Selling safety

April 28, 2014

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If the attendees at the sixth annual FMA Safety Conference could agree on one thing, it was the fact that a safety-first work environment needs management buy-in to be successful.

Without management buy-in, a company’s safety efforts are sabotaged from the very beginning—no matter how good the intentions.

That’s what attendees of the sixth annual FMA Safety Conference learned from speakers and each other. It’s funny how this scenario really hasn’t changed in over 50 years.

“Safety may start at the top, but it must be carried down to the individual worker by his supervisor or results will be questionable,” keynote speaker Gary Kopps read from a 1964 memo from a John Deere executive. Kopps, a 40-year Deere veteran and its current associate director for global work and life safety, found the memo in the company library. He wanted to illustrate the point that a company’s culture is a direct reflection of what the management values; if safety is their major concern, safety becomes a major concern for everyone in manufacturing. This message has held consistent in companies since the early days of modern manufacturing.

To drive home the point, Kopps referred to a chart in his presentation that indicated a sharp rise in worker injuries from 1969 to 1974. He said that during this time the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) came into being—April 1971, to be precise—and began issuing safety directives aimed at workers, not necessarily company management. In a way, it was reinforcing the idea that safety was an individual responsibility, not a companywide concern for these manufacturers.

Shortly thereafter OSHA changed its focus to communicate directly with the decision-makers, while at the same time U.S. companies were beginning to adopt the “management by objective” business philosophy. Deere was one such company, according to Kopps.

Today Deere general managers and their management teams have to sign compliance letters that describe safety measures in place at their respective facilities. Those are then sent to the corporate office as a sign that this is a company initiative, not just hollow words shared at the annual company picnic.

“What do you think would happen if that letter was sent just to the safety groups in each facility?” Kopps asked.

The managerial commitment to safety appears to be working at Deere. Kopps said that 99.889 percent of the company’s global workforce did not register any lost time due to injury last year.

Now not every manufacturing facility has the history and resources that a company like Deere has. For a shop that is fighting to establish a “safety-first” environment and trying to get that management buy-in, Kopps said to “hit ’em with the numbers.” For example, a representative of a fabricating company shared a story about a safety team that had identified a high frequency of eye injuries and suggested that lost work time related to those injuries could be eliminated with a nominal investment in a new safety glass style for workers; management agreed to the purchase request, and as a result, eye injuries indeed decreased.

“You’ve got to look at the facts,” Kopps said.

So what type of financial information should be looked at? Someone hoping to make a case for an investment in safety can point to workers’ compensation costs, lost time related to injuries, time spent in incident investigations and follow-up, and direct medical costs.

Todd Hohn, global director of workplace health and safety, Underwriters Laboratories, actually told conference attendees to be more proactive with safety actions and develop key performance indicators (KPIs). Lost days and near misses are good metrics, but they are also lagging indicators. KPIs create an environment where potential accidents can be prevented.

Some examples of these KPIs are:
  • Number of inspections being conducted. The link is obvious: More inspections mean that safety shortcomings are more likely to be identified. The key to making this effort successful, according to Hohn, is encouraging employee involvement and empowering them to make changes to correct problems.
  • Number of findings. These safety deficiencies are treated as near misses. The more problem areas identified, the more that can be corrected.
  • Employee participation. This makes the effort much more robust, but also stresses that everyone is looking out for each other. It becomes a personal endeavor, not just a companywide request.
  • Following through on corrective actions. The goal should be to address and correct issues within 48 hours at least 80 percent of the time, Hohn said. This reinforces that the company is serious about keeping everyone as safe as possible.

“If you don’t have any management onboard with this, don’t even bother,” Hohn said.

Safety personnel without the power to remedy safety problems lose credibility immediately with workers on the shop floor. Large initiatives, such as creating an environment where employee safety reports are encouraged and employees don’t view the activity as “ratting out” fellow employees, are challenging enough, but without management buy-in, they are impossible, Hohn said..

More emphasis on safety is in the best interest of all manufacturing companies because the workforce is getting older and, as a result, more prone to potential injuries, according to Brian Roberts, director of manufacturing and ergonomics, CNA. By 2015, 45 percent of the U.S. population will be 50 or older, and if you consider that simultaneously companies are struggling to find skilled young talent to replace those olders workers, you have a “perfect storm” of events, Roberts said.

Manufacturers are going to want to keep those more experienced workers around to keep up with production and mentor younger workers. To do that, those companies need to keep those all-important manufacturing veterans free of injury.

“If you don’t think ordinary injuries affect your production efficiency, you’re missing the boat,” Kopps said. As an example, Kopps said one Deere manufacturing facility saved more than $800,000 related to missed time and medical costs after just a one-year campaign to reduce injuries at the plant. That’s a number that’s hard to ignore, and one that should definitely get any manager’s attention.


FMA Communications Inc.

Dan Davis

Editor in Chief
FMA Communications Inc.
833 Featherstone Road
Rockford, IL 61107
Phone: 815-227-8281

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