Recessions and industrial safety—enemies?

July 14, 2009
By: Kelly Langdon

As you steer your company through the recession, remember that at the end of the day, it really is all about the people. Making safety a priority, especially in tough times, can boost employee morale and increase productivity. A behavioral approach to safety that stresses positive reinforcement can achieve long-lasting safety goals.

Recessions and industrial safety—enemies? -

It was early in 2008 when I first realized we were headed for tough economic times in manufacturing. Aeroglide, the company I work for, was just coming off the two strongest years we had ever experienced in terms of global growth and sales. Sadly enough for millions of people around the world, the entire global economy was sliding into a recession. It was several months later before many of the world's leaders acknowledged the tumble into a full-scale economic recession. By December 2008 several historic U.S. banking empires were on the verge of complete collapse. Lending was basically frozen as the government scrambled for ways to ease consumer fears. Within days there were murmurs of bankruptcy among our nation's top automakers.

As I enjoyed my Christmas 2008 vacation in Nashville, Tenn., I attempted to mentally digest just what this would mean for my family and what things would be like when I returned to work … if I returned to work. Many companies had laid off employees just before the holidays, and the rumor was that many thousands of people were about to be laid off at the start of 2009. I recently had been talking with my grandmother about the Great Depression. She was one of those tough souls who lived through the Great Depression of the early 1900s and still had the mental capacity to recall those days in great detail. She often told stories about the "Greatest Generation" with tears of humility and pride in her eyes. During the entire Christmas break I pondered the things I had read, my grandmother's stories, and the current alignment of global economic events. Based on my research, I developed the opinion that quality control and industrial safety were two areas that could suffer greatly during any major economic recession or depression. Now, put the current economic crisis on the "temporary back burner" of your mind for a few moments, and let's travel back in time a few years.

Behavioral Approach to Safety

As we roared through the '90s and into the mid-2000s, it was a slightly bumpy ride, but the overall economic trend was up. Global manufacturing experienced strong growth. Money flowed freely as companies snapped up the latest capital equipment in their perspective industries. It was through these years that I preached the behavioral approach to industrial safety. I even have a small bit of sketchwork (no, I'm not an artist) that shows a set of weighing scales. (see figure 1)

On one side of the scales I imagined that I had a big bag labeled "Programs & Policy." On the other side of the scales I imagined that I hung a bag labeled "Behavior." I have written many articles for various publications during the past few years stressing the importance of both bags in any successful safety program. Good programs must be in place. There must also be some means of measuring the successes and failures of the programs. The numbers must add up to our benefit both in terms of reduced accidents and increased profit. We also must stress the importance of behavior in the equation.

Shock and Awe Versus Positive Reinforcement

It is my belief that one of the most opportune experiments to be conducted concerning human behavior could occur within the realm of industrial safety. About 10 years ago I had an excellent adviser named J. Frederick Kelly, who spent a bit of time with me explaining, in his opinion, the benefits of positive reinforcement and the closely associated "positive peer pressure" that would follow the idea of positive reinforcement. I had heard whispers of this in the past when involved with larger organizations, but these companies were primarily about numbers. I never recalled any company I had worked for that actually sought out the folks who were doing things the safe way. I had always been exposed to those nagging boss types who flashed a mini horror flick before my eyes to show me just how bad a forklift injury could be. I can hear them now, "You see, Kelly, this could be you. You could be bleeding like the guy in this video!"

I must admit these graphic examples do have an effect on people. I am just not sure statistically how many injuries are prevented by the "shock and awe" method. All of this leads me back to our experiment in human behavior. William James and Sigmund Freud were early pioneers in the field of psychology. In fact, as I have been studying the textbook Themes and Variations,I have found that the actual systematic and scientific study of human behavior is a relatively new science. Even more intriguing to me is the fact that this study of human behavior may be years away from any climatic development. Today more study has been completed in highly developed societies than in underdeveloped societies. Potentially, the planet Earth could eventually be one giant global experiment in human behavior.

Let's get back to industrial safety and attempt to marry recessions, economic explosions, programs, and human behavior. One constant is that we are dealing with human beings. In business, the machines we create are no more intelligent than the creators. At some point human beings are involved in all of our processes. Knowing this, we must develop the most effective methods of influence to achieve our ultimate goals. At the end of each day, our goal can be simplified: We want people to remain safe. The complexity arrives as other demands are also placed on the shoulders of the employee. We tell the employee, "We want you to be safe, but you must also make this many dollars in profit for our company each day while working this many hours and also doing this thing or that."

We live in a highly complex society. How can we perform this delicate balancing act and still remain competitive in the marketplace?

A Gradual Process

Contrary to popular executive opinion, human behavioral changes do not occur overnight. Granted, stress and other such factors may have great impact on behavior in certain cases. However, in regards to our subject matter, we know that it takes years to develop trust with our employees. Sure, it happens one day at a time, but the overall process is gradual. It is imperative that companies take the long view. By this I mean we should constantly be thinking in future terms. We should ask ourselves, "If I implement this policy or program or make this adjustment now in 2009, how will it impact my plant safety in 2015?"

This pendulum swings both ways. Should we implement high-cost awards programs with the sky as our spending limit during times of economic prosperity? What happens during a global recession when we can no longer afford these elaborate programs? Our employees perceive that we no longer have the same level of commitment because in their minds they have lost perceived benefits for doing the safe thing.

Recessions and industrial safety—enemies? -

Figure 1

We must understand the repercussions of our approaches to safety. Safe behavior that is bought is always temporary. Positive behavior achieved over time remains in place through recessions.

We must educate our employees. We want them to be safe because it is the right thing to do; we want them to return home healthy. Following some recession dos and don'ts can help.

Recession Dos

  1. Be honest! If there are to be monetary cuts within company programs, tell employees as soon as you are aware of the cuts. This information should never be secondhand and distributed to select employees for several days before making its way to all employees. Not being forthright in a timely manner with employees will destroy relationships and chip away at the desired behavior you are attempting to achieve.
  2. Stand firm on your core values! Don't begin doubting whether or not the positive reinforcement approach will work during a recession. Many great minds have studied human behavior, and the majority of them agree that human beings need positive social interaction. If people are doing the right thing, tell them! Explain to them that they may not always receive a tangible award, but that you personally appreciate their contribution. Wow, if only people could see how powerful this simple concept is!
  3. Consciouslycut cost! Trim cost with a small knife that has a sharp blade. Cut where you can without being dishonest or trimming away at your core values.
  4. Remain positive! Business and economies historically are cyclical. Conduct your business in a lean manner, trimming as needed but being honest, maintaining core values, and remaining positive that there will be a rebound.

Recession Don'ts

  1. Never be dishonest! Employees are usually more intelligent than they get credit for. Most people watch the news and know if the global economy is in the tank and cost cuts are on the horizon. Never insult their intelligence by refusing to communicate with them. The truth, while sometimes painful, is always the best policy.
  2. Do not shift from your core values! Never trash your entire set of core values because of an economic setback. This is important because the reckless abandonment of core values can impact companies for decades. Employees will never forget the one time values were trashed. They may not remember all of the things you bought for them over the years, but they will always remember the one time you compromised core values at their expense.
  3. Do not blindly cut cost! Many executives have looked at an overall business strategy and viewed industrial safety as a mere cost with no benefit and simply trimmed it away as fat from a choice cut of lean meat. It is my belief that safety is intricately tied to profitability. When employees feel that it does not matter whether or not they are safe, healthy, or even alive, it has an overall negative impact on them. In fact, in my interviews and studies, many employees admit feelings of carelessness toward their work and the company in general when they feel the company does not care for their physical well-being. Bottom line, safety is important and should add to the company's profitability.
  4. Don't be negative! We all know the economy is bad. We know costs are being cut. Again, there is no need to insult the intelligence of others. What people need is assurance that things will get better and that sound principles are always the best policy. Let folks know that you do indeed have a plan and a method of dealing with tough times.

Be sure to make your own list of dos and don'ts for recessions. You can print the lists in this article as a starting point. You may be shocked to find that the same dos and don'ts of an economic recession also work in times of prosperity! One day business will come back. Companies that make an effort to be lean and remain safe will always emerge stronger.

Kelly Langdon

Kelly Langdon

Safety Coordinator
Aeroglide Corp.
100 Aeroglide Drive
Cary, NC
Phone: 919-851-2000