The challenge of creating a culture of safety

It is difficult to overstate the personal harm stemming from a workplace accident — from disfiguring injuries, to broken relationships, to loss of dignity and sometimes even suicide.

If this is not reason enough to ensure workers practise good safety every day, employers need to understand that good safety practices have a positive impact on the bottom line.

Safe workplaces pay less in workers’ compensation premiums; have lower costs for damaged equipment, production downtime, replacement workers; and carry less risk for prosecution and fines. Forward-thinking organizations recognize this and view safety as a critical business imperative.

Dennis Locking, HR manager for Calgary-based Volker Stevin, a growing road-building company with more than 1,000 employees, aptly summarizes this view on safety: “Safety is all about the way you run your business. Wherever you see poor safety there is always a poorly run company. The unfortunate aspect is that the ownership isn’t even aware that it is poorly run. If a company has a poor attitude towards safety it makes us wonder if that attitude is indicative of other aspects of their business.”

Key to Volker’s safety culture is it empowers employees to work safely and ensures decisions to do so are fully supported by managers. Workers don’t need to put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of production, he said.

Since most reasonable people would agree that practising good safety makes sense, why do so many organizations struggle with high accident rates?

In too many cases, employees see safety measures as trifling annoyances to avoid or ignore whenever possible. To realize a meaningful reduction in the number of workplace accidents, organizations must embed safety in the culture of the organization so that it infuses every action of every employee every day.

A number of activities make up a health and safety agenda: training, hazard analysis, safe work practices and procedures, toolbox meetings, inspections, investigations, disability management and a vast array of rules and regulations.

Undertaking each of these generates more work. Identification of problems and corrective actions need to be initiated and followed up. It is also absolutely essential that all activities are documented and there is an audit trail. Not only are audit trails essential for demonstrating due diligence, they show employees that safety is taken seriously and that hazards are addressed.

To be sure, the amount of work involved can be staggering, requiring full-time attention. Safety is an activity-based process that perpetuates itself so long as someone is monitoring the activities to ensure they are being performed. But too often, this important responsibility is given to the person who does shipping/receiving and in a spare moment does a bit of safety.

One of the bigger challenges in creating a safety culture is convincing senior management that safety is good business.

Safety is often seen only as an expensive endeavour to meet regulatory requirements. However, once senior management buys into the benefits of “great safety,” they tend to become the strongest and loudest proponents of a strong safety culture.

Edmonton-based PCL Constructors Inc. is an excellent example of a company that deeply understands the connection between great safety and great business. PCL has consistently won awards for management practices and leadership, and is known as one of the best employers in the field.

“We are the industry leaders and as industry leaders we need to set a good example,” said Lionel Nevue, director of environment and safety. “To build a culture you need a top-down commitment. Management must understand the benefits; they must demonstrate commitment and tie it back to the value system. Most importantly they must be prepared to live the philosophy and walk the talk. This commitment has resulted in benefits to the rest of the company. PCL found that when our safety program is hitting on all eight cylinders then so are our profits,” he added.

However, some leaders need more convincing. To these, health and safety champions can try the following lines of reasoning:

Fear of prosecution both to the business and individual: Workplace health and safety laws include penalties for safety failures that are stiff and getting stiffer. The burden of proof lies with the defendants to demonstrate that they did everything reasonable to protect the worker. In Alberta the fines for failure can be as high as $1 million. And new federal legislation, Bill C-45, allows for criminal prosecution and jail time.

The financial argument: Simply, take into account lost production, increased insurance costs and increased WCB premiums.

Ability to compete: In some industries it is increasingly difficult to obtain work, or make successful bids, if your safety program is not at the expected standard. Losing a multi-million dollar contract will usually get senior managers to listen.

The best approach to convince the executive team to commit to a more robust health and safety agenda is to cite examples of industry leaders such as PCL. Why would they go through all the time and expense of pursuing health and safety excellence if there isn’t a positive impact on the business?

Even then, many senior business leaders will retain the attitude that accidents and lawsuits are things that happen to other businesses. These organizations are living on borrowed time.

Another common barrier to creating a safety culture is getting the vision and values of working safely internalized and deeply instilled in employees. There’s a common belief among employees that safety takes too much time, casting a negative reflection on their performance.

Jim Little, president of Lloydminster, Alta.-based Heavy Crude Hauling, a subsidiary of Mullen Transport Inc., advocates using a tool or activator, which will lead people to new ways of thinking. The hazard analysis process is a great way to start people thinking about the work they do, the hazards involved and how they can work safely with those hazards. A hazard analysis is a process by which employers get their employees involved in examining hazards in the workplace for their job tasks.

Part of the process is putting in controls to eliminate or reduce the hazard. Safe work practices and procedures are then written up and made available to workers. It must also be shown that these workers were trained in the safe work practice or procedure. This is a legal requirement. If you have not done this and there is a severe accident in your workplace you may find yourself in front of a judge.

Communication is key, not only in terms of what is said but how it is said and the sincerity behind the words. KLS Excavation Ltd, an earth moving company with 80 employees, launched a safety program seven years ago. The challenge as they perceived it has always been to find a way to get the “light bulb turned on” so that employees have the right mindset, said Barbara Renton, vice-president of marketing. “How can we change behaviour so that people don’t become blasé about safety?”

For Renton, success came when she was able to get her employees thinking about why they needed to work safely, and why accidents occurred. “This is the root of getting buy-in and impacting a safety culture,” she said. An example of a behavioural approach is to get to know what is important to your employees: Why do you work? Is it pride in a job well done? Is it money which allows you to support a lifestyle or care for your family or which allows you to take vacations? Now, imagine the impact if you were severely maimed or killed.

Rob Stewart is president of Pragmatic Solutions, a provider of workplace safety software solutions. He can be contacted at (403) 274-7954 or [email protected].

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