How I Failed as a Safety Manager

How I Failed as a Safety Manager

How I Failed as a Safety Manager
By Peter Jensen Sr.
Published on February 1, 2017
Follow “Safety Pete” on LinkedIn

I have managed safety for some 30 years, to one extent or another. This includes union and nonunion as well as all trades, from transmission linemen to laborers in different states. I feel that a good safety manager is also a good safety mentor. The primary function of a safety leader is to coach, correct and train, in other words, educate and influence.

Safety Managing isn’t easy; it’s an emotionally charged rollercoaster, if you take the job seriously, and try to build a safety culture from little or nothing. To do it right, you can’t give company management the answers; rather, you must gently guide them, as they learn and process the safety lessons you provide.

From the outside looking in, it seems to be an easy job, and I have been asked by many companies and people to tell them or teach them the magic formula for a successful safety program. A successful safety program, really! For my part, I can never quite see myself as successful. “Success eludes the malcontent”. By definition, a malcontent is one who is in active opposition to an established order or dissatisfied with the existing state of affairs. So hearing “that’s the way we always do it” only challenges me.

My first mistake was not recognizing the company for what it really was. It was another production machine needing window dressing, where productivity was the singular priority. In situations, safety fails every time. Yet it’s an immense ego stroke to have company president say during an interview, “I want you to be our safety leader. Will you coach us, train and teach us, and build us a safety program?”

I set out to teach the company what it needed to know about safety. Developing a significant Safety & Health program was the first step. But it was soon obvious to me that they didn’t really want to learn how to achieve safety goals or develop a safety culture necessary to successfully grow organization in the coming years. Rather, they wanted a magic potion that would turn them into that kind of company. That being said, I achieved success with 70% of the field personnel, 50% of the foreman overseeing projects, and 30% of the superintendents. The closer to the top of the company I got, the less success I found.

Failure is guaranteed when accountability or consequences are missing.

So what did I learn from all this? For starters, you can lead the company “horse” to water but you can’t make it think. I could provide the best advice, guidance, safety leadership, and training, but if the company doesn’t want to listen and learn, it is all for naught. Safety and production must be blended into forward motion. I feel no production should be valued in the absence of safety. As an example, I once asked the president of a company to do just one thing to help safety. Start each meeting with a question to the group: “What did you do for safety yesterday?” If he had taken only that advice, it may have started the thinking that the top man is looking for some safety.

Second, I learned that if the company management and workers sees you as the sole source of safety, you will fail. Safety must be everybody’s job, every day. You can’t be the only source of safety for a company. For safety to work, the company—from top to bottom—must be part of the solution. Not in a confrontational or dysfunctional way, but in a way that forces you to rethink the status quo, the old way of doing things.

Cultures are based on shared values, beliefs, and perceptions that determine accepted normalcy; i.e., cultures develop from social agreements about what constitutes appropriate attitudes and behaviors. If an organization feels strongly about a particular behavior, there will be little tolerance for deviation, and strong social pressure for conformity. Each individual in the organization has a role in reinforcing behavioral norms.

Who is responsible for safety and supporting culture? The organization and each individual. That is the most appropriate answer to the question. In a sound safety culture, an individual would be expected to intercede if they saw a coworker about to commit an unsafe act. In a sound safety culture, leadership would be expected to monitor the health of the safety culture, to reinforce and nurture it when required. In a sound safety culture, individuals and groups would be expected to speak out if they perceived management acting in a fashion inconsistent with the organization’s values.

Finally, I learned that the company cannot want for success in safety that is beyond the reach of the organization. If the superintendents and foreman are always going to be the ones in the workplace complaining about how unfair the new safety policy is, then the company has already established barriers they will never overcome with or without your help.

As I travel around the east coast and through the central US, working with various companies, safety directors, and managing executives from a wide range of industry, I find it very interesting that some understand the value of, and take great pride in, their corporate cultures, while others don’t give them much thought. I have also noticed that those who value them the most tend to do far better over time in safety and success in business over all...

…the failure was rhetorical.

See Pete’s original post here.

The takeaway? This story hits on a couple of painful, longstanding themes familiar to environmental health and safety professionals, and, truly, anyone with exposure to ‘the struggle’ of occupational safety.

That’s why this posting received incredible engagement from Pete’s LinkedIn community—1387 ‘likes’, 184 comments, and 399 shares. That’s a lot of heads nodding in unison.

The first painful cliché covered above is that of the ‘magic wand’ safety professionals are sometimes asked to wave, to suddenly make injuries and resulting workers comp claims disappear forever, or excite whole organizations to rapid safety program improvement, with enthusiasm. How exactly is that supposed to happen? A pep rally? New safety gear? And with no budget to speak of? For experienced safety pros, there’s no doubt that when stepping into a new organization, areas of improvement may be readily apparent. In some circumstances, like the one Pete describes above, you’re hired to help correct a specific trend or problem. Yet, as Pete points out, those types of sweeping changes take time. For example, think of the effort or expense involved in lowering one type of injury frequency: what’s in that bucket? Awareness training, ongoing emphasis, meetings to educate supervisors, measures of accountability, auditing, performance review, etc.

The second topic addressed (an oldie but a goodie): the balance of production and safety, seen here as competing priorities. As in, “Safety can’t get in the way of…”. When people are compensated exclusively on their ability to reach production quotas, there’s a human tendency to elevate productivity in the hierarchy of priorities. In which case, worker safety is often a distant second. Let’s start by considering the simple purpose of a manufacturing facility—to produce or make things. There’s a plain relationship between productivity, quality, and safety for any manufacturing operation. There’s a balance in play with each of those priorities, which are sometimes viewed (incorrectly) as competing interests. How does safety enter the equation? A basic level of safety must be attained in support of both quality and productivity: to perform quality work and sustain productivity, there must be safe working conditions. The balance of quality, safety, and productivity comes down to fundamental company values, or culture.

The third age-old problem relates to management support for safety. As we’ve written, many executive-level decision makers lack a basic understanding of what workers safety is. They simply don’t grasp the day-to-day life of a functional safety program, looking instead for an absence of occupational injuries, illnesses, or less money going out the door for workers compensation. They need a crash course in Safety 101. The smart ones admit this. The stubborn, say, “Not my job. Your job.” There is strong correlation with management and safety culture here, but we’re not playing the blame game. CEO’s respond to familiar context—it’s often the safety professional who has to learn to speak their language, to earn support and connect the dots back to safety in ways that resonate with management. Ideally, each role meets around a shared priority: safety. It’s just tricky to turn the world of safety and compliance into a language that fits with day-to-day profits, losses and competitive advantage.

Pete makes a closely related point about the role of the safety professional versus how that role is often perceived—safety is the job of one person, you. Just raise your hand if the weight of that responsibility sits squarely on your shoulders. Ever heard your role described as the “safety cop”? That person who meddles, interrupts productivity, and polices employees who act with disregard for organizational policies created to support their own health and wellbeing? It’s one of the worst characterizations of the profession out there, yet, sadly, this is the exact perception many environmental health and safety professionals continue battling day after day. Is it a fault of character or demeanor? No, it’s organizational ignorance. Again, a cultural issue.

So the underlying theme tying it all together is the connection between organizational culture and safety. Or, “safety culture”.

Safety culture persists as a popular topic. In fact, plenty of consultants and companies stand at the ready—with magic wand in hand— to help your organization discover the holy grail of safety.

However, there’s an excellent reason for the ongoing focus on safety culture: this is the most difficult area of safety to influence, improve, and sustain. As Pete succinctly captured, this is particularly true from the individual perspective of the chronically overwhelmed, multiple-hat-wearing safety professional. And, that’s because what we know as safety culture isn’t one thing. Too often, safety culture is vaguely defined as a feeling or general perception of ‘the way things are’ or ‘nobody cares’ or ‘it’s bad’. Safety culture isn’t an engineered control, a rewritten industrial ergonomics program, or new personal protective equipment (PPE).

At Vivid, we recognize ‘safety culture’ as an organizational state of being in constant flux, a living organism requiring ongoing attention and focus, an ever-present consideration. That’s why we prefer the term ‘safety climate’, to signal something that, while complex, can be influenced.

That’s why we built a first-of-its-kind Safety Engagement Survey, crafted to elicit perceptions of organization trust, the bedrock of any healthy safety climate.

After all, if you can’t measure it, you won’t find success.

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