August 12, 2008
Safety should be a business priority beginning with the employee hiring process. Once you have hired the right people, you can ensure the success of your safety program by building relationships, giving employees' safety concerns the attention they deserve, and resolving issues in a timely manner.
I study business principles in an effort to understand which principles seem to work in which industries. Costco is an example of a company led by a man who believes the real value of the company rests in the quality of its employees. Jim Sinegal, the co-founder and CEO of Costco, is known to mingle with his employees, sometimes flying to as many as 10 stores during a day. He not only has the perception of caring, but his employees also know that he means what he says.
Sinegal stands behind his words by offering very competitive salaries and quality health care benefits. On more than one occasion, Wall Street's opinion has been that the employees probably should take a little more of the financial hit, thus shifting more money to Sinegal, who has a very modest annual CEO salary of $350,000. This salary becomes minor when it is compared to the approximate $60 billion the company earned in sales during 2007.
This article is not about Costco, but I thought this introduction might help you focus on a particular attitude and approach to business in general. It's time to take this focus a bit further into a specific business area—industrial safety.
Successful safety programs involve many processes that all must come together at the same time. Let's examine two of these processes and look at the possibilities.
All employers wish they could wave magic wands and have the perfect employees arrive at the front door each time they venture into the hiring process. Let's face it, folks, it all starts with the hiring process. Hiring should be more than a human resource (HR) process or experiment for large companies, and it should involve owners or top management in small companies.
Hiring good, qualified personnel and paying them what they are worth would solve many problems in today's business world. Costco has proven that good guys can still win even in a world of global consolidation. Not to steal thunder from HR departments, because they certainly are at the tip of the spear in getting the right faces in front of the folks who will conduct the interviewing process. I have witnessed hundreds of business interviews and recall only a very few in which safety was ever mentioned or questioned, unless the job being applied for directly involved industrial safety.
Most often production is the focus. Businesses need globally minded workers who understand the electronic society in which we must exist. These qualities are important.
Globally competitive companies continually must seek ways to become lean, while also increasing production rates and quality. It is important to consider safety when accomplishing these goals.
I fear that many times during the initial hiring process, safety is not accorded the same importance as other priorities. In fact, I have witnessed very successful executives never mention it during an interview. I encourage all employers to discuss safety as point No. 1 in the interviewing process. It doesn't cost one penny more to discuss it first and make it a priority. If the new hire can work just one year without an accident, the first 10 minutes of the interview is paid for hundreds of times over.
I could spend many hours writing and discussing various ways to incorporate safety into the interview and review processes. However, I prefer to focus now on another action that affects safety beyond the hiring process.
If I had to choose the single most important facet of our company's culture that has most positively affected our safety program, I would overwhelmingly state that it is our ability to build meaningful relationships with other human beings.
A safety professional who only sits behind a desk and coordinates meetings and issues statements for company postings is a waste of company money and should either be coached into proper methodology or replaced. I realize this is a harsh statement, but I declare it with conviction. I have seen good people ruined because of a simple lack of genuine concern for a fellow employee.
Let's assume that your HR department has done a good job and you finally have the most qualified individual for the job. What next?
You must then collectively build the relationship just as you would in your family. Employees must know that when they voice safety concerns, they never have to fear for their jobs. Shame on anyone who dangles safety as a carrot or any person who would use it as a pink slip when being approached by an employee with a safety concern!
Every employee must have an outlet to voice safety concerns. Once the opinion is voiced, the safety professional should show genuine concern. This concern includes getting out of one's comfort zone, visiting the area of concern, and attempting to see it as the concerned employee has seen it in his or her mind.
I have witnessed employees express genuine concerns to safety professionals who don't make an effort to observe the problems first-hand. This approach is destined to create a losing situation for many reasons. One of the most obvious is that employees eventually see no need to report concerns if no one else seems concerned.
The study of human psychology is a beautiful study. Every safety professional should periodically study and attempt to understand, at least on a small level, what human beings need as people to feel valued in a society.
Usually when employees come to me with safety concerns, I immediately stop what I am doing and walk out to our plant to look at the issue. I have seen many workers with tears in their eyes as they explained and I listened. On a couple of occasions folks actually gave me a hug and thanked me for coming to see what they were talking about. At this point I had not even done anything about the concern other than give the person a little dignity and validation. Every person must be treated as valuable.
You probably are thinking, "What about the troublemaker who only has time to voice concerns but never time to meet production demands?" I must admit, there are special cases, but they are the exception. Sometimes for these individuals, I ask the person to write down his thoughts and share them with me at the end of the shift, unless there is an immediate danger. Either way, I take the time to read each concern in earnest. Safety is more than a job. It is about quality of human life. One accident can change a life forever. It is such a sad thing to see human life impacted in a negative way as a result of an on-the-job injury.
It is important to note that people immediately see through a "fake" and secretly scoff behind the backs of those safety professionals—and others—who are interested solely in their own success and fame.
Not all people care to share information about their personal lives, but it is nice to get to know your co-workers. I usually ask employees if they have kids, pets, or hobbies. These relationships and activities enhance an individual's self-worth. While helping me to get to know the employee as a person, this knowledge also allows me to tailor future safety awards based on the employee's personal interests.
Strengthening relationships is all about building upon the initial relationship and doing it the right way. I was in a meeting last month with the brokers for our worker's compensation insurance company. They recently hired a fresh retiree who had spent his career with the North Carolina Department of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). He was an inspector for many years and held various positions before his retirement a few weeks ago. He was brought into our company to conduct a safety audit on behalf of our insurance carrier. His first questions were the typical ones: "What kind of documentation do you have for safety processes?" We went through a series of questions, and there seemed to be little interest other than documenting what I was saying. I knew the big question was yet to come.
Finally, I was asked, "Mr. Langdon, what was your recordable accident rate for last year?" After I told him, his eyes seemed to brighten. I had his attention then! He had a sudden increased interest in how we conducted our business of safety.
My first reply was, "Sir, we care about our people. We are honest and fair, and I truly care about each individual on our plant floor." I continued, "When we have problem,s we address them from the top down. No issue is brought before us today that we let rest until tomorrow. If someone has to make a trip to the doctor or hospital because of an on-the-job injury, I am there with them. I am not there as a monitor to ensure we are getting the cheapest medical care possible. I am there for moral support, as a friend, and to make sure, above all, that our folks are being taken care of."
The auditor seemed a bit taken aback. He informed me that our company was one of those rare jewels that still exist in this global economy. (Obviously, I was beaming with inner satisfaction on behalf of our folks.)
Several years ago, I sat with a man who had a sudden nose bleed in our plant. He was extremely frightened and initially assumed the worst. He thought he was possibly having some form of stroke. This man, a real leader in our company, was terrified of his condition at that particular time. I sat with him in the local ER, holding his hand and making small talk as the doctors and nurses moved about. I made a lasting friendship that day. This man understands that our company cares for his well-being.
I could give example after example that I have witnessed just in my nine years with Buhler-Aeroglide. The bottom line is that building strong relationships out of genuine concern may a bit old-school, but it still works wonders, even in this world of global business explosion.
Many people have viewed our safety statistics and processes over the years. They often say, "It can't be as simple as you make it sound." Well, it's not simple, but building processes on firm foundations creates powerful growth platforms. Hiring good people, paying them what they are worth, and then developing relationships and establishing trust within the safety processes is the firm foundation on which all other safety processes must be built.
Building safety databasesis successful only if the information is highly accurate. Again, I have spoken with people in large corporations who reluctant to report accidents or safety hazards for fear of being singled out. This lack of clear communication severely damages any effort to develop strong statistical analysis within a safety program.
Building quality relationships will enhance any safety program. People must have a sense of worth in life. This includes in the workplace. Many people spend the majority of their lives in the workplace. We must empower employees and offer them a sense of worth.
Remember that the very first step in ensuring employee safety is making safety a priority during the first few minutes of the job interview. Hire the right people, and then build fair and honest relationships with each person. This is not accomplished during a 24-hour period. Relationships take months and years to develop. I should also add that what has taken years to develop only takes mere seconds to destroy.
The safety process is about continual improvement. Good relationships take work, but it is my belief that world-class companies will be defined in the future by the quality of their work force. Respected companies treat their employees as prized possessions. This approach will increase company profits and improve organizational safety numbers.
Finally, in a world of blurred right and wrong, some principles are universal. People who are treated with respect will, more often than not, treat others in the same manner. These are old-fashioned, basic guidelines for global business and safety success.