actual injury, [but] the trick is getting them reported."

One way of doing that is to minimize the negative perception of having such an incident in the first place and then convince people they are having a positive impact on the overall safety effort when they report such incidences, which allow companies to thoroughly investigate.

For such investigations, whether they be near-misses or actual accidents, an incident review committee could prove to be a good practice that enables companies to delve into an actual root cause of an accident, "where we look for facts, not blame," Oliver says. "Communicating our incident experience and investigation findings are vital in future avoidance of incidents."

Performance indicators

With planning having taken place and a safety program in tact, the last step to a solid safety program is measuring performance of said program. "There are two basic types of indicators in safety - lagging and leading," Oliver says.

"The lagging indicators are the injury statistics. We need to focus more on the leading indicators such as near miss reporting, field safety audits/inspections and tracking supervisory field safety activities."

Looking at leading indicators can help managers identify possibly problem areas before an incident occurs, Oliver says, versus lagging indicators already reporting what a company knows (an accident occurred.)

Not having accidents is not a good measure of a safe company, Stachowiak says. "You can do nothing and not have accidents and you would get nothing done," he says. "Also, you can work without having accidents and just be lucky."

In the end, safe behavior is what prevents accidents and how companies and supervisors enforce that safe or unsafe behavior is what matters, Stachowiak says.

"Often times safety does not become important until an accident happens, yet many unsafe behaviors happened before the accident," he says. "So much of safety is reactive instead of proactive. We know what causes accidents, so let's get that information to the people and train them properly."

And to make it clear, Stachowiak suggests not taking training lightly. "What I mean by 'train' is how the military trains - do it the right way numerous times to make it a habit, then monitor the task to make sure it is being done as it was taught."

Here are some top tips for companies learning about safety and risks:

- A daily risk assessment or pre-job brief that plans the work of the day and identifies possible hazards

- Involving all parties in effective safety planning; it not only serves as a thorough tool but also as a motivational factor for workers

- Encouraging employees to report near-misses in order to learn from these experiences

- Audit scoring system based on program elements where those being evaluated have control over what is being measured. Criteria can include training, planning activities, site-driven inspections and other required safety duties

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